Southern Royalty

Southern Royalty

A Story by AlaForniaGirl

The article I wrote following an interview with Jill Conner Browne, author of the wildly popular Sweet Potato Queen book series. Written as an assignment for a class taught by Rick Bragg in 2006.


            Being royalty is usually a matter of birthright and, on occasion, a person is chosen to have a royal title conferred upon them.  It is rare that people nominate themselves to bear a royal title, much less find anyone that would agree to acknowledge their chosen rank.  This is not the case for Jill Conner Browne, author of the best-selling Sweet Potato Queens® book series, who has proclaimed herself “THE Sweet Potato Queen.”

Browne offered to be the reigning queen of Vardaman, Mississippi’s, annual Sweet Potato Festival, feeling she could save them the hassle of having to elect a new queen every year.  They declined her offer.   Not wanting to give up her shot at the title of Sweet Potato Queen, she soon figured out how she could live out her royal status.  Malcolm White, longtime friend and co-owner of Hal and Mal’s Restaurant and Brewery, contacted Jill with the idea of organizing what would become the first annual Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

Browne and her closest friends collectively deemed themselves the Sweet Potato Queens, with the understanding that Jill would be the Boss Queen, and the other women would all forever be known as Tammy.  Dressed in bright pink and emerald green sequined dresses, replete with generously enhanced chests and behinds, and topped with big red hair that would make a Texan proud, they set out to share their royal-ness with unsuspecting passersby in Jackson.  Jackson had no idea what hit it, and Browne had no idea the chain of events this would set off.

Looking back now at what began on that fateful day in 1982, she said “The first time I rode in the back of that pick-up truck and smiled and waved and threw sweet potatoes, I did say out loud, ‘Somebody will pay me to do this,’ and here we are.  As far as I know, I’m the world’s only professional Sweet Potato Queen.”

Twenty-four years after it began, Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade has now settled into the third Saturday in March each year, and the crowds get bigger with time.  Loyal fans flock from around the world to be a part of what is now commonly referred to as “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Parade.”  Many are content to stand on the sidewalks and cheer, while many others feel their rightful place is in the Million Queen March™.  Local SPQ™ chapters, like Nashville’s Hashbrown Queens and Atlanta’s Mountain Moonshine Queens, come together and march in over-the-top costumes as diverse as the participants themselves. 

All Wannabes (as they are affectionately known) arrive with one ultimate goal: to see the Boss Queen live and in person.  Browne said even if the crowd size had never swelled into the tens of thousands, she and the Tammys would still be showing the rest of Jackson how to have a good time.  “We always imagined that there were thousands of people there, and so in some ways it doesn’t feel any different now that they are there,” she said.  “But it is different for me than for the other Queens because they can go home whenever they want to.  I will stay and sign the last book, have the last picture, and it doesn’t matter if it’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m crawling across the parking lot, you know, I’m so tired, and one last group comes out as I’m trying to get in the car, ‘Take our picture!’  If I say no, I’m the biggest b***h in the world and that’s what they’ll take away, so I do give it up for that weekend because I’m thrilled that they come.”

It is her generous spirit, this willingness to reach out to those who are important to her, to who she is and what she has accomplished, that is the essence of Jill Conner Browne.  Those who know her best as well as those who meet her only once are all equally impressed by her spirit. 

George Ewing, who has been friends with Jill for over a decade, remembers, “When we met, it took about five minutes and she figured out everything about me (and was right) and I just felt just a whole lot of love and acceptance…when I admitted that I was an alcoholic, again, she just loved and accepted me for what I was and what I could be.  There is just something about Jill"she has the ability to make people see that they are not the situation that they are in, but that they can also be or do whatever.”

Another friend, Katie Dezember, has a similar impression of Jill.  “She helps people realize their importance in life and how important it is to take the time for yourself and have fun.” 

She has proven to be as open and honest in her writing as she is in her daily life.  When asked what he knows about her that most people would not be privy to, her husband, Kyle Jennings, replied, “Nothing.  Jill tells everything in her books.” 

Fellow writer and link in the chain to her first book contract, Roy Blount, Jr., refers to her writing style as “inviting, hospitable, like a big table of well-cooked food and you don’t have to worry about which fork to use.  Jill is friendly-funny but with an edge, and she is hearty enough to get away with bold strokes.” 

