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Candice Dyer

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Blessed Are the Mirthful: Anita Renfroe

Anita Renfroe jokes that she used to sleep with her pastor.

“Now he’s my road manager, so I’m sleeping with my roadie,” she says, referring to John, her husband of almost thirty years and an ordained Baptist evangelist. For Renfroe, an Acworth-based humorist who packs arenas around the country with her faith-based schtick, comedy can be a ministry, its benedictions peppered with punchlines.

“I definitely am a believer in God with a sense of humor,” she says. “There are too many ironies in the universe to believe that He doesn’t have one. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’ve sensed it every time I’ve made plans that I believe are ‘ironclad.’”

Renfroe, forty-eight, unexpectedly shot to fame in 2007 when a YouTube video of her “Total Momsense,” a rapid-fire litany of maternal catchphrases set to the “William Tell Overture,” went viral, jettisoning her into the talk-show circuit.

“I went from being a stay-at-home mom, playing piano for small women’s church groups where I’d crack jokes between songs, to a comedic phe-mom-enon,” she says, brushing back coppery bangs.

The New York Times Magazine anointed her a “postmillennial Erma Bombeck,” and Renfroe began bantering with Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America as a regular correspondent “embedded in the front lines of motherhood—protected by Spanx instead of Kevlar.”

Describing her medium as “estrogen-flavored musical comedy,” Renfroe has established herself as the flouncy, unselfconscious jester of suburban middle age, hamming it up with bits about cellulite, bad hair, and perimenopause. Drawing from dewier divas to celebrate her own demographic, she mimics Beyoncé’s jiggly dance moves in a spoof called “All the Wrinkled Ladies,” and the “Romeo” in Renfroe’s send-up of Taylor Swift’s treacly “Love Story” is a harried hubby who turns heartthrob when he finds a sitter and drives his wife off in a minivan.

“She says the things you think but don’t say,” observes Good Morning America producer Margo Baumgart. Take Renfroe’s description of mammograms for “bigger girls”: “too much waffle mix in the waffle iron.”

Hollywood, sensing a female Jeff Foxworthy in her deadpan drawl, has beckoned, and Renfroe recently developed and starred in a sitcom pilot based on her life, featuring Ryan Stiles as her good-sport husband and the late Dixie Carter as mother-in-law. With the show still in the works and some newly released DVDs of stand-up routines, Renfroe is reaching out to a more diverse audience while keeping the faith, wrestling daily with the question of whether she is a “Christian comedian” or a “comedian who is a Christian.”

“The answer is yes,” she says, eyes gleaming. “Christian is who I am; funny is what I do. The people making the decisions don’t care if I’m Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist.”

Besides, as a devout woman with a pointedly “smart mouth” who grew up in a poker-faced religious environment, she understands the peculiar conundrum of reverence within irreverence. She takes her faith, but not herself, seriously.

“The woman in the Bible that I think may reflect my sensibilities would have to be Sarah,” Renfroe says. Sarah laughed when angels told Abraham she would bear a child in old age. “I’ve always had trouble with inappropriate laughter,” says Renfroe. “Fortunately, I’m usually the one causing it these days.”

 
Photograph by Nicole Carpenter

The Artful Dodger: Jonathan Krohn

Child prodigies inspire an unsettling mix of awe, protectiveness, and peevishness in the adults around them. When young Jonathan Krohn delivered his barn-burning speech at last February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Rush Limbaugh beamed paternally at his new mini-me, while Jon Stewart joked, “I’m not sure there’s a nurple purple enough.”

“I thought Stewart’s routine was quite funny,” Krohn says. “But I declined his invitation to appear on one of his specials.” With the publication this month of his second manifesto, Defining Conservatism: The Principles That Will Bring Our Country Back (Vanguard Press), Krohn is instead expected to make the rounds of tea party protests and join the punditocracy as the boy king of Fox News. His new book has the ambitious aim of helping readers “understand the ideas, principles, and values of Conservatism,” and it expands on the principles spelled out in his first book, Define Conservatism for Past, Present, and Future Generations, self-published in 2008. Homeschooled in Duluth, he is fourteen but looks younger, a downy moppet eerily channeling William F. Buckley. In his book-jacket photo, Krohn sports a navy blazer, a flag pin, and a defiant smirk.

“I have an opinion on absolutely everything,” he says as we chat over hot cocoa at a suburban coffee shop. His mother, Marla, a drama teacher, watches sidelong like a sentry as he launches into the minutiae of tort reform with such rapid-fire, hyperarticulate vehemence that his pubescent voice cracks.

