Cover Story

Dress for Success

That’s no lady. That’s my legislator. You never know which Fred Mills you’ll get on any given day; there are so many to keep up with. There’s the pharmacist-turned-banker who keeps popping up on local TV and on YouTube. There’s the politician representing St. Martin Parish in the Louisiana Legislature. And there’s the hometown boy, always smiling, calling everybody by his first name.

Mills, 53, is tall and lean with graying temples. But don’t let the coat and tie persona fool you. Mills is best known in these parts as the wig-donning, lipstick-applying, dress-wearing “Taunte Pills” (Aunt Pills in French), a female character he plays to promote his Cashway Pharmacy. Dresses aside, the enterprising Mills has hung a lot more in his “things to do” closet lately.

As a 26-year-old, Mills launched Cashway in the village of Parks in 1981 after graduating from Northeastern University in Monroe, now UL Monroe. He’s been president and chief executive officer at Farmers-Merchants Bank & Trust Co. since 2002 and will lead its expansion into Lafayette later this year. Mills also serves on the St. Martin Hospital board and is board president of the St. Martin Economic Development Authority.

More recently, the first-time state rep authored and passed 17 bills this session. His fellow legislators say it’s a rare freshman who can gain the trust of not only fellow reps but also state senators so early on.

In late 2007 Mills was a St. Martin Parish councilman when he was elected District 46 representative by an 84-percent landslide. With new term limits that forced out entrenched and long-in-the-tooth legislators, the past session allowed him and other freshman lawmakers to shine, but Mills was clearly the star of the show. He’s quickly becoming a legend in a state known for its legendary, colorful politicians.

“This guy took it to another level,” says Rep. Joel Robideaux, a fifth-year legislator who sat a few feet away from Mills in chambers at the Capitol this past spring.

“I don’t know anyone who’s more capable,” says Mills’ childhood pal Scott Angelle, now secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources who is known for making waves himself. “God didn’t bless him with children, so he’s taken the time to do for others.”

Fred Mills

photo by Terri Fensel

On this steaming hot Friday morning, the air tense with that unique hurricane vibe, it’s Mills’ mom who needs his attention. With Hurricane Gustav two days away, Mills is hurrying along to his old homestead to see his mom, who’s suffering from the initial stages of dementia. Sometimes she knows him; sometimes she forgets. And because his dad — Fred Henry Mills Sr., a former Breaux Bridge mayor — died last November, Mills is especially worried. The good news is that Mary Alice Mills’ caregiver, Roxanne Theriot, is taking Mom Mills out of the area to Tennessee.

Mom’s OK this morning, mostly unaware of the impending doom. In the small house, she sits at the kitchen table and looks over at her oldest son, who grew up along Ledoux Street with dad, mom and younger brother Hank Mills, who makes his home in Baton Rouge these days as a financial consultant.

“What you know, mom?” says T-Fred (so-nicknamed in Cajun country because he’s a “junior”) in his evident dialect. “How you feeling?”

She nods an “OK.”

“They had some fun,” Mom Mills quietly says of her boys. “And they’re still having fun, I’m afraid. I tell you what. It wasn’t bad [raising them] because I set rules. I used to say, ‘Be nice to the people whether you like them or not.’”

“You going on a trip, mom?” her oldest son chimes in.

“Well, I guess so. I just get in the car, and they take me,” she laughs. Then, in French, she talks about Taunte Pills and how she has to tell her friends, “That’s my son. He’s not a woman!” Her son translates the conversation. He can understand the language but speaks very little of it.

“She had a severe automobile accident that caused some head trauma back in 1985,” he says after the brief visit, as he climbs back into his vehicle. “She was in a coma for a long period of time. She has these phases of knowing what’s going on, but it comes and goes. She can remember the old days, but it’s amazing, because her short-term memory is just about gone.” He slowly backs out of the driveway on the dead-end street where he was raised.

“Scott Angelle lived right there,” he says, pointing. “He would sleep here at the house a lot of times. His dad [Burton Angelle] was state rep, and my dad was mayor. They were best friends. Gov. Edwards appointed [Angelle] to wildlife secretary. Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state medical director, lives right there, across the street. I’ll be talking to him later about the hurricane. Good memories here.”

The memories in his current home between Breaux Bridge and Parks, however, aren’t all “good.”