It is this facet of her writing that long-time friend, Johnny Evans, knows she can always draw from.  Owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Evans would like to see Browne return to her roots as a newspaper columnist.  “Her insights are edgy.  No one in Southern papers is writing editorials with her insight to the South, and I’d like to see her move in that direction.”  He was there with her from the beginning and knows success has not changed her.  “[Jill is] very gracious with the public and maintains the desire to remain gracious,” a trait that can be fleeting as popularity increases.

Browne drew from her life experience to write her best-selling Sweet Potato Queens® series, and she offers advice to would-be novelists based on her experience as well.  “Go home and wait for them to call you,” which is very close to how it happened for her.

On the heels of her divorce and her mother’s stroke, she pitched the idea for The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love to friend and editor JoAnne Pritchard Morris, wife of the late Mississippi writer Willie Morris, who found the book idea to be interesting but not suited to the publishing house she worked for.

Not long after, she found herself “a case of the flu away from living in a box under a bridge,” having had her column cut from the Mississippi Business Journal, which she said got her to “finally do something.”  Morris contacted her, this time working for a Random House imprint and ready to pitch the book proposal, which led to a two-book contract.

Book of Love was released in 1999, and four subsequent titles have followed.  Her sixth book and first work of fiction, The Sweet Potato Queens’ First Big-a*s Novel: Stuff We Didn’t Actually Do, but Could Have, and May Yet, is set for release in January 2007.  In addition, she was approached with the idea of turning her stories into a musical, a dream she looks forward to seeing fulfilled.  Melissa Manchester, Sharon Vaughn and Rupert Holmes are collaborating on the project, which will be a series of vignettes taken from her collective works.  Browne hopes to one day “be sitting at the Tony® Awards, watching Rupert and Melissa and Sharon win the Tony®.  That would be a dream, and seeing people laughing and listening to those songs.”

Reading her books and making assumptions of the person that shines through in her storytelling, one easily expects Her Royal Highness (a title she gladly bears) to be just that: big as life with a personality that takes over the room.  Upon meeting her, she quickly replaces any pre-conceptions with the truth of who she is: a big personality with a lot of intelligence and power that requires no elaboration.

Malcolm White said, “We are all born into a body, some of us live our lives boundlessly.  Jill is one of those.  She is only human, blood and bone, yet [she] transcends those bounds from time to time.”  Katie Dezember thinks most people “would be surprised to know that she is a homebody and a very gentle, quiet person.” 

Browne readily agrees with this, saying “I’m a real homebody, and this has ruined my life…because I would never leave my back porch if I could.”  In fact, during the course of conversation, her preference for “lolling about” comes up four times.  When asked what sacrifices have come with all that she has gained, she chuckled and said, “Sittin’ on my a*s, I had to give that up, at great personal cost.  I require lots of down time.” 

The Boss Queen is “very content and satisfied and happy and lucky and there’s not something that I’m reaching for.  There’s no fire in my belly, there’s just lunch, really,” she said with a laugh.  But her sense of humor about her situation is not to be mistaken for complacency about all she has accomplished.  “There have been times in my life when I did not feel that way, when I felt less than, when I’ve felt left out or that something was missing or that I was behind, and that does not feel good.”

Jokes about her preference to “sit and mouth breathe” in no way indicate the reality of her life.  She stays busy with speaking engagements and fundraising efforts, with particular interest in literary causes and those causes that benefit fellow Mississippians.  Over $50,000 was raised via the Sweet Potato Queens® website to benefit the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in addition to her hands-on efforts.  Browne and her husband, Kyle Jennings, joined with Chefs for Humanity™, cooking for the troops, law enforcement, and other workers in the aftermath of Katrina.

Enraged with all the finger pointing, Browne’s unofficial motto became ‘Shut up and shovel’.  “[Katrina] was a colossal f**k-up but…the people in charge were stuck there, too.  Everybody needs to just shut up and shovel.”  She also agreed with sentiments expressed by Barbara Bush, saying she “was vilified for saying this was the best thing that ever happened to some people, but the fact is, it is true.  I saw an interview with people in Bakersfield, California, who grew up in the Ninth Ward, never thought about leaving, never thought there could be anything else.”  She talked about families who lived in fear for their children, who now have a safe home, good jobs, and no longer fear for their children to go to school. 