Krohn’s political awakening came at age nine, when he chanced upon a funny-sounding word—filibuster—and began studying it. “Back then, I was like the average young person who doesn’t understand left wing or right wing, but I knew exactly what I believed and what I stood for,” he says, recalling his embryonic self-awareness. “Of course, people say, ‘You’re just a kid; what do you know?’ I read and exchange ideas with people who may or may not agree with me.” He adds magnanimously, “Some liberals are actually nice people who can be pleasant to talk with.” My attempt at a little talking-head byplay—“You’ll find as you get older that they can be fun to party with, too”— is met with a blank stare.

“Look, I’m doing this to help my country,” he says. “I’m not just some cute kid, some anomaly, some traveling sideshow. I know what I’m doing. I hate to sound like some dream crusher, like some angry old conservative, but some people simply do not know what they are doing, and that is the worst thing.”

A sinking suspicion sets in that he could be alluding—justifiably—to me, the interlocutor who earlier, when attempting to get him to discuss life as a kid outside of politics, invoked the “old soul” cliche when he cited Frankie Valli as his favorite musician. He has endured enough little-shaver condescension.

“Age is irrelevant,” says Krohn, who is fielding offers from think tanks. “I want to be judged as any other political analyst. What I write is what I write is what I write.” Asked if he experiments with other forms, such as fiction or poetry, he guffaws. “Poetry? Why would I do that? What would I write—an ode to healthcare reform?”

“Well,” I say, “you never know what you might want to do. You might feel compelled to write a poem someday.” When one of the Palin daughters breaks your heart, I think silently. Then I add, like some hippie-dippie Polonius, “That’s the beauty of being so young—so many possibilities, including opportunities for rebellion.”

He rolls his eyes. “I will rebel against conservatism the day Michael Moore makes a good movie.”

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Beauty School: Inman Park’s The Aviary

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If your inner wood nymph needs some preening, find a perch at the Aviary, Atlanta’s most uncompromisingly eco-conscious spa and salon.

“It doesn’t smell like any hair salon you’ve ever been to, because all of our coloring is 100 percent free of ammonia,” says owner Amy Leavell Bransford (right). “The ingredients are certifiably organic, from small, sustainable family farms that are absolutely committed to doing the right thing for humans and the planet. I make sure of that.”

Bransford launched the Aviary, an earthy “health and beauty collective” of aestheticians, stylists, and massage therapists, this autumn at Studioplex in the Old Fourth Ward, where you can shake off the urban grit and exfoliate amid the foliage of rough-grained wood recycled from her family’s farm. The wood decorates the walls and forms a large representation of a tree to symbolize her roots in environmentalism. Hip clients, scanning her plant-based emollients and baskets of vegetables from the salon’s food co-op, observe that the apple did not fall far from the tree.

“I mean, just look at who her father is,” says radio personality Mara Davis, an Aviary regular. “He was green long before green was cool.” She is referring to Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and a nationally recognized arborist and conservationist. The Leavell family operates Charlane Plantation, the 2,000-acre tree farm in middle Georgia.

“My earliest memories involve riding around on a John Deere on this farm that had belonged to my great-grandmother,” Bransford says. “My dad has always believed passionately in giving back to the earth, so those ethics were part of my upbringing.”

Bransford worked awhile in the music industry as a publicist for Capricorn Records, and her tastes set the collegial tone at the Aviary, which forgoes soporific New Agey Muzak for a soundtrack of Feist, Iron and Wine, and Yael Naim. She is also a licensed aesthetician, and the Aviary’s skincare branch uses all-natural products such as Dr. Hauschka and Juice Beauty. “What’s not in the bottle is as important as what is,” she says, citing formaldehyde, toluene, and parabens as toxic additives found in even the most wholesome-sounding products. “We use nature to bring out the natural beauty a woman already possesses.”

Photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

Style Insider: Don’s Draper

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An equestrian design on Mad Men

Janie Bryant’s grandmother was the sort of hostess who modeled a different apron for every occasion.

Studying those figure-flattering bows helped Bryant cinch the feminine mystique of Betty Draper on Mad Men, she says, explaining how her upbringing in the South, with its proud apron-ties to yesteryear, has influenced her work as the costume designer for the hit AMC television drama about advertising in the 1960s.

“I was raised to be a Southern lady, with my family emphasizing manners and always ‘dressing’ for the dinner table,” says Bryant, who is hailed as the fashion industry’s most polite trendsetter. “So I draw most of my inspiration from the clothes my parents and grandparents wore, their custom of dressing.”

