Like the best of us, the turning point in Fortune Feimster’s life came courtesy of Oprah.
The comedian and actor—her 2020 Netflix special, Sweet & Salty, was a top performer on Netflix and she gets chased through the streets in Toronto, of all places, because of her role in The Mindy Project—was never supposed to be on this upwards trajectory. That simply didn’t happen for tall lesbians from North Carolina who realized they were gay after watching a Lifetime movie about a girl struggling to come out to her mother and who had no signs of representation around them.
Two decades ago, Feimster was working as an entertainment journalist. She still remembers the publicists from the red carpet lines in those days; she’d tell them she was taking Groundlings improv classes in her free time and they’d give her a jaded L.A. “good luck.” It was not the greatest time to be a budding journalist, and in 2009, amid a recession and one of media’s most drastic upheavals, Feimster was let go.
“I remember in 2010, I was like, I don’t know how I’m gonna pay my bills,” Femister says. “I don’t know how I’m gonna pay my rent in January.” At a New Year’s Eve party that year, her friend was doing the hokey thing of asking everyone what they wanted from the year ahead. Broke and hopeless, Feimster laughed and shrugged: “A miracle.”
The famous Oprah line “You get a car! You get a car!” was as much of a meme as there was in that pre-meme era. Teasers had just started playing for the final season of Winfrey’s talk show, hinting that, more than a car, she’d be taking audience members to Australia. This is all to say, Oprah was, as always, on the mind.
In any case, Feimster’s friend had no intentions of hosting a pity party and sprang up, bouncing around the room and pointing at everyone with enthusiasm: “You get a miracle! You get a miracle! You get a miracle!”
Three weeks later, after submitting a packet to Chelsea Lately, the E! late-night talk show hosted by Chelsea Handler, Feimster was in the production office as a new writer and performer hire—which, if you know anything about trying to land a writing job with few connections in Hollywood, is actually a miracle. The subject of this staff meeting: Everyone would be taking a trip to Australia, where Chelsea Lately would be shooting in May.
The thing about Fortune Feimster is that this isn’t even her most interesting origin story.
Feimster and I are chatting over coffee the morning after she performed her new stand-up act at Town Hall in New York City. It’s tentatively called 2 Sweet 2 Salty, and as the title suggests, it’s a sequel of sorts to the Netflix special that, in essence, announced who she was to the world.
But it’s not that Feimster had just arrived. In addition to The Mindy Project and Chelsea Lately, she had appeared in shows like Life and Pieces and Champions, and movies like Office Christmas Party and Soul—and was a memorable scene-stealer in all of them. That’s what happens when you’re that tall, with shoulders that broad, and with that electric shock of sandy blonde hair, all dripping with a syrupy Southern accent. You’re memorable. Especially because people like you aren’t typically seen on screen.
Lately, Feimster has really absorbed that point. She’s had to. Messages flooded in from viewers of Sweet & Salty who responded to her story and what it meant to see an unapologetic, hilarious, multitudinous lesbian on their TV screen. Hearing her share her fears about coming out to her family helped parents and their queer children open up dialogues with each other. The director of that Lifetime movie even reached out to Feimster after her special aired, relaying how blown away she was that anyone was talking about the movie, considering how incredibly difficult it was to get made.
“I’m at the place with these jokes that they’re all very funny to me,” Feimster says. “But clearly there’s pain, and at the root of coming out, it’s a difficult thing.” When she started to get all that positive feedback, she was floored. “I was like, oh my God! You don’t go into comedy thinking that you can do that.”
The special, which was released in January 2020, was a huge moment for Feimster. Netflix was the biggest platform that she—someone who had auditioned and was passed over twice for Saturday Night Live—had ever received. The audience response was rapturous and Sweet & Salty was nominated for a Critics Choice Award, alongside Jerry Seinfeld, Marc Maron, and Hannah Gadsby.
It was the creator’s dream: A piece of work that reflected exactly who she was and what she wanted to put out into the world was received warmly. After a previous career of interviewing the Next Big Things, she was one. Finally, it was her turn to be shot out of a cannon… and, it turns out, into a wall.
After the success of Sweet & Salty, Feimster started scheduling a tour to work out new material, with a few—she laughs as she says this—“classics” for fans of the Netflix special. The first show was going to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the second week of March 2020. The world, obviously, had other plans.
When we meet, Feimster is having the breakout year she should have had, well, a year before. But as it happens, maybe that’s a good thing; thanks to the impromptu break, she’s operating from a wiser perspective that she would have been robbed of had she launched straight into new material.
During the pandemic, Feimster got married. With nothing to do but go hiking together, she and her wife had a lot of time to talk through and clarify experiences that would become foundational for new jokes. (Her engagement, and the ridiculous waiter who played a prime role in it, gets a prime slot during her new act.)
“On a personal level, it was super disappointing,” she says about her original tour being postponed. “But then you have to look outside of that. You're like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in a horrific pandemic. People are dying.’ Your focus shifts pretty quickly. So yeah, it sucked for like a minute, and then you go, ‘There’s bigger things in the world.’ I just had to hope that eventually we would get back to some normalcy at some point.”
