By Evelynn Coffie
As floats coast through the streets of New Orleans, being a royal court member seems like a simple task—look pretty, wave at the crowd, throw a few beads. It’s about being a decorative asset to the month-long Mardi Gras grand spectacle for teenager Kelsie Mengel—a 17-year-old Chinese-American teen from New Orleans.
But for Kelsie Mengel, it’s much more than standing on top of a float and waving to thousands upon millions of people. For her, being a maid in the 2020 Krewe of Endymion is a once in a lifetime opportunity that occurred by chance, not by choice.
Endymion is one of the three Mardi Gras superkrewe parades in New Orleans. It originally started as a neighborhood parade in 1967 in Gentilly—a more middle-class, racially diverse area bordering Lake Pontchartrain. By 1974, it expanded into a super krewe—social organizations putting on parades and balls. Unlike other krewes or members of parades, in Louisiana, Endymion is one that can afford the flashy animatronics, extravagant floats, intricate throws, and celebrity guests.
There are 3,000 riders in Endymion who invest thousands of dollars for membership and throws in the krewes. Compared to other superkrewes, such as Bacchus or Orpheus, Endymion is the only one to have a court. To become a member of the royal court you must be in the krewe or be the child of a krewe member. Riding can be a bit pricey, but it’s also about access to the organization.
“My dad has been riding for 25 years, and when I was around 10 or 11 years old, my parents put my name in a raffle,” Mengel said. Since Endymion is the only super krewe with a royal court, the lottery process is competitive. Most krewe members put their daughter’s names in the raffle when they’re babies. Kelsie was surprised to be picked at all considering how late her parent’s placed her name in. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” Mengel said. “But I’m ready to experience the adrenaline rush.”
Mengel was among the seven young women picked and she was chosen to represent The Ming Dynasty for the 2020 theme: Endymion Historic Dynasties. As a female Chinese-American maid in a predominantly white, all-male krewe, she says being a maid of color made her stand out in a good way. “It changes the game and adds some flavor to the usual mix.”
For 17-year-old Ellen Rogers, a white teen native from New Orleans, she feels like most parades lack representation when it comes to honoring maids in superkrewes. “Almost all maids are white, blonde, rich,” Rogers said. “It’s such a big deal being on a royal court in this city because I know my friend was a princess in a non-parading krewe because it cost so much money for the dress and other materials,” Rogers explained.
There isn’t a set price for being a member of parades. Mardi Gras parades are privately run by non-profit organizations whose members meet each year to fund the parade’s themes, costumes, and throws. People founded krewes in New Orleans to connect community members before the pagan observation of Lent.
As Mardi Gras becomes an increasingly lucrative industry catering mostly to tourists, traditions may never see a shift. The royal court spectacle is a sight to witness, but many non-natives, even locals, tend to care more about the throws than the people involved.
However, Mengel takes her title with honor because to her, it’s a sacred role. “I feel like I’m representing the city of New Orleans, along with Endymion, and making my family proud because I don’t know if anyone else understands the importance of this season.” In fact, not many people do, especially not about the royal court process.
Kelsie was first fitted for her dress over the summer of 2019. She didn’t meet the rest of the royal court—including the other maids, the Queen, and the Captain—until October of 2019 at their first luncheon. The court received their glitzy tiaras and sneak-peek sketches of their elaborately designed costumes. After the first luncheon, the court met up a few weeks later at a private house called the Endymion Den: only the board members and the court could attend with a private invite.
“It was my dad’s first time ever attending the Den after all these years, and we got to look at our floats,” Mengel said. Opportunities, such as entering the Endymion Den, create an air of exclusivity. Only a selected few can truly witness the grandeur of the inner circle. The luxury of exclusivity also comes with responsibility.
It’s one thing for Kelsie to be a maid for one of the largest krewes in New Orleans, but it’s another to balance her senior year of high school. On top of college applications, Kelsie is involved in 3 dual enrollment programs where she takes college courses outside of school, a varsity soccer player practicing twice a week. “It was stressful getting work done, but I’m the type of person to complete as much work as possible before it becomes a problem,” Mengel said. But as 2019 neared and Mardi Gras season on the horizon, Kelsie had to attend more events, which means more time away from leisure and a greater emphasis on expenses.
“It got a little frustrating buying a gown because they’re so expensive,” Mengel said. “Once January started, everything got busy. Every other weekend is another event weekend is an event before the parade.”
On the day of Endymion Mengel’s stress mode spiked. Thousands of people littered Canal and St.Charles street with beer bottles, oily foods, lawn chairs, and boom boxes. “I just wanted everything to be perfect,” Mengel said. Even with all the preparation and motivation, Endymion was not what Kelsie expected.
Men yelled at her to smile more, people on the streets screamed and begged for her limited bead supply, and she couldn’t even find her friends in the crowd. Moreover, after the Hard Rock hotel collapse, the parade didn’t end at the Superdome for the extravaganza event, but the New Orleans convention center instead.
The Endymion Extravaganza is one of the largest indoor events held in New Orleans after the parade ends. Over 20,000 people in formal ball gowns and suits attend to watch performances from those such as Pitbull, Kelly Clarkson, and Maroon 5. This year, the special guest was Tim McGraw, but Kelsie couldn’t fully enjoy the experience.
“I was super tired and drained once we reached the convention center,” Mengel said. “I also think I was mentally going through a lot, and I really tried to live in the moment.” Yet, thinking back, Kelsie said she’s grateful for the experience.
“If I could go back, I would have definitely prepared better,” Mengel said. “I would buy outfits in advance, not wait until the last minute, and not have any expectations about being a maid.”
Albeit the route changes and unwanted commentary from the crowd, Mengel says it was an honor to be picked from such a vast pool of people. “ I felt a sense of security and happiness knowing everyone there genuinely cared about me. They meant a lot more than they think in this experience.”