Some seek greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. It is the axiom of the Sweet Potato Queens that by age 40 almost every woman has had greatness thrust upon her just by surviving, never mind hitting, all the curveballs life throws at her.
Therefore, the Sweet Potato gospel goes, instead of succumbing to the too-frequent middle-age female mind-sets of exhaustion, bitchiness and wound-licking, it is incumbent on all such women to get in touch with their Inner Queen and generally smart-mouth their way to an outrageous, regal and beatific better life. Not to mention a good time.
"You should never wear panties to a party," counsels author and boss queen Jill Conner Browne.
Browne, 51, a brown-eyed, six-foot former fitness instructor from Jackson, Miss., is the doyenne of the Sweet Potato Queen movement and she's speaking Tuesday night at 7 at Politics and Prose. Against every sort of obstacle, she has managed to write, provoke and inspire millions of women into a therapeutic southern-fried sisterhood of laughter. It must be the wonder of every demographic number-cruncher and marketing mogul.
In the past five years, her first three books -- "The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love," "God Save the Sweet Potato Queens" and "The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner)" have sold more than 1.5 million copies. Her followers have organized themselves into about 4,000 high-spirited fan clubs in every state and 14 foreign countries stretching from Alaska (motto of the Halibut Hussies in Valdez: "Catch and Release") to Saudi Arabia. They include the Menopause Mafia, the No Regrets Majorettes and the Florida Navel Orange Queens (motto: "Keep Your Navel Queen") .
The Jackson, Miss., St. Patrick's Day Parade, where all this sort of started, has morphed into a kind of Sweet Potato Queen Mecca, where thousands of middle-age wannabe Jills undulate joyfully each year in overstuffed green sequined dresses, red wigs and pink majorette boots. Her Web site, www.sweetpotatoqueens.com, grosses well into six figures peddling such SPQ icons as Fat Mama's Knock-You-Naked Margarita Mix, rhinestone tiaras and T-shirts that say, "Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History."
Browne, who five years ago was a debt-burdened, twice-divorced single mother working four jobs, is now pulling in million-dollar book advances, six-figure royalty checks and $50,000 speaking fees. She is also, she says, having a really, really good time encouraging women to laugh their way to taking charge of their lives.
"You can step outside yourself and be someone who doesn't have a worthless ex-husband, or breast cancer or a kid doing drugs," she says. "Life can be a bitch and frequently is, but play is healing. It's only when we stop playing that we grow old."
Among her tips on achieving Sweet Potato royalty:
* Along with Cute Shoes, every woman needs five men in her life: one to fix things, one to pay for things, one to dance with, one to talk to and one for sex. Four of the five can be gay.
* Tragedy deserves food. There are four basic food groups -- sweet, salty, fried and au gratin. Recipes include Twinkie Pie (aka White Trash Trifle).
* "There's nothing wrong with men in general. . . . Most of them are just fine. Really," she writes. But it would be crazy not to manipulate them with sex because "men's brains are migratory and usually located in their summer home, way south."
Further describing Browne's brand of humor, let alone her writing style, is not a job for the timid, but think of it like this: If Mel Brooks and Lily Tomlin were from Mississippi and had a daughter who grew up there in a household with Mark Twain, Dave Barry, Florence King and former Texas governor Ann Richards, she might have looked on life a bit like Jill Conner Browne.
But even more confounding is the power with which the Sweet Potato Queens' grin-and-bare-it philosophy has resonated in readers from Birmingham to Beijing. Her thousands of laughter-liberated followers swap life stories and advice like a sisterly global encounter group on the SPQ Web site's Message Board of Love. They speak of Browne the way women once spoke of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan -- as an empowering force who not only lifts women's spirits but revolutionizes their lives.
"Jill is outrageously hilarious, but she's also wise," says Kimberly Rankin Moelk, 34, of Arlington, who as an SPQ Wannabe has made the pilgrimage to Jackson three times. "There's a core of sweetness behind all the bawdy humor, like a best friend who helps you laugh your way through bad times. When you hear her make a speech, half the time you're rolling in the aisles laughing, and the other half your eyes are tearing up because she's touched you in some unexpected way."