>> AMC’s Mad Men Fashion File

A debutante from a family in textiles, Bryant coyly declines to give her age. Although she grew up in Tennessee and now resides in L.A., she spent formative years in Atlanta, first at Georgia State University and then at the American College for the Applied Arts, where she earned a degree in fashion design. Early on, the storyboard foreshadowed her future as Hollywood’s next Edith Head: homemade Barbie clothes, school theater, “best dressed” in the yearbook.

“A piece in her final senior collection was this silk and satin gown from the 1800s,” recalls Karen Garbow, who taught Bryant’s costume history class. “A period piece is unusual for that. It’s not that Janie necessarily pines for the past, but it’s in her nature to be a romantic.”

So Bryant is a natural fit for Mad Men, that lush, authenticity-obsessed anachronism of fedoras, gray flannel, and bullet bras. Earning an Emmy nod this year, the vestments have stirred a ring-a-ding-ding nostalgia on the runways and on today’s Madison Avenue. Designer Michael Kors cited Mad Men as the inspiration for his fall 2008 line, and Bloomingdale’s and Banana Republic have both launched campaigns around the show.

Bryant hopes for more historical projects, particularly something antebellum, but she also wants her name on a label. “I love so many over-the-top, baroque looks, but my own style is far from that,” she says. “I might wear pearls or a tweed Chanel jacket, mixed with moderns.”

Photograph copyright 2008 Carin Baer/AMC

The Joy of Spanx

“It’s all about the fanny.”

Sara Blakely was explaining the form and function of Spanx, the footless, butt-shaping pantyhose she invented, to an English journalist on the BBC.

“Spanx is designed to lift, smooth and separate the fanny,” she gushed. Blakely is the animated type who speaks with her hands, so she made some lifting and smoothing motions as she spoke—oblivious to her interviewer’s reaction. Finally, the panicked Englishman interrupted, his plummy accent turning firm: “I think you mean ‘bum.’”

Blakely shrugged off the semantics until after the mic was off, whereupon he clarified them for her.

Photograph by David Stuart; makeup by Viktorija/L’Agence; hair by Radmila Borkovic; spread from our June 2004 issue

“He explained that ‘fanny’ is British slang for vagina,” says Blakely, rolling her eyes over the mortification of inadvertently telling “the entire United Kingdom” that her product would essentially perform the function of a gynecologist’s stirrups. It is a classic anecdote from the archives of Spanx corporate culture—ultra-femme, self-mockingly funny and nearing naughtiness without quite placing a pedicured toe over the line.

With her blond good looks and quick comic timing, Blakely, 33, evokes a starlet from the screwball-comedy era, a woman who could slip on a banana peel and fall, arms flailing, into the embrace of the leading man. A woman boldly willing to make an ass of herself.

Her success with the almost four-year-old, multimillion-dollar company has been anthologized in the business press as a parable of plucky, feminist entrepreneurship—what would happen if Horatio Alger paused to check his derriere in the mirror before pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

In her 20s, Blakely was selling fax machines door-to-door by day, doing stand-up comedy at night and generally leading the life of a fun-loving Atlanta fashionista with big ambitions. Her eureka moment came when she faced a bugaboo that confronts every clotheshorse at some time or another: a pair of cream-colored summer pants that showcased her drawers along with “every physical flaw” in glaring bas-relief. Appalled by her rearview reflection, but without time to hunt down another outfit, Blakely simply cut the feet off her control-top pantyhose and wore them as an undergarment. No bulges, no dreaded VPL (visible panty lines).

Inspired by that revelation, she scoured stores for footless pantyhose, but that quest proved futile. “People would say, ‘What a great idea,’ but that was as far as it went.” So, eyeing a market niche, she secured a patent and, with her savings of $5,000, hit the road for North Carolina, where much of the world’s hosiery is produced in textile mills. As she pleaded with mill owner after mill owner to consider her idea, she bumped up against the patriarchy of pantyhose. “The industry is run by men,” she says. “And they don’t wear pantyhose—or if they do, they don’t admit it. A man’s solution to panty lines is a G-string. They put underwear in the exact place we’ve been trying to get it out of.”

Finally, one of the mill owners who had turned her down called back with an offer to make a prototype of her “crazy idea.” When Blakely asked what changed his mind, he simply said, “I have two daughters.”

