Things You Never Knew About The Real Woman Behind Flo

We all recognize Flo from the Progressive commercials via the bright red lipstick, the starched apron, the blue headband, those retro high-top sneakers, and the ever-perky personality. But not many of us know anything about Stephanie Courtney, the actress who has portrayed the loyal insurance company administrator in dozens of Progressive television commercials since 2008. Admittedly, to reach the top, the entertainer took a longer road than most of her more famous colleagues endured — a list that includes Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, and Jon Hamm – but the overnight success of Flo has been just desserts for the time she put into honing her comedic and acting skills.

The role was more than a windfall for Courtney, it also majorly increased numbers for her biggest employer. In the first decade since the Flo ads first appeared on the small screen, Progressive's business spiked from $13.6 billion in 2008 revenues to almost $30 billion in 2018. "While I can't give Flo all of the credit," said Remi Kent, the company's chief marketing officer, to The New York Times in 2023. "I think she has really become synonymous with the brand." Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Courtney, affectionately called Flo by her multiplying fan base.

Progressive wasn't her first commercial

While Stephanie Courtney certainly went on to become famous for her Progressive commercials, it wasn't the first time she had been involved in a big company's advertisement. Courtney's first commercial was actually for Bud Light back in 1999. It was a Super Bowl spot, leading the actress to believe she had finally made the big time. "That was my first audition, and it was just like this crazy Super Bowl commercial. And I was like, I'll quit all my day jobs! And then that dried up, and then I had to call back to all my day jobs," she joked to

Before becoming the face of Progressive, Courtney booked "about one [commercial] a year," according to an interview with The Washington Post. "What I netted wasn't exactly matching the hours I was putting in. I figured I'm not a face that makes people want to buy Lysol. Then I auditioned for Progressive," she recalled. We're guessing that net-earnings-to-hours-put-in ratio has shifted a bit.

Flo is based on Courtney's mom

In a 2016 interview with lohud, Stephanie Courtney gave the inside scoop on how she landed the once-in-a-lifetime role of Flo. "I went in for an audition eight years ago for a 'big box store employee,' and I put on my polo shirt and put my hair in a ponytail and showed up," she said. But Courtney had more than just the look that Progressive wanted. "What they were looking for was basically a friendly neighborhood waitress; she is super friendly 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," Courtney added. "I said, 'Yes, I can become Jane Courtney!'"

Courtney didn't walk into that audition with the mindset that she was going to be playing this character for the next decade. She said in that first audition she had just one line, but the director at the second audition invited her to "play with the role," which lead to...

Courtney's improv skills changed the original ad concept

In an interview with Advertising Age, Progressive CMO Jeff Carney says, "Flo was an accident." He described how the original concept for the "Superstore" ad campaign was "to make shopping for insurance a pleasant experience." Flo was just supposed to be a friendly cashier in the superstore, but Stephanie Courtney brought the character to life when she ad-libbed the line, "Wow! I say it louder." 

That was essentially the birth of Flo, as company execs then saw the opportunity to "surround Flo with characters to play off and offered other opportunities to expand Flo's story." Since that fateful audition, Courtney has continued to be an integral voice in how the character of Flo has progressed (pun intended). The ad lib also kept the financial wolves away from her door, as Courtney owed money to everyone from her family and manager to debt collectors. "And then I got that money, and I was just like: Here! Here! Here!" she exclaimed to The New York Times. "Just — here! — just get out of my life."

She actually helps write the commercials

In 2009, Courtney told about the backstory she envisioned for Flo, saying, "When I picture Flo in life she drives her little Mini Cooper around town and it's basically like when Bob Hoskins drove into Toontown in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit.' Basically all the buildings and the birds are singing in her mind." She explained that Flo isn't a complex character and that she's "just so excited for any good quality she sees in a person."

In her 2016 lohud interview, Courtney talked about how she has helped shape Flo's personality through the years. "The writers are very open to what I think; there may be some improv here now and then, that is encouraged, by the way," Courtney gushed. "All of us were working so hard to find out who this person was and what the boundaries were. With Flo, she was sort of originally this perfect little No. 1 employee, but the power has gotten to her." Uh oh, sounds like her little sidekick dude, Jamie, might want to sleep with one eye open.

