Rockport, Texas – With their towering red wigs, dresses adorned with sparkling blue sequins, shrimper boots, and ample personalities, it is hard not to miss this army of beauty queens at parades, festivals, charity events and chili cook-offs throughout the Coastal Bend. Known by the Rockport-Fulton community as the Little Bay
Sea Queens (LBSQ), this raucous group of ladies bring humor, glamor, a bit of sass, and high energy wherever they go.
For over 20 years these buxom beauties have been charming audiences at annual festivals like Oysterfest, Seafair, Mardi Gras, and other holiday events usually from atop a parade float, or championing various good causes, raising funds for non-profits and supporting frontliners and local businesses.
Before they underwent the transformation into LBSQ, however, this group of women started off as members of the Rockport Book Club.
According to “Boss Queen” Barbara Gurtner, the idea for the LBSQ was sparked by a chance encounter with the book, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love by Jill Conner Browne. “I was having a bad day, and I needed something to lift up my spirits, so I stopped at a local bookstore in Rockport when the bookseller handed me this little book by Jill Conner Browne,” Gurtner said.
“The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love didn’t take long to finish because it was short
read, but I had to keep my legs closed because I was blushing and laughing so hard, and it
wasn’t until I was two-thirds of the way done that I realized this is actually a true story.”
Just as life has a way of imitating art, so the protagonist of the story, author Browne herself, was also going through a difficult moment in life when she felt compelled to fulfill her dream of becoming a queen. When she realized that nobody was going to name her queen, she named herself queen, and so did her girlfriends.
When the small Mississippi town known for its sweet potato festivals did not accept the group’s self-proclamation as Sweet Potato Queens, the sisterhood moved its efforts to Jackson, Mississippi, where at 5:00pm in the middle of rush hour traffic on St. Patrick’s Day, they wore green bridesmaids gowns, tall red wigs and majorette boots, parading themselves on the back of a flatbed truck, tossing sweet potatoes at passing cars so everyone could know that they were the Sweet Potato Queens.
That first day, no one was willing to join them on the flatbed truck in Jackson, Mississippi. Today, the SweetPotato Queens boasts nearly 6,500 chapter groups in thousands of cities across the globe (according to sweetpotatoqueens.com).
In 2001 Gurtner offered Browne’s book for the reading list of the Rockport BookClub and found herself assigned to be the one to present it at the next book club meeting, which was to be held at the home of a
fellow book club member.“We were all shocked to find Barbara in full costume with a sequined gown, a
red wig, greeting guests at the door with a Southern accent as part of her book presentation,” the hostess said. The ideas presented in The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love took root and
flourished among the Rockport Book Club members. “Because it was a skinny book, at first
glance, we thought it would be just a humorous light reading,” Gurtner said. “We discovered, however, that it has a depth that’s unbelievable. It was neither a shallow story, nor was it merely a comedic book.
The story reaches deep down into your psyche. It’s about facing life with humor, making time for fun, and supporting your friends. And the recipes are to die for!”
Borrowing inspiration from the original SPQ, the Rockport Book Club decided to be Queens themselves and chose the name Little Bay Sea Queens. Pooling their creativity and resources, Boss Queen Barbara put her sewing skills to good use identical sequin gowns choosing blue (rather than the original SPQ green) to represent the Coast. Some procured red wigs in Corpus Christi. Others raiding the quilt section at Walmart to add stuffing to amplify their physical assets. One friend offered the use of a flatbed for the Queens’ debut at Oysterfest 2001. In line with the Coastal Bend theme, the Queens made a splash with their red wigs, blue sequined gowns, and shrimper boots (a nod to the region’s abundance of shrimp).
Being done-up in the same gowns and wigs, and stuffed assets, each of the LBSQ looked identical and hard to tell apart. Their appearance at Oysterfest turned many heads and bemused audiences, until one man in the crowd shouted “Sweet Potato Queens!” at which the Queens acknowledge “You got it!”
Over 20 years later, the LBSQ continue to turn heads and bring high energy as they charm audiences at many annual festivals, holiday events and charity fundraisers.
EACH QUEEN A UNIQUE GEM
Each of the queens come from all walks of life, ranging from retirees and housewives, to business entrepreneurs, executive directors, realtors, writers, artists and photographers. In the spirit of Jill
Conner Browne, each of the queens have an alias name that they use when they appear in full regalia. referring to one another, as a way to protect each others’ identity, as several in the group happen to be high profile leaders or business owners. For security reasons, therefore, with the exception of Boss Queen Barbara Gurtner, the rest of the queens in this interview will be referred to as Bobbie Pearl.