Blakely was fussy with her design. She demanded a cotton crotch and a waistband made with special webbing that does not feel like a tourniquet. “All of these men were just looking at me when I made these specifications,” she says. “So I leaned over and said, ‘Have you ever spent an entire day in a pair of control-top pantyhose?’ That shut them up.”

With a sample in hand, she met with a buyer at Neiman Marcus. “I had no shame,” Blakely says. “I asked her to follow me to the ladies’ room where I personally showed her the before-and-after effects in my cream pants. Three weeks later, Spanx was on the shelves of Neiman Marcus!”

Her insight into certain feminine preoccupations paid off. Last year, Spanx made $31 million (and showed a 135 percent increase in sales in the United Kingdom; whether attributable to Blakely’s BBC faux pas or not is debatable). Oprah, who also used to cut the feet off her pantyhose, has endorsed Spanx as one of her “Favorite Things.”

While Spanx owes its success to Blakely’s inventiveness and persistence, it also has enjoyed good timing, stepping out to the cultural bass-beat of “Baby Got Back.” Every era anoints an It Girl, and Jennifer Lopez was starting to shake her callipygian assets (rumored to be insured for $1 million) to mass-media domination when Spanx got its footing. American beauty standards seem to be shifting away from the anorexic, Barbie doll look toward the shapely, fly flesh of hip-hop videos. From low-riding jeans to an increasing demand for gluteal implants, we are a nation that worships the “bootylicious.”

Enter Spanx, with its motto: “Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered.”

From Blakely’s signature footless hose, Spanx has expanded its wares to offer a variety of hosiery, including reversible trouser socks and comfortable—really!—fishnets; body-shapers, including “Power Panties,” billed as “the first-ever ‘performance underwear’”; and a clothing line called Slim-X, of which every item aims to mold its wearer into a sleeker, more aesthetic silhouette without the python-like discomfort of other foundation garments. All of this is marketed in a “You go, girl!” spirit.

The official mission statement of Spanx is: “To invent and enhance products that promote comfort and confidence in women.” Blakely gushes, without a trace of irony, that “Spanx has moved beyond just footless pantyhose. It has become a brand dedicated to improving the lives of women. The empowerment we feel in providing empowerment to other women is strong. We get letters from women all the time saying we’ve changed their lives.”

All of which raises a question. Is a woman empowered when she voices that age-old landmine: “How does my butt look in this?”

You won’t find any glass ceilings at Spanx headquarters in Buckhead.

You will find lots of red (the company’s signature color); lampposts made of mannequin legs wearing fishnets; and a decidedly distaff management and staff. Of the 24 employees, only three are men. Laurie Ann Goldman left her job as director of worldwide licensing for Coca-Cola to serve as CEO, and several other women have followed her, from Coke and other high echelons of corporate America, to work for the fledgling company.

Like the founder, the employees are highly motivated, high-energy head-turners, the sort of leggy, burnished women with foil-wrap highlights who roam Buckhead like Appaloosas, the kind of women who don’t appear to need body-shapers (Blakely is a size 4). They hear that observation a lot, but protest that Spanx is not about size. “Whether you’re a size 2 or 22, Spanx can give you that sexy extra edge,” Blakely says.

The Spanx offices double as fitting rooms, with staffers constantly trying on and modeling samples, camping it up and giving the place a sorority-house atmosphere that could fondly be described as a hen party. “We’re talking about boobs all day, how does my butt look, constantly trying things on,” says Lauren Walsh, associate sales and account manager for specialty stores. A typical workday involves free-flowing brainstorming to create a shopaholic’s Disneyworld. How about a soft-textured, wireless-but-supportive bra that minimizes unsightly “back fat”? Look for “Bra-llelujah!” soon.

Blakely’s sense of humor sets the laid-back tone. Before Spanx, she worked as a stand-up comedian who specialized in observational storytelling. Blakely landed regular gigs at the Punch Line in Atlanta and at improv clubs across the South, with material such as “You know why they call it a Wonderbra? Because, when your date takes it off, he wonders where . . . your boobs went.”

She grew up in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Her father was a lawyer and her mother an artist. “I’m what happens when those two mate,” she says. Early on, she showed signs of becoming a taste-making mogul. As a kid, she sewed charms onto socks and sold them, launching a “charm sock” trend at her elementary school. By the time she graduated high school, she had started a newspaper, a Putt-Putt golf course and a lucrative babysitting business. “Thinking of ways to make money has always been a game to me,” she says. “It’s my entrepreneurial drive, combined with my sense of humor, that led me to Spanx.”