Sweet & Salty is, in some respects, Feimster’s coming-out story, and there was a mission behind that. “If you’re a little girl in Oklahoma wearing sweatpants and a cutoff T-shirt, I see you,” she says in the special. That’s important. Growing up, she didn’t see herself. That Lifetime movie anecdote was real—she was 25 and watching a fictional character realize she was gay and figure out how she was going to tell her family. It was a eureka moment, one that took seeing someone she could relate to talk about their feelings in a TV movie.
She’s had people tell her that they showed her special to their parents, waited to see how they reacted to it, and then once they started laughing, felt safe to come out themselves. A straight man once called into her radio show, What a Joke, on the Netflix Is a Joke Sirius XM channel, and shared that he hadn’t realized how hard it must be for a person to come out, even to an accepting family—the terror of truly not being able to tell if your parent will reject you and never want to talk to you again. And then she’s had people send her hateful direct messages about her “life choices.” (One of those particular messages even ends up in her new act.)
“I wanted it to be like, ‘How can my story be relatable to people from all different walks of life?’” Feimster says. “And so I just shared my truth: here’s my journey. I didn’t have a lot of representation growing up, so hopefully this means something to someone. Maybe they can see themselves in some part of my story that will help them figure out who they are. We know how long it took me to figure out who I am. Maybe this will make their journey a little quicker.”
If Sweet & Salty dealt with Feimster realizing who she was, this new act interrogates how people see her and engage with her in the world. She deals with the fact that in spite of her physical appearance and style, she is not the butch lesbian that people expect her to be. Her very feminine wife, Jacqueline, it turns out, is the one who can be relied on to fix the plumbing or be strong in a moment of crisis. Feimster, in contrast, had to be banished from a veterinary office because her emotional breakdown when their dog had a health scare was too much for everyone to handle.
“I have this large body and these big shoulders,” she says. “I go into bathrooms and people say, ‘Hi, you’re in the wrong bathroom.’ I’m just like… I’m a lady. So it’s funny to have this look and then to be daintier on the inside than people might realize. I just feel like this mixture is a funny juxtaposition, because it’s not what anyone would assume. My very feminine wife has proven herself to be way butcher than me. Especially in this pandemic.”
The week that we meet, the question of what role comedians serve in culture is a hot talking point. Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special was in, at that time, what may have been the third or fourth news cycle relating to the comedian’s “jokes” about the trans community, the streaming service’s decision to give him a platform, and whether or not criticizing him constitutes “cancel culture.”
It’s interesting to listen to Feimster working out her new material in relief to that. There’s no denying that her work is relevant and necessary; those anecdotes about what it’s meant for people to hear her story is a testament to that, as is the disgusting hate mail she receives. But there’s an undeniable warmth to the way she tells stories. If she’s an insult comic, the only person at the receiving end is herself.
“I’m a Cancer,” she says. “I feel things. I have empathy for people. I want whatever I’m talking about to also have some heart, or just be silly. I will always lead with that. I’m never gonna be, like, the shock comic. It just doesn’t fit me as a human.”
In Sweet & Salty, Feimster talks about what it was like to come out. Now, her new act deals with what it’s like on the other side. What was it like to date as a tall, Southern lesbian living in Los Angeles? What was it like to plan an engagement to your girlfriend? Why does it seem that you disappoint everyone because you don’t ascribe to stereotypes people make about you because of your gender and sexuality?
“We’re in a time where people want labels, and then don’t want labels at all,” she says. “I just think there are so many nuances with all of us. We're not just one thing. I’m not just gay. I’m not just a woman. I’m not just Southern. There are so many different facets to us and our personalities. I’m still finding the theme of this show, and it will evolve as I go. But right now, I’m sort of leading with the idea there’s more to me than what meets the eye.”
Feimster is now finally making good on the promise of that launching pad from 2020 that short-circuited when COVID hit. She has tour dates set across the country through the spring, and the hope is that this new act will lead to another comedy special.
She’s even plotting to share her story in new ways. Years ago, she filmed an ABC pilot with Tina Fey about her upbringing in North Carolina with divorced parents. (Annie Potts played her mom.) It didn’t get picked up, but many of the intended storylines form the outline of her stand-up act. Now, her goal is to write herself a movie—something that, after a career playing the funny best friend and kooky supporting player, would center her as the main character. It’s about damn time there was a Fortune Feimster in the leading role.
As we get ready to say our goodbyes, I apologize for making so much of the conversation about being gay. Sometimes it can feel reductive to make an interview with a gay performer so much about their sexuality and what it means to be out in their industry. Sometimes, a person wants their work to exist outside of that. It can be limiting.
But as she’s proven with her stand-up act, the gayness is entirely the point. It’s the punchline. It’s the framework. It’s the whole show. It’s her life.
“I’ll never not be gay,” she says about any criticism that she talks about her sexuality too much in her shows and, now, in interviews. “It’s just who I am. It took me a long time to figure it out. And once I did, there’s no going back from it. I’ve never been happier than realizing who I am. I’m never going to be ashamed of being gay for the rest of my life. I spent enough of my childhood confused, not knowing who I was, feeling different, and having shame in that. So now I just lead with, ‘This is who I am and I’m proud of who I am.’”
“I’m evolving like everybody else and learning to grow, but if I can be some sort of positive representation for gay people, that means a lot to me,” she continues. “For anybody who’s like, ‘Why does gay have to be a part of the conversation?’ Hopefully we’ll reach a point where we’re not having to fight for representation and there is so much representation that it’s not a focal point. But we’re not there yet. So until that happens, this is part of the conversation.”