She has been acting for quite a while

In various interviews, Courtney has spoken about her love of performing. She told that the theater was an early obsession, stemming from frequent family trips to Broadway, including the time she was inspired by a young Kevin Kline's performance in "The Pirates of Penzance." After seeing that show, she decided she wanted to be an actress, telling Cosmpolitan, "By the time I got to middle school, we did a play a year, and I was in all of them. In high school, we did a fall and a spring musical, and I was always in one of those. I would even show up to rehearsals I wasn't supposed to be at. I loved everything about it, and I was never bored by it."

After graduating from college, she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City for two years. During that time she worked odd jobs and went on a ton of auditions, eventually landing a gig with Theatreworks USA, which is how got into the stage actors union. From there, it was the typical working actor's grind — more odd jobs, auditions, and small parts — until she made her way out to Los Angeles.

She has appeared in a bunch of TV shows and movies

Stephanie Courtney has definitely had success outside of her advertising work. If you've ever had a moment where you've thought, "Where else do I know her from?" it's probably from one of the 30 shows she has appeared in since 1998. A quick glance at her IMDb page shows she's been on "Mr. Show with Bob and David," "Angel," "Tom Goes to the Mayor," and "2 Broke Girls," to name a few. She also appeared in five episodes of "Mad Men," as Marge, a switchboard operator. If none of those shows rings any bells, then you may recognize her from some of the movies she's appeared in, such as "For Your Consideration," "The Brothers Solomon," or "The Heartbreak Kid," in which she appeared in scenes with actor Ben Stiller.

However, one show that tanked in the ratings after only six episodes in 2007 inadvertently predicted Courtney's future. She played an office manager in "Cavemen," which featured prehistoric characters previously seen in a slew of Geico insurance company commercials. Within a year, Courtney landed her Flo spot with Progressive, a Geico competitor. "Now it's all Flo and any other acting work I get," Courtney related to Cosmopolitan.

She's a stand-up comedian

Stephanie Courtney's comedy career began in 1996, with an invitation from a friend to perform on a show called "Newborn Comics — Actors Who Stand Up!," an event produced by New York's Neighborhood Playhouse theatre, where she was taking acting classes. Speaking with Cosmopolitan, Courtney said she had two weeks to create a six-minute routine, and although comedy was a big change for her, she "felt a lot more comfortable" performing comedy, as opposed to dramatic acting. "Stand-up was a lot easier than trying to stage a play at a theater. I could perform and be seen without having to spend a lot of money looking for a location to rent," she explained.

Going the comedic route was one of the first major changes Courtney made to her entertainer career path. "I was in New York, and I and auditioned for a ton of plays and got nowhere — until I did standup," she told Backstage. "And then I got a manager who said, 'Come to LA.'" So, it was actually stand-up that brought Courtney out to California, which, in turn, led her to her true comedic love: improv.

She's a member of The Groundlings

Stephanie Courtney's comedic talent and passion for acting led to The Groundlings, a legendary improvisational and sketch comedy group located in Los Angeles with a lengthy list of successful alumni; including Paul Reubens, who created his Pee-wee Herman character during his time in the theater. After seeing one of their shows for the first time, Courtney described to Cosmopolitan being "blown away" and signing up for classes the next day. Once she became a member of the Groundlings, Courtney worked her way up to becoming a member of the main company, whose alumni include Jim Rash, Will Forte, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, and Kristen Wiig.

When she was interviewed by Tina Malave in 2019 at the Groundlings facilities, before she was to be featured in the company's regular improv production of "The Crazy Uncle Joe Show," she couldn't escape from talking about whether she thought her life could be changed by a character named Flo. "No, not at all," Courtney answered. "I just sort of kept improvising, you know, a very emotional happy [character]."

She graduated from Binghamton University

Long before earning her comedy chops with The Groundlings and eventually becoming Flo, Stephanie Courtney knew she needed a backup plan. Well, at least, her parents did. At their urging, she enrolled at Binghamton University in New York, where she earned her English degree. While there, she performed in many plays, even portraying Elizabeth Proctor in a production of "The Crucible," before graduating in 1992.

