“They say how you play as a child informs who you are. That is the truth because I liked dressing up and playing with boys. I still do.
Four of us started dressing up as Sweet Potato Queens® in 1983 for a little St. Patrick’s Day Parade with friends in Jackson, Mississippi. I have always been the Boss Queen. We wore green, hand-me-down ball gowns and tiaras and waved to the crowd from the bed of an old pickup truck. I was divorced and my father had died, so I was trying to cheer myself up by playing dress up and making fun of myself; this is how I cope with pain. I had no idea what this would grow into or that we would still be parading and wearing crowns more than forty years later.
I was a single mother paying the bills by teaching fitness classes at the YMCA and writing columns for local newspapers. I didn’t have a college education or training in writing, I just read and wrote for my own entertainment. I am a one-trick pony and write just like I talk. I wrote for an underground paper called the Diddy Wah Diddy under the penname Betty Fulton, a character in a book by Don Novello; he was Father Guido Sarducci when Saturday Night Live was funny. Many people in Jackson read the Diddy, but nobody knew who Betty Fulton was. Out of the blue, humorist Roy Blount, Jr. called and asked if this was Betty Fulton. I said, “Hey,” like he called every day. He was publishing an anthology of Southern humor and asked if he could include one of my pieces. My piece in Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor is between Flannery O’Conner and Eudora Welty. Pretty swell company.
As a result of being in that book, I was asked to be on the What D’Ya Know radio show on NPR when it came to Jackson in the late 1990’s. I was foolishly excited until I remembered that one of the guests was always the butt of host Michael Feldman’s jokes. The other guests were Willie Morris, one of the South’s most revered authors, and a thousand-year-old blues guy from the Delta; so, I knew what my role was intended to be. But, unfortunately for Mr. Feldman, I was prepared and let him have it. Mr. Feldman’s crew high-fived me backstage when it was over.
More importantly, that was the night I met Willie and his wife, JoAnne Prichard. She was, at the time, the Editor-in-Chief at the University Press of Mississippi and would one day open the doors that changed my life.
I was a stringer doing freelance columns for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper and writing as Betty Fulton for the Mississippi Business Journal. My stories for both were about whatever crossed my mind, which had nothing to do with business. I wrote about my dogs or when my daughter, Bailey, had a stomach virus and how hard it was to get grits out of the grooves of a hardwood floor. Betty Fulton was the most asked-about column in the newspaper.
Then without notice, new owners bought the Mississippi Business Journal and stopped running my stories. A guy finally called me back and said, ‘Maybe it’s just me, but you’re just not funny.’ I replied, ‘Clearly, it’s just you.’ Many things have been said about me: true and untrue, kind and unkind, but nobody has ever said I wasn’t funny. I was barely scraping by, and that column paid my utility bills. I was $30,000 in debt because my most recent ex-husband loved charging cashmere socks and racing tires in my name.
I have no ambition, and paying the bills is the only reason I pursued anything to do with my writing; so, I went to see JoAnne Prichard about publishing a collection of essays that I had already written. The only thing I knew about publishing was that they never wanted just one book. I threw out the idea of the Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love to JoAnne and told two or three funny stories, including ‘The Promise’ —the true magic words to get any man to do what you want. She loved the Book of Love idea but thought it was a little spicy for The University Press.
Nine months later, JoAnne called me back. She had left The University Press and was acquiring for Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. She pitched them the Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, which did not exist. They liked it—thought it was hilarious and wanted a Proposal, which I did not know how to write. JoAnne helped me write and bind the Proposal so it looked like a real book. She took the Book Proposal to New York City and lost it in a cab the night before the publishing meeting.
So, in the middle of a tornado with sirens going off, one of the queens and I went to her store and faxed my copy to JoAnne’s hotel. The next morning, she took those crappy, curled up pieces of fax paper to Random House. They loved it and gave me a two-book contract.
The first book came out in January of 1999, and there was a little increase in the number of people attending the St. Patrick’s Day Parade a few months later. Coming around a corner on the parade route and seeing someone holding up a sign that read, ‘North Dakota Loves the Sweet Potato Queens’ blew my mind. Before Facebook and other social media outlets, there were message boards. We had one and thousands of women started talking about Sweet Potato Queens and wanting to be a part of it. Then people started coming from across the country and around the world to Jackson to be Sweet Potato Queen Wannabees in our parade.
