In 1982, Jill Conner Browne was just coming off a divorce and her father had died. She knew she needed, as she puts it, "to perk myself up," and was waiting for the opportunity to do just that. "Daddy told us that there's not many things in life you really and truly cannot change, but when you do encounter one, you got to figure out either how to make fun out of it or make fun of it."
She was living in Jackson, Mississippi, and working as a trainer and program director at the local YMCA. It was probably hard to envision what would happen next — well, actually, it took a whole bunch of years — that led to her becoming a queen, attracting worldwide recognition, writing nine books and, most recently, seeing her story turned into the musical The Sweet Potato Queens by Melissa Manchester (music), Sharon Vaughn (lyrics) and Rupert Holmes (book) about to premiere on a Hobby Center stage thanks to Houston's Theatre Under The Stars Underground.
"A friend of mine decided for no apparent reason that Jackson, Mississippi, needed a St. Patrick's Day parade," Browne explains. "It's not like there's a whole bunch of Irish people here; I happen to be one, but purely coincidental. I think it was more of an excuse to drink and drive."
Browne jumped at the chance and at that moment decided to become the Sweet Potato Queen in the parade. The fact that there was no previous Sweet Potato Queen did not deter her in the least."You know, in the South we've got a beauty queen for every event, every organization, every day of the week, every food group," she says. "Even in 1982 I was pretty far removed from the beauty queen circuit, but I just declared it to be so. I just found it funny, and still do."
She told another friend that she was going to be in the parade. "She said,'What are you going to be?' and I said 'Sweet Potato Queen' and she said 'So am I'" And the Sweet Potato Queens, plural, were born. Their outfits were a collection of Goodwill castoffs, and Browne herself wore her sister's 1964 prom dress, size seven. "Which is a size I never was," says Browne. "I zipped it up as far as it would [go]. It was a lovely, low-back dress. And stuffed my front with green socks. And I had a little tiny tiara that I picked up from Hancock Fabrics."
There was no problem about being included in the Jackson parade. "It's not like New Orleans. It's not like a Mardi Gras krewe that you have to be born in or you ain't getting in," Browne says with a hearty laugh.
They rode in the back of a pickup. A girlfriend had made hand-lettered poster board signs to put on the truck."She misspelled 'potato'; she used the Dan Quayle 'e,'" Browne admits.
Once Browne came up with the special outfit emphasizing voluptuous curves and breathtaking hair for Sweet Potato Queens, the whole thing took off, and Browne says everybody was clamoring to be a Sweet Potato Queen.
About those outfits: "They have gotten exponentially bigger over the years, as have we," Browne says."The augmentations have had to grow to make our own parts look tiny by comparison. There are doorways I can't walk through. It makes our waists look like wasps."
Another turning point was in 1999 when the first of her books — The Sweet Potato Queens's Book of Love — came out and a public relations friend helped her set up a website. Browne, who had written the book on a typewriter, had to get a computer. She wrote posts explaining the Sweet Potato Queens, and started getting emails from people asking if it was real.
"I said, 'This is the deal and y'âll can come. You can't be a Sweet Potato Queen because you're too late; you missed the window. But you can be a queen of whatever you choose, and I encourage you to do that."
In the year 2000, they came from 22 states, something that still amazes Browne. "We saw a sign in the crowd, 'North Dakota loves the Sweet Potato Queen.' To think about that: I am a completely unknown humor writer from Jackson, Mississippi, and that somebody in North Dakota based on nothing but that book took time off work, bought very expensive plane tickets — you know you can't get here from anywhere — [paid for] hotel rooms to come to Jackson, Mississippi, to dress up funny and walk down the street with me."
She's even had a group come from Indonesia, she says, which speaks to all her fans. "This tells us they are highly motivated, easily led, have lots of disposable income and possibly too much time on their hands, but they are my people and I love them. I am now the leader and the object of a worldwide cult. There are like 6,400 chapters in 37 countries."
Over the years, as the Sweet Potato Queen phenomenon grew, they had to move the parade. The St. Patrick's Day parade was too tough on all her marchers and spoke to a different crowd than the one they moved to. ("We had some injuries. Beads just drive people crazy. I have seen people pick up their toddlers and put them over the police barricade into the street where they can run out under the wheels of a moving vehicle to get eight cents worth of beads.")
Now they're in the more family-oriented Zippity Doo Dah® parade, which runs a week later, and they raise money for the local children's hospital, an interest of Browne's (she waives her usual speaker's fee if asked to appear at any Children's Miracle Network hospital).
About 15 years ago, a mutual friend introduced Manchester to the first of Browne's books. This came after a failed sitcom pilot (Delta Burke was going to play Browne and was "big fun," according to Browne). Manchester read it and heard music, which made Browne very happy since turning her life into a musical had always been her dream, she says.
"My voice written and spoken is obviously that of a Southern woman, but the experiences are universal," Browne says. The musical does take some license with her life, as her daughter who lives in Dallas discovered when she came to hear a workshop reading of the play at TUTS last year. "They had us living in a trailer. She was horrified."
Over the years, membership in the Sweet Potato Queens has varied as people have come and gone. Members of Sweet Potato Queen chapters are "men, women, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor. We have not found a line we do not cross. There's a chapter in Saudi Arabia [with the motto] No Veils for Us. So it apparently translates."
"When I say there is no line, there's a group that marches in the parade every year that is totally blind. They are the Krewe No Vue. (They do have sighted people accompanying them.) The oldest one we have is Aunt Faye, originally from Midland, Texas; she lives in Flower Mound now. She started parading with us when she was 88. Aunt Faye was the grand marshal when she was 100. She will be 102 at the musical, and she is actively plotting my death because she wants my husband, who is known as the cutest boy in the world."
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Jackson is known as the home of the late Willie Morris and Eudora Welty, famous revered writers. Jill Connor Browne has joined them, recognized wherever. "People tell me every day, 'We were going through customs in Paris and they saw my passport and they said Jackson, Mississippi. Do you know the Sweet Potato Queen?'"
Every year Browne says she has a better time at the parade than the one before. She really doesn't care what anyone thinks; she's having fun and crossing lines all the time.
"I have the ashes of a dead woman. There was a Queen in Arizona that loved it more than anything, and she died. I do not have all of her, but I have some of her in a special box with one of her hats, and she rides on the float every year."
Performances of The Sweet Potato Queens are scheduled for March 17-27 at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby. For information, visit tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $25 to $49.