You might not know standup comedian and actress Stephanie Courtney by name alone, but you definitely know her by her TV persona, Flo, from the Progressive Insurance ads. Courtney has been playing Flo for eight years and has gained a certain notoriety for doing so.
So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that TMZ approached her on the streets of Los Angeles — sans makeup and the bouffant hairdo — to ask her if, as Harrison Ford’s insurance provider, she was concerned about the actor’s recent plane incidents.
“He is a Gold Star customer,” Courtney told TMZ. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
TMZ reminded her that Drake gave her a shout-out on Saturday Night Live and asked, “Can you bust a flow?”
“I can’t,” she laughed. “I’m not capable.”
Courtney, 47, is an alum of The Groundling’s Theatre & School in Los Angeles, which counts Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Lisa Kudrow, and many others among its starry graduates. She’s logged time in an impressive number of movies and TV shows, including Mad Men, Blades of Glory, 2 Broke Girls, and a hilarious turn as the bookstore manager in You’re the Worst.
But it’s her role as Flo that’s made her an icon of the TV landscape. It was a role Courtney was allowed to make her own, and she did — using her mother as inspiration.
“I went in for an audition eight years ago for a ‘big box store employee,’” Courtney told USA Today last October. “And I put on my polo shirt and put my hair in a ponytail and showed up.
“What they were looking for was basically a friendly neighborhood waitress; she is superfriendly and nice, almost to the point of madness, and I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I went straight to my mom, and I credit her with Flo’s personality. I said, ‘Yes, I can become Jane Courtney!’”
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In a full-circle moment, the Progressive commercials once did a parody of TMZ — among other stand-out moments, including Courtney poking fun at a sexist insurance salesman and another in which she played five members of Flo’s extended family. It’s little details like these that have helped elevate Flo to iconic pitchwoman status, hence why she’s being approached by TMZ on the street.
Flo is so popular that she’s been a Halloween costume favorite for years, spawning a YouTube video showing people how to amend their Flo costume to become Zombie Flo, Unicorn Flo, and more. There are even Flo-related Pinterest and Facebook pages.
For Courtney, Flo is a collaboration between herself and the writers who created her. Noting that the writers are open to her input and that she has the opportunity to improv a bit, Courtney said that Flo’s continued existence can be chalked up to a passionate fanbase that loves her perky realness.
“Everyone sees something different in Flo,” she shared. “In a lot of advertising, you’re sold perfection, and that’s pleasing but ultimately, not realistic. Flo is not perfect; her hair and makeup, things have slipped through the cracks. That’s something to watch.”
Certainly Flo has her detractors. Huffington Post spoke to some media types who offered their salty input, including a retired New York book editor who called her ads “irritating,” a videographer who referred to her as “creepy, weird,” Los Angeles PR professionals who said she was “dorky and unattractive,” and a veteran marketing guru who declared, “Yech, I’d rather watch the (Aflac) duck.” But if Courtney has her way, we’ll be seeing Flo for a long time to come.
“I don’t know, how much plastic surgery would it take?” Courtney cracked. “I could be propped up on a gurney or something. Who knows?”
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