Inver Grove Heights gardener moonlights as gregarious Klondike Kate

Her fourth year competing, Shelley Brown, pictured at her Inver Grove Heights home, was recently chosen as Klondike Kate 2015, the mistress of fun and frivolity for St. Paul’s Winter Carnival and beyond. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)
Her fourth year competing, Shelley Brown, pictured at her Inver Grove Heights home, was recently chosen as Klondike Kate 2015, the mistress of fun and frivolity for St. Paul’s Winter Carnival and beyond. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)
Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights performs during the 2015 Klondike Kate competition. She made her costume herself. (submitted photo)
Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights performs during the 2015 Klondike Kate competition. She made her costume herself. (submitted photo)
Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights took singing lessons and made her own costumes, leading up to being selected as Klondike Kate 2015, her fourth year competing for the title. She’ll make hundreds of appearances in the next year at events, parades and festivals, including the St. Paul Winter Carnival this month. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)
Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights took singing lessons and made her own costumes, leading up to being selected as Klondike Kate 2015, her fourth year competing for the title. She’ll make hundreds of appearances in the next year at events, parades and festivals, including the St. Paul Winter Carnival this month. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)
Contestants competing for the Klondike Kate sash are judged on costume, song selection, voice quality and crowd appeal. Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights won the competition this year, and joins a group of women who comprise the Royal Order of Klondike Kates. (submitted photo)
Contestants competing for the Klondike Kate sash are judged on costume, song selection, voice quality and crowd appeal. Shelley Brown of Inver Grove Heights won the competition this year, and joins a group of women who comprise the Royal Order of Klondike Kates. (submitted photo)

Inver Grove Heights native Shelley Brown often leaves a trail of black and red feathers behind her.

For four years she’s been competing to portray Klondike Kate — the re-embodiment of Kathleen Rockwell, the bawdy vaudeville star famous amid the 1898 Gold Rush — who for decades has symbolized merriment for St. Paul’s Winter Carnival. At the 43rd annual competition this month, Brown nabbed the title and the sash to go with it, making her the boa-clad “mistress of fun and frivolity” for 2015.

But in her “real life,” the 55-year-old owner of a gardening business said she usually dons all things denim and mulch colored.

“Now I have this bipolar closet,” she said in a recent interview. “Half of it is work clothes, and the other half is elegant formal wear and outrageous accessories.”

‘Inner Kate’ came later in life

Brown grew up in Inver Grove Heights, graduating from Simley High School in 1977.

She used to work as a corporate trainer in computerized typesetting in the 1980s, but quit about 20 years ago. She went back to school for horticulture, a long-time hobby.  

She dabbled in theater and choir early on in her life. She didn’t discover the “Kate” side of her until about five years ago, when she ran into costumed members of the Royal Order of Klondike Kates at a parade in Inver Grove Heights.

They tried to get her to sing right then and there, but she said, “Not yet.”

At the Minnesota State Fair the next year, Brown said she ran into the sassy sisterhood of gals again. This time, she was ready with a song. She belted it out, and they encouraged her to compete.

She attended a “Wannabe Tea,” a sort of orientation for aspiring Kates, and she was hooked.

To get in winning shape, she started taking voice lessons, and singing alongside an accordion player, a banjo player and polka dancers at nursing homes once a month.

A talented seamstress, she “MacGyvered” costumes together, combining old prom dresses to fashion a gown and rigging together a belt from a beaded thrift-store vest or a bustle from a second-hand coat.

Becoming Kate

This year was Brown’s fourth try for the Klondike Kate title.

Judy (Sell) Nelson, who became Klondike Kate 2000 at age 35 and still performs as a Kate, said Brown has been the unofficial organizer of the “Wannabes.”

“She’s very good at bringing the new girls in,” said Nelson, who grew up in West St. Paul and lives in Rosemount. “It says a lot of her character. She believes in camaraderie and everyone rooting each other on.”

Contestants are judged on costume, song selection, voice quality and crowd appeal. They also receive points based on a half-hour interview with the judges, where they get to know the contestant herself, as opposed to her portrayal of Kate.

True to Kate’s bawdiness, the contestants are usually flamboyant and flirty in their performances. This year, Brown sang “You’re in the Doghouse Now” performed by Brenda Lee in “Dick Tracy,” “I’m Gonna File My Claim” by Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return” and “The Trashy Ladies Medley” by Cher and Bette Midler.

Brown received her sash in an unconventional way. In past years, she said the contestants hold hands on stage, and the reigning Kate behind them places the sash over the winner’s head.

This time, a flash mob sang “Hello, Kate,” a song usually sung at the very end. The contestants weren’t sure what to do, so they started singing and dancing, too.

In mid-sway, Brown felt the sash slip over her head.

“I had my ‘Home Alone’ moment,” she said. “It was a blur; I smiled all the way through.”