A few months back, Mills had a “Psycho” shower moment. He’s not a morning person, and he uses his leisurely shower time to plan the coming day in his head.

One day, a large hand — a black man’s hand clutching a large kitchen knife — suddenly thrust through the shower curtain.

“And you know when you find out if you’re a man or not a man? Well, I’m not a man, or I wasn’t that day,” Mills says. “I’m screaming, ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!’”

The “killer” was 7-foot-1-inch Phoenix Suns center Shaquille O’Neal — one of Mills’ customers.

“I’m Shaquille O’Neal’s pharmacist,” Mills says from his office before his morning rounds at the bank. “I became really close friends with him years ago when he was at LSU. Recently, he was in town for his annual golf-charity tourney in Baton Rouge. He always tries to visit us when he comes back around.”

As sports-media types have discovered — and Mills as well, to near-coronary-thrombosis proportions — the big guy is a prankster much like his pharmacist.

Shaq and Mills met when one of the “dream team” Boudreaux brothers, a pair of gifted athletes from Cecilia, roomed with O’Neal at LSU.

“They’d come visit at the drug store in Parks,” Mills says. “O’Neal was always at the drug store. Everybody knows everybody there anyway. It’s like Sam Drucker’s store [on the old sit-com “Green Acres”]. Then one time he was at my house and LSU was playing in an SEC game, but he had a stress fracture on his knee. I gave him some anti-inflammatory pills, some simple stuff. And the next day, he was a new man. I could not get rid of him after that. Even in the NBA, he calls, ‘Fred? This is hurting me. What do I take? What do I do?’ He’s really just like a big teddy bear.”

Mills also has ties to Ali Landry, the Dorito’s-smacking Breaux Bridge actress and beauty who was selected Miss USA 1996. Mills is proud to claim that he was one of Ali’s first sponsors as she was vying for the major title. “But back then [in the 1990s], she’d say, ‘If I can get past the Miss Louisiana, I know I can win that Miss USA,’” Mills says. “She was confident. She is a beautiful girl, a real sweetheart. She’d say, ‘I’m going to win the national title. But Mr. Fred, can you help me out a little?’ I gave her a check. It was a few hundred dollars, but to this day she remembers that.”

With that tale told (“long story made short” is his oft-mentioned warning of choice), Mills is off on his morning bank tour. As soon as he steps out of the office, he’s bombarded by several customers with, “Hey, T-Fred!” He visits the drive-up tellers for a laugh, then greets customers, “Big John, you alright? You ready for that hurricane?” Everybody gets a familiar greeting from T-Fred. He knows their health issues. He knows their kids. It’s a small-town bank and, at one point before the bank even opens and the tellers have their money ready, he unlocks a main door to let in two older customers with, “Y’all want to come in and sit down while you wait?”

As president, Mills says, “I can’t fool anybody. I came here with absolutely no banking experience. Most of upper management here has 25, 35 years of experience. So, I’m just proud to be their leader. I was filling prescriptions one day at 11 o’clock in the morning, and I was bank president at 1 o’clock that afternoon.”

As he drives to his Parks pharmacy — where nowadays he has two pharmacists, Rami Brignac and Aimee Reed, running the show, leaving Mills with beeper-only duty for nursing homes — it’s “Hey, T-Fred!” all day, from the businessmen and women in suits to the backhoe driver who takes his hands off the controls to wave to this guy.

Taunte Pills (left) and Fred Mills

Most people wouldn’t know Fred Henry Mills Jr. if it weren’t for Taunte Pills. She’s a strange character, to be sure. Not everyone likes the idea of a man dressing as a woman, particularly when that man is a prominent businessman and lawmaker.

Still, it’s worked. His earlier, stodgier commercials showing Mills in a white pharmacist coat only brought in more business when he later split-screened the 30-second spots to show comical dialogue between “T-Fred the pharmacist” and “Taunte Pills the customer.”

“My business immediately began to spike,” Mills says. There are at least a dozen of his commercials on YouTube, each having received thousands of hits. Though Taunte Pills isn’t in the banking spots, they’re also amusing. “You’ll shake your head, but you’ll laugh. And if you don’t laugh, well, too bad,” Mills says.

