Looking back, Sarah Cooper 'wasn't ready' for viral fame: 'I suffered a lot of humiliation'

Author and comedian Sarah Cooper photographed in her home.
Author and comedian Sarah Cooper at home in New York earlier this month. (Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)
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For the record:
7:58 a.m. Oct. 2, 2023: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of siblings Sarah Cooper has. She has three, not two.

In 2020, as the world was gripped by a suffocating pandemic, Sarah Cooper became a viral phenomenon. But what happened during and after her skyrocket ride to fame would flip her world upside down.

Cooper's breakthrough came with a series of online videos lip-syncing then-President Trump. In "How to Medical," "How to Bible" and "How to More Cases than Anybody in the World," Cooper supplemented Trump's voice with exaggerated facial quirks and gestures.

The spectacle of a Black woman lampooning the most powerful politician in America delivered a refreshing comic antidote to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and looming election, drawing tens of millions of views and shout-outs from Bette Midler, Cher, Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller.

Author and comedian Sarah Cooper.
Cooper, who came to prominence for lip-syncing to Donald Trump, "was obsessed with imitating white men," said. Her new memoir, "Foolish," "is the book where I stop doing that, and where I'm actually being who I really am." (Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)

And after a lifetime of wondering how to break into show business, Cooper suddenly had Hollywood knocking on her door.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live!" called her to guest-host an episode of the ABC late-night show. She appeared on "Ellen" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." An offer came for a regular role on a sitcom. She sold two TV pilots — a project with Ricky Gervais to Netflix and another based on a book she wrote several years ago to CBS.

The biggest get was her own Netflix special, a sketch comedy hour directed by Natasha Lyonne ("Poker Face") and juiced by an eye-popping guest roster including Stiller, Helen Mirren, Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Megan Thee Stallion, Marisa Tomei and Fred Armisen.

With its echoes of a popular meme depicting a dog sipping coffee in a room on fire, the title, "Sarah Cooper: Everything's Fine," seemed to sum up both her meteoric rise — the kickoff to a very promising career — and the truth behind it: Her quest for fame was unraveling in spectacular fashion.

"All these pieces had lined up for me to be in this extraordinary place, winding up in the middle of this national and international conversation, at the same time I feel I was at the weakest point in my life," Cooper said. "And I didn't realize that at the time. I look back at 2020 and I see someone who didn't know who she was. I wasn't ready."

Author and comedian Sarah Cooper.
Subtitled "Tales of Assimilation, Determination and Humiliation," "Foolish" also tackles subjects such as racial identity, Cooper's work in the tech sector, her sex life and marriage woes. (Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)

As she sunk deeper into the seductive river of fame, Cooper was seized by "impostor syndrome." Her inexperience dealing with industry hotshots and A-list stars was embarrassing. There was little comfort at home, either, as her husband grappled with Cooper's newfound celebrity status.

Two years later, Cooper exudes the self-aware humor and confidence of a woman emerging triumphant from battle, bruised but unbroken. She's still lip-syncing but in a whole new groove, and everything really is fine.

She confronts the pleasure and pain of those years in "Foolish," a breezy, insightful memoir in which she recounts her roller coaster journey in Hollywood, in addition to stories about growing up in an immigrant Jamaican family, her years working in tech and her messy love life.

The title, she said, "is aspirational: I was imitating a fool, but I also want to be foolish. I'm sick of trying to be like the perfect person."

Read more: Trump blocked comedian Sarah Cooper on Twitter. Now she calls him her 'head writer'

Subtitled "Tales of Assimilation, Determination and Humiliation," "Foolish" tackles racial identity ("Black Enough to Be Called It, Not Black Enough to Say It"), numbing days working at Google ("Here's An Ergonomic Chair to Protect Your Body While Your Soul is Dying Inside"), her so-called "ho phase" ("Pick Me, Pick Me") and her marriage woes ("Google Docs Knew I Was Getting a Divorce Before I Did").

Cooper wanted people to "see all the parts of me that existed to get to that moment" in 2020, she said in explaining the three-part structure. "The crescendo is called 'Humiliation' because I suffered a lot of humiliation."

