These bikers don't fit a cliche or stereotype.
They ride fast motorcycles in 6-inch heels, skin-tight pants and leather vests with a logo of a voluptuous woman next to a sports bike. Donning helmets with pink Mohawks and with Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" blaring from one of the bikes' speakers, the dozen women barreling through Algiers on a recent Thursday night make a bold collective.
As they rumble along the pavement, one rider suddenly stops in the middle of Odeon Avenue. The biker lets her bottle-blonde curls fall and her Suzuki GSX, emblazoned with her nickname "TRIX" on its side, begins making a figure eight. When the bike stops, Dywanna "Trix" Franklin, 28, lets the back wheel spin and wail while the motorcycle stays in place, and within seconds, an enormous pink smoke cloud shoots.
"We all do tricks," says Nakosha "CoCo" Smith, 34, whose bike growls nearby. "We burn rubber for pink smoke, pop wheelies, we make our symbol in the street, we make smiley faces, mean faces if you piss us off, drag race."
The rest of the Curves crew takes turns peeling out and performing stunts.
Fay "Swagg" Phillips, 38, who masterminded the group's pink Mohawks, says these women roll together and do slick moves for a simple reason: "It's powerful."
As they zigzag along the street they continue to ride in formation, let their engines howl and emit more cotton candy-colored haze into the air before they turn onto Gen. Meyer Avenue and ride off into the night.
These are the Caramel Curves and they're New Orleans' first all-female motorcycle club.
The group formed unofficially a few months before Hurricane Katrina, and originally there were only a handful of people. During early meetings, the women discussed making their prospective club work like a nonprofit so they could give back to their community by throwing toy drives and fundraisers. Whatever money was left over would go back into the club. When the levee failures flooded the city in 2005, the women were displaced to Dallas, Houston and Baton Rouge, and their dreams of a motorcycle club seemed dashed.
A couple of years later, however, Carolyn "Caramel" Sterling, 39, a barber and mother of two, decided to resurrect the club. With friend and fellow motorcyclist Smith, a manicurist, Sterling decided it was time to relaunch their crew. The two had been riding motorcycles together in New Orleans since 2002 and conceptualized a riding club of women who shared the same passion for motorcycles. They began recruiting members, largely by word of mouth. After a few months, there was a working club.
The rules were simple: "You have to own your own bike and have a vagina," Smith says, adding that fearless personalities and road swagger don't hurt either. The club began hosting events and riding together at least once a week and regularly rode to second line parades on Sundays. Eventually the group started participating in weekly bike nights in New Orleans, and each May rides to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for Black Bike Week.
The local bike nights were where the women's bike club proved itself on the streets. In New Orleans East, where races took place along Almonaster Avenue each Wednesday, Caramel Curves garnered respect from male riding clubs. The reception was positive as soon as they began revving their engines.
"They weren't pissed off, the men were accepting," Smith says. "Who wouldn't like seeing a bunch of big, fine women on bikes with heels on? C'mon now."
Terry Jackson, co-chair of the local chapter of #1 Stunnas Motor Sport Club, says the Caramel Curves left an immediate impression on the city's motorcycle community.
"They represent style and grace with a special kind of swag," says Jackson, who has been active in the New Orleans bike scene for more than 14 years. "When you get a group of positive women that can command respect, give back to the community and their families, work actively and ride motorcycles — it speaks volumes."
Drew Francis, 30, who owns a barbershop next door to the Curves' meeting place in Algiers, says the group blew him away the first time he saw them ride.
"They're the baddest female club in the city," he says. "I admire what they're doing as women. They're some amazing ladies. They're fearless. They're always representing — always. ... I dig their style."
So why motorcycles?
Riding fights boredom. It takes you out of the monotonous cycle of work, bills and mindless entertainment. It transports you to a place where holding tight and kicking up speed gives you adrenaline, excitement, pleasure and danger all mixed together. For the Curves, it's also a world where women are in control, often holding stride or outright beating men on the road.
That's how members describe what it's like to be a rider in the club.
Daria "Candi" Green, 35, who has been with the Curves for four years, has a reputation as the speed demon of the group. She lights up when asked what attracts her to motorcycles.
"It's freedom," she says. "Once you put that helmet on, it's a totally different dimension. I'm somebody completely different. I'm not that same person I am when I got on the bike. ... I feel like I'm somewhere else. I'm not here, I know that much."
Other members look to the club for a chance to live a more fulfilling life.
Karena James, 39, never thought she could ride a motorcycle by herself. When she was younger, she'd sit on the back of her cousin's bike when he rode near the Calliope Projects. She loved the feeling, but thought she was too short to drive. At about 5 feet tall, her toes wouldn't touch the ground on a standard bike, so she gave up on the idea.
That changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing surgery in 2010, James decided to pursue her passions and bought a Kawasaki 650, custom-lowered to fit her height. She later joined Caramel Curves and was given the nickname "Shorty Redd."
"I said I was going to do everything I always wanted to do," she says. "It was like knocking things off my bucket list. One of those things was to get a bike and ride. It relieves pain in your mind, and the things you think about sometimes. I'm just living life right now."
In a realm once dominated by the image of men cruising on the open road, the built-in feminism of the Curves' presence isn't lost on its members. The goal of the club is to show women they can ride motorcycles in a commanding way.
"We see a lot of women who want to ride a bike but they're scared," Smith says. "But a lot of them see us do it and it makes them want to do it, too. They should know that we do everything the boys do — except we just look better doing it."
The club's rise comes at a time when female motorcycle groups are growing around the country. Maggie McNally-Bradshaw, chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) and a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) riding coach, says nearly half her students are women. McNally-Bradshaw, who has been riding motorcycles since 1981, says a seismic cultural shift in the past two decades has made women riding groups like Caramel Curves more common.
"Women riders were once seen as an isolated occurrence," she says. "That has changed a lot."
Caramel Curves' membership is growing, with nine new members joining in the past year, giving the club a roster of 22 riders. Since Curves formed, three other all-women motorcycle clubs have cropped up in New Orleans, a trend the Curves embrace.
"Women on bikes is a movement," says Shanika "Tru" Beatty, 31, who has been a Curve since the club began. "It's now something we can stamp our name on. Women shouldn't be afraid of riding motorcycles. We're the proof."