“It is an ill wind that blows that does nobody good,” she said.  “Everything in my life that’s ever happened that I thought was the worst catastrophe that could possibly be has either turned into or led directly to the best thing that I could never have even dreamed of, and I think that is true for anybody, it just depends on how you look at it and what you do with it.”


Her books and the parade are synonymous, likely to be forever linked in the minds of her fans.  With the impression people may have from all the stories she has told, many would be surprised to learn that the Queens are all sober on parade weekend.  “People think to get up on a float in broad daylight in the middle of downtown Jackson in giant tits and a butt you would need to be altered,” she said, feigning surprise. “Not so!” 

Browne has been told countless stories of how her books have served as a source of motivation and change in the lives of her readers, but there is one she says will forever stand out in her memory.  Jan, a 34 year-old Seattle woman with Cerebral Palsy, began posting to the now-defunct Message Board of Love, and Jill was eventually able to talk with her.  She learned that was the first year in her adult life Jan had not been hospitalized for a suicide attempt.  She had never had any friends, but upon joining the local SPQ™ chapter, was suddenly surrounded by them.  Believing her physical limitations would keep her from being a cheerleader, Jan realized her dream when she joined the SPQ™ Varsity in the Million Queen March™ dressed as a cheerleader.  Seeing the far-reaching impact of her writing on Jan, Browne said “As far as I’m concerned, if I never do another thing in my life, she’s my ticket in…that is the highlight of my life.”

As she often does, Browne recalled the wisdom of her father, lovingly referred to as “Daddy,” who taught her to do what you will wish you had done when you are fifty.  “I was little bitty when I first heard that, and I thought ‘Fifty?!’ and now I’ve moved it up to the nursing home.  Nobody goes to the nursing home wishing they’d served on a few more committees or kept a cleaner house.”

Her reign as The Boss Queen is not something she takes lightly.  She said she feels “a very strong sense of spiritual mission about what I do.  I pray before I talk anywhere, that God will let me say something that somebody needs to hear,” and inevitably someone always comes to her “tears streaming, saying ‘You changed my life.’  Yeah, my books are spicy and I think funny, but all of that is just the vehicle by which the greater message is told.  There is nothing in my books that wouldn’t preach.  I take it very seriously, and am proud of what has been accomplished in people’s lives, and [am] very grateful for the opportunity to bring that message.”

She knows that her stories initially inspire laughter and serve as a release for many of her readers, but she also knows they have a deeper effect.  “I make fun of everything,” she says, “so if you laugh at it, you had to acknowledge it on some level.”  She also believes strongly in what she calls “the power of play.”  Regardless of your age or your station in life, she knows the impact of dressing up and having fun with local SPQ™ chapters and at the parades.  “It makes it possible to step outside yourself for a little while and become somebody else, that doesn’t have a worthless ex-husband or a child in therapy or breast cancer or whatever it is you’re dealing with and it makes you a little bit stronger to go back and tote that load.”  She knows the restorative power this has, and believes ‘choice’ is the most important word.  “If you ain’t loving your life, change it.  Life is too short and too long to spend it doing anything that doesn’t make your heart sing.”

When asked how this all began, she quoted 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”  After spending most of her life afraid, she got tired of it and decided to stop living in fear.  She has realized over time that fear caused her to keep her talent in the shadows.  “Fear will never get you anything good,” she said, and with a chuckle added “except maybe to get out of the way of a train.” 

Having spent years focused on what she did not have, what she did not get, she learned to use what she had been given.  “The curriculum is mandatory, the time we take to learn it is optional.  To accept who we are, and what our gifts are, and to live into that, is very freeing.”

For a woman who spent a childhood afraid for her father to travel, who did not drive herself until she was 22, and who for years supported the creative efforts of whomever she was dating instead of demonstrating her own, Jill Conner Browne has come a long way.  It is her personal growth and her willingness to share those experiences and life lessons learned along the way that inspires fierce loyalty from her fans, draws the utmost respect from colleagues in the literary community, and why all would agree, she is the Queen.  

© 2011 AlaForniaGirl

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Added on April 26, 2011
Last Updated on April 26, 2011




I'm from Alabama and am now living in NorCal. Have also lived in VA and MS, but will always be a Bama girl no matter where I live! I'm a librarian by trade, a born writer, and hopeful of one day being.. more..

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