BY DYLAN SKRILOFF
That’s right, the face and voice behind the advertising sensation Flo is Stony Point native Stephanie Courtney, daughter of retired longtime North Rockland High School high school social studies teacher Bill Courtney and former NRCSD school board trustee Jane Courtney.
The 1988 North Rockland High School graduate and mother of one has enjoyed a long and winding acting career in Los Angeles, but she finally hit paydirt in 2008 when she became Flo. Nobody could have predicted the success of the advertising campaign, which within a year saw Flo become ubiquitous on television and Internet mainly due to the unique stamp that Courtney put on the character.
How did she come up with her interpretation of Flo? Courtney said in an interview with the Rockland County Times, “They wanted her very quirky and kind and helpful in the audition. So I went overboard on all three! Then I blacked out. Kidding! And the director at the time, Jeffrey, was great. Very encouraging of the whole ‘improvise and play’ side of it.”
There’s been many dozen Flo “episodes” now, but Stephanie Courtney would not confess to a favorite one. She said, “They’re all my babies! The rain shoot was memorable.”
And what kind of person would Flo be in “real life?” Courtney said, “She’s devoted to insurance, and spends her down time perfecting her hair and make up.”
Courtney said she knew Flo had “made it” when the character started to be a popular Halloween costume.
That’s right. You know you’ve made it when you have a Halloween costume in your honor, but even more-so when you’re the top hit on Google search. Just type in “Flo” and the #1 and #4 Google entry are both “Flo, the Progressive Girl.”
How popular is Flo? She has over 5.2 million fans on Facebook. Wow! Compare that to the mere wannabe, the Geico Gecko, who has 300K+.
She has a Halloween costume, she has apps and toys modeled after her. Who knows, maybe someday she’ll have her own show!
Flo has credited her mother as one inspiration of the character.
Bill and Jane Courtney are proud of their daughter, as you would expect. In a joint response to the Rockland County Times, the Stony Point residents said, “Being Stephanie’s parents has always been a joy and it still is. We are thrilled with her work on the Progressive ads, and are so glad that her talents for acting and comedy are being so well used. We can always ‘see’ her under the two hours of hair and makeup. She is still the down-to-earth, wonderful person that she always was.”
People light up when they find out the Courtneys are the progenitors of “Flo.” The Courtneys said, “When people find out that ‘Flo’ is our daughter, they are always very happy, and tell us how much they love her. It makes us very happy to hear that, and we pass that along to her, so that she knows what a positive impact her performance is having.”
Another person from North Rockland Central School District elated by Stephanie Courtney’s success is her former drama instructor and current NRCSD elementary school principal Michael Roth. The first time he saw Flo on TV he instantly recognized the actor portraying the character as Stephanie Courtney, even though she wears a lot of makeup and does not necessarily look like Stephanie would on a normal day.
“I recognized the unique mannerisms and gesticulations that Stephanie would use,” Roth said, raving about her natural ability to put herself into her roles when he was her director.
Roth said that in his memory, Courtney is the most successful actor to pass through the North Rockland School District drama program. Courtney credits Roth with helping to develop her as an actor and also gave a shout-out to Mr. Speight, her AP English teacher.
Courtney said she was always focused “like a laser beam” on acting. “I was always a drama kid,” she explained. “Two plays a year in high school. I hung out with some gals whose parents, like mine, were mostly teachers or worked in administration at the high school. We were not the fast crowd. I think I was probably thought of as the quiet, nice kid. Unless you got to know me better, then you’d know I liked to joke around.”
Annalisa Gulino Badstein, Class of ’88, had nice memories of Stephanie and said, “The North Rockland community is very proud of her and other North Rockland graduates that have become successful. I enjoy her commercials, especially the new one in the rain. Probably my favorite. Classical but still funny, and yes, she is a topic of conversation amongst North Rockland graduates.”
Tonia Kelemen McGowan, Class of ’88, said, “She is a lovely person. She was in my AP English class.” Courtney remembered her roots when Tonia’s sister Kerry Kelemen Curran was diagnosed with leukemia. “She donated some things for my sister’s fundraiser. It was well appreciated,” Tonia said.
Said Courtney’s classmate Kirk Schuh, Class of ’88, “Yes, I remember Stephanie. I did not know she was Flo at first. Another NRHS alum told me. I had her father for 10th grade history. It feels pretty good to have someone from school make it. In fact, NRHS class of 88 has done quite well. We have a former NFL player, models, fitness guru, music industy executive, and I’m sure there are more.”
NRHS alum Helene Lefkow Aaron recalls, “In 1987 she was the lead in the Drama Club’s production of ‘The Pajama Game.’ I played in the pit orchestra. She was very nice, no big ego, no diva-attitude or anything.”
Following NRHS graduation in 1988 Courtney attended Binghamton University, earning an English degree, and also working in theater and taking acting classes at the university. The arc of her acting career then led her to a neighborhood playhouse for two years, then lots of auditioning, catering, temping, a little acting work here and there.
Courtney explained, “Then I started doing stand up, which nabbed me my manager, Naomi Odenkirk. Then off to Los Angeles, a few more years of stand up, then lots of time at the Groundlings Theater, all the while still catering and babysitting and doing other jobs, then more work came my way, then Flo!”
Some of Courtney’s film and comedy influence? “I grew up on old black and white movies. Frank Capra, Billy Wilder. I ate their movies up! There are just too many good improvisers and stand ups I’ve met along the way. Some household names, some not,” she said.
Though Courtney is wrapped up in her Flo character and her husband Scott and baby PJ in Los Angeles, she still auditions for other parts and has fun with her first love: improv comedy. She makes weekly appearances at the Groundlings Club in Los Angeles.
Courtney said she hasn’t forgotten North Rockland. “I could keep in touch a lot better. I don’t get back east so much between work and having a baby. But Facebook has put me back in touch with a lot of people from HRHS, which is great,” she said.
Courtney said one location in North Rockland special to her was Bear Mountain. “My dad and I would go jogging at Bear Mountain’s Hessian Lake. Even in the winter! It was so cold and quiet. You think you’re at a chalet in Switzerland,” she said.
She notes, “Rockland County, Stony Point, the Hudson Valley has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous. And full of very funny people. My mom tops that list.”