by Théoden Janes, The Charlotte Observer
Fortune Feimster is wearing a pretty blue cardigan, bright red lipstick and dangly earrings, and she’s doing her best to pretend she’s not a lesbian.
It’s a scene from Mindy Kaling’s forthcoming NBC sitcom “Champions,” which centers around a gym owner who has just found out he has a long-lost teenage son, who is gay. In it, Feimster— who co-stars as an openly gay fitness trainer — has been assigned by her boss to play it straight while going undercover to learn about a competitor.
“I am a heterosexual mother who needs to get in shape,” she says to the rival gym owner, “because my male husband no longer finds me alluring.” Then, explaining her fictional fella’s foibles, she slips up: “Always burpin’ and scratchin’ his butt. Readin’ my Playboys.”
It’s exactly the type of show that would have been useful to Feimster when she was growing up in Belmont, back in the ’90s.
At the time, she says, she just didn’t know enough about the world to realize she was gay.
“It was easy to be very isolated in Belmont [N.C.], and not know what was going on in the world around me,” says Feimster, now 37.
“I didn’t have examples of gay people. I knew what it was, obviously, but there was no one that I knew who was out and living a normal life in Belmont. So it didn’t occur to me that that could be what I was.
“We didn’t have Internet, so I couldn’t, like, Google ‘gay stuff.’ And there weren’t really many television shows — ‘Will & Grace’ had not come out — and as a gay person it is important to see examples of yourself out in the world, something to identify with that you’re like, ‘Oh wait, that’s me!’”
Since coming out in 2005 (at age 25) and breaking into television on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2010, Feimster has won raves as a writer, panelist and skit-stealer for Chelsea Handler’s E! and Netflix series; as a lesbian nurse (and fan favorite) on Mindy Kaling’s cult-hit sitcom “The Mindy Project”; and in a small but memorable part as Jennifer Aniston’s wacky Uber driver in the 2016 movie “Office Christmas Party.”
Today — in addition to having another high-profile project in the wings — she is one of America’s foremost LGBTQ comics.
How did Feimster get from a small town in North Carolina to where she is now? Well, as you might expect, it’s kind of a funny story.
‘Don’t get me a doll…’
Emily Fortune Feimster was born on July 1, 1980, in Charlotte [,N.C.] to Mike and Ginger Feimster (Fortune was Ginger’s grandmother’s maiden name), and her individuality took shape early.
When she was two, her parents offered to get her a toy to compensate for them taking her older brothers to Williamsburg, Ginger recalls. “She said, ‘Well, don’t get me a doll. I already have one.’”
And even though she makes jokes in the new sitcom about being an overweight fitness trainer (“I intimidate people with my unobtainable physique,” her character says), Feimster always has been a natural athlete: She played basketball and softball and lettered in both sports at South Point High School — where she also was captain of the tennis team for two years.
One thing that didn’t come naturally to her: dating.
She says she assumed, growing up, that boys just weren’t interested at the moment — that eventually, she’d find the right one and things would fall into place. She was introduced as a Gastonia debutante in 1998, but she and guys “always had that kind of like ‘bro’ feeling towards each other.”
She didn’t understand why.
“It seems so weird that that’s even possible in this day and age,” she says, “because I think our world’s a lot more connected now with social media, and you just have access to everything. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up.”
In 1998, she left home to study communications on an academic scholarship at Peace University, a Raleigh school that at the time was for women only. That decision changed everything for Feimster — although not in the way one might expect.
The power of public speaking
“You would think going to a women’s college, I would be like, ‘Jackpot! Let’s lez it out together!’” she says, laughing.
But the school — a small, private institution affiliated with the Presbyterian church — was to the best of her knowledge fairly devoid of lesbian students, Feimster says. “So that just kind of never was on my radar.”
Besides, she was too busy crushing college. By her senior year, she was president of the student body, captain of both the tennis and soccer teams at the Division III school and had the highest GPA of any athlete at the school. When she graduated in 2002, she did so summa cum laude and was the student speaker at commencement.
Though she no longer has a copy of that “follow-your-dreams” speech, she speaks of it in interviews often — because it altered the course of her life.