“If you think about it, most of the Queens actually hold a professional position in this region and contribute tremendously to this community,” said Bobbie Pearl, an Executive Director for Cultural Arts in the Coastal Bend, and has also been with LBSQ for five years, “I have known these ladies for a long time,
and when I expressed my desire to be part of them, I was welcomed right away with the signatory Revlon pink lipstick to let me know that I was now a Queen. We have a fantastic time together and do a lot of community work.” Queens are only admitted by unanimous vote, and those who want to join the LBSQ are required to win over each of the existing queens by currying many favors. “When I first moved to Rockport in 2006, I became intrigued by them, and decided to read the book; after that, I really wanted to be part of them, and my way of kissing up to get in was by bringing them hand-decorated cookies for
a Queens’ ball that I was invited to,” said local business owner Bobbie Pearl. “I think coming from different walks of life brings all sorts of perspectives, and ideas, helps with our volunteerism and tourism, because we all bring in a different idea and we all support each other no matter what’s going on,” said another Bobbie Pearl, who was ‘queened’ around the same time as her friend Bobbie Pearl, a photographer.
“In 2001 or 2002, the LBSQ and I did not know each other, however, I thought they were
the most fabulous, unique, eccentric women I have ever met, and I kept taking photos of them until one day, Boss Queen Barbara approached me to request copies of the photos, and eventually she invited me to be their Royal photographer,” camera-toting Bobbie Pearl said. “I have known these ladies for the past 20 years, they are the movers and shakers of Rockport. And now that I, myself, am a queen, I’m always smiling because being part of such a unique group of women in this community is very rare. We are sisters and we have each other’s back. I always like smiling, so it’s up my alley.”
Another queen who has been with the LBSQ for 10 years and believes the real beauty of the LBSQ is the camaraderie. “LBSQ is about building up other women and making each one feel special and beautiful,” this Bobbie Pearl said. “We’re not just out there partying and having fun, each queen has to bring something to the table. One of the early queens was even a Federal Judge. We do a lot of non-profit events. Hurricane Harvey was a dark time for us, as many of the queens lost their homes. But they were not truly homeless because they were taken in by others and given a place to stay. It was a hard time for me and my husband, who works in the Fire Department. I would have fallen apart if I hadn’t been lifted up by my fellow queens. Even though we all don’t talk eeryday, when one queen is in trouble the others sense it and we are drawn to each other.”
When the Seafair Parade opened up again just after Harvey, the LBSQ honored the linemen who helped rebuild Rockport by wearing hard hats decorated with eyelashes and bling. “Afterwards we gifted these
items to the executives at AEP, which they have on display to this day. Our group has impacted the
community and many non-profits request our presence to help raise funds,” Bobbie Pearl said. For veteran-LBSQ member Bobbie Pearl, having a flotilla of women at one’s beck and call was deeply comforting for her psyche. “If I was in jail and needed to be bailed out, I now have 20 women I can call at 1:00am and they would all be there with the money,” Bobbie Pearl said.
“Even after my surgery, the Queens came over to bring food for me and my husband. I don’t know what I’d do without them.” Having relocated from Canada, another queen, Bobbie Pearl, has no nearby relatives in South Texas. But she muses, “The LBSQ has become my family here in the Coastal Bend; nowhere else can you find a group of 18-25 women who all get along, or at least try to.” Aside from being a queen, Canadian-transplant Bobbie Pearl also works as a Realtor. One day, a client from Dallas, who also goes
by Bobbie Pearl, came across a copy of Jill Conner Browne’s book in her office. “My Realtor Bobbie Pearl was so surprised that I recognized that book, and when she mentioned that there was a SPQ chapter in Rockport, the Little Bay Sea Queens, I told her that I was also previously a queen when I lived in Dallas – the Margarita Mamas chapter,” Dallas Bobbie Pearl said. “One week later, I got a knock on my door and Barbara was there handing me an invitation to the Queens’ Ball.” Being ‘queened’ is always a surprise. For
business owner and Chamber Chair Bobbie Pearl, the surprise happened while she was working a busy shift at her previous restaurant Hammerhead’s. “I’ve gotten toknow the queens for several years as they always came to Hammerheads afterthe parades,” Bobbie Pearl said . “But one night, we were so packed
and busy after the parade, that when 18 of them arrived, I said to the Boss Queen Barbara, ‘Baby Girl, I’m
sorry service is slow, we’re so busy, all your tickets are half price.’ And when I came back, they announced
that I was officially a Little Bay Sea Queen. In surprise I yelled, ‘Whaaat?’ and got stares from everyone. But it’s been seven years since then and we have had fun, being ourselves, going to parades, and helping the community.”
