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Meet some unsung heroes of Mardi Gras

From costumes and balls to king cakes and parades, there’s a lot that goes into a successful Carnival season. The floats and royalty may be front and center, but plenty of hard work occurs before the pageantry. Meet a few of the crucial experts who make Mardi Gras happen behind the scenes.

Sherri Paul Thigpen

Owner, Paul’s Pastry Shop

Robert and Sherri (Paul) Thigpen and Laci and Clay Brunson

Throughout the year, Paul’s Pastry Shop is a full-service café and wholesale bakery. During Mardi Gras, the Picayune store provides all the essential Carnival sweets, including cookies, assorted desserts and its signature king cakes.

“We also wholesale our king cakes to approximately 40 other retail businesses in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana during the Mardi Gras Season,” says owner Sherri Paul Thigpen.

She notes that Paul’s is known as the “home of the original fruit-and-cream- cheese-filled king cakes,” as it was
the first bakery to produce this treat. During Mardi Gras season each year, which starts Jan. 6 and continues to the day before Ash Wednesday, the shop produces 70,000 – 75,000 king cakes.

“We employ two work crews: one night crew that bakes the king cakes and one day crew that finishes and packages,” Thigpen says. “We also ship about 3,500 king cakes to all 50 states.”

Thigpen was 13 years old in 1970 when her parents, Shirley and Harry Paul, founded the business in an 800 square-foot building, and they began making their signature king cakes with a twist two years later. After buying the business from them in 1988, Thigpen expanded into a 5,000 square-foot building, and in 2006, Paul’s expanded again into a 10,000 square-foot space in Top of the Hill shopping center.

Thigpen’s daughter, Laci Brunson, is now a co-owner, and Laci’s husband and sons now work with the business, too — starting the fourth generation of Paul’s Pastry Shop. With its staff of 25 dedicated employees, the shop is set to provide

Carnival goodies for years to come. “Paul’s Pastry Shop looks forward to

Mardi Gras season every year,” Thigpen says. “It is challenging, and at the same time very exciting for all of us. … We are very proud to offer one of the largest varieties of king cake flavors in the nation.”

Charlene Montague Deaton

Royal Court Invitation Coordinator, Gulf Coast Carnival Association

When she began volunteering with the GCCA in 2006, Charlene Montague Deaton’s first job was double-checking invitations for errors.

Since then, she’s taken on significantly more responsibility.

“I prepare all the invitations for the royalty’s guests, and I record RSVPs for those invitations,” Deaton says. “I assist guests with inquiries and forgotten tickets at the door of the royal reception and coronation ball.”

With the help of her daughter, Claire, she also designs and builds four scrapbooks annually for the king, queen, captain and GCCA office and helps the executive director, Jennifer Schmidt, however she can.

When October rolls around, Deaton already is working on the first batch of invites, which are summoned to the coronation ball for guests of the royalty. After completing the summons, Deaton then prepares invites for the royal reception.

In the runup to the events, she stays busy keeping up with RSVPs and an ever-changing invitation list. All year long, she collects items for the scrapbooks, which she begins building right after Christmas and presents during Mardi Gras weekend.

“I enjoy the traditions associated with Mardi Gras, and I love being a small part of carrying on those traditions,” Deaton says. “But most of all, it’s the people who make Mardi Gras so very special. The friendships I’ve made through the years mean the world to me!”

Sheila Gray

Royal Seamstress

For over four decades, Sheila Gray has created some of Carnival’s most jaw-dropping ensembles.

The Biloxi native has been honing her sewing skills as far back as high school.

“I was approached by a cousin, who was captain of a women’s organization, who could not find a seamstress to make her duke’s costumes,” Gray recalls. “So, I agreed and never looked back.”

Gray is now widely known as the talent behind the seams of Mardi Gras, making ornate costumes for several krewes each year. In addition to sewing, Gray helps her daughter, Angela, with designing. The process entails several meetings with the captains to discuss themes and vision, then Gray gets to work.

One of her favorite parts of the process is shopping for the unique fabrics the ensembles require. Her husband, Jerry, assists with the wire work needed for mantles and headpieces.

“After all the fittings are complete, the big night arrives for the costumes to be presented,” Gray says. “The satisfaction of seeing the final creations sparkling under the lights and the smiles on everyone’s faces is worth the time I had to devote to them.”

The many meetings and fittings are only part of the job. Gray spends countless hours at her machine sewing and adjusting. Once that part is finished, the task of adorning the garments with themed appliques, sequins, feathers, rhinestones and beads begins.

2022 Queen Ixolib Madison Warren; Sheila Gray was the royal seamstress

“This is a very time-consuming task, and I am grateful I can enlist my daughter and husband to help,” Gray says. “The most challenging part is trying to meet the client’s expectations. I am responsible for making them happy and feel beautiful.”

Once Fat Tuesday arrives, Gray can take a month off before starting the process over again. Her role comes with a lot of pressure, but after 44 years, she has proved she’s more than up to the task.

“The fact that I get to share the job I love doing with my family is a blessing, and some people that I have met through the years are now lifelong friends,” Gray says. “Not many people get to have a job they love and receive the gift of friendship along the way.”

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