As a remarkable alumni of the school, Courtney was invited back to the university to deliver the 2015 commencement address. In a full auditorium filled with grads in gowns and mortarboards, sitting in rapt fascination over what she was going to say, Courtney seemed confused over why she was chosen for the task. "I understand there has been an illustrious line of keynotes speakers in Binghamton University's history. Senators, captains of industry, journalists," she said in her address archived on Binghamton University's YouTube, before bringing up her own claim to fame. "I was on 'The Man Show' in 2003. Does that count?"

She lived in France, twice

When Stephanie Courtney's father, a high school history teacher, had the opportunity to take a sabbatical year and travel to France to get his master's degree in European History, he took his entire family along. Courtney was 3-years-old, so she doesn't have a ton of memories from that time, but she did tell "The JV Club" podcast that she was "instantly bilingual," though she has since forgotten how to speak French.

Courtney also revealed to "The JV Club" that she returned to France her junior year of college for a semester abroad, living with her host family in the city of Avignon for five months. She has many memories of this time, although not all of them great. Courtney recalled her awkwardness as an American not exactly assimilating well to French culture. "I ate, like, Olympic amounts of bread and cheese, and then I outgrew all of my clothes," she joked, adding, "And I remember, I was so sad, like, I really looked like Gerard Depardieu. I couldn't afford a haircut, like, no makeup, and I'd like mope around France because I felt so bad about myself."

She's a playwright

Aside from performing in other people's work, Stephanie Courtney penned a play of her own titled "Those Courtney Girls," which was included in the 2000 Aspen Comedy Festival. The play was based on exaggerated versions of herself and her sister, Jennifer, and their lives as broke actors. The play didn't do very well there, according to Courtney's interview with Cosmopolitan, but she did have the chance to meet Fred Armisen, co-creator of "Portlandia," and Darlene Hunt, creator of Showtime's "The Big C," while she was there.

But not even her success with Progressive has chased away that creative writing bug. "I shouldn't even say this, but I'm writing something for myself," she said to The New York Times, fully realizing all that the public would want from her would be more Flo. "I don't even think I should waste my time trying to pitch it to anybody. Because I understand that it would be received politely. It would be a great meeting. We'd have water."

No one recognizes her on the street

Although no tricks or prosthetics are used, transforming into Flo takes a lot of time and make-up. It takes about one hour of teasing to get the hair just right and another hour to apply the thick lipstick and eye makeup. In real life, her style leans more towards the J. Crew look, according to her interview with People. "I'm sort of East Coast so I like the off-white and the navy blues and the low-key preppy kind of thing," she told the magazine, also noting that she "barely gets recognized in public."

Of course, that interview was from 2009, just a year into what became a decade of Flo commercials. It's likely that Courtney receives slightly more attention these days, as evidenced by a recent bizarre street encounter she had with TMZ during which the tab asked her about Harrison Ford's airplane mishaps. Um, what?

She's a late bloomer

According to Cosmopolitan, Courtney married her husband, Scott Kolanach, the lighting director for the Groundlings, at age 35. She got the Flo gig when she was about to turn 38, and had her first child at 40. But she says, "It tastes just as sweet when it's late." At this age, she approaches her work a lot calmer and saner than she would have in her twenties, when she would have wasted her money on "sweater capes and mid-sized winter boots," according to her.

Courtney has definitely made up for lost time career-wise as well, and since 2018 has added another regular gig as recurring character Essie Karp on the family sitcom "The Goldbergs," nabbing more than 30 episodes of the sitcom. As for the longevity of her Flo character, Courtney isn't sure. "I don't know, how much plastic surgery would it take?" she joked to Iohud. "I could be propped up on a gurney or something. Who knows?"

She didn't die in May of 2014

On May 27, 2014, eBuzzd — a site notorious for spreading false rumors — published an article (via The Epoch Times) stating that Stephanie Courtney died in a car accident while driving her Lexus LX in New York. Obviously, this did not happen. As of this writing, she's alive and well with her husband and family, and has no plans to stop portraying Flo for Progressive Insurance.

