Imagine Designing Women's Suzanne Sugarbaker, Dr. Ruth and Susan Faludi chatting up a storm over Fat Mama's Knock You Naked Margaritas and you have something approaching Jill Conner Browne's intoxicating recipe for commercial success. Welcome to the world of the Sweet Potato Queens—a world that will expand in January when Browne begins her 20-city book tour for The Sweet Potato Queen's Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner) (Three Rivers Press).

Booksellers are excited at the prospect of a revisit. "Even with laryngitis, she was absolutely superb," said John Ray, ordering manager at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., recalling Browne's visit last year. "We didn't know how many people to expect, and we ended up with an overflow crowd with men and women standing after we filled 150 chairs. Some people wore crowns. What amazed me was that just word of mouth attracted that huge crowd; we only advertised it as a normal event."

Linda Knopp, senior buyer and events coordinator for Malaprop's in Asheville, N.C., went one step further and created "the biggest and best event we've ever had." She visited Browne's Web site ( and contacted local SPQ chapters (the site lists more than 1,800 chapters). She invited them to the book signing and a parade. "The parade was actually just 10 yards long—from her hotel to Malaprop's," Knopp told PW. "But the crowd was incredible. We actually had to consult our fire codes when people began pouring into the store. There were between 400 and 600 people. When she appeared, the roar from the crowd was deafening. It was an incredible event, beyond anything we've ever done before." The parade garnered both local TV and front-page newspaper coverage.

How It Began

Browne's 1999 manifesto, The Sweet Potato Queen's Book of Love (Three Rivers), introduced readers to her heady blend of relationship advice—including "The Promise," which, she said, was "guaranteed to get any man to do your bidding"—and artery-clogging recipes from the four main food groups (sweet, salty, fried and au gratin). The recipe to Twinkie Pie begins: "This is just about the most embarrassing recipe we know of and it's a tribute to our character that we can confess not only to owning such a recipe but making it often and loving it as well. You start with a crate of Hostess Twinkies—don't even mention the fat free variety to me: they are an abomination and should be outlawed."

The 12,000-copy first printing sold out quickly, proving that Browne and her raunchy band of Southern belles appealed to readers well beyond the South. Now, after 25 printings, The SPQ Book of Love has more than 626,000 copies in print, while Browne's follow-up, God Save the Sweet Potato Queens (2000), has 250,000 copies after eight trips to press. Her third book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner) (Forecasts, Oct. 28) will be released in January with an initial printing of 100,000 copies. Two future tomes—sold in a recent seven-figure deal to Three Rivers—wait in the wings.

Steve Ross, publisher of Crown and Three Rivers Press, remembers signing Browne to a two-book contract without waiting for a proposal, after Joanne Pritchard Morris, widow of Mississippi writer Willie Morris, brought the Queens to his attention. She told him of their show-stopping appearances at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Jackson, Miss.

When the Queens made their first parade appearance in 1982, Browne was a local humor writer and YMCA fitness trainer, who had convinced three of her friends to don tiaras and green ball gowns and crown themselves Sweet Potato Queens. The outfits evolved over the years to feature shimmery green dresses (with extra padding in the bust and rump), pink opera gloves, sunglasses and big red wigs.

"A bunch of people from Crown went to the parade three years ago and again last year, and the difference was exponential," said Ross. "The first time—before the book was published—there were probably 5,000 people at the parade and maybe 10 local SPQ groups. Last year, there were 25,000 people and hundreds and hundreds of people not only from all across the country, but from Denmark, Spain and Ireland. The phenomenon was like nothing I'd ever seen before, with the exception of a years-ago midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Most women there are in their 40s and 50s and are mostly drinking, in various states of disrobe, and all just having a whooping and hollering good time."

The first book became "an extraordinary regional phenomenon," according to Ross. "The phenomenon became national as the awareness of the cult of the SPQ became national. And that was mostly through her Web site."

The site sells SPQ products and offers updates from Browne, who used the space recently to announce her engagement to The Cutest Boy in the World (who figures prominently in the new book). "Oh yeah, there's a book in this courtship/engagement/wedding thing," Browne told PW. "Look for it to figure prominently in book four, which has the working title The Sweet Potato Queen's Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay or Dead." Browne admits to having "reservations, hesitations, palpitations and regurgitations" about getting remarried. "I had taken a solemn vow against marrying anybody, let alone a younger man," she said. "I believe if you are under 40, you are larva. At least he'll finally turn 40 this month!"

The Boss Queen

"Jill Conner Browne is the wildest and funniest women I've ever met," said Ross. "She's utterly unpredictable and entirely without peer, and I am putty in her hands because she's so sophisticated in her use of the Promise."

Browne enjoys her book tours. "The two things people say to me are: 'Your books changed my life' and 'You don't look like you need plastic surgery to me.' " Browne told PW, referring to the fact that she tells visitors to her Web site that all purchases support her plastic surgery fund. "And I couldn't tell you which is my favorite one to hear!"

Browne thinks her books appeal to readers who want to re-embrace the power of play. "We don't get too old to play—we get old when we quit playing," said Browne. "Life, for most of us, is hard on a good day. One might have breast cancer or a child in serious therapy or a worthless ex-husband, and there's just not a lot to smile about in there. By putting on an outlandish outfit and acting crazy for a little while, one can step outside oneself and become someone else, and that brief respite makes it just a little easier to go back and shoulder that load again when it's time."

"In some ways, she's sort of an Erin Brockovich character: scrape away the sparkly stuff and there's a serious person there," said Judith Chandler, author events coordinator at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, just outside Seattle. "She has a very empowering message for women. I think women who might never pick up a self-help book might pick up one of her books and find some really good, sensible advice. It seems fluffy and fun but there's a real core of substance in her writing. She's no dummy."

"People absolutely love her," said Linda Knopp. "I've never felt anything like the cult-like devotion of her fans. They all have the same spirit of fun that she embodies. They see her as a friend and a role model. I was really moved by her talk at SEBA about building up her self-esteem and taking charge of her life. I think that's what readers respond to."

Browne enjoys her interaction with fans. "I hear from a great many cancer survivors who tell me my books have got them through their treatments—I love those." One of her favorite exchanges was with a very elderly lady who "tottered up to me and said she thought our maxim of 'Never Wear Panties to a Party' was the smartest thing she'd ever heard," Browne related. "I was smiling and saying, 'Yes, ma'am' and she went on to say, 'Well, after all, you wouldn't wear a mask if you wanted to be kissed!' and after I picked myself up off the floor, I smiled and said, 'No, ma'am.' I'm no longer fooled by little old ladies."

Browne is expanding into new territories. The Wildflower Group will begin a licensing line of greeting cards, calendars and mugs in spring 2003. And fans who want to hear Browne as well as read her got a treat this year when she recorded unabridged versions of all three books for Random House Audio. When complimented on them, she launched into a full-scale comedy routine. "I'm tickled you like them because they're an absolute bitch to make!" she told PW. "You have to sit completely still for eight or so hours. There can be no sound in the room—like, say, from an air conditioner. This is Mississippi and we're talking hot as the hammered-down hinges in that studio. Or if your stomach should ever-so-softly complain because you haven't eaten anything all day—because if you do, it'll make you cough. You won't hear it yourself, but everyone in the air-conditioned control room will, and you have to start all over on that page." Her audio director, Lisa Cahn, told her that "the former world champeens at audiobook readin' were Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, who could successfully complete a whole 25 pages per hour. But, she assured me, I kicked their butts—averaging upwards of 32 pages per hour! I'd say that's a fair-sized gauntlet that's been flung down for the Redgraves, who should just EAT MY DUST!"