Maybe it started with Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes. Or maybe it started with the Beach Boys, dividing the women of the country up into California girls, Midwest farmers daughters, and Southern girls. It could go back to Gone with the Wind highlighting strong women in hoop skirts. But, however, it started, there’s long been a mystique around “Southern Women.”
On the third episode of the Reckon Interview, we talk with best-selling author Helen Ellis, who literally wrote the book on the “Southern Lady Code.”
Helen grew up in Alabama but moved to New York 25 years ago, so we dive into the differences between Manhattan and Tuscaloosa – and the role coded language plays. She’s also a semi-professional poker player, so we discuss how she uses her housewife-in-pearls appearance to take advantage of her opponents. Helen also outlines the moment her career took a turn for the worse and how a Pulitzer Prize winner helped her find the courage to write again.
Here are a few interesting moments from the episode to get you started.
Helen Ellis on moving to New York.
I was looking to be a writer. I thought that’s how you become a writer, you move to New York City. That is not how you have to become a writer. But that is what I thought I thought. That’s where all the writers are. So that’s where I need to go and I, you know, move there at 22 and met another 22-year-old through a chain of Southern mothers because there was no internet, no phones. I was told you’re going to be at Grand Central Station at the clock at 12 o’clock. And a nice lady named Stephanie, is gonna tap you on the shoulder and you’re going to live together. And that’s exactly what we did.
It’s so funny that I’ve been in New York for 25 years. And what I’m really writing about is my Southern roots… I’m really proud of being from the South, and I’m proud of being different. And in a way what I get is, the accent is mocked. It’s mocked on a regular basis. And either people think I’m stupid, or they think I’m really nice. Or they think you are not around from here and I always say “It’s not a Bronx accent.” And that the way you judge me helps me judge you.
On her successful poker career
If I was going to lean into being a poker player, you know, it’s only 4% of the field that’s women. And if I was gonna lean in, you would want to disappear in a way women… I see a lot of hoodie, sweatshirts, sunglasses, jeans. And then you also see the opposite. You know, low cut blouses. Wonder bras. Full faces of makeup. Rings. Perfume. You know, you see both tacts and I really am most myself, in every way, when I play poker. I dress the way I normally dress like I’m hosting a dinner party. And it’s very much that scenario, there’s 10 of us sitting around the table. But I love it because, you know, as a stereotypical Southerner, it’s a true stereotype, in that I am a very friendly person, very talkative, we like to entertain. But at the poker table I do not speak unless spoken to.
I don’t say a word. And I can be aggressive. I can be confrontational. I can reach across the table, and slit your throat and never say a word. I can be powerful in a very quiet way. You know, it’s like wearing a pearl bracelet and brass knuckles. I love it and time disappears. Time flies, which is kind of the way it is when I’m writing as well.
For more on the struggles Helen Ellis faced becoming a writer, listen to the full episode here.