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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2003

The goddess within

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Tiaras. Over-the-top clothing. Sass and a dash of naughtiness. Girlfriends. Laughter.

Women around the country are blending these ingredients into delicious confections and gobbling the goodies with gusto.

Providing recipes are a slew of books and organizations that aim to aid and abet fun and friendship. And who wouldn't want to be a queen, goddess, or diva?

As self-proclaimed boss queen of the 3,000 Sweet Potato Queen clubs, Jill Conner Browne understands the simplicity of this phenomenon: Life is hard and play restores us.

“We just need to laugh,” said Ms. Browne, 50. “It's the power of play. It strikes a universal chord.”

The word-of-mouth message of another group, in which women of a certain age relish the clash of purple dresses with red hats, has spread like wildfire. It has 10,000 U.S. chapters, including several locally.

Red Hat Society members figure they've spent their lives working and caring for others. Now they're gunnin' for fun. “We stick to the humorous as much as we can. Good hearty laughter,” said Sue Ellen Cooper, 58, founder and Exalted Queen Mother of the Red Hats.

“This is basically like recess. `Come on out. Put on your dress-up clothes. Play. And then go home and do what you have to do,” said Ms. Cooper, in an interview with The Blade from her California office. “We're not about being as outrageous as we can be. We're about being the way we want to be.”

Susan Jane Gilman's 2001 book, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess, sold 120,000 copies. She calls it “a guide to wit, power, and attitude. It's based on the premise women are not only entitled to rule the world, but to have a blast doing it.

“Giving all the roles women are juggling today, it's no wonder we want to call a 'time out' and anoint ourselves Queen for a Day,'” wrote Ms. Gilman in an e-mail interview with The Blade.

“Perhaps women are donning tiaras and feather boas because it's a way of shirking adult responsibility and allowing ourselves to return to our fanciful 7-year-old selves for a moment,” wrote Ms. Gilman, a 1993 graduate of the University of Michigan. “Fun is not to be underestimated. Fun doesn't need to be justified, especially now, with all the insanity in the world.”

Molly Reams Thompson co-wrote I Am Diva!: Every Woman's Guide to Outrageous Living, with three friends. It was published this year. A Toledo native living in California, Ms. Thompson defines a diva as a woman committed to being in charge of her life, “who really gives herself permission to be bold, to be adventurous,” she said. “It's all a matter of making a choice. You can choose to have more fun. And the more you practice it, the easier it gets.”

Michelle Wagner of South Toledo fell in love with the Sweet Potato Queens after hearing how fans showed up at book signings dressed in zany attire. She immediately bought the books.

“It sounds crazy, because it's just a little funny book, but it changes your life,” said Ms. Wagner, 36. “It's amazing the number of people it's affected.”

Ms. Wagner's plate is full -she is the mother of two preschoolers, married, and employed as the prosecuting attorney for the City of

Sylvania - and she has seen the truth in the old saying, if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

“I've made more time for my girlfriends. It might be going out to dinner or a day at Put-in-Bay. You don't get those deep belly laughs with anyone but your girlfriends,” she said. “You need to give yourself a break.”

Jill Conner Browne theorizes that the act of plunging into the pool of play symbolizes a matured facet of feminism. “At one time we had to take ourselves too seriously in order to be taken seriously,” she said.

She built upon her 1999 hit, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, with two subsequent paperbacks. They've sold almost 1.5 million copies, she said. Chapter titles capture their impish spirit: “The True Magic Words to Get Any Man to Do Your Bidding” and “What to Eat When Tragedy Strikes or Just for Entertainment.”

“Dressing up funny and acting stupid makes it possible to step outside yourself for a little while," she said in a telephone interview with The Blade.

Ms. Browne set forth on the road to royalty in 1982 when she volunteered to be a queen in a new St. Patrick's Day parade in Jackson, Miss. She and three friends donned salvaged green ball gowns, crowned themselves with tiaras, and waved from the back of a pickup truck, periodically tossing sweet potatoes to puzzled bystanders.

