By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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.'"
THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE LOUISIANA YA-YAS
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 Secretsare 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.")
Certainly, if there's a party to be thrown, you can count on the Zeau Zeaus. Among Ya-Ya groups, they're neither the biggest nor the oldest, but they're arguably the most ostentatious, with a reputation for drunken raucousness and for having outgoing personalities. Ya-Yas in other groups confide that they think the Zeau Zeaus drink too much, but in Bordelon's estimation, "Everyone wants to be a Zeau Zeau."
Followers across the country don't entirely disagree with her. "The Zeau Zeaus, they're very fun-loving," says Kimberly Cole, who headed another Northern California Ya-Ya group until it recently disbanded. "And you always know when they're there, believe me."
"They're kind of the cool girls," adds Sari Philipps, an honorary Zeau Zeau who lives in Arizona. "I remember back in the beginning thinking they were the most predominant people on 'the porch' [the public Ya-Ya bulletin board], the way they seemed like they were all good friends. You notice them, and they get out there. And Leigh seemed like this wonderful, wild-woman girlfriend that you'd always wanted to have, but she could still be caring and concerned."
Their hilarity can be infectious. Zeau Zeaus often arrive at Bordelon-sponsored slumber parties and luncheons wearing boas, tiaras, and other outrageous costumes. They drive up to events in cars with bumper stickers that read "Ya-Ya on board!"; the proceedings unfailingly open with a round of hugs, squeals, and giddy giggles. After that, it's on to the recounting of madcap anecdotes from past Ya-Ya outings -- followed by the inevitable collapse into laughter, though everyone's probably heard the story before. (A couple of Zeau Zeau tales are particularly popular, like the one about the women scandalizing a group of Mormon missionaries at Washington Square Park by sucking provocatively on penis-shaped lollipops.)
Still, the Zeau Zeaus are quick to point out that they're not just party animals. Members insist that by using Divine Secrets as a springboard, they've established deep friendships.
"Conversations start about the book; that's how you get to know each other," says Holly Todd, a 22-year-old student and nanny who lives in San Jose. "You get insights into each other's lives [through the book], like someone will say, 'My father is abusive,' and someone else will say, 'Mine was, too.' Then all of a sudden, you have these bonds. You find people willing to care about you, a shoulder to cry on. The amazing thing to me is that it is so unsuperficial."
Members frequently bring each other to tears with unabashed emotional outpourings. They provide moral support for their colleagues -- women in the midst of a divorce or dealing with cancer. They send care packages and cards, and tell each other often that they love one another, though some of them have never met in person and they're occasionally unsure about each other's last names.
But the Zeau Zeaus say that they've achieved a special level of intimacy in part because of their bonding rituals -- all of them researched, crafted, and executed by Bordelon. One such ritual, which aims to tell the story of the "Divine Tribe of Ya-Yas," involves candelabras, tribal music, a cauldron, and anointing oils. It has become so popular that several other Ya-Ya groups have asked Bordelon for copies of the ceremony so that they can hold their own bonding events.
"People think that the only women who like Divine Secrets are middle-aged housewives who read Harlequin romance novels," Bordelon says. "And to a certain extent, they do have a point. But then here comes a bunch of chicks wearing tiaras and boas who be acting crazy. And the more crazy you are, the more we like you. [Those who seek out the Zeau Zeaus] were probably women who were not popular in high school. People dismiss that, but they were formative years. [This group is about] people who care what you think. ... [Y]ou find gals who are willing to accept you."
Leigh Bordelon was born in 1963 in Kaplan, a small Louisiana town that's home to the Krewe Chic-A-La-Pie Mardi Gras Festival and the Liberty Rice Mill. From the start, religion played an overpowering role in her life. Though her devout family moved to various medium-size towns throughout that state during her childhood, Bordelon and her five sisters and three brothers were expected to participate eagerly in the local Catholic ministry. The third oldest child, Bordelon regularly worked booths at church festivals and sang in the choir, sometimes performing in four masses in a day.
In the late '70s, says Bordelon, her father, a medical technologist, had a powerful religious experience that inspired him to begin speaking in tongues. He decided to go into missionary work, and moved his large brood to a double-wide trailer on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, where he tried to convert the native population to Catholicism.
Despite his religious teachings, say Bordelon and her older brother Larry, their father (who died in 1987) drank heavily and used extreme physical discipline with his children. "Oh yeah, from birth there was violence," says Larry, the owner of a Louisiana construction business, in a deep Southern drawl. "He was a pretty rough old boy.
"[Leigh] did get a little strapping; no punches or kicking like the boys. Some instances were disturbing. I remember one in particular. She was probably 3 or 4. The old man woke up one morning after getting all drunked up one night. He was on a rampage, and I'm not sure what took place, but I remember him starting to spank her. He wouldn't stop. My mama, older sister, me -- we were trying to stop him. He beat her until she peed all over the place. Then he beat her for peeing." Bordelon's mother, Diane Touchet, does not speak of the abuse.
