The Stunning Transformation Of Progressive's Flo

There are few commercials on television you feel inclined to pay attention to, save perhaps the ads that air during the Super Bowl. But in 2008, Progressive got it right when they created Flo. The enthusiastic, overly-chipper spokesperson has been played by actor and comedian Stephanie Courtney for over a decade, with her bright red lips, teased up hair, and passion for saving money on car insurance.

Over the years, the world got to know Courtney a little better and she began revealing the untold truth of Flo. In 2016, after she had been synonymous with Progressive for over eight years, the actor told USA Today that Flo was inspired by her own mom. "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. I said, 'Yes, I can become Jane Courtney!'"

As viewers fell in love with Flo and followed all of her wacky adventures, we've also watched Courtney evolve from a struggling actor to a world-famous brand mascot that few recognize in person. Before she ever played Flo, the actor had a passion for performing and even auditioned for a number of iconic television shows, one of which you may be surprised to learn. From Courtney's early career to her celebrity status as Flo from Progressive, here is her stunning transformation.

Stephanie Courtney has always loved performing

Before Flo from Progressive was even a concept, Stephanie Courtney was born in Stony Point, New York in February 1970. Growing up, she was surrounded by classic films and musicals due to her parents' love of the arts and her close proximity to Broadway shows, so she quickly developed a passion for performance. In speaking with Cosmopolitan in April 2015, Courtney explained, "I had a very normal childhood other than the fact that I was in plays all the time. 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 ... 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."

Courtney was inspired by Kevin Kline after watching his performance in 1983's "The Pirates of Penzance," and she realized that she