A few years later, inspired by the sparkling costumes worn by a college dance troupe at football games, she had sequined green mini-dresses made that included substantial augmentation in strategic spots. She accessorized with pink capes, gloves, and majorette boots. Topping the ensemble were sunglasses and a cascading red wig embedded, of course, with a tiara.

In the last few years, women and some men (called “spud studs”) from chapters around the country march in the parade wearing a variety of goofy costumes. A precision drill team from Texas twirled toilet plungers. She noted there's a chapter in Saudi Arabia with the motto: “No veils for us!”

“We get old when we stop playing,” said Ms. Browne, newly married and the mother of a 15-year-old daughter.

“Jill is so popular with Junior Leaguers,” said Jenny Bent, who walked, in costume, with the queens in their March parade.

A literary agent for Harvey Klinger, Inc., in New York, Ms. Bent points to other books that have come out of the blue and soared, including the 1998 Rebecca Wells book, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, that inspired a 2002 movie and dozens of Ya-Ya groups around the country.

Ms. Bent noted the 2000 photo book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats in which James Baldwin is quoted: “Our crowns have been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.”

There's the 2000 book, It's a Chick Thing, by Ame Beanland and Emily Miles Terry, celebrating the wild side of women's friendship from skinny dipping to food fights; Bad Girl's Guide to the Open Road by Cameron Tuttle (“A bad girl knows what she wants and how to get it with style, confidence, and humor”), and The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving Your 20s, with Savvy, Soul, and Style by Julia Bourland.

In similar spirit is a book published in May written by a male former window-dresser. It's Simon Doonan's Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons from Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women.

Amy Einhorn, editorial director of trade paperbacks at Warner Books, says it's feminism with lipstick.

“Women really respond to books that speak honestly to their lives,” said Ms. Einhorn. “I think they're fun and they're smart and they're talking about things nobody else is.”

In a town on a Texas bayou, a hairdresser heard about the Sweet Potato Queens and established her own monarchy.

“I figured if Jill Conner Browne could do it, we could do it bigger and better in Texas,” Kathy Patrick, 46, told The Blade while she waited for a customer's color to process at her salon in Jefferson, population 2,100.

In March, 2000, she started the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas Book Club in her living room. The motto: “Where tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the rule.” The mission: to promote literacy and have an excellent time while doing it.

A dozen more Pulpwood Queens book clubs have been formed with 300-some members, said Ms. Patrick. All participants read the same book at the same time, and often are visited by or have teleconferences with authors, who also receive complimentary makeovers in Ms. Patrick's salon, Beauty and the Book.

Clubs almost invariably become a celebration of women, friendship, authors, literacy, and the beauty within, she said.

The mother of 9 and 13-year-old daughters, she sells queenly items in her shop - hot pink T-shirts, tiaras, leopard-skin flasks.

And the goddess concept has captivated Madison Avenue: Women can shave with a Venus razor, waste away on the goddess diet endorsed by Cher, and sweat in a goddess T-shirt from Nike. (Before Nike became the god of athletic shoes, it was the name of the goddess of victory.) “Goddess,” a display of gorgeous gowns, reigns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute this summer.

A spiritual twist on royalty, goddesses are even more powerful than queens. They're the archetype Kelley Werner and her two partners use as the basis for their female-bonding games and business.

“Those were strong, empowered women,” said Ms. Werner, 42, of Key Biscayne, Fla. Aphrodite, for example, represented passion; Artemis, courage; Hera, loyalty. “A goddess is a creator,” she said. “As women, our issues are so common. And I can learn from your process. I can support you in your process.”

Their Go Goddess! game and Go Goddess Girl! version for ages 6 to 12, grew out of a women's meditation group the partners attended for years. The games encourage players to acknowledge their strengths and femininity, and to fulfill their dreams.

“What we're all experiencing is getting together with your girlfriends is some of the best medicine there is,” said Ms. Werner. “It almost goes back to the days when you were gabbing and giggling with your girlfriends.

“It's about celebrating and embracing who you are. I think it will lead to people being happier,” said Ms. Werner. “It's all about not taking yourselves too seriously and speaking your truth.”



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