After a few years in New Mexico, the Bordelons moved back to Louisiana, where Leigh graduated from high school. She was accepted to nearby McNeese State University, where she took classes, she says, in "boys, booze, and pool." After she lost her financial grant for flunking too many courses, Bordelon landed a job working the graveyard shift at a gas station. One night, a group of door-to-door magazine salespeople stopped in. They liked her personality and asked her to join them. In 1986, the job took her to San Francisco.
"She was selling magazines all over the country, and one day she called and said, 'I'm in San Francisco,'" says Bordelon's mother. "That was it. She's been there ever since."
Bordelon is estranged from most members of her family, and she says her childhood was difficult. "I had no self-esteem, and my dad used to say, 'You're useless.'"
She believes her turbulent youth led her to marry an overly controlling man; she claims that her ex-husband -- whom she calls "Satan" -- prohibited her from going to church on Sundays. "Before, I had no friends," she says. "I was confined to Satan's whims. I quit going to church because he believed I was having an affair with the choir director. I didn't believe in myself, or that anyone liked me."
Then Bordelon had a pre-Ya-Ya revelation. "I used to have crooked teeth," she says. "I saved up and got my teeth straightened, and someone said to me, 'You could stop traffic with that smile!' And I thought, 'Wow, I don't have to take his shit.' I didn't have to take shit off of nobody."
Bordelon left her husband in 1994 -- and lost her job a month later. Determined to keep her two young children fed, she worked five part-time jobs at once (two during the week and three on the weekend) and borrowed money from one of her supervisors until she could get on her feet.
Her new life was difficult but empowering, she says. In 1996, Bordelon met her current husband, Mark Eris, at a San Ramon nightclub, and her life continued to change for the better. Yet she insists that her miraculous transformation didn't occur until she discovered Divine Secrets while watching a cable TV special on Rebecca Wells.
Bordelon was initially attracted to the book's Southern setting, but she soon found that lines like "It's life. ... You just climb on the beast and ride" and "My mother's love isn't perfect. My mother's love is good enough" taught her to make the best of the challenges that come to her.
"The best way to explain it is the real her has come out," Eris says. "Now when you meet Leigh, you meet Leigh, you don't meet the person that was a result of other people's molding. She doesn't have that blocker anymore, the, 'Oh, I can't think that way because of the church, or my daddy didn't raise me this way.' It's, 'I can think this way, I can do what I want.'"
Eris even helped Bordelon come up with her official Ya-Ya "princess name": Her Royal Highness Fed Up to Here. "I said, 'How about "Fed Up to Here"?'" Eris recalls. "Because she's done with the junk. She's done with the stupidity."
The Ya-Ya Sisterhood made Leigh a leader -- and indeed, she's often the life and the hostess of the party. "Imagine being shy, not having friends or self-esteem," she says. "Then some book you read helps you make friends, lifts you up, and people are turning to you, and people are putting up posts [on the Internet] to tell you that they love you. You don't take that for granted."
Bordelon has even begun questioning her dad's brand of religion. "My father was an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church. And he would beat the holy shit out of us. Is he in heaven?"
Among the summer blockbuster films of 2002 was Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and a movie theater in Dublin, Calif., was to be among the first to screen it. When Bordelon and the Zeau Zeaus caught wind of the screening, they did what came naturally: threw a party.
The night has become legendary, consolidating the Zeau Zeaus' presence in the Ya-Ya world. "It solidified with the core group that we're not going anywhere," Bordelon says. "It showed the rest of the world, 'Look, we can make a movement.'"
The event was the result of weeks of scheming. For the pre-film party, Bordelon scored hotel rooms and a conference room a few hundred feet away from the theater. She organized the Zeau Zeaus into committees: Some planned the menu (deli platters and copious amounts of alcohol), while others assembled gift bags filled with T-shirts, window decals, and a CD. Bordelon found prizes for a raffle (tapes of the book and film posters) and made post-movie dinner reservations at a local chain Mexican restaurant for 85 women and a few men.
The Ya-Yas began arriving in droves from around the country on June 6, two days before the party. Bordelon couldn't get the day off work, but she says she was prepared for the crowd. As she describes it, she rushed home during her lunch break to greet new arrivals, taking a shot of tequila with the gathering throng before hurrying back to work. She'd also scored two 5-gallon buckets of chicken parts for a massive barbecue in her back yard.
The main event was set for the evening of June 8, though the women had arrived at the hotel by midmorning to set up and primp. Some showed up in cocktail dresses and ball gowns, their ensembles completed with tiaras and neon-colored boas. Bordelon donned a red satin dress with spaghetti straps and slits up both sides, accessorizing with a pearl necklace, long black gloves, and a beauty-queen sash that read "Her Royal Highness Fed Up to Here."