She went out to eat with the other Klondike Kates, and then got a couple hours rest in preparation for a 4:45 a.m. media blitz the next day.

What makes a Kate?

Klondike Kate is all about making sure everyone’s having a good time, Brown said.

She’s “big with her boa,” she said, wrapping it around unsuspecting gentleman as she makes hundreds of appearances throughout the year at parades, festivals and events, often with the partying men of the Vulcan Krewe.

And she’s quick with a song.

“Klondike Kate is expected to have a song ready for every situation and every age group,” Brown said.

Probably most importantly, Brown said the Kates have to be “willing ambassadors” for St. Paul. They have to learn about the city, share their knowledge and encourage people to visit, especially since they’re the only Winter Carnival characters based on a real person.

Brown said she is continually impressed with the women who have been her friends and role models, many of whom have children and jobs, in addition to their Kate responsibilities.

“They’re amazingly talented, and energetic beyond belief,” she said. “I am in awe of the pace they can keep.”

Though many of the past Kates have been voluptuous (cleavage has often been associated with Kate), Brown emphasized anyone can be a Kate.

“There’s no size requirement,” she said. “You’ve just got to have a big heart and a big voice.”

Nelson said she appreciates that every Kate is unique; they can show girls all kinds of women can perform on stage and show off what they have.

“Even though we might sing some songs that are a little more risqué, we try to be good role models for young girls, too,” Nelson added.

And not every Kate is constantly gregarious — some of the portrayers have even been considered introverts, Nelson and Brown said.

But, “Once you become a Kate, your inner Kate comes out,” Brown said.

Being Kate transforms you

In her first year as an official “senior,” Brown is looking forward to a busy 2015.

Plus, she and her husband, Bob, who has been enthusiastically supportive, plan to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary this year by taking advantage of the opportunities the reigning Kate is offered, such as traveling to events in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as well as Florida and Georgia.

Already, her husband has picked up the slack at home to make her new hectic life as easy as possible. He said she’s worked hard for the role, and he “wanted to see her dream come true.”

“You get her on stage and into costume, and she just blossoms,” he said. “She practiced her voice lessons like crazy. And her costuming is just phenomenal.”

He’s “just so doggone proud of her,” he said.

“I’m proud to be Mr. Kate 2015,” he added. “I’ll be right there, if it’s being a pack horse or holding her purse or doing stuff at home.”

Even in her first days as Klondike Kate 2015, she is learning what her peers say is true: Being a Kate changes everything.

“I, still, as a gardener, will probably not sparkle,” she said, showing off her large, twinkling costume rings. “But it’s nice to have an alter ego that has sparkle in her closet.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.


Winter Carnival Highlights

Klondike Kate Cabaret

7:30-10 p.m. Sat. Jan. 24, Doubletree by Hilton, 411 Minnesota St., St. Paul. Doors open at 7 p.m.; show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, or $22 at the door or $18 with a Winter Carnival button at the door.

Moon Glow Pedestrian Parade

6-7 p.m. Jan. 22, 109 Fourth St. W., St. Paul

The Royal Coronation

5:30-10 p.m. Jan. 23, St. Paul River Centre

Rock the Palace

8 p.m. Jan. 24 to 2 a.m. Jan. 25, Amsterdam Bar and Hall. Tickets $15 in advanced; $20 at the door. A giant dance party hosted by the Order of the Royal Guard.

Vulcan Victory Torchlight Parade

5:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, Rice Park, 109 Fourth St. W., St. Paul.

Red Bull Crashed Ice

Jan. 22-24, St. Paul Cathedral, 239 Selby Ave., St. Paul. A fierce competition provides high-speed action as daredevil skaters compete on a long ice track full of obstacles.

Wells Fargo WinterSkate

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1. Landmark Plaza, Fifth and Washington streets in downtown St. Paul. A free open skate for everyone. Rentals are offered for $4, or free with a Wells Fargo bank card.

Ice Palace Display

Jan. 22-Feb. 1, Landmark Center Cortile, 75 W. Fufth St., St. Paul. Exact replicas of all the former St. Paul Winter Carnival ice castles are displayed.

Ice Carvings

9 a.m. Jan. 22 to 5 p.m. Feb. 1, Rice Park, 109 Fourth St. W., St. Paul. Artists from around the country carve ice.

Securian Winter Run

7 a.m. to noon, Jan. 24, Sixth and Jackson streets, St. Paul. Half marathon, 10K or 5K races.

King Boreas Grande Day Parade

2-4 p.m. Jan. 24, Rice Park, 109 Fourth St. W., St. Paul

Winter Carnival Beer Dabbler

3:30-7:30 p.m., Minnesota State Fairgrounds, 1265 Snelling Ave. N., Falcon Heights.

 


 

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