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December 15, 2003   Email to Friend 

How To Make GRITS
Fran Sharp

Deborah Ford of Birmingham reveals the mystique of Southern belles in her new book, "The GRITS Guide to Life."
A conversation with Deborah Faye Ford is seasoned with quotes from her book, The GRITS Guide to Life, a primer for those who want to capture the elusive southern mystique owned by many women who were born south of the Mason Dixon line.

That's because Ford not only nurtured her GRITS, (Girls Raised in the South) wearing apparel, into a multimillion-dollar business, but has morphed the acronym into a book extolling the charms of Southern women. She shared some of her secrets to success, and a carefully selected English scone, at a Starbucks in Vestavia Hills. Her book's light-hearted approach to character building has women standing in line to shake her white-gloved hand.

"The Southern woman is expressed in three symbols," she promises: "The magnolia for strength of character, the iron skillet for Southern flavor and a strand of pearls for beauty and richness of character.

"It's true. Southern sisters treasure the family iron skillet that is passed from mothers to daughters. It's a tradition and a symbol of resiliency. Mystique also means never giving all of you away; save a little something to surprise," she said.

Ford maintains that Southern mystique is more than an iron-fist-in-a-gloved-hand approach to life. "It results in a resilient, determined woman who knows herself and is willing to test her limits,--operating in a charming and agreeable, but informed way," said Ford.

That doesn't mean Southern charmers are immune to disillusionment and hurt at the hands of others, she added, citing personal and professional experiences. She's been married four times and does not discount being married again. "I might, I might not, well, maybe...," Ford said.

The ins and outs of business have led her to take her own advice, so this year, Ford licensed GRITS with Licensing Partners International in Atlanta, which is affiliated with Collegiate Licensing Company. This puts the marketing part of her business in capable hands and frees Ford to concentrate on her writing and speaking efforts.

Currently, a dizzying book tour schedule and an ever-growing number of "talks" throughout the Southeast take Ford "northward" so that now even Yankees can pick up the tricks of Southern charm. "Every girl needs to know what it's like to be a lady," the lady insists.

She has committed to three books with her publishing company, the next tentatively titled Putting on the GRITS, a study of Southern lifestyles. Ford says she is considering a guide to families, as well. "Look at all the different sisters we have," she marveled--"stepsister, sister-in-law, soul sister, sisters of the South--we are all interconnected by experience, survival, religion, relationships--so many things."

Her book has caught the attention of Southern sisterhood, quicker than grits can bubble to an overboil. Touted as a rising national bestseller by way of ranking in the top five in regional markets, The GRITS Guide to Life is a reflection of Ford's determined spirit and includes survival skills she learned as a woman growing up in the South.

Ford, a petite, 51-year-old blonde who still wears sleeveless sundresses and takes her lemonade in small sips, epitomizes the Southern woman illustrated in her book. With a degree in special education, she proffered her philosophy as a juvenile probation officer and a teacher at Mountain Brook High School in central Alabama before her GRITS epiphany came along.

Known by her nickname, Ms. GRITS got her start in the world of apparel marketing in 1995 with girls' volleyball team T-shirts. The shirts, bearing the slogan Girls Raised in the South, were designed to boost players' morale. Soon the tees were flying out of her hands and onto the backs of Southern girls who knew all along that they were something special. Marketing kiosks sprang up in malls, and a myriad of products began to take shape. There were tees, totes, toppers and hats, and the business made a million dollars its first year.

"Everybody thinks I got filthy rich on GRITS, but that is just not the case," she said, alluding to the tough lessons she's learned in the business world. "You can't do everything yourself," and "people will surprise you, not always in a good way."

Reared in Limestone County, where her family sharecropped, Ford picked cotton alongside people of all ages and ethnicity. She said her pickin' colleagues were good teachers, too. "I learned from women who became survivors because they had to," she said. "Their stories are my story--Southern women who learned to get up, dust yourself off and get going again. That's the Southern tradition of our black and white ancestors, and it's our tradition, too. Each survived lives fraught with trauma whether you think of the Civil War or slavery or poverty or whatever. Each had to survive and teach the next generation."

Although Ford has become known for her GRITS apparel, she's not embarrassed to note, "I made this skirt from an old tablecloth," or that her mother used to remake her sister's dresses for her. When Ford was in college, she would go home on weekends and remake clothes into something new.

"It wasn't just because we were poor. I learned to do with what we had," she remembers.

She settles back and looks around the coffee shop before daintily tasting the last bit of the scone. She wets her lips and smiles. "You know who loves to hear me? Older GRITS who are concerned that their granddaughters are lacking in valuable information about being Southern. They are yearning for their granddaughters to survive, and yes, thrive in the new world, but also to realize where their survival skills came from," Ford said.

And what do these grandmothers, single mothers, and soccer moms ask Ford when she's signing their books? "People want to know if I talk about my husbands in the book," she laughed. "I tell them, 'Yes, I do. I have been married to four very different men. It's another part of getting up and going on, and I talk about them in chapters titled, Bless His Heart No. 1 and so on,'" Ford said.

GRITS merchandise may be found at www.gritsinc.com. Email Deborah Ford at dford@gritsinc.com.

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