Blakely is serious about one thing: “making the world a better place, one butt at a time.”

Of course, saving womankind from cellulite does not exactly put Blakely in the league of, say, Marie Curie. It can be tempting to dismiss the self-help, girl-power spin and argue instead that Spanx capitalizes on women’s insecurities. Restraint garments traditionally have been, by definition, symbolic of women’s societal restrictions.

Indeed, high-end department stores are not the only places where Spanx has found a toehold. A pair of the pantyhose and “Power Panties” can be seen at the Atlanta History Center in an exhibit titled “Gone with the Girdle: Freedom, Restraint and Power in Women’s Dress.”

The show includes a quotation, as troubling for its syntax as its meaning, from Martha Lumpkin, eponym of “Marthasville,” an early name for the city of Atlanta: “Women should be early accustomed to submit themselves to a certain restraint, for on their power willingly to accommodate themselves to the wishes of others depends their happiness in life.”

In the History Center’s continuum of rib-cracking corsets that induced “the vapors,” Delta’s early flight attendant tunics (for which control undergarments were mandated) and tales of politically incorrect employers—like the boss who held “girdle checks” in which he’d flick buttocks with an index finger and put any staff with a suspicious juggle on suspension—Spanx could be classified as just the latest incarnation of straitjacket-like oppression.

To old-school feminists, the idea of better living through better-looking butts is not all it’s cracked up to be. It has the same ring of cognitive dissonance as a recent beauty pageant winner’s community-service platform of “raising awareness of eating disorders” or a Georgia saloon’s wet T-shirt contest held as a benefit for a domestic violence shelter.

Then again, a present-day lace-up garment in the girdle exhibit displays the caption: “Since women are no longer expected to wear a restraining corset, some choose to wear it as a symbol of their feminine power.” Neo-feminism wrestles with an internecine schizophrenia. To help the cause, should women celebrate their bodies or de-emphasize them? Burn their bras or revel in lacy push-ups? Just look at the academic dissertations on Madonna.

Comments in the girdle guestbook at the History Center were evenly divided between ladies who pine for whalebone stays (“Too much freedom of dress has led us to a land of sleazy people”) and visitors who say (whew!), “I’m glad I live in this century!”

Accordingly, Spanx can be seen as a natural outgrowth of Third Wave feminism, which hatched the lusty “do-me feminists” and the rowdy “riot grrrls” and finds a voice in ’zines such as Bust. And with its product focus on comfort, Spanx has a leg up on its restrictive predecessors.

“I don’t think of Spanx as a girdle,” says Susan Neill, curator of textiles and social history at the History Center and curator of “Gone with the Girdle.” “You can take the same body and put it into corsets from different eras and they will give that body a completely different shape each time by several inches. I think Spanx is about improving, not reshaping.” Besides, Neill adds, “I remember my grandmother wiggling into and out of her girdle. I don’t have that problem with my ‘Power Panties.’”

The lingo of Spanx marketing materials illustrates sociological twists and turns, says Allaine Cerwonka, an assistant professor of women’s studies who teaches a course called “Thinking the Body” at Georgia State University. “It’s interesting the way companies in their marketing today have co-opted the language of feminism—a movement thought of as anti-fashion, anti-fun, anti-frivolity—and equated women’s ‘empowerment’ with consumer choice and being able to look as good as you want,” she says. “I like the idea of celebrating aesthetics, but when marketers sell an image of what a good body is and it diverges from what the medical establishment says is healthy, that’s an impoverished notion of empowerment.”

Blakely points out that her company combats the pressures of the “beauty myth” by using humor and whimsical cartoon drawings instead of airbrushed supermodels in its advertising.

“Oh my God, I don’t want to make women feel deficient or to feed into the neurosis of it all,” she says. “This is just a quick, easy, comfortable way to feel more confident about yourself. But I think it’s just as beautiful when a woman feels she doesn’t need Spanx and walks down the street with a big smile, with her cellulite jiggling and her pantylines showing. More power to her!”

Blakely’s empire does not seem like a player in the cultural conspiracy to send women into a frenzy of carb-counting and Pilates. It presents a comradely, supportive and vaguely subversive feel, much like ladies’ room gossip. “It’s more like sisters sharing this wonderful secret with you as opposed to your mother saying, ‘You can’t leave the house without a girdle because you’ll jiggle and be thought of as a loose woman,’” Neill says. “Spanx is not about propriety, which is what the girdle is about.”

The bottom line is that sisterhood is powerful, especially in super-supportive fishnets.

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