If anything, she feels grateful for the role that provided a great deal of security for her in a business where most actors live a hand-to-mouth existence. "Just the fact that I can breathe easy and not feel like there are wolves at the door has changed everything for me," she said to Cosmopolitan in 2015. "I'm married and we have a house and we have a kid and the kid is now going to preschool. We can provide for this little guy and be able to breathe. I know that's an incredible thing in this industry. It boggles my mind to this day."

She was snubbed by SNL

At Groundlings, Stephanie Courtney hoped that she would eventually crash the lineup of "Saturday Night Live," which frequently scouted the troupe and snapped up talent like Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Mikey Day, and Kristen Wiig, one of Courtney's best friends at the time. But producers of the TV show demonstrated no interest in her. "They were like, 'Stop sending her stuff in.' Like, 'We're not interested,'" lamented Courtney to The New York Times. "I remember feeling so terrible. And just embarrassed. Like a weird shame. Like, 'I shouldn't even walk around.'"

But what "SNL" failed to see in Courtney, the creative powers behind Flo latched onto quickly. "Stephanie is a very gifted performer and she has a fundamental likability, vulnerability, and normalcy," said Sean McBride, executive creative director at event marketers Arnold Worldwide, which was involved in Progressive's Flo campaign, to Fast Company. "Even when we ask her to be dry, she has a really nice way of making it feel like a human moment." Interestingly, Courtney is way ahead of the curve compared to some "SNL" expats, who have recently taken the plunge into the commercial realm, such as Kate McKinnon pitching for Verizon, and Aidy Bryant dancing for Old Navy.

She was absolutely broke before Flo

After moving to Los Angeles in 1998 to find her feet in comedy, Stephanie Courtney landed her first job as a delivery person for Zone Diet, a company that required her to travel to residences with their prepared meals. "I got fired pretty quickly because I did not know my way around," she said to Backstage. "I had to pull over and look at the map." Between whatever acting gig she could get, Courtney primarily lived off of babysitting and catering jobs, and even occasionally teaching her craft at the Groundlings.

But a decade later, despite having done ads for Bud Light and McDonald's and landing minor roles in shows like "Mad Men" and "Cavemen," Courtney was still broke and beginning to lose her confidence regarding her future. "I just remember feeling kind of discouraged," she said in the documentary "Behind the Apron: The Story of Flo." "My car wouldn't go into reverse, I was living in the tiniest studio in Los Feliz with my cat, you know? And I was just like, 'Hey, kid, it's you and me. I guess this is us until the end of the line.'"

She soldiered on regardless, driving her faulty vehicle to auditions and using her acting chops to encourage folks to help move her car while she shifted it into neutral. "And I'd go to the next one and do the whole thing all over again," she said to The New York Times.

She set a record for commercial appearances

When Progressive celebrated its 10th anniversary of the continuing Flo campaign in 2018, Stephanie Courtney had already made 150 commercials as the insurance company's human mascot. No other actor had ever worked on as many commercials playing the same character at the time, or since.

Part of that success may have been due to the way Courtney visualized the quirks of her character. "With commercial auditions, less is usually more, but this was a big character," she recalled to Cosmopolitan. "She was funny, she loved her job, and she loved her customers. So I thought, 'She'll love them to a fault where she's walking the line of crazy. It's like the love just spills over and becomes a tiny bit inappropriate.' That's what I came up with in the audition room."

While her life is very wrapped up in Flo, one thing she won't do is dress in public as her famous character for Halloween, even though she loves it when others do. "If I made myself up, I would look like a crazy person," she said to TMZ. "I need, like, pros to do that." Courtney opting against advertising Flo during her downtime hasn't fazed the executives who have benefited from her profile for roughly 15 years, as long as she continues to keep the company name front and center. "I've got the No. 1 brand icon now and we want to stay there," said Progressive CMO Jeff Charney to Fast Company.

She has a specific pre-show ritual

One thing that Stephanie Courtney learned from her experiences with The Groundlings was how to take pressure off herself whenever she hits the live stage. It's not so much an exercise, but a disciplinary routine she has incorporated into her pre-show regimen. "One thing I do before I go out on stage is I make a promise to myself that I'm going to support the other person no matter what they do," she said on the PVImprov podcast. "No matter what they say, I am going to be just their support system, their cheerleader, instant enthusiastic agreement, and that takes the attention off myself and it puts me in a more generous place."

