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Queens For A Day

Jill Conner Browne and her Sweet Potato Queens prepare for their annual parade.

by Sarah Trachtenberg

The year was 1983. And in a tribute to the numerous beauty queens across the South, Jill Conner Browne and her friends rode in back of a pickup truck, tagging along with a parade down the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, while smiling and waving at the crowds. The girls dressed in green, castoff evening gowns, long gloves and tiny tiaras, and carried a homemade sign reading “Sweet Potatoe Queens.” (The Queen who wrote the sign was pretty, but a bad speller.) Occasionally, one of the Queens would throw a real sweet potato at a passerby: a delicious prophecy of bigger things to come. Since the Queens’ impromptu float wasn’t in the schedule, no one knew who the girls were or what they were doing. The next year, Jill got a permit for her own parade, and the official “Sweet Potato Queens” took root.

When Jill’s books, starting with “The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love,” began to popularize her Queens as a force to be reckoned with, the parade became a sincere attraction. Today, the SPQ Parade attracts people from all over the U.S. and 22 countries. Last year, there were 20 people from Indonesia alone.

Started for, and by, women in the interest of fun, food and angst, Jill, aka the Boss Queen, says her Queens “have not found a line that we do not cross.” SPQ brings together members regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. Jill’s enterprise has the soul of a Southern female. “My pearls are real, my tea is sweet and I fly Delta!” she preaches. Still, the SPQ philosophy resonates with people from all walks of life.

The “power of play” – that is, dressing up in SPQ regalia, acting funny and being larger-than-life – allows people to escape universal problems such as divorce and illness. It’s hard to not be in a party mood when you’re wearing full Queen regalia: giant red wig, crown with matching scepter, sunglasses and frilly green sequined dress (green for St. Patrick’s Day and the timing of that first parade).

Jill remembers working on a float with her Queens when one of them remarked, “We’ll pro’lly still be doing this when we’re 40.” This was in a tone that clearly translated age 40 as being “in wheelchairs and Depends,” Jill says, “that tone that only the very young and oblivious can have. Now that most of us are approaching 60, we’re thinking that, ‘well, yeah, we’ll pro’lly still be doing it in our wheelchairs and Depends!’”

Jill now has eight books about the SPQ, several of them bestsellers that have put her on the lecture circuit. Early on, readers of “Book of Love” wanted to know if the SPQ was a real enterprise. It was, and Queens created chapters all over the country. (There are currently 6,160 of them.) The annual parade became their Woodstock and a breeding ground for strong friendships between people who otherwise would have never met.

Of course, the SPQ parade has its quintessential moments for everyone, especially the Boss Queen. Jill says there was a wedding on a float one year. Another year, “a Queen from Alabama, knowing my obsessive fondness for sock monkeys – I loved them before it was ‘cool’ – came to the parade dressed as a sock monkey and then presented me with a giant sock monkey that was 5 feet tall,” she recalls.

Companion events before and after the parade have also sprung up over the years. At the Bathrobe Brunch at the Jackson Hilton, guests really do wear bathrobes, and Queen Chef Brenda serves up a “slap-your-grannie spread.” This year’s parade features a Port-a-Potty Decorating Contest, which is exactly what it sounds like. And Jill describes the “Big Ass Boo-fay” at the Hilton as a “late-night snack fest,” since parading is hungry work.

If all that’s not enough, the weekend wraps up with a special event. “We would finish the parade and post-parade party and all would disperse to their respective rooms,” says Jill. “But then, slowly, one group at a time, they started gravitating back down to the hotel lobby, in their pajamas, but still wearing their fancy beads from the parade. So, we just made it official and started booking a band for it, and it’s the Pearls and PJs Party. Now all the chapters have matching pajamas that are nearly as elaborate as their parade outfits.”

Other parade activities raise funds for Jill’s favorite charity, the Children’s Hospital. Attendees can do a pole-dance at the Jackson Hilton Bar for a 25 cent donation. Likewise, if you want to say something bad about someone, it costs you 25 cents to “bitch,” but it’s probably worth it to invest in a weekend “Bitch Pass” for $5.

Jill also raffles her over-the-top crowns each year, with the proceeds going to the Children’s Hospital. Metropolitan Opera and Broadway jewelry designer Larry Vrba is in charge of the Boss Queen’s headgear. Jill met him through friends in New York and, after hearing that he also makes crowns for the musical “Wicked” and was on “Project Runway,” decided he was fit for the task.

The 2011 SPQ Parade is the first in which the Queens have an event all to themselves. Before, it was part of Jackson’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, but now, one week later, the Queens will parade in what’s being called the “Zippity Doo Dah Parade” in Fondren, an arty, hip district of town.

Why Zippity Doo Dah? It’s not because of Walt Disney. Jill says that it’s an emancipation song and has trademarked the term for her Children’s Hospital fundraising and queenly antics.

2011 Sweet Potato Queen Parade events start March 24 and go through the 27th, with the parade rolling on Saturday at dusk. Weekend passes are $74 in advance and $90 the weekend of and include all events except for the Bathrobe Brunch, which is $29 in advance and $39 at the door. Host hotel is the Hilton Jackson, and Jill suggests going through the Hilton link on her website’s “Friends” page to book a room. Other lodging includes Cabot Lodge North across the street from the Hilton or the Marriott Courtyard. Visit sweetpotatoqueens.com for the full schedule and more info on everything SPQ. Photo credits: Top pic of Jill in full regalia taken by Tom Joynt; other pics by Kyle Jennings.

Sarah Trachtenberg is a freelance writer whose work has been published in online and print publications, including Ms. Magazine last year. She’s read all of Jill Conner Browne’s books and says the Sweet Potato Queen Parade is on her itinerary this month.

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