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Long live the queens
By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
Downtown Sarasota has its usual genteel bustle going this brisk evening. Couples in khaki and cashmere stroll past the gleaming galleries or sip merlot at sidewalk cafe tables.
But there is a disturbance in the expensive ether. In a parking lot off Main Street, a woman climbs out of her car. She has on a towering, teased, red-orange wig crowned with a sparkly tiara. It's dark, but she is wearing sunglasses. Cat-eye sunglasses. The parking attendant goggles at her, asks, "Is it Halloween?"
Across the street, two women round the corner and head for the warm lights of Sarasota News and Books. One wears jeans, a velvet bustier and a top hat glittering with jewels. The other, a voluptuous blond nearly 6 feet tall in her heels, is spilling out of a spectacular red-and-black satin can-can dress. On her head is a hat more than a yard wide, rimmed with black marabou feathers.
This is not the usual thing for Sarasota, where the closest thing to hell-raising is hogging the cheese at an art opening.
At one of the sidewalk tables, a little girl says, "Mommy, I want to go to that bookstore. I want to see what they're doing in there."
What they're doing is lining up -- about 300 strong -- for a book signing by Jill Conner Browne, author of The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner).
The book is a bawdy, hilarious skewing of the self-help genre (see review, Page 2D), packed with uproarious stories, heart-stopping recipes (the Sweet Potato Queens' four food groups are sweet, salty, fried and au gratin) and by-god financial tips, including Browne's original financial plan: Hope that Daddy lives forever.
This is Browne's third Sweet Potato Queens book, but this legion of fans in feathers and rhinestones is here not just because her books induce them to call up their friends gasping with laughter and saying, "Let me just read you this!"
Hundreds of women turn out each time she goes on tour, and they do it because Browne is like the best girlfriend you ever had: salty as a margarita and sweet as pecan pie.
The Sweet Potato Queens are not fictional; well, not exactly. They're a group of longtime friends in Jackson, Miss.: a clothing designer, a real estate broker, a veterinarian, an artist, a businesswoman, a lawyer and, of course, Browne.
They became the Sweet Potato Queens in 1982, when, clad in old prom gowns and tossing tubers from a pickup truck, they participated in the first St. Paddy's Day parade in Jackson.
Browne immediately ascended to the position of Boss Queen, while the others assumed the royal title of "Tammy," used with one's first name, as in Tammy Vivian, Tammy Melanie and Tammy Carol.
The same year, the parade's founder, Malcolm White, began publishing a newspaper called the Diddy Wah Diddy. Browne began writing for it, and the rest is regal history. Her columns for the Diddy and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger led to The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love in 1999, followed by God Save the Sweet Potato Queens in 2001 and, last week, The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook.
Besides selling passels of books -- the new one was ranked No. 20 on Amazon.com two days after its release -- Browne has a booming career as a speaker and a Queens Web site, www.sweetpotatoqueens.com.
It sells books, tiaras and T-shirts, provides news updates on Browne and hosts a busy message board for members of the more than 1,900 chapters of Sweet Potato Queens all over the world (including the Desert Roses in Saudi Arabia).
The original Queens still grace the Jackson parade, accompanied by a phalanx of marching aspirants to queenhood called Wanna-bes -- so many of them it's been dubbed the Million Queen March.
The official queenly parade attire has evolved from old prom gowns. Now it's huge red wigs, tiaras, sunglasses, long gloves, fishnet hose, sparkly fuchsia majorette boots and green sequined minidresses padded so enormously fore and aft that each suit weighs 47 pounds. (The Gasparilla krewes that have been admonished to stop wearing their pirate outfits might consider switching to these getups. It would be a fitting response to those snooty old coots in the Krewe of Gasparilla.)
Plenty of women are flying the colors at the book signing Thursday. "We call it an outfit, honey, not a costume," one admonishes. The bookstore is packed half an hour before Browne's 7:30 arrival, and about 50 folks head outside to greet her, many in sequins and crowns. To amuse themselves, they start waving to passing cars.
"No, the reverse wave!" one woman cries, and they all switch to the backhand gesture favored by royalty ranging from Elizabeth II to homecoming queens. One driver does a classic double take and stomps on his brakes, evoking a gale of unladylike hee-haws.
Browne arrives in a chauffered car, emerging in towering pink-and-green tiara and sequined cape over a chic black suit.
The cookbook's adjective does not apply to the author; at 50, the 6-foot-1 Browne is slim as a girl. She attributes that not to diet but to being a "gym rat." When she began writing, she was eking out a living as a fitness trainer. She'd been married and divorced and was raising a daughter, now 15, as well as caring for her mother, who had suffered a series of strokes.
"I'm profoundly grateful for all of this," she says of her success. "It's the answer to the fervent, desperate prayers of a single mother caring for a daughter and a mother."
Before she sits down to sign, she tells her fans, "You know I'm spending my honeymoon with y'all. I left my shiny new husband, who I just married on New Year's Eve." The fans know the new husband is 10 years younger than Browne. They wait for the punch line. "Well, he's just completely worn out. He had to go home and rest."