Now, there are more than 6,500 Sweet Potato Queen chapter groups in 37 countries. One group has come twice from Indonesia just to dress up funny and walk down the street with me. There is even a chapter in Saudi Arabia. Their motto is ‘No veils for us,’ and I am terrified for them.
I didn’t set out to be a leader of a worldwide cult, but these women (and not a few smart men) are my people and their creativity far outshines what we started. They have also helped me raise a lot of money for Children’s of Mississippi at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the only hospital in the state where any child can be treated, regardless of ability to pay. Our motto is: ‘We will do anything for the Chirren.”
The Hilton is our host hotel in Jackson. In 2009, there was talk of Jell-O wrestling in the pool; the Hilton was understandably worried about what we would do. But the hotel’s manager filled their hot tub with 500 gallons of actual green Jell-O, and we charged a $5 donation to Children’s to have a picture made with us in the Jell-O. Actual Jell-O is very cold! The maintenance guy hosed us down before we went inside and that was even colder. The next year, we filled a big wading pool with a Jell-O-like product made for wrestling, and people wrapped around the Hilton to get in. My husband, Kyle Jennings, is nicknamed ‘The Cutest Boy in the World,’ and somebody offered $2,000 to the Children’s Hospital if Kyle would put on an orange thong with plastic flowers on the front and walk around the pool. Of course, he did it “for the children.” He made one lap and returned with $1,700 in his thong.
Laughter is how I cope, and everything is funny to me. Denial is the main symptom of hard problems. If I can write or say something that makes you laugh about the issue, then it is a little easier to acknowledge the problem exists on some level, which opens a door to dealing with it. Being with women in their hardest times and making them laugh is spiritual. It’s important to our health and well-being.
The Sweet Potato Queens® became a support system for cancer, miscarriage, divorce, death of a child or parent, and the many horrible things people go through. I have always offered an invitation and place for people to lay their burdens down, play, and be silly and spontaneous. It is a chance to step outside yourself for a little while and become somebody else—someone who doesn’t have your problems and it makes it a little easier to deal with them when you get home.
I cuss, and the Eff Word has been a constant part of my speech since I was 13. The first time I said it, I was in the car with my mother and realized she couldn’t stop what I said. I think God cares only about my intent and doesn’t give a shit if I say the Eff Word. Two years ago, however, I gave up the word when Marlana, the head of our Security, got breast cancer. She has two kids, owns two businesses, and didn’t slow down for a second. One day I saw her cry and say she didn’t know what she had done to deserve this. I told God I would quit saying the Eff Word if He would save her. I did and He did. She got well. The word has slipped out once or twice, but I’m sticking to my promise. Hardest thing I’ve ever done but so worth it.
I have written nine books about the Sweet Potato Queens, plus a collection of recipes; and, there was once a television sitcom pilot about us. Delta Burke played me, but when the studio got involved the script was turned into shit. Thankfully, it wasn’t picked up. Now there is a Sweet Potato Queen musical. Melissa Manchester (Grammy Winner) read a story about us on the first page of the LA Times and said she heard music as she read it. She tracked me down and talked with me about the musical. She wrote the music, Sharon Vaughn (multiple ASCAP Country Awards, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame) wrote the lyrics, and Rupert Holmes (multiple Edgar, Tony, and Drama Desk award winner) wrote the script. It was first staged in Houston, Texas, then COVID hit and slowed everything down. Theaters are now picking it up for future dates.
The Sweet Potato Queens® have given me so much, but the best thing is my husband Kyle. I was signing books at Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, and met Kyle when I signed the awning at Over the Transom Books that was across the street from Page and Palette. Kyle likes to say that he asked me to have a drink, and I said, “No!” But anybody who knows me and has seen him knows that didn’t happen. I said, “I would love to, but I have to go straight to another book signing in Daphne.” All Kyle heard was, “No!” I returned to Page and Palette a year later for another signing and Kyle came down the stairs wearing a tool belt and was nasty because he was remodeling the second floor; so, of course, we had that drink. I do love a man that can fix things. It broke a lot of hearts when I took Kyle from Fairhope.
I am 70. I hit a rough patch and haven’t written as much as I used to. I battle fear and depression and sometimes think about quitting all of this. Sometimes I make shitty choices and suffer for it. Then I remember I can make another choice. My faith in God is my reset button. The world is filled with pain and heartbreak, but it has a purpose. We can use our pain and victory to help someone else. I have learned from the women in my life that we are never too old to play. We get old when we stop playing.”
Jill Conner Browne