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Absolutely Fabulous 

Transformed by a romanticized airport novel, our heroine constructs a strangely compelling life

Wednesday, Jan 29 2003
Leigh Bordelon, a former Catholic choir director and the daughter of missionaries, found her salvation in a book. It spoke to her about love and strength, and she discovered comfort and peace within its pages. It has made her aspire to be a better person. It's even prompted her to find like-minded devotees and form a group based on its uplifting teachings.

This incredible tome isn't what you might expect; rather, it's an airport novel based on a maudlin mythology called Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Filled with romanticized scriptures on womanhood, the fiction by Rebecca Wells has helped people like Bordelon come to terms with their tumultuous lives.

Bordelon was so moved by the book that she joined an Internet bulletin board dedicated to discussing Divine Secrets. And when other Web-enabled "Ya-Ya" groups began forming all over the country after the novel's 1996 publication, Bordelon, a bright-eyed pixie of a woman, helped found a Bay Area chapter -- the "Zeau Zeau Fleurs," or the "crazy flowers" -- that has become one of the most active and flamboyant in the nation.

Divine Secrets has given Bordelon, a self-described "recovering Catholic," something that she can finally put all of her faith in: friendship and self-love. Her friends and family say this new devotion has transformed her. The thirtysomething mother of two is no longer timid and submissive, or worried what strangers think of her (she has pole-danced on a BART train, flashed people in exchange for beer -- yelling "No areola, no foul!" as she pulled up her shirt -- and played sprinkler tag in a public park while wearing pajamas). Buoyed by a fresh sense of confidence, she's become the quintessential Ya-Ya: fun-loving, vivacious, and absolutely fabulous.

"I was there for the book, all of it," attests Bordelon's current husband, Mark Eris, taking swigs of pale ale in their house in Livermore. "I watched -- literally watched -- the caterpillar-to-butterfly thing. It was a revelation for her. Yeah, it was. It was like, "Holy shit.'"


Long before the white man showed up, the Mighty Tribe of Ya-Yas, a band of women strong and true and beautiful, roamed the great state of Louisiana. Leopards slept with us and bears fed us honey from their paws and fish jumped up into our hands because they wanted to be our food. The trees were so thick that we could travel from New Orleans to Shreveport on treetop, and we did, hundreds of Ya-Ya Indians traveling on the tops of trees. ... We, the Ya-Yas, had lost our jungle home, and our town does not realize we are royal, but secretly we all know our history and we will be loyal to our tribe forever and ever, in sickness and in health. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

-- Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The creation story of the book's Ya-Ya Sisterhood goes something like this: Four precocious, headstrong girls growing up in the Deep South during the '40s pledge everlasting loyalty to their friendship during a moonlit ritual near a Louisiana bayou. The characters -- Vivi, Necie, Caro, and Teensy -- hold fast to their oath throughout their lives, seeing each other through broken hearts, alcoholism, child abuse, and mental illness.

A too-charming genre book with a melodramatic story line, Divine Secrets is a Southern version of The Joy Luck Club. Nevertheless, the novel touches upon some relevant issues facing women today (mother-daughter relationships, friendship among women, and independence vs. the responsibilities of motherhood). It became a New York Times best seller and received rave reviews from the Washington Post (which described it as "very entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving") and the Chicago Tribune, among many others.

Author Rebecca Wells could never have known that her book would become the bible of American female bonding, nor could she have predicted that it would inspire gals around the globe to start their own Ya-Ya groups. But the novel and its make-believe mythology have caught on at an astonishing rate, launching a veritable cultural movement of women devoted to a work of fiction (though Wells has publicly admitted that portions of Divine Secrets are semi-autobiographical).

Like Trekkies -- albeit warm and fuzzy, Oprah-watching, lipstick-wearing Trekkies -- the Ya-Yas have their own language and rituals. The Zeau Zeaus, for example, have developed a private terminology (to be drunk is to be "lillehammered") and attend annual, specialized events such as fantastic weekend getaways to ... Sacramento. Thanks to what Bordelon calls her "brain farts," the Zeau Zeaus also meet at least once a month for slumber parties or themed luncheons. And now, because of Bordelon's talent for party planning, the group's also got a convention (though one that's not officially sanctioned by Wells or her publisher).

Under Bordelon's enthusiastic direction, the Zeau Zeaus, formed in 1998 with a current membership of about two dozen, are organizing "Viva Las Yayas," hyped as the largest national gathering of Ya-Ya groups ever, to be held in Las Vegas in August. Bordelon has arranged hotel accommodations and rented a conference room, while the rest of the Zeau Zeaus have mobilized into committees, including one to assemble gift bags full of Ya-Ya-inspired coffee mugs, Christmas tree ornaments, Post-it Notes, and beaded anklets, among other treasures.

Though six months remain until the event, Bordelon has already set the agenda: There will be none. The Ya-Yas plan to descend upon the city, drink, talk, party, talk, cry, talk, hug, and, as she puts it, "talk until our teeth fall out."

(This isn't the first time Bordelon has tried to organize a convention. Several years ago, she attempted to put together an event in Alexandria, La., hometown to Rebecca Wells, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Bordelon, who spent so much time planning the convention that she almost got fired from her day job as a DSL technician, was foiled at the last minute because, as she tells it, Wells "came out and said, 'I don't want y'all to go bother my mama.' Like we would! Please.")

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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