Forget the crown, the wig, the sequined minidress with the amplified bust and m behind. For Jill Conner Browne, it's all about the boots. "Growing up," says Browne, who did hers in Jackson, Miss., "the majorette outfit from Sears came with spats that cut off your circulation. Now I tell women, 'No matter how bad your childhood was, it's over. If you didn't get real majorette boots then, get some now.' This saves untold amounts of money on therapy."

This, along with recipes for Twinkie Pie and Fried Dill Pickles, is the sort of screen-door Zen ladled out in The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (arid Financial Planner), the third book of outlandish musings by Browne, 50, whose shtick as the smart-mouthed sovereign of a band of tacky acolytes has landed her a $1 million advance for her next two books. Browne's Web site lists almost 2,000 worldwide Sweet Potato Queen chapters, whose members fork out $250,000 for stuff like $30 tiaras and $20 beer-can chicken cookers. "I never had any aspirations to be rich, as it never seemed like a remote possibility," says Browne, who now commands $5,000 a speech. "I'm satanically lazy."

Scrape the icing off and Browne's philosophy is pretty much this: There's nothing that enough chocolate and Aqua Net can't get you through. "Every girl imagines herself to be a princess," says devotee Laura Hallford, an Atlanta teacher who wears a tiara in class once a week. "Jill says it's okay to be one."

But the getups, says Browne, are "just vehicles for the message. Dressing up funny makes it possible to be someone else—someone who doesn't have a worthless ex-husband or breast cancer or whatever you're dealing with."

Browne discovered her calling 21 years ago at Jackson's first St. Patrick's Day parade, when she and her pals put on thrift-store prom dresses and tossed raw yams to the crowd. "I said, 'Someday, somebody is going to pay me for this.' " She was only half joking. Within months Browne began sharing her thoughts in a column for a local newspaper. Humorist Roy Blount recruited her for an anthology, which eventually led to a book contract. She soon found that she could be as funny about divorce as about big hair. "I make fun of my difficulties," says Browne, "because that's how my family was."

Born in Tupelo to John, an insurance salesman, and homemaker Janice, 79, Browne felt lucky to get a job in the late '70s as a fitness instructor at a YMCA where she could work out and chat about life and marriage. Her first, in 1978 to loan officer Rex Henderson, ended in three years. In 1987 she wed advertising exec Billy Browne, father of daughter Bailey, 15. That union lasted eight years, when, she says, "we made a choice that made him and me happier—not to be married."

On her first book tour, in 2000, Browne met Kyle Jennings, 40, owner of a book press in Fairhope, Ala. (and now her manager). "No man other than my daddy ever did anything for me," says Browne. "This one wakes up in the morning wondering what I might need. Plus he's fabulous-looking." They married in 2002 in a church ceremony, followed by, she says, a "Big-Ass Redneck Post-Wedding Party and Disco Revival." The couple live outside Jackson in a big, shuttered French colonial accented with surprisingly restrained folk art. Without the pillows in her dress, Browne is a lean 6'1" and doesn't look as if she eats the fudgy pudding she calls Chocolate Stuff (page 255). If she really ate like a queen all the time, says Browne, "I would, of course, be dead."

As a teenager, daughter Bailey should be mortified on parade day. "It is a little embarrassing," she says. "But I'm over it. I ride as a Tater Tot." This year the Miss Mississippi pageant has asked Browne to be a judge—which, she says, "can only mean that no one connected with it has read my books." Her greatest complaint is that just one woman will get the crown. "There is something about putting on a tiara that changes everything," says Browne. "Every woman deserves it."

Allison Adato
Gail Cameron Wescott in Jackson

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  • Gail Cameron Wescott.