Meteoric Michelle
The unstoppable rise of Michelle Buteau
By Kate Morgan

She graduated from Cherokee High School in Marlton and once worked at the Cherry Hill Mall. So you could definitely call Michelle Buteau a quintessential (South) Jersey Girl. Now with her own Netflix special and a recurring role on BET, the comedienne/author/activist is a rising star. And she’s all about bringing Jersey with her to the top.

The first line in “Survival of the Thickest,” Michelle Buteau’s debut book of autobiographical essays, isn’t a full sentence. It’s just one word: “Jersey.”

In the first 10 minutes of the smash-hit Netflix sitcom of the same title, Buteau’s character Mavis walks in on her cheating boyfriend, whose first reaction is to urge her not to “go all Jersey on us!” It’s a line Buteau says the actor actually improvised, but it makes perfect sense, since she can’t help it: Buteau isn’t just  from here. In a way that feels elemental, foundational, the actress and comedienne is New Jersey. 

“There are a few states that feel like a nationality,” she writes in that first chapter. “Jersey is one of them…Whether you’re Black, brown, white or in between, we’re gonna meet you at our closest Wawa, cop a hoagie, get that extra red sauce on the side at that I-talian place, drive ‘down the shore’ just so we can yell at someone to drive properly.” 

Buteau says she’s “seen it all” when it comes to the Garden State: the 46-year-old was born in North Jersey, then moved to Central Jersey and, eventually, to South 

Jersey, where she worked at the Cherry Hill Mall and graduated from Cherokee High School. Buteau was raised in a staunchly Catholic, Caribbean family – her mom is Jamaican, and her father is Haitian – an upbringing that’s had a huge influence on her work. 

She went to college in Florida, majoring in journalism. A professor helped shape her future by insulting her in front of the whole class, saying Buteau was, “‘too fat to be on television.’ Can you imagine?” she told the Wall Street Journal. “It was a defining moment.”

At first, Buteau worked behind the scenes instead, as a news producer and editor for NBC in New York. All the while, she dreamed of doing stand-up comedy. “A lot of coworkers were telling me that I was really funny and that I needed to do stand-up,” she writes. “But I just laughed and said, ‘Whatever, you cute.’ I never took them seriously.” 

Transitioning between moments of lighthearted comedy and deeply serious subjects is something Buteau does masterfully. In her book, she explains that what finally led her to the stage was the opposite of funny. On September 11, 2001, she was at work in her New York City newsroom when two planes hit the World Trade Center. 

“We had to send news crews down to the site ASAP for coverage, and when they finally got down there…the buildings collapsed,” she remembers. “What I saw next was something I could never unsee. I was looking at small monitors and watching people die. Suddenly it hit me how my life was so trivial. All our lives were.” 

It took years before Buteau could really deal with the trauma she witnessed that day and the days after, but it also led her to finally give comedy a real shot. 

“Editing video of that horrible afternoon over and over and over again made me think, ‘F*** this shit. We’re all gonna die; we don’t know when or how, so let’s get to that back burner of the to-do list of life and make shit happen.’ September 14, 2001, I did stand-up for the first time,” she writes. “I fell madly deeply in love with it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

It took five years of increasingly high-profile gigs before Buteau was featured on Comedy Central. By 2017, she was on Esquire’s list of 10 comedians to watch. The next year, she landed a coveted 15-minute spot on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup. Her rocket ship had officially launched. In 2019, she had scene-stealing turns in the movies “Someone Great,” “Isn’t it Romantic,” “Sell By,” and “Always Be My Maybe.” In 2020, she hosted Netflix’s popular reality show “The Circle,” and got her own special – “Welcome to Buteaupia” – on the streaming platform. 

At the same time, she and her husband, Gijs van der Most, opened a successful vintage furniture store in Brooklyn called Van der Most Modern.

And suddenly, Buteau’s a leading lady. She stars opposite Jill Scott and Ryan Michelle Bathe in the BET+ series “First Wives Club.” And this summer, Netflix launched a fictionalized, sitcom version of “Survival of the Thickest,” with its funniest moments adapted straight from the real-life escapades in Buteau’s book. 

The show’s 8 episodes take on some heavy themes, like racism, body acceptance, family issues and fertility. Those are pulled from Buteau’s life, too. Near the end of her autobiography, she writes with heartbreaking honesty about enduring round after round of IVF and multiple miscarriages, while navigating a career that was just beginning to take off.

“I threw myself into work, flying all over the place and just gaining more and more weight,” she writes. “It was really hard hanging out with friends and keeping up with everyone’s lives. And while I seemed to be all right, my tunnel vision was zooming in on what I wanted most. Couples who never wanted a baby were all of a sudden having a baby. Friends who were pregnant during my miscarriages were further along in their pregnancy or had the baby. When friends started making their social media all about their babies’ faces, I had to unfollow. Their lives were a constant reminder of what I didn’t have in mine.” 

After a fourth miscarriage, Buteau and van der Most opted to find a gestational surrogate. Though the pair still live in New York City, they had to find a surrogate in Pennsylvania. At the time, paid gestational surrogacy was illegal in New York. In January of 2019, they welcomed twins Hazel and Otis. 

Buteau became a crusader for legalizing the kind of surrogacy that made her a mother. “I felt like my body rejected me and now my home state has rejected me,” she told reporters after a 2020 event with lawmakers.

In 2021, when New York passed the Child-Parent Security Act, legalizing surrogacy, Buteau tweeted, “My heart bursts for the future families that will be created.” 

When it comes to her career, it’s clear Buteau is just getting started, and now the Jersey girl’s art isn’t just for herself – or for all the women who see themselves in her. It’s for her kids, too. 

“The need to protect these littles at any and all costs is now my nationality,” she says. “I really wish for my daughter to be confident in who she is, not to believe people when they say she’s too this, or not enough that. I want for my son to have his own definition of what a man is. I want my twinsies to know that they are smart, considerate, and independent enough to trust their own decisions. No matter who you decide to be with, or what you do in life, you are enough. You are always enough.”  

January 2024
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