They take bribes. They get the best seat in the house. They drink, flirt and revel, sometimes to excess, and they’re loved for it.
It can be tough to tell the difference between the judges of the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade and any other stereotypical Louisiana politician. Most obvious is the costuming.
D’Aaron LeBlanc, queen of the parade in 2006 and a judge in Saturday’s parade, forcibly parted the crowd around her with a 5-foot-wide feathered harness on her shoulders. Laken Boudreaux, queen in 2014 and the youngest of this year’s judges, kept up the parade’s reputation for raunch in a sequined bodysuit, fishnet tights, platform heels and a powder-pink wig. This year’s other judges, Whitney Vann, Gerald Woods and Tom Sylvest, were each decked out in some interpretation of a pink-streaked judge’s robe.
Their outlandish getups speak to the judges’ most important role within the parade — much more than stuffy arbitrators, they are the partygoers-in-chief.
On paper, the judges’ duties are to evaluate the krewes and their floats and give awards in various categories to those that stand out. In practice, that process doesn’t take long, so the judges spend long stretches before and after the parade socializing with the krewes. They know many of them from previous parades, and playfully allow their opinions to be influenced with gifts of beads, trinkets and libations.
This element of bribery is central to the judges’ roles within the operation of the parade.
Every year, during the week before the parade rolls, a safety meeting is held for float drivers. Traditionally, the meeting gave float drivers, who aren’t allowed to drink alcohol during the parade, a night of revelry on their krewemates’ dime, said Doug Cossman, a board member of the organization that runs the Spanish Town parade.
That meeting is followed by the first “Judges’ Bribery,” during which krewe members make offerings of food, speeches, gifts or anything else they think will curry favor and earn them an award. This year, the Italian American Marchers presented the judges with a wooden horse’s head dripping with blood-red paint, referencing a famous scene from “The Godfather.”
“I don’t think that was a bribe, I think that was a threat,” Woods said.
The bribery continues on parade day when the judges, bloody marys in hand, leave an early-morning pre-party to survey the floats before the parade rolls. Here, the bribery is less formal, as riders pour shots, toss beads and shout appeals for favors when the judges’ arrival is announced by megaphone.
Some krewes opted for an even more direct approach by posting their messages for the judges on the floats themselves. One krewe, C’est La Vie, lampooned Democratic and Republican presidential candidates while promoting a Sylvest/Vann ticket.
Beside a sign reading “Tom Sylvest for President,” was a picture of Sylvest from this year’s Spanish Town Mardi Gras Ball, his long hair and beard dyed pink and mouth open in a snarl.
Sylvest, his hair no longer dyed but still sporting the pink-trimmed bathrobe with “JUDGE” blazoned in glitter across his back, shrugged at the sign.
“I didn’t know they were going to do that,” Sylvest said. “You act crazy enough, they turn you into a float.”
In past years, the parade would stunt-cast, recruiting local media personalities, politicians and celebrities to serve as judges to generate publicity. But Spanish Town’s uncompromising sense of humor — this year’s parade included jokes about anal sex, former Gov. Bobby Jindal and Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity —meant that outsiders did not always acclimatize.
Sylvest said the celebrity judges were often too offended by some floats to endorse them for awards.
“They didn’t really get it,” Sylvest said.
In recent years, the parade has gone in-house, choosing judges with long experience riding in the Spanish Town Parade. While only Vann of this year’s crop of judges has previously held the job, having judged the parade the past five years, the others are all past kings and queens.
None of this group could be accused of being overly sensitive or lacking in Carnival spirit. On the judges’ stand at the corner of Sixth and North streets, Sylvest sipped a beer and caught a string of beads from a man wearing a very large replica of a male appendage.
“This is why God made necks, for Mardi Gras,” he said, sliding the beads over his head.
Next to him, Boudreaux nodded sagely. “And boobs.”