“I probably lost some business from [the cross-dressing],” Mills continues. “But there’s always the guy who’s never happy about anything. You always get those letter writers: ‘Why’d you give $1,000 to the cripple kids? We need some more roads!’ I’ve gotten some people upset with the Taunte Pills stuff. Not a lot. But I kinda say, ‘We don’t laugh enough. If you don’t like it, there’s 54 channels.’ But I’d say 98 percent is good. Another thing is, there’s so many options on TV that if you don’t have something that’s going to grab someone right away, they’re channel-surfing.”

Breaux Bridge Mayor Jack Dale Delhomme is featured in one of the commercials, a hilarious “Shop Breaux Bridge” spot in which Delhomme’s voice first intones, “Why go through the hassle [of big city traffic]?” and then cuts to a frustrated Taunte Pills close-up in a car: “Aww, mais, I’m going to Breaux Bridge to shop.” The spot moves to downtown Breaux Bridge where Pills holds an armful of gifts, and then to Mayor Delhomme: “Thank you for shopping in Breaux Bridge, Taunte Pills,” the business-suited mayor says. “Your limo awaits you, sugar.” Look closely and you’ll see Scott Angelle as he opens the car door for the “lady,” while Delhomme can barely suppress a smile on camera.

“I don’t think anybody could be successful with it except Freddie,” Delhomme says from Breaux Bridge City Hall. “I think it’s added something to his business, especially the elderly people. It gave him a persona around the parish.” But Delhomme agrees that the cross-dressing commercials aren’t everyone’s idea of clever. “Staunch conservatives probably don’t agree with a commercial like that,” the former coach says. “I can see some people on the sophisticated side who wouldn’t approve of that.”

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who can hold back when watching them even if they think they’re a bit risqué; most are in stitches.

What no one can deny is their effectiveness. “They gave him notoriety and even helped him in his campaigns,” Delhomme says. “A lot of people don’t even know him as Fred. The younger generation calls him Taunte Pills.”

“And the key to that,” Delhomme continues, “is that Freddie Mills has no ego. It’s his No. 1 asset, even in public office. I do have ego. I’ll fight at the drop of a hat if you challenge me. That’s my coaching coming out of me. Like at a meeting, we’d get angry people saying, ‘What happened to the electricity this weekend?’ And Freddie would say, ‘Boy, it was hot, huh, y’all?’ He’d make a joke out of it. Me? I would take them on.”

The Taunte Pills spots spring from the old “womanless pageants” held at the now-defunct Pod’nuhs Nite Club near Cade. “We were just a bunch of hairy, ugly guys raising money for the community,” Mills says. “We’d go to dance school and everything, and I used to play this crazy character named Fredessa Pills. And she turned into Taunte Pills. And now we’ve done about 20 of those commercials, and some were sent to David Letterman, though they haven’t aired yet.”

But make no mistake: Taunte Pills is all about business.

“Taunte is strictly a marketing tool,” he says. “What happened is, I did the regular pharmacy commercials — you know, where the guy’s counting the tray, and it looks like he cares about your health. We got nothing. And I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna just do guerilla marketing. And if it works it works. If it doesn’t, well, we tried.’ We ran this thing, and I knew we had something when I’d stop at the drive-thru window and people were quoting the commercial.”

The first one that took off, in 1992, featured Taunte Pills talking to T-Fred by phone. On the right screen, she’s handling freshly caught crabs, the kind from Gulf waters. “I caught ’em last night, and they fresh-fresh,” Pills says. Naturally, the caring pharmacist lowers his voice, thinking the worst and offering to bring the health clinic to her home to save her embarrassment. “Mais, bring the health clinic,” Pills says. “I caught enough crabs for everybody!”

“After that, it didn’t matter where I went,” Mills says, laughing. “You’d hear, ‘I caught crabs, and they fresh-fresh!’ People were doing the punch lines. It really started increasing business. I was getting calls every weekend. ‘Would Taunte Pills come to a birthday party? Would Taunte Pills come out of a birthday cake?’ But if you oversaturate it, it loses its mystique. Taunte Pills usually just works for Cashway Pharmacy.”

Through the Internet and word of mouth, other quotes have become part of the St. Martin Parish vernacular: “That T-Fred … he delivers!” Or there’s his fist-to-fist “Clash of the Titans!” demonstration as he notes that George Bush is running against Scott Angelle for president.