Life holds few pleasures, if any, more exalted than riding on a float in a sparkly dress with a crown on one's head. . . . What matters, however, is how you get that crown. We're not about to do tricks on national TV. . . . It's vitally important that you buy your own crown and declare yourself Queen, and then spend the rest of your life living into that. Pretty will last a short time . . . but stupid can last forever. Fortunately, so can smart.
-- From "The Sweet Potato
Queens' Book of Love"
Browne says she never dreamed of being either a role model or a millionaire. She insists she is "satanically" lazy, and when people ask where she'd like to be in five years, "I always say 'lying down.' "
Her rise to SPQ royalty appears to have been fueled by a frustrated sense of entitlement.
"In school I always wanted to be 5-foot-2, have red hair, blue eyes, big breasts and little tiny feet. I never got any of that. I never got majorette boots, either."
The majorette boots apparently were key. Hailing from less tony South Jackson, she always assumed rich girls in North Jackson did get majorette boots for their birthdays. But later in life when she met those girls she learned they hadn't gotten them either. Here was a sisterhood of deprivation -- hundreds of girls of all races, religions and incomes who had gazed longingly each year at those boots in the Sears Roebuck catalogue and never had the chance to slip them on.
She'd also never gotten to be queen of anything, so in 1982 when a restaurant-owning friend decided Jackson needed a St. Patrick's Day parade, Browne -- then nearing 30 -- decided she'd waited long enough.
She'd once offered to be perpetual Sweet Potato Queen of Vardaman, Miss., where the yam is king, "to save them the bother of choosing a new queen every year." Vardaman had never gotten back to her on that, but what the hell. When Jackson's first St. Patrick's Day parade rolled down Main Street, there was Jill Conner Browne in a green sequined dress, red wig and, by God, majorette boots on a pickup truck float, together with three friends who decided they should be Sweet Potato Queens, too.
They all tossed yams to bemused onlookers while a sound system boomed out their favorite songs: The Monotones' "Book of Love" and Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles."
It took 13 years of parades before Browne succumbed to her friends' badgering "to do something with my writing" and wrote the "SPQBL."At that point she had been augmenting her meager personal trainer earnings by writing humor columns as a lowly paid stringer for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the Mississippi Business Journal and an underground Mississippi newspaper called the Diddy Wah Diddy.
"People always thought I was funny," Browne says, spooning sensually into a slice of pecan sweet potato pie at Southside 815 restaurant in Alexandria. "Probably because I would always do anything for a laugh. But I was never trying to make someone else laugh, as much as I was amusing myself. Laughing at problems was part of how we dealt with them in my family. So I was writing these columns as much for that as to pay the bills."
The bill-paying, however, was not going well. "My financial plan was always Daddy was gonna live forever. That didn't work out."
In 1995 she found herself stretched thin. Her second husband had left her "with no child support and hideously in debt. I had fitness clients starting at 5 a.m., I had a young child and an ailing, elderly mother. I was doing all the shopping and cooking and paying all the bills for them, plus driving them everywhere and taking care of the car, the house, the yard, the dogs and cats and writing the humor columns at night. Then the business journal dropped my column. That $300 a month was my light bill."
Under prodding from her friends she looked up JoAnne Prichard Morris of the University of Mississippi Press and "threw out the idea of the 'Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love' just so she'd think I had a lot of book ideas."
Morris thought the "SPQBL" too spicy for the university press, but a year later, after moving to Crown Books, she called back and said Crown editors in New York liked the idea and wanted to see a formal proposal. Browne and Morris cobbled one together for Morris to take to New York. The editor returned with a two-book contract for Browne and a $25,000 advance.
"That wasn't much, I now realize, but it was far, far more than I'd ever been paid for anything." So she piled book-writing atop all her myriad other tasks and three months later sent "SPQBL" off to Crown. It started selling wildly almost immediately. Her first six-month royalty check, she says, was bigger than the whole two-book advance.