Carefully documented by a videographer, the first few hours of the party involved schmoozing, snacking, and drinking. Bordelon, the ultimate hostess, dashed about the conference room welcoming newcomers and chatting up old friends, a potent New Orleans-style Hurricane in her hand.
As show time approached, the Zeau Zeaus began herding the gaggle of women toward the theater. In one final announcement, Bordelon stood on a chair and bellowed, "If anyone can figure out how to get them jugs of margaritas into the theater, come talk to me!"
With their boas flying in the wind, and their cheerful screaming and impromptu dancing, the Ya-Yas made for a colorful procession. Fellow moviegoers eyed them warily, but the Ya-Yas didn't give a damn; they strolled in like royalty, entering the theater with a sense of entitlement.
Meanwhile, Bordelon had hatched a plan. After the lights dimmed, someone brought the jugs of margaritas to a rear exit door, and Bordelon made a mad dash across the theater to retrieve them.
"Leigh takes off, this woman in a flaming red dress," Holly Todd laughingly recalls. "She dashes down the stairs, grabs the buckets of margaritas, holds the jugs, and runs up the stairs. And then you heard someone say, 'Anyone have cups?' And we're filling cups and passing them down the rows. We didn't care if anyone noticed. We're always making a spectacle, being loud -- within some legal limits."
When the titles started rolling, the women began hollering. At every mention of the word "Ya-Ya," the audience yelled back at the screen in glee, as if engaged in a New Age call-and-response.
The highlight of the event came at the end of the evening, during the "Yoscars." After everyone had had her fill of mediocre burritos and tacos at the Mexican restaurant, Jeanne-Marie Carr, a Zeau Zeau from Sacramento, pulled out a Mr. Microphone.
"As you know, there are many characters in the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," Carr said.
"Ya-Ya!" the audience cried.
Carr waited for the crowd to quiet. "Tonight, I'd like to focus on four main characters created by Rebecca Wells: Teensy, Caro, Necie, and, of course, Vivi. Many of us have bits and pieces of each of these women living inside us. Some parts we share with others. Some we keep as our own divine secrets.
"Over the years I've gotten to know some of you on 'the porch' [the public bulletin board], through snail mail, e-mail, girlfriend gatherings, slumber parties, girls' heart-to-heart talks. Tonight I'd like to present special Yoscars to those I think represent Ya-Ya characters."
A high school teacher, Carr read carefully from a series of 3-by-5 cards, announcing the first three winners with dramatic flair. But she saved the most coveted award -- the Vivi Award -- for last.
"This Ya-Ya is known for her many layers," Carr began. "She's charming, dramatic, tender, and passionate. She'll tell it like it is and see her sisters through thick and thin. On top of all that, she'll do it with style."
Who won the prestigious Vivi Award? Well, Ms. Leigh Bordelon, of course.
Bordelon spends her entire eight-hour workday on a computer, but lured by her love for the Ya-Yas she often returns home to log onto the Internet. Most evenings, her keyboard clicks rapidly as she chats with other Zeau Zeaus on their private Internet bulletin board, "the back porch." Between reading the posts and typing her own, Bordelon often erupts into unexplained and gleeful guffaws; her husband, sitting on the couch a few yards away, just shakes his head.
But with the heat cranked up in her cozy Livermore home one cold January night, Bordelon takes a break from the computer and positions herself on the living room floor with the Zeau Zeau photo album of "divine secrets" spread before her. As she flips through the massive book, she points out her favorite pictures and chuckles at the memory of them.
"Did I tell you about Ya-Ya Photo Shoot Day?" she says, pointing to a few collaged prints. "All of those pictures come from that. We're such crackheads. We were laughing so hard!"
She turns a page. "There's Wy. There's Ame. And Susan. There's one with Rebecca [Wells]." She points to a picture in which she seems to be scaling a BART train's handrail, her back to the camera. "Here I was pole-dancing, and Natalie grabbed my ass."
Suddenly, Bordelon stops, midflip. She remembers a story that she was going to tell before she got distracted with dinner. It's come back to her in a flash, and she's already cackling at the thought of it.
"Oh my God, that's what I was going to tell you!" she cries. "There was this thing on the radio about becoming a minister online. [Dramatic pause.] I did. I am now the Reverend Princess Fed Up to Here! I shit you not. So we're all thinking of becoming reverends; we can be the Royal Priestesses of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Really fucking hilarious. I'm a real bona fide reverend!"
Bordelon flashes her high-wattage grin, as proud as a new convert. "I'm going to start the Church of Leigh," she declares. "It's God above all else, and treat your neighbor as you'd treat yourself -- and then you pretty much hurt nobody. It'll be free flow, free love, fuck everyone else."