There's little trace of that hurt as Cooper sits for a Zoom interview from her apartment, upbeat and personable, at times staring into the distance as she works though her deeper recollections. She chokes up at one point when talking about her affection for her parents and three siblings.

It's a world away from the lowest point of her journey to stardom. Instead of feeling like she won the lottery, she woke up with echoes of "you suck, you're such a loser" bouncing around in her brain. Netflix and CBS eventually passed on her pilots. Her marriage collapsed. Her online numbers dropped.

"The internet was sort of like this playground for me," Cooper said. "I went from 60,000 Twitter followers to 2 million. But a year and a half later, all of a sudden I didn't feel playful anymore. I was scared that everything I was putting out was being judged. I was scared that if I put out something and it was stupid or didn't do well, I would feel that people were saying, 'Sarah is a hack, a has-been.'"

It got worse.

"Then I started not being able to look at anything I created, like 'Kimmel.' The second I did, I was like, ugh! I couldn't watch myself. I was so angry at myself for not doing a better job, at every meeting, at every audition, at everything I got an opportunity for. I felt I possibly f— up the biggest chance that I had gotten, the biggest chance that anyone had ever gotten."

Even co-starring alongside Katie Holmes in an off-Broadway play at the end of 2022 offered little comfort. While the experience had its rewards, it was also grueling, as Cooper realized she did not want to be a dramatic actor.

Most of the ups and down are depicted in "Foolish" with a snappy, self-deprecating wit, sprinkled with playful sex talk (One example: "I've dated every white man there is to date. I've had more white guys inside me than a GameStop in the '90s.")

She runs through a cringe-worthy moment with Mirren after they filmed a scene re-creating the infamous "Access Hollywood" incident with Trump and Billy Bush, suggesting to the Oscar winner that they perform Shakespeare together. There's her all-consuming "schoolgirl" crush on Seinfeld, which became particularly uncomfortable when she was cast in a movie with him. (Seinfeld rewarded Cooper with a "delightful, complicated" blurb for "Foolish.")

Her offbeat sensibility flavors pithy riffs on childhood memories and apologies to former roommates, as well as "Thank God for My Broken Uterus," which revolves around her conclusion that having two miscarriages was a sign that she was not ready for motherhood.

"Foolish" is her vehicle "to put it all in context, but as a woman, as a Black woman, as an immigrant who was obsessed with imitating white men," Cooper said. "This is the book where I stop doing that, and where I'm actually being who I really am, through the therapy, the edibles, all of it."

She's still chasing her dreams. She is working on her stand-up, writing and planning a podcast.

Cooper is also determined to prove she is more than a Trump mimic. She's dumped Trump.

"I'm really sick of his voice now," she said. "A lot of people write me and want me to do Trump — 'Oh, my God, he's saying the dumbest things. If you do a video, it would make it so much better.' And I think, 'If you would just stop listening to him, it would make it so much better.' Those videos are both joyful and icky."

Her current online presence is centered on "the need to expose myself to things that are pleasing and bring me joy." That involves lip-syncing to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" or boogieing to "Little Boo Thing." She'll read excerpts from the memoir and relate graphic tales of bad sex.

Author and comedian Sarah Cooper is photographed in her home in New York on Sept. 26, 2023.
(Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)

Fans ask about how she's doing. "I'm so mad at myself for choosing someone who was so wrong for me!" Cooper says at one point. She went searching for her wedding ring in one reel: "It's under all my vibrators."

And she's declaring her truth that she is not a victim of the familiar adage "Be careful what you wish for — you might get it."

"When I hear that, I think it means that you're going to get what you want, and you're going to hate it," Cooper said. "But thank God this all happened. It's even better than I thought it could have been.

"I was so disassociated in a lot of ways. But I did it. I showed up and I did my best and I'm proud of a lot of it. That was the best part of just stepping into those shoes, as someone who actually works in entertainment for the first time."

She leaned forward as her speech sped up: "The big thing I had to get over in my life is not playing the game for fear of losing. That's what I was doing a lot — by hiding myself, thinking I can't put out anything that everyone isn't going to like, so I won't put out anything at all. I don't want to be in that world anymore.

"I want to be in a world where I'm putting out stuff that makes me happy and brings laughs to me, and perhaps other people and that's it," she concluded. "Who cares?"

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.