But then she gets to the message. "Choice is the most important word in our language. If you ain't loving your life, change it. The very first time we did the parade -- I was wearing just a very tiny tiara and that old prom gown and throwing sweet potatoes at people -- I said then, "Somebody will pay me to do this some day.'
"Do what you love and the money will follow. And remember, well-behaved women rarely make history."
Cheers, applause, then Browne gets down to signing, and the bookstore fills with raucous chatter. The store's co-owner, Caren Lobo, passes around plates of Chocolate Stuff, a Queens recipe that involves cooking sugar, chocolate and butter in a loaf pan and eating it with a tablespoon. "This is what's great about running an independent bookstore," she says with a grin.
Four teachers from Lake St. George Elementary School in Palm Harbor have made the drive down. "We decided to come at 3 this afternoon," says Natalie Bache of Tampa, but they're decked out in bright green sunglasses and tiaras.
Their Queens chapter doesn't have a name yet, says Nancy Toye of Palm Harbor, but it does have a motto, as most chapters do: "Let us tell you what's wrong with you."
Cindy Hart of Clearwater is toting a photo album from their chapter party, which seems to have featured a lot of the traditional margaritas (one of Browne's books includes a recipe for Fat Mama's Knock You Naked Margaritas).
Becky Hart of Palm Harbor ("no relation") asks whether a reporter has read Browne's book. "Because if you didn't read the book you won't get it." Not getting it is a major offense against queenliness.
"The first time Jill was on Good Morning America" a few years ago, she says, "Diane Sawyer talked to her. At the end, Jill said, "Be particular' (a queenly byword), and Diane just looked at her" -- Hart mimics a fishy stare -- "and said, "Uh-huh, thank you very much.' Diane did not get it."
Hart peers sternly over her sunglasses. "Katie Couric would have read the book."
The Sarasota Sweet Potato Queens may not have come up with an original name, but they have gone whole hog with their costumes: five of them in huge burgundy wigs, sunglasses and green sequined minis, each with an enormous fake bust and booty.
Dorothy Rogers, a saleswoman, hoists her front padding and says, "In here you can hide your purse, your cell phone. . . ."
The five all play tennis together. "That's how this got started," real estate agent Mary Bernas says. "Since it developed, we all feel like sisters. And most of us don't have sisters."
Browne says she loves to see women taking off on the Queens. "Play is very powerful. We don't get too old to do it, we get old when we stop doing it.
"Life is hard on a good day. . . . Dressing up funny and acting funny for just a little while can make it easier to pick up that load. And it's always waiting for you."
Her own load has been lightened by the success of the books and her marriage to Kyle Jennings, known to her readers as the Cutest Boy in the World.
The wedding was her signature combination of genuine emotion and tacky exuberance. "The wedding itself was small and tasteful and beautiful, and I wore something beautiful. . . .
"At the reception, which was also beautiful and tasteful, we changed. I got the biggest, cheapest, off-the-rack wedding dress I could find. I'm 6-foot-1, so off the rack is not a great option for me. I looked like a coconut macaroon. The Queens wore Southern belle dresses that were hideous beyond description."
The wedding had been planned for May but was moved up after Browne and Jennings met last year with television executives about a sitcom based on the books. "We have a development deal for a pilot for a sitcom for the WB. You have to say it exactly that way," she says.
The TV people told them, "You can't get married in May! That's when all the networks buy shows; that's when it all hits the fan."
Asked to cast the show, she won't name names, but she does plead, "Please, God, can we have some Southern actors. You know, it's always like when Tom Hanks pretended he was from Alabama (in Forrest Gump). They think they sound Southern. They don't know, but we know. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard."
Not that you have to be Southern to get the Queens. Julie Brassfield came all the way from Bedford, Ind. "I'm the Hoosier Kitty Cat Queen," she says. "I have a friend, a kind of surrogate mother, who lives in Nokomis, and instead of coming for Christmas I came so I could see Jill.
"She is the most accessible author. She e-mails me. None of those other big authors would do that."
Decked out in a fluffy pink sweater and understated tiara, Brassfield is meeting face-to-face some of the women she knows from the Queens online message board.
"These are the best bunch of women in the world," she says. "I wrote about the people at the nursing home where I work who don't have anyone to have Christmas with, and they all said, "We're adopting your nursing home.'
"I got enough stuff to make 30 big bags, and everyone got presents." She shows photos of some of the patients, including one elderly woman wearing a tiara and long feather boa and smiling at the camera.
Despite the party-hearty atmosphere at her signings, Browne says, "There's always a teary moment, or sometimes several, when someone says, "You changed my life.' They've left an abusive relationship, they've left a dead-end job, they've gotten their own lives back.
"I have a strong sense of mission about what I do. What I hope for with everything I write is to touch someone's life in a positive way, to say something that someone needs to hear."
It's a Queen's job, after all, to look after her subjects. "This isn't an escape, it's a respite. There's strength in numbers."
-- Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.
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