A summary, according to Feimster: After the ceremony, she hit it off with the day’s keynote speaker — actress Emily Procter, a Raleigh native beginning a 10-year run as a lead character on “CSI: Miami.” Then, later that summer, she met a Raleigh mom looking for a babysitter, who by complete coincidence turned out to be Procter’s best friend. She recognized Feimster from her speech because she was in the audience that day. Feimster ended up reconnecting with Procter through this woman and, after taking a year to live in Spain, moving to Los Angeles to become the “CSI” star’s personal assistant.
Despite failing miserably at that job, Feimster found a more suitable one after meeting a neighbor of Procter’s who worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. Procter had apparently told the neighbor how well-written Feimster’s Peace speech was, and the neighbor offered to let her cover some premieres for the paper.
She spent the next seven years as an entertainment journalist, standing on red carpets interviewing the likes of Will Smith and Tom Hanks, studying the business from a unique perspective.
A couple of years into chasing celebrities around, two other major life changes occurred: She came out as gay, and she started taking classes with The Groundlings, an improv and sketch-comedy troupe. Both discoveries gave her an almost immediate sense of peace that she’d never felt before, she says.
The Groundlings led to her starting her own troupe, which led to her trying stand-up, which led to a standing Sunday gig at West Hollywood’s The Comedy Store, which led to being cast on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2010. (By this time, she’d dropped the Emily and embraced Fortune as her stage name.)
Feimster remembers asking her manager: “Do I talk about being gay? Or am I gonna paint myself into a corner if I come out of the gate talking about it?”
And she remembers the answer: “It’s part of who you are, and if you start trying to not be you or not talk about all of you, it would be a mistake.”
‘I definitely still feel Southern’
Though she’s been credited as a scene-stealing sidekick to both Chelsea Handler and Mindy Kaling, Feimster lost one shot at becoming the name above the marquee.
In 2015, she sold ABC on the idea for a sitcom titled “Family Fortune,” set in North Carolina and based on her family life. Tina Fey, Matt Hubbard and Robert Carlock — all key players behind “30 Rock” — were on board to produce. Annie Potts (“Designing Women”) and John Carroll Lynch (“The Drew Carey Show”) would play her parents. They shot a pilot episode.
Then the network shut it down.
“It was such a hard no to get, because it feels more personal when it’s based on your life,” Feimster says. “You feel like they’re like telling you and your story no. It took a minute to sort of pick myself up from that. ‘I’m like, well, what do I do next?’ ”
The new half-hour sitcom, “Champions” – which centers on brothers Vince and Matthew (Anders Holm and Andy Favreau), Vince’s gay son Michael (J.J. Totah), and the posse of trainers at the gym they own (led by Feimster, who plays her character as openly gay) — was given a series order by NBC last year, signaling the network’s strong faith in it. “Champions” premiered at 8:30 p.m. on March 8.
But that’s not the only thing that’s made 2018 great for Feimster so far. In January, she announced her engagement to kindergarten teacher Jacquelyn Smith, her girlfriend of two and a half years. (No wedding date has been set; Feimster told the Observer, “we’re not gonna rush into it…maybe next year. I just keep hoping Martha Stewart will just be like, ‘I’m not busy! I’ll throw a wedding!’”)
The couple recently enjoyed the Christmas holiday in Belmont, where Feimster bought a house last year — much to her mother’s delight.
“It’s so exciting,” Ginger Feimster gushes, “that of all the places she could have bought a second home, she chose Belmont.”
As for her daughter’s engagement? “Just wonderful.” For the past five years, Ginger has been president of PFLAG Gaston.
Fortune’s new place, which is on the Catawba River, is now a holiday gathering spot for family.
But seriously: “I definitely still feel Southern,” she says, calling from her and Smith’s house in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that my accent is never going away. Every time I open my mouth, I remind everyone that I’m a Southerner. I’m also a pretty laid-back person. I have a chill vibe, which is sort of synonymous with where I’m from — everyone’s kind of just moseying. You’re not quite in as big of a rush as these city folks out here. …
“In fact, I live in the Valley, where you can actually find some land. I have a house out here with big trees and a yard, so I don’t always have to feel like some Hollywood person. “It feels,” she says, “like it could be in Belmont.”