Courtney discovered that such a ritual is part of several improv skill sets that she could transfer to the business community. In 2020, the New York Chapter of the PCMA, a business event strategist organization, hosted Courtney for one seminar in which she demonstrated how improv can boost one's prospects in a job interview and can teach folks how to become better listeners.

She has also used her Groundlings training to land commercials, including the Flo campaign that made her famous. "I like having not a lot of time to prepare — it's the improv thing," she said to Backstage. "How do I make this come to life my way? With commercials, you don't even know what they're looking for; it's up to the clients behind the creative team."

Some Flo ads turned into a Mad Men reunion

Stephanie Courtney was largely ignored when she appeared in five episodes of the retro drama, "Mad Men." Playing frumpy switchboard operator Marge at the fictitious Sterling Cooper advertising firm, she could at least offer an outsider's perspective on office debauchery. As drunken executives chased female staff during a party in one scene, her character wryly noted, "I used to think I'd find a husband here." 

However, those brief appearances didn't stop Progressive from making hay over pairing Courtney's Flo character with "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm. Progressive had three commercials involving the two, with a reunion that didn't necessarily involve "Mad Men." Instead, they scripted that Flo and Hamm run into each other years after they first met during a botched blind date. "In partnering with Jon Hamm, we fan the flames of brand love in a way that consumers can relate to, because who hasn't experienced the awkwardness of unrequited love?" noted Progressive's CMO, Remi Kent in a 2022 release.

Hamm is one actor who treats commercial roles with the same zeal he tackles television, streaming, and movie work. "It's a challenge to get a message across in a one-minute spot or a 15-second ad or what have you," he told Bloomberg. "And there are so many creative ways to do that nowadays." But Hamm lost one challenge in the ads: his charm couldn't win over Flo, who demonstrated she was more attracted to insurance than romance.

She played up a fake romance with Pete Davidson

By all accounts Stephanie Courtney seems to be very happy raising a family with her husband Scott Kolanach. But when it comes to allegations of salacious tandems, the same can't be said about her Progressive character, Flo, especially when at least one celebrity has found her to be fair game. That would be "Saturday Night Live" alum Pete Davidson, who came back to host sketch comedy show in 2023. One music video segment in that episode dubbed "I'm Just Pete," with a satirical "Barbie" theme throughout, featured a tabloid shot of Davidson posing with Flo the moment he sings, "My dating life is not discreet."

Courtney's character couldn't resist hitting social media to respond to his melodic remark. With Flo from Progressive as her user name, she posted: "It's come to my attention that a new chapter of my dating history has surfaced," the satirical notes app message read. "Yes, Pete and I have a long, complicated history. But we care a lot for each other. He respects my role as a public figure, working woman, and insurance extraordinaire. And I respect his role as a tabloid regular. After our amicable separation, we are now navigating the difficult journey of co-parenting our rat-infested boat. Please respect our privacy at this time." It's hard to say whether she had a hand in creating some of the verbiage, since she apparently does help with writing the Flo commercials, but the response was pure marketing genius.

She's reportedly worth $6M, but maybe a lot more

Although Stephanie Courtney is set for life, the extent of her wealth remains a matter of debate. While Celebrity Net Worth reported that the Flo portrayer was worth $6 million and makes $2 million annually, it's likely she might make far more than that. In 2023, The New York Times reporter Caity Weaver suggested to Remi Kent, Progressive's CMO, that online scuttlebutt pegged Courtney's annual earnings at $1 million. After the journalist came up with her own figure regarding Courtney's annual income, Kent responded with a smile, "Well, that's a wide range, isn't it?" Meanwhile, Stewart Talent commercial agent Phil Cassese believed that Courtney, after 15 years of playing Flo, would get as much as $10 million.

2023 SAG/AFTRA rates (via Backstage) indicate that principal actors can make as much as $20,000 per commercial. It's a far cry from what Courtney likely earned from her first ad gig as an extra with Bud Light, a SAG/AFTRA range between $117.56 and $651.80. Reversing the effects of inflation all the way back to 1998 means that she would have likely pocketed between $63 and $350 for that session, assuming she was with the union. These days, Courtney wouldn't put on an apron for anything that low.