When Austinite Bobbie Pearl relocated to Rockport from the State Capitol, she did not know who or what the LBSQ were or what they did. “All I knew is that they were some really nice gals and I started going out and doing things with them, and they kept telling me you’d make a wonderful Queen!’
So finally I asked them what is a Queen? And the rest is history! It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made and I have some of the dearest friends now! I’ve never had girls that I could feel so comfortable with. We laugh and cry together. We take up and take care of one another. We share a sisterhood that runs deep,” Bobbie Pearl said. Another queen first encountered the queens when they came unannounced to herhome to use the bathroom. “My house was at the end of the parade route, so not only did they want to use the restroom, they also saw I was serving Bloody Mary cocktails to my guests and announced they wanted one of those, too,” this Bobbie Pearl said. “So one day, 10 years ago when they needed more queens for the Oysterfest parade, they told me they had an outfit that would fit me. I thought about it for three seconds and said, ‘Yes – I could do that!’ I met them at the parking lot, jumped onto their float, and suddenly I was a Little Bay Sea Queen!
They are so full of love and happiness. I just love it. I love the girls, we all get along just fine. It’s such a joy to be a queen!” Beyond making public appearances and promoting local events, the LBSQ also provides a sisterhood of support for its members and sends a message of empowerment for people from all walks of life. “When people see us dressed up, we are bodacious, we are enthusiastic, and we raise the energy,” Gurtner said. “But What’s good to share is that the women in this group are strong individuals who are brilliant and beautiful and work hard and that’s exciting. We can be ourselves and we take care of our sisters.” According to Gurtner, it is important for women to lift other women up. “We’ve all been down. We’ve had bad times. We’ve had rough times. We’ve had fortunes won and fortunes lost. We’ve had health concerns, but we are here to take care of each other, not just our fellow queens but also our friends and everyone in our community,” Gurtner said. “The LBSQ are the ambassadors of Rockport and Aransas County. We do a lot of charity work and volunteer services, and we have lots of fun, being ourselves while doing it! I would advocate doing that wherever you live. “We believe every woman is a
Queen who may gather her friends around her and do amazing things.
Crown yourself and go forth.”
SPARKLING CITY QUEENS
Gurtner’s advice was taken to heart when in 2022 a new chapter of Sweet Potato Queens was established in Corpus Christi. Starla Harris Joslin, owner of The Crown Jewel beauty salon has been a strong advocate for the community and supports many non-profit events. She has also been a long-time admirer of the LBSQ of Rockport-Fulton. “I’m really good friends with one of the queens, Bobbie Pearl, and while I’m an avid community supporter, I love the glamorous aspect of the Sweet Potato Queens chapters, and seeing how they not only give back to the community, but are having fun and looking cute while they’re doing it,” Harris-Joslin said. When she shared her views with Bobbie Pearl of Rockport, she encouraged Harris-Joslin to start her own chapter in Corpus Christi. “We were having coffee one day, Bobbie Pearl and I, and suddenly she just kind of made me the Boss Queen,” Harris-Joslin said with a laugh. “Right now we have four queens which include myself, Bobbie Pearl from Rockport, a boutique store owner from Port Aransas specializing in jewelry, and a community leader for a non profit organization helping adults with special needs. We named our chapter ‘The Sparkling City Queens.’” According to Harris-Joslin, the requirement to become a queen is to first read the novel, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love by Jill
Conner Browne, followed by a series of fussing over and currying favor with the current queens.
“We are excited and plan to make appearances at local events to also get people excited,” Harris-Joslin said. “We want our branch of this sorority to have an impact on the community like the other chapters. We just want this sorority to grow and have a positive impact on the Coastal Bend and help draw more attention to non-profits, while having fun!” This summer, while the Sparkling City Queens are still getting
established, they may soon be making an appearance at the next Corpus Christi IceRays Hockey Game.
For more information on the Sweet Potato Queens, Chapters, recipes, or where to find the books