The truth is real life sometimes doesn't turn out to be exactly what we'd planned. . . . There are some pretty awful jobs out there. . . . My friend Scott told me about meeting a lovely young woman who worked . . . as a full-time chicken plucker. The girl stands by a conveyor belt and pulls the feathers off chickens all day long. He said to her . . . "You must have the most boring job in the whole world." And do you know, she lit up like a lightning bug and responded seriously, "Oh, no. You get a brand-new chicken every thirty seconds."
-- From "The Sweet Potato
Queens' Book of Love"
Browne says she never edits or rewrites anything, and one of the improbable charms of her books is that they read that way. Her sentences ramble like stream-of-consciousness kudzu, jumping logical fences, overwhelming utility poles of unlikelihood and taking root anew repeatedly in unexpected ideas.
"She writes just like she talks," says Wannabe Queen Moelk in Arlington. "I think that's one of the reasons we respond to her."
Other Washington area SPQ followers agree.
"I think most women have a longing to be . . . wild and crazy together from time to time," says Allison Priebe Brooks, 28, a jewelry designer from Alexandria. Brooks identifies herself as a feminist, an active Democrat and a member of the Junior League as well as a mother, but "Washington is so buttoned up I wanted to meet women who I could go out and drink margaritas and laugh with. And maybe dance on the table. Jill and the Queens gave me that."
Bessie Thibodeaux-Belcher, 34, a Republican fundraiser on Capitol Hill, says traditional feminist groups always struck her as "angry" zealots, more interested in political conformity than in helping women with problems closest to their day-to-day lives. As frivolous as it may sound, she says, the SPQ sisterhood helped her discover ways to balance work, a fractious 2-year-old and the construction hell of a year-long house renovation. After reading "SPQBL" in her book club, she went right out and bought a red wig and tiara.
Moelk, Brooks and Thibodeaux-Belcher, however, are "larvae" -- not yet true queens or even regulation wannabes in Browne's strict chronology because they have yet to weather enough years to earn sweet potato royalty.
The Maryland Crab Queens, on the other hand, have. These six women, all long-term health care nurses in their fifties, rank among Browne's earliest and most energetic courtiers. They travel annually to Jackson. They take limousines to New York for Browne's network TV appearances. They plan to appear Tuesday night at Politics and Prose.
MCQ boss queen Mary Lou Tindale of Westminster says she is "not a joiner" but had an immediate sense of mission after closing the cover on "SPQBL." She promptly recruited five of her colleagues as fellow Crab Queens and has "never laughed so hard as I have since" in their company.
"We love and value our jobs but we work hard and obviously there's a lot of stress in what we do," she says. "This crazy queen stuff has helped raise us beyond whatever problems we're dealing with, give ourselves some credit for what we do every day and send us back to our jobs renewed. You can't imagine how much that means. It has literally changed our lives."
Curiously, the organizational force of the SPQ movement appears to have sprung almost spontaneously from its grass roots. Though Browne provided an enabling Web site after the first book, she says she has been staggered by the speed and extent of its global reach. How and why are SPQ chapters organizing in China, Japan and New Zealand? She has no idea.
But there clearly is more mileage -- and money -- in the SPQ mystique. Browne, who received 10 times her original advance for SPF-AC (aFP), received $1 million for her next two books, the just-published "Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Men" and the upcoming "Sweet Potato Queens' Wedding Planner and Divorce Guide."
An SPQ TV pilot has been filmed starring Delta Burke, whose high jinks with Dixie Carter, Jean Smart and Annie Potts in the smartly written 1980s sitcom "Designing Women" might have been a template for the Sweet Potato Queens had it not postdated their origin.
There's even talk of a Sweet Potato Queen musical on Broadway. Browne likes that idea, even if it sounds a bit exhausting.
"You know," she sighs, giving up on finishing the pie, "if I had it to do over again I might try stand-up comedy."