Jill Conner Browne is sitting in front of me wearing a pair of earrings that declare, “Be Particular.” If you have read any of Browne’s New York Times best-selling Sweet Potato Queen® books, the Boss Queen herself refers to this phrase several times, whether in regards to men, jewelry or anything dealing with life.
But when it comes to the Sweet Potato Queens’ Zippity Doo Dah Parade in Jackson’s historic Fondren district, Browne and her chapters of Sweet Potato Queen Wannabes™ encourage everyone to particularly be having fun for a good cause. Many of the events during ZDD Weekend, April 1 and 2, are fundraisers for the Friends of Children’s Hospital (formerly known as Batson Children’s Hospital) on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“This year, we want to focus on the Children’s Cancer Clinic and the five branches that are associated with it throughout the state,” Browne stated.
The Sweet Potato Queens, along with the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, will also be honoring area first-responders during this fun-filled weekend. The SPQ’s Annual Come On In Party is open to the public and kicks off the arrival of the queens at the Jackson Hilton on March 31. April 1 will be the Big Hat Brunch at Sal and Mookie’s, and the Budweiser Clydesdale Crawl, sponsored by Southern Beverage, will be in Fondren later that night. At 9 p.m. ’80s party band The Molly Ringwalds will end the day’s festivities at the Hilton. On April 2, Fondren becomes “Fondren Flea” as the district hosts “Mississippi’s Largest Outdoor Sale,” as well as an opportunity to venture to area restaurants and vendors. Sal and Mookie’s will have its annual Street Carnival that begins at 10 a.m., featuring games, prizes and a pizza and ice cream eating contest. At dusk, the “Fools for Fondren” themed parade will begin.
With a weekend filled with events from March 31 until April 3, you would think that Zippity Doo Dah weekend is all Browne does; however, when she hasn’t been busy being a motivational speaker at numerous events and singing in the church choir at Wells Methodist Church, she has been diligently working on the Sweet Potato Queens off-Broadway musical that debuted in March at TUTS Underground in Houston.
“Melissa Manchester has written the music, Sharon Vaughn has written the lyrics, and Rupert Holmes has written the screenplay for the musical. Willie Morris told me years ago that he dreamed there would be an SPQ musical one day, and 14 years later, it’s finally happening,” Browne said proudly. “It’s hard to believe that this all started as a way to have fun in 1982.”
Browne and the Sweet Potato Queens began marching at the first St. Paddy’s Day Parade in the ’80s and were always a hit with parade goers. Then, the Queens gained worldwide popularity when Browne’s first book, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, became a national bestseller in 1999. Several best-selling books written by Browne soon followed — and, eventually, so did thousands of women to Jackson, aspiring to become a “Wannabe.”
When asked what a Wannabe is, Browne broke it down.
“OK, you have the Sweet Potato Queens — which are the actual Queens who wear outfits very similar to my own (only with far less embellishment) — and they get to ride on the float with me in the Parade. Then you have the actual SPQ Wannabes — who get to wear our old outfits and wigs and they get to walk in close proximity to our float. There are tiers within this group — hierarchy wears the newer old outfits and down the line to the original outfits that have about four sequins left on them and those are strategically placed to cause maximum discomfort to the wearer. What we found out was, not only are people sucking up to me all the time, wanting to be actual SPQs — there are people sucking up to the wannabes to try to get in that group, so there are Wannabe-Wannabes. I implore all to declare themselves to be the Queen of Whatever They Choose and live into that. There are over 6,400 chapter groups of SPQ Wannabes. All those groups get to name themselves and make their own rules, outfits, etc — no charge to join the Queendom. The only rule I have is: Whatever I Say, Whenever I Say It, As Fast As You Can, With a Big Grin on Your Face. Other than that — NO RULES!”
This month, many Wannabes from all over the world, replete with tiaras and costumes of their own, will be venturing to Jackson for the Zippity Doo Dah Weekend for the sixth year in a row. And Browne has no plans to slow down, either.
“When I ask myself if I want to keep doing Zippity Doo Dah Weekend when I’m older, I think of our Aunt Faye from Texas, who started marching with us at age 88,” Browne said. “When she turned 100, we appointed her the Grand Marshal of the ZDD Parade, and now at 102 years old, she still participates. So, if Aunt Faye can do it, I can, too.”
For more information about the Sweet Potato Queens, visit sweetpotatoqueens.com, and for more information on the events April 1-2, check out fondren.org.