But it’s not just Taunte Pills commercials that have become a YouTube sensation. There’s the hysterical, award-winning spot with Mills as a happy — and much richer — client of attorney (now judge) Randy P. Angelle, who had won him a huge settlement. The “Thank you, my lawyer” spot won a national Telly Award for low-budget commercials a couple of years back when Winn-Dixie was having financial troubles. In the commercial, the conservatively dressed Mills faces the camera and tells how, while shopping at Winn-Dixie, an AA battery fell on his big toe, but the law offices of Randy P. Angelle got him so much money that, “I can’t spend it all. He fought and fought and fought for me. I was awarded so much money, if you saw in the news last week they closed 15 Winn-Dixies.” Mills ends the spot saying, “Pain and suffering can go away, but money lasts forever.”

The “Thank you, my lawyer” commercial was improvised and shot in one take. “It’s kind of just in my head,” Mills says, “and I think I have a real creative brain for that stuff. I try to incorporate a little humor with a little seriousness. I really like the service aspect of it. I know it sounds corny, but around here, it’s rural and you gotta find a way to bring the people the services.”

That service mentality apparently went a long way for voters when Mills, then a St. Martin Parish councilman in his eighth year, ran for state representative in 2007. Because both elections were held at the same time, the dual-officeholding law kicked in, and Mills had to choose between the two. Along with the 80-plus-percent mandate given by St. Martin Parish voters, Mills also is already popular with both Senate and House colleagues early in his first state term.

Rep. Robideaux of Lafayette can swivel his chair at the Capitol to talk to Mills, just as he planned it. He wanted to see this new blood up close and personal. What he quickly observed is that Mills is liked by everyone, and that he can disagree without being disagreeable.

“Now, they may be mad at him for, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t make me that home loan,’ or, ‘I can’t believe you’re foreclosing on my home,’” says Robideaux. “I mean, I think about my first year and how overwhelming it was. And he really has this uncanny ability to bring folks together. I think he passed more legislation than any other state rep this session. Party doesn’t matter to him.”

Mills, a Democrat, and Robideaux, an independent, co-authored the “Enough is Enough” bill to give the state’s budget surplus money back to the public. It didn’t pass, but it did get through in other forms, and Robideaux says he learned a lot from watching the newbie do his thing.

“You know, he likes to play that country-dumb bumpkin, but that guy is one of the sharpest, most knowledgeable people I’ve ever been around in my life — and not just on health care,” Robideaux says. “He’s probably the most well-received freshman. Senators seek him out, and they know that he knows issues. There are not many freshmen handling bills for senators. This just doesn’t happen. And part of his charm is, when there’s a contentious issue, he takes it on. He will absolutely talk about the elephant in the room. He’s sort of a populist like Huey Long, but he can flip that switch and put his ‘president of the bank’ hat on, too.”

“I think he’ll never have a candidate to run against him, unless someone puts out some money just to make him run,” Mayor Delhomme says. “He’ll never have to campaign again, as long as he stays Fred Mills.”

Mills himself can’t, or won’t, say anything negative about his first session — even when prodded. Politics is an ugly business, he admits, “And if something was done under the table, maybe I just didn’t see it. Sometimes you lose touch with reality up there in Baton Rouge, but then you get a call at the desk, and it brings you right back, like when an elderly lady called and told me about her tire busting because of the bad roads in St. Martin. I said I’d take care of it, but she wanted me to literally pay for her tire! People are struggling, and you can’t forget that.”

Some legislation he passed and is especially proud of includes the “Ask Before You Eat” bill, which requires truth in disclosure regarding imported shrimp or crawfish; the creation of a “Human Service District” as a way to govern mental health disorders on a regional, not state, basis; the issuance, sale or assignment of a life insurance policy or annuity to fund a funeral contract that before it passed allowed funeral homes to control the outflow of funds at burial time; and a bill that says you can’t be sued for providing health care in a state of emergency.

His secret to success so early, Mills says, is that he had the advantage of running the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy under Gov. Mike Foster, thus allowing him to see the role both sides play during the lawmaking process. And waxing humble again, Mills says he was “just a kid who always enjoyed humor and levity” and that he “got lucky” this session.

“I was never the class clown,” Taunte Pills’ alter ego says, “but maybe more of a comedian. And that helps me get through the day, because studies show that people who can smile and laugh at themselves live five to eight years longer than everybody else.”

“Plus,” he says, “as you can see, I’m not shy.”