Sugar & Spice

The Sweet Girls pretend to be bad and try to be good, but Houston's newest social club fails at both

Her mother also scrimped and saved from her job in a law firm to send Lisa to a small private school, St. Thomas Episcopal (where, Lisa mentions twice, Tom DeLay sends his kids), and to ballet lessons. Earning a living, running a house and raising a daughter left her mother with little time to make female friends -- something about which Lisa always felt guilty. Lisa didn't have many friends either. At St. Thomas Episcopal, boys and girls are separated through the seventh grade, and there were only seven girls in Lisa's class. But circumstances weren't the only obstacles to female friendships. Lisa thinks it's inherently difficult for women to form lasting bonds. "When it comes to girls and competition," she says, "it's hard for girls to be adults." Men are more direct, she says. Women can be backstabbing.

Still, she longed for female friendships, an environment where she could indulge her girlishness. To support herself as a graphic design student at the University of Houston, she waited tables at upscale restaurants like benjy's and Dish and watched as what she calls "Paper City-style" ladies came in for lunch. The well-heeled women drank chardonnay and gossiped and came up with lists of Houston's most eligible bachelors. How could she get that kind of camaraderie?

The answer came when Holly Hinson, one of Lisa's few girlfriends, wrote a story for her 'zine about a New Orleans group called the Sweet Girls. They are an all-girl "gang" that developed in 1996 out of New Orleans' Ninth Ward art and music scene. The New Orleans Sweet Girls are artists, puppeteers, costume designers, dancers, theater directors, fashion designers and burlesque performers. Led by writer and art-shoe maker Caroline Rankin, the organization serves as a support group for the projects of its members and other artists. They favor a do-it-yourself aesthetic, and their work includes helping local musician Mr. Quintron with the taping of an infomercial for his invention, "The Drum Buddy," and sewing costumes for the 60-member Ninth Ward Marching Band. The Sweet Girls also raise money for charities -- Caroline favors the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As for their "gang" image, Caroline says the Sweet Girls don't hesitate to "take down" people who are hurtful, especially toward other Sweet Girls.

Clubhouse with deer: The Sweet Girls' installation at Lawing Gallery.
Deron Neblett
Clubhouse with deer: The Sweet Girls' installation at Lawing Gallery.
Rocker Michelle and sorority girl Meredith meet in the middle with the Sweet Girls.
Deron Neblett
Rocker Michelle and sorority girl Meredith meet in the middle with the Sweet Girls.

Lisa had her model for hip girlishness. The Sweet Girls' DIY aesthetic lent itself to crafting and sewing. And the gang mentality countered the feminine backstabbing stereotype by encouraging loyalty. Lisa and Holly wrote to Captain Caroline requesting rules and regulations to start their own chapter. They invited established young female artists to join them: women in the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts Core Program, girls involved in bands and college radio, and the founder of Houston's only microcinema, Aurora Picture Show. To explain their fledgling group, they passed out Holly's 'zine article and an antislacker manifesto written after Kurt Cobain's death that Lisa had clipped as a teenager. "I'm younger than Kurt, I'm cuter and I don't mumble. Where he was confused and miserable, I'm confident and cheerful," reads the manifesto. Angst, it says, is no more romantic than the common cold. Furthermore, all women should wear makeup, and all men should have muscles and erections and be able to fix things.

But the group didn't exactly take off the way it had in New Orleans. Women who were approached politely declined; some came to the first meeting but were never heard from again. It's not that they were threatened, explains Lisa. They just already had their own work going. To them, Lisa says, the Sweet Girls was a joke.

Lisa did end up with a core group of girls in their early twenties: Holly, a soon-to-be-medical-student who dabbled in 'zines and college radio, would serve as first mate; Liz Massey, a friend's girlfriend who was working on the human genome project, would be the trustee; Mary Janacek, a new-to-town aspiring printmaker working for Lawing Gallery, would be the scribe; Meredith May, a blond who looks so much like a sorority girl that she swears without prompting that she never was one, rounded out the group. Michelle Glaw, a Joan Jett look-alike who fronts the local band the Vulgarians, was later recruited for her tough image. (Michelle, for the record, says that she joined the club to temper that rough-around-the-edges image. She wanted to be seen as a nicer, sweeter person.)

The Sweet Girls made their own T-shirts and went out on the town for cocktails. They had sleepovers where they painted each other's toenails and shared crafts like crocheting -- and where their male friends conducted pantie raids. They spread misinformation about their gang: Lisa supposedly got into a fistfight with Björk in Paris and keeps a lock of the Icelandic rock star's hair in a jewelry box; Holly is said to have gotten kicked out of prep school for poking one of the nun's eyes out with a pencil.

It wasn't all fun and games. To fulfill their philanthropic mission, the Sweet Girls offered to sponsor an evening of film at Aurora. For the microcinema's Valentine's Day show, the girls set up a kissing booth and sold Polaroids of themselves. The plan backfired on a couple of levels: After the Sweet Girls each had to kiss a rather unsavory character, they decided that kissing booths weren't such a good idea. Besides, it wasn't worth it. The Sweet Girls raised a little more than $100 for Aurora but fell short of the $150 sponsorship commitment. They'd like to raise money for other arts organizations like Infernal Bridegroom Productions and Lawndale Art Gallery as well, but Lisa says that neither group has returned their phone calls.

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