NEW ORLEANS - Sandy "Pepa" Denton got a lesson this week on how to toss beads and an up-close look at the elaborate float she'll be riding in Monday's Krewe of Orpheus parade with friend and rap partner Cheryl "Salt" James.
The women, stars of the rap group Salt-N-Pepa, brought their VH1 reality TV show to New Orleans to document their work helping a family rebuild after Hurricane Katrina as well as their ride in the parade.
"It's so pretty," Denton said of the float, which has two winged horses and hundreds of decorative flowers. It will be among dozens rolling down St. Charles Avenue the night before Mardi Gras.
For parade-goers, celebrity watching will be as fun as grabbing the throws tossed from the floats as Carnival goes into high gear this weekend.
Kevin Costner will serve as grand marshal of the Krewe of Endymion, one of the largest, glitziest parades. He'll be joined by the Doobie Brothers and the Go-Gos, including lead singer Belinda Carlisle.
On Sunday, wrestler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan will reign as king of the Krewe of Bacchus. "Today" show correspondent Hoda Kotb and weatherman Al Roker will be grand marshals of the Krewe of Argus on Tuesday in suburban Metairie. Also on Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday) clarinetist Pete Fountain will lead a cadre of locals and celebrities for the annual trek of the Half-Fast Walking Club.
Orpheus, the glittery parade founded in 1993 by singer Harry Connick Jr., has one of the longest list of celebs. Besides Salt-N-Pepa, Lance Bass and Kevin Meaney, daytime TV star Christian LeBlanc and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves will ride.
Castroneves, who with dancing partner Julianne Hough won last year's "Dancing with the Stars" competition on ABC, will be one of a batch of reality TV stars at Carnival.
Among them Monday night will be Bridget Marquardt, Holly Madison and Kendra Wilkinson, stars of E!'s "The Girls Next Door." They'll be throwing a fundraiser on Lundi Gras, or Mardi Gras eve, for Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation at the House of Blues in the French Quarter. Pitt's charity is rebuilding homes in the Lower 9th Ward destroyed by Katrina in 2005.
South Louisiana's Carnival celebration dates back to 1699, when French explorers sloshing through the wetlands paused to mark the day before Lent.
But celebrities didn't become a regular highlight until the first Bacchus parade in 1969, when Danny Kaye reigned.
Since then, dozens have gotten into the spirit.
James Gandolfini, for example, was last year's king of Bacchus, following in the footsteps of Bob Hope and Ron Howard. John Goodman, Chuck Norris, Jason Alexander, Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd have served as past grand marshals for Endymion, and Glenn Close, Sandra Bullock, Forest Whitaker and Whoopi Goldberg are among those who've ridden in Orpheus.
Ardley Hanemann, an Orpheus spokesman, said a variety of factors made coordinating celebrities' schedules difficult this year. Among them: the Hollywood writers' strike and an earlier-than-usual Mardi Gras that competes with Super Bowl festivities.
Still, parade organizers say they are happy with their catch, and the riders are excited as well.
Salt-N-Pepa said they chose to come to New Orleans not only to take part in Mardi Gras but to keep the plight of the recovering city and its people fresh in the minds of Americans.
A second season of "The Salt-N-Pepa Show" is scheduled to begin airing Feb. 11; the New Orleans segments are set for late March/early April. It will include Salt-N-Pepa's work with St. Bernard Project, an organization that has helped more than 70 families move to St. Bernard Parish since the storm by raising money for building materials and recruiting volunteers.
"The main point for coming is to bring attention through the show to the fact that there's still a lot of devastation," James said.