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05.30.10

The Most Annoying (or Beloved) Pitch Woman on TV

Flo, the "Progressive Insurance Lady," has become a star. Nicole LaPorte talks to the actress who plays her.

Stephanie Courtney—a.k.a., The Progressive Insurance Lady—would like to set the record straight: She is not pregnant.

“They put me in a very starched apron, and I’m a curvy lady, and, so, when the starched apron gets tied…” Courtney said one recent afternoon, explaining the misunderstanding that has arisen over Flo, the über-cheery and quirky sales clerk she plays in the ubiquitous commercials for Progressive Insurance.

Flo fans were apparently so alarmed at the sight of Courtney’s tiny bulge that they wrote letters to Progressive, inquiring whether she was with child.

Courtney said her favorite Flo spot is the one with the “ guy with the man bag.”

Such is the fascination with a character that has stormed into the American consciousness—against the odds of DVRs, iPads, and On Demand—in either the most annoying or endearing way possible. Reactions to Flo on YouTube range from “she’s hot” and “I want to f--- flo so bad!!!!” to “FLO PLZ GO AWAY” and “this girl is ugly and annoying and stupid and everything that is wrong with America.”

But whether you love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her. In the two years since Flo debuted as the unflappably happy sales clerk who presides over the gleaming, white-bright store that sells insurance in handy, easy-to-transport boxes—giving the impression that shopping for insurance is as simple and unfraught as a trip to Ikea—she has become the most recognizable mascot on television, the successor to the Geico gecko, Juan Valdez, and the Pillsbury dough boy.

Like those icons, she’s caught on for a reason. Just as during the Great Depression Betty Crocker was a reassuring reminder of home-cooked meals and the suddenly less attainable comforts in life, Flo is a blast of unironic helpfulness and pleasantries in this age of snark, economic uncertainty, and fractured everything. She’s a tangible person and personality in an increasingly virtual world—as real as the shopkeeper you never have to deal with anymore, because you buy everything on Amazon, or the diner waitress who used to serve you a cracked cup of black coffee before you upgraded to double macchiados doled out by a headset-wearing barista.

“She gives us a break from the day-to-day news—and there’s not a lot of good news out there,” said Bill Cowen, the PR program director at Villanova University. “Anything that gives us a moment to make us laugh, make us smile… That really resonates.

“I think we attach ourselves to her, to characters like that, whether it’s characters in an ad or characters in a sitcom.”

The first time that Courtney, who in her non-Flo life is a standup comedian and member of The Groundlings, the fabled comedy group in Los Angeles, noticed the character was catching on was when she saw a surge of Flo Halloween costumes on Facebook.

“It’s a pretty cheap costume to make—all you need is a white polo shirt, white jeans, blue Chuck Taylors, and a white apron,” Courtney said recently, sipping a soy latte at a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard. “And then you just have to do your hair and makeup like that, and Progressive even makes—you can download your own name-tag and cut it out on paper. So it’s a nice, non-slutty Halloween costume.”

In person, Courtney does not scream “Flo.” Without the poof (which she credits to an hour-long ritual of “back-combing and back-teasing”) and the vampy make-up—not to mention the high-pitched, sing-songy voice—she looks like just another pretty thirtysomething, killing time in between auditions on a weekday afternoon. Dressed in a slim-fitting, gray baseball shirt, stylish jeans, and big-framed sunglasses pushed up on her head, no one at the coffee shop gave her more than a passing glance.

But Courtney says that with just a little more makeup, the Flo stares start coming. At a recent wedding party held for author Meghan Daum (whom Courtney shared an apartment with in New York when they were both starting out—she’s mentioned in Daum’s new book, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, a distinct Flo buzz began when guests noticed who was in their midst. Recalling being recognized that night, Courtney joked: “It was like the theme from Gigi, when they walk into the night club.”

But for the most part, Courtney said she remains “blissfully ignorant” of what the world has to say about Flo, leaving it to her husband to keep tabs on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, where half a dozen separate sites have been created for Flo, including: The Progressive Insurance Lady (449 fans); Flo, the Progressive Girl (2,073 fans); “Flo” the Progressive Insurance Gal (958 fans); and Flo From the Progressive Insurance Commercials (859 fans).

Flo mania recently reached a fever pitch when Courtney was sent on the road to auditions seeking a new, co-Flo (the winner will appear in ads with Courtney). Hundreds of wannabe Flos lined up at events in Miami, New York, and L.A.

“They had booths set up with little cameras in them, and people would get up and tell you why they would be such a fantastic helper for Flo,” Courtney said. “Some people did like a rap song, some people had costumes… One guy pulled out an elf hat and tied Flo into the Addams Family—of which he was a part. We were racing to keep up with the logic of that!”

Courtney said her favorite Flo spot is the one with the “ guy with the man bag.” As for the one that elicits the craziest response, that would be the ad in which a husband lines up to buy a boat, motorcycle and RV insurance, and when his wife says, “But we don’t have any of those things,” the husband looks at Flo, who exclaims: “Surprise!”

“People were writing in: ‘Is Flo having an affair?’” Courtney said. “I was so floored!”

Another oft-asked question: Does Flo have a last name?

“I don’t know,” Courtney said.

Then she shrugged. “It’s like Cher.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.