FestiGals recently wrapped up their seventh annual extravaganza advancing their mission, which “inspires, connects and celebrates women while supporting causes important to their well being.” Tailored to locals (it’s as much of a celebration of New Orleans as it is of women), it attracts women from all over the country. “We were looking for a girlfriend’s getaway…and this popped up. We loved what we were seeing. We were looking for something that would refresh us and make a difference—personal growth,” shares best friends Vertrilla Hunt of Orlando and Joyce Conner of Knoxville, TN. Tickets could be bought for individual events throughout the three day fest; however, FestiGals threw in a few unique experiences exclusive to the women who wanted the full adventure. These women were the Ultimate Divas, and I wanted to know them. I chose to ride along on their French Quarter Private Homes Tour.
The rain felt like it came out of nowhere, typical summer weather in New Orleans, and I was already running late. Like the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, my handy cellphone was my time piece and it lead me to the wrong hotel only heightening my anxiety—in order to board the bus, I had to check-in by one-thirty.
I made it. The elevator doors opened to the the third floor of the J.W. Marriott, and I stepped out and into a world imagined by women for women. It dazzled, sparkled, glittered, and twinkled. Behind all the rhinestones and feathers, was a powerful group of women. I was about to take a trip with the Ultimate Divas!
We loaded the luxury bus fitted with leather seats, but first I had to study the Divas’ outfits. They were an eyes’ delight. From hats and scarves to cat ears, each woman expressed and embraced her diva side in full glory. Nothing was too much and every occasion was an opportunity to adorn oneself with only the finest. The message was clear: We are worth it! I use the pronoun ‘we,’ as they were a collective group of women.
We didn’t get far, maybe a block, before Yolanda busted out the tambourine on the bus. It was the exclamation point for all of our statements. When we passed Port-Of-Call, someone would shout its name and Yolanda would punctuate that shout with her tambourine. I thought about everyone inside the restaurant and wondered if they knew this bus of women passing by was celebrating the restaurant’s existence. We celebrated everything, so the FestiGal’s bus took joy riding to a new level. Richard was our faithful driver, and he held our hands each time as we took the last step down onto the streets. He made sure no one twisted an ankle on his watch.
Our first stop: Latrobe’s. Originally built as the Louisiana State Bank in 1822 and named after it’s world-renowned architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it holds the highest status: purple level. Only buildings of significant national importance (i.e. the White House) are given such status. New Orleans has two: Latrobe’s and St. Louis Cathedral.
Today, the ground floor is rented out for private parties and events; but as divas, we were granted access upstairs to the living quarters that is still used as a private home. Winding up the staircase felt like we were hiking to Rapunzel’s tower and when we arrived, it wasn’t anything short of a princess’ home. With every grand room we entered, Yolanda punctuated it with, “ #chandelierstatus’!”
Greeting us at the next two stops were the owners themselves, Joey Di Fatta and C. J. Blanda. Extremely passionate about historical preservation, each shared the story of their home. It was as if we were friends of their neighbors in town for a visit and they were having us over for tea. Ironically, and in true New Orleans fashion, our tour guide—Karen Fernandez of Two Chicks Walking Tours—is actually Joey’s neighbor. After we said hello and toured his amazing home, we walked to her French Quarter courtyard. A long, narrow alley led us to a lush secret garden in the heart of the Quarter. It was magical; I had visions of Hemingway typing away in a space like this—finding inspiration from the sunlight filtering through the canopy made of large banana leaves, which gave everything a rainforest allure.
Even among all that beauty, it was in the context of who I was standing besides that I found inspiration. As much as FestiGals is about touring homes and taking in the history and culture of New Orleans, it is also about bringing amazing women together. I asked one of the ladies how her experience had been so far and she quickly turned it around onto me. “I’m on the board and committee,” she whispered as if not to blow her cover. Fancy, I thought. I was highly impressed of Stephanie Burks and her level of care and commitment. She introduced me to Natasha Augustine, a first time attendee hailing from the Lone Star State, and as if a hurricane suddenly hit, I was blown away by her conviction. “It [FestiGals] has been amazing—women supporting women in all of our endeavors,“ she explained.
Augustine went on to say that, “Being in there with Kim Boyle and LaToya Cantrell was something else. It was affirmation; I’m doing it right…I’m here with you. I’m not by myself. We talked about negotiations. We talked about being at the table. ‘Of course I’m at the table. Why wouldn’t I be?’ I think that some women still need to hear that, but I also believe that it can be taken up to what I like to call: Level 200. We’re there, now what are we going to do?”
These were the kinds of thoughts and questions that came up as we walked through New Orleans, and they didn’t stop. How do women continue to support each other? What roles does mentorship and sponsorship play? “Sponsorship is one step above mentorship,“ Augustine said. “Mentorship is telling you my experience, my advice; I’m passed mentorship. Sponsorship is, ‘I want you to come with me. What time will you be ready?’ Sponsorship is saying I’m there with you and I trust that your experience and background, you’re ready for this and everything that we’ve done to get ready for this, is right here.”
The depth of conversations and connections being made among these Divas was as lush as the gardens and courtyards we learned the history and stories of. There was a sense of purpose not only in what we did but who we are. These women were unifying, New Orleans was their muse, and FestiGals was their platform.