Every year around this time, Kirsten Stimmel, who spends most of her days as a member of the Coca-Cola Global Assets Team, packs up her car with dozens of glittering high-heel shoes and drives to New Orleans to play an entirely different role: a muse.
More specifically, Stimmel is a member of the Krewe of Muses, a group of around 1,100 women who parade during the annual Mardi Gras festivities.
“I joke that it's my European vacation, Christmas and birthday all rolled into one every year because I spend so much time and money getting ready for it," says Stimmel.
In her early 20s, Stimmel attended her first Mardi Gras and was struck by how different it was than she expected. “It's not what you see on TV," she says. “It's a huge family celebration. Everyone is out watching the parade, catching beads – from babies to grandmas."
She has attended the festival every year except one since – for 25 years. Even when she lived in France for a period, she traveled back for the occasion.
After falling in love with New Orleans, Stimmel decided to call the city home from 2004 to 2006, during which time she joined the Krewe of Muses.
A krewe is a social club that organizes parades or celebrations during Mardi Gras. The Krewe of Muses was founded in 2000 and is distinctive due to its all-female membership and its outlandish “throws" (the term for strings of beads and other items thrown by krewes to spectators) – especially their flamboyant, hand-embellished shoes.
By the time February rolls around, she's all glittered out. “My house is full of glitter," she says. “My cats and dog have glitter on them."
It's a labor of love that pays off when she sees the reaction from the crowds. Stimmel says it feels like being a rockstar, and she loves the opportunity to bring happiness to people from all walks of life.
Spectators shouting “Shoe!" implore the float-riding Muses (who are all decked out in pink satin togas, wigs, and float-themed headwear) to toss them a piece of signature footwear. Muses also throw commemorative cups, the design of which is selected in a contest open to local high school students.
The Muses paraded last Thursday evening as the krewe celebrated its sixteenth birthday with a candy-coated (but rife with political satire) “Sweet Sixteen" theme, including 29 floats interspersed with marching bands, dance troupes, and other entertainment.
And one year, she hopes it will draw her back for good. She has plans to move back to The Big Easy one day, and when she does, she knows she'll have a home among her fellow Muses, many of whom she now counts as dear friends.
“It's a great group of women to know and be around," says Stimmel. “They have a great outlook on life, and Muses gives them the opportunity to have fun and make fun for other people."
In the meantime, she just looks forward to celebrating every year.
“I'll keep riding until I can't climb up onto the floats," she says.