In the final installment, meeting Zippity Doo Dah®’s ‘movers and shakers’, we meet THE shaker of all shakers, THE Sweet Potato Queen®, Jill Conner Browne…
Where did you grow up?
In Jackson. I was born in Tupelo in 1952 and when I was three, we moved to Jackson. I will be 60 on November 23 – and wear that proudly. The thing about lying about your age: somebody somewhere went to school with you. They know! I’m proud to have made it this far! People say all the time (about themselves) ‘I’m too old to do that.’ Aunt Faye, who comes (to the Zippity Doo Dah® parade) from Midland, Texas, is 99. ‘Are ya older than 99?!’ The youngest is in utero and then we have Aunt Faye – who does everything. She does not miss a beat! (Even the jello wrestling, we ask?) ‘She gets in the jello’! We all want to be Aunty Faye when we grow up.
How did the Sweet Potato Queens® come to be?
It was in 1982 my father had died and I was divorced for the first time. I was looking for something to cheer myself up and it started with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I heard that Malcolm (White) was going to put on the very first parade and I said, with no hesitation whatsoever, that I had to be in it. I had decided I was supposed to be the queen of something. That was my ambition because all I could do was smile and wave. That’s my talent! A friend of mine told me that her father had some land in Vardaman, Mississippi and that they had a sweet potato festival every year and I asked if they had a queen – just as a joke. When I heard there would be this (St. Paddy’s) parade, I said ‘I’m in it’ and I would be the Sweet Potato Queen because I thought it sounded funny – and still do. Literally, everything we did from then until today is to purely entertain me.
So how did ‘author’ come into this?
I always say, in 1982, Malcolm White did two things that changed my life – and a lot of other people’s: he started the parade and he and another friend of mine, Paul Canzoneri, started the Diddy Wah Diddy, which was an alternative newspaper. I wrote for that under the pen name of Betty Fulton. The thing about writing under a pen name is that you can kind of say whatever you want to without worrying about who’s going to read it – like your mother. After that, I wrote as Betty Fulton in full anonymity for many years. Unbeknownst to me, Roy Blount, Jr., was a reader of the ‘Diddy’. He called me out of the blue and said he was publishing The Anthology of Southern Humor and wanted to use some Betty Fulton. As a result, NPR came to town to tape an episode and I was asked to be on the show. Willie Morris was on there, too, and it was the ‘What Do You Know Show’ with Michael Feldman. He was notorious for being mean to people and I knew he would be to me. I was prepared and pretty much ‘wiped his ass’ all over his own radio show (laughing) to the delight of the audience. Willie (Morris) was in the audience and others who were asking ‘who is she, do we know her’ and I used that to insinuate myself into (Willie’s and his wife’s) lives. JoAnn (Pritchard, Morris’ wife) was the chief editor at University Press and so I went to see her with the idea of publishing a collection of stories I had already written. Nine months later she called me and told me she had left University Press and was acquiring for Crown, a division of Random House. She had mentioned the idea of a ‘Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love’, which I had told her at our first meeting I wanted to write. She thought it too spicy for University Press. Random House liked it and asked for a proposal – and they loved it. They gave me a two-book contract based on that alone. That never happens. I had no agent and have no idea how to get one. After I had two books on the bestseller list, they started calling me. I have been incredibly lucky and blessed. I tithe on every dime I make – and have from day one – and I’m happy to do it.
How do you describe – in a nutshell – what the Sweet Potato Queens® are?
It’s a big nutshell! We have not found a line we do not cross: it’s men, women, gay, straight, young, old, black, white, rich, poor, drunk and sober. I have the ashes of a dead woman! There was a Queen in Arizona that loved the parade more than anything and she died and her friends boxed her ashes and – she rides on the float every year. I’ve got Dutchie’s ashes! So when I say there is no line – THERE IS NO LINE. And I love that.
Actually, university studies have shown that play is as important to your health and well-being as food, clothing and shelter. I could have saved them all the money and time on that study and told them that! Life is hard on a good day; I don’t care who you are. There’s something oppressive weighing down on you. And the dressing up funny and acting stupid makes it possible to step outside of yourself for a little while – to be someone that doesn’t have a worthless ex-husband or a child in therapy or breast cancer, whatever it is you’re dealing with – and it makes you a little stronger spiritually to go back and tote that load when you have to.
There’s a psychotherapist in California and she herself had been morbidly depressed and somehow stumbled upon my books. She started listening to them in her car and started laughing. She gradually started taking herself off her medications (Browne reminds you NOT to take yourself off your meds without doctor supervision) and has been prescribing my books to her patients. She’s bringing six people this weekend. There’s a woman in Illinois who wrote me and said she and her sister are coming here. Her sister had ovarian cancer and her hospital there hooked her up with a national support group. Her support person is a nurse here. They’ve never met – just emailed and talked on the phone – and they’re going to meet and be with the ‘cancer killer queens’ in the parade. One person wrote and said Saturday would have been her daughter’s 19th birthday. She drowned when she was four and asked could I introduce her to another bereaved mother. I immediately thought of several local ladies who have dealt with the same situation. They said, ‘Absolutely.’ So we’re having a birthday cake Saturday morning for Sidney who would have been 19 to celebrate the life and to have a moment of grief, but to celebrate. It’s a very powerful thing. It is the dressing up funny and acting stupid, but there is a very deep spiritual core to all of this.
After all the years in the St. Paddy’s parade, why now Fondren?
I happened to see an ad for Jeff Good’s Sal & Mookie’s street carnival for Blair E. Batson. I thought “uh huh”. I’ve taken the Queens to BRAVO! (one of Good’s other restaurants) for the Big Hat lunch and I mean, if Jeff Good is not mayor one day I just – I don’t know what we’ll do. I called him and asked to meet and he said, ‘I’ll meet but I’m already doing something for Batson.’ I told him, ‘It’s not just about you, but about the whole neighborhood.’ He came and met with me and we laid out our basic idea of what maybe could happen. Without me even asking, he said, ‘I could roll my street carnival into this’ and I thought, ‘that’s what I wanted.’ Jeff didn’t miss a beat. He was off and running. You know, that’s how he does things. That phone call was the best thing I ever did.
Last year’s Fondren response was BIG. What does that predict for this year?
The biggest thing last year was I had hundreds of emails from Queens from all over the world that came to Jackson. The consistent theme was how welcome they were made to feel in Fondren. They were astonished. They were hesitant at first (because no one likes change), but they trusted me and had more fun than they could imagine and now they’re just frantic to get back. One girl was looking at property (to move here) after last year! They were blown away by the uniqueness and how everything you could want to do was in walking distance. They can come for three days and there’s stuff to do. The art galleries, the food, the clothing: it was a perfect fit. Fondren gets it. My people get Fondren.
And you have this new book!
It’s my ninth and it’s published by Amazon. Tuesday was the release date but we’re having the national launch party Saturday morning at Duling Hall (in Fondren). We’re calling it ‘Bacon, Biscuits Bloodies and Books’. Kayce Jones will sing (she’s our official SPQ songwriter), we’ll have bloody marys and then wander around Fondren, having a good time.
What do you say to the businesses, the planning committee and the people in general here?
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you: it’s so great for the city, it’s great for Fondren, it’s great for the hospital. There’s no downside. it’s a perfect fit and I couldn’t be happier. zddcomm