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 (63) 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 (now 102). ‘Are ya older than 102?!’ 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.
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 psycho therapist 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 (Conner 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 women 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, for the last five years, Fondren?
I happened to see an ad for Jeff Good’s Sal & Mookie’s street carnival for Blair E. Batson. I thought “uh hunh”. 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.