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Comedian Fortune Feimster: from Deep South redneck to unlikely gay icon

Maxim Boon catches up with the American comedian, actor and writer ahead of her latest venture Down Under.

During my research for this article, I stumbled upon an interview with American comic Fortune Feimster from back in 2010. At the time a relatively unknown emerging talent on the New York stand-up circuit and a fresh alum of The Groundlings (one of the most highly regarded hotbeds of improv comedy in the US), the piece revealed Fortune as refreshingly humble, almost giddy with disbelief after receiving her first invitation from Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels to appear on his hit show, a watershed moment for any American comic worth their salt. It paints a picture of a hard-grafting hopeful getting their first shot at the big time, of someone with plenty to prove but with even more determination to prove it.

In the eight years or so since Feimster gave that interview, she’s certainly made good on the promise of her early career. After landing her first major break on Chelsea Lately in 2013, appearing as a regular roundtable co-host on Chelsea Handler's hugely popular late night talk show, she has since gone on to successfully branch out from stand-up comic and TV talking head, adding in-demand comedy actor to her list of credits. She's appeared in some of America's top sitcoms, including 2 Broke Girls, Glee, and most notably, Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, as recurring character Colette Kimball-Kinney. Most recently she's starred in heartwarming coming out-coming of age TV comedy Champions, created by Kaling and producer Charlie Grandy.

Even with all the career landmarks of an internationally recognised star under her professional belt, as Feimster talks to me about maintaining the two sides of her career – on-screen and live performance – I'm struck by how humble she remains. “I get so much out of both for very different reasons. Stand-up will always be a love of mine because it’s the thing that got people to finally start noticing me. I went through quite a long period of people saying they didn’t get my comedy, that they didn’t get me as a performer, and I just felt stuck. I didn’t know how to make my voice heard or understood," she candidly shares. 

"So it wasn’t until I started doing stand-up that people really clicked with me and seemed to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what you’re about, we see where you’re coming from now.’ So, there’s a special place in my heart for stand-up because it feels kinda like home-base for me. I mean, I love acting – more than I thought I would in fact. When I started doing the Mindy Project, over the course of three years, it quickly became a passion. So, I hope I can continue to keep both things – stand-up and acting – going as long as I can.”

Today, Feimster is perhaps best known to audiences outside her native US for her TV work. But her easy-going, down-to-earth nature is a very distinctive presence in her live performance, which Aussie comedy lovers had the chance to experience firsthand during her Down Under debut at last year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Her shtick on the stand-up stage has always involved an ample amount of self-deprecation. In fact, Feimster is ostensibly an insult comic who only takes aim at herself. It's a style that's hard to perfect; laughing at a comedian instead of with them can quickly curdle into an uncomfortable experience for an audience. But drawing on the unexpected push-pull between her Deep Southern upbringing (she's a self-proclaimed "redneck") and her identity as an out gay woman, Feimster is unflappably likable, mastering a careful balance between these two polar ends of her personality. 

Such a fine-tuned way of cracking-wise requires a lot of trial and error, she explains. "I mean, there’s a part of every stand-up’s life where they have to – I dunno if this is the best way to say this – but kinda suck a bit! You have to be prepared for jokes to crash and burn if you want to get better. And we all have an ego, but you have to put that aside for the greater good of comedy, you know?" 

Intentional sucking aside, when it comes to refining her stand-up Feimster has some of the best comedy sounding boards in the biz. "I’m very lucky that I have a lot of funny people in my life. If anything, I've just tried to learn from them. Like Mindy and Chelsea are perfect examples, of just how hard you need to work if you want to be a success. Like, Mindy is constantly working on writing a show, being in a show, making a movie, and that’s like an average Tuesday for her. So that’s really shown me that to keep being a success, you’ve got to work, work, work."

While her redneck ribbing – delivered with a molasses-thick North Carolinian drawl – is still very much a part of her act, as her success has brought her to a more diverse audience, Feimster (who got engaged to her long-time girlfriend Jacquelyn Smith in January this year) has become an increasingly inspirational figure for the LGBTQIA+ community. With her characteristically modest tone, she says this has brought a profoundly touching dimension to her life as a proudly queer celebrity. 

"It really started when I was on Chelsea Lately, because she is very popular with the gay community. So I would have some people come up to me at live performances and say, ‘I’ve never said this to anyone before, but I’m gay. I don’t know why I told you that, but I am, and I felt I could say it to you.’ Which is such a beautiful thing to experience," she shares. "I was really taken back when it first happened because I just couldn’t get over the fact that someone had felt I was the person they could tell that to. And for me personally, that really means a lot because I wasn’t out for a really long time, and I had no one I could tell for a really long time, so if someone feels I’m a safe place for them to come to terms with that, I’m just so honoured."

I suggest that once you’ve been a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, as Feimster was in 2017, you’re pretty much a gay icon for life. “Oh yeah! I hadn’t thought of it like that,” she replies. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me.

First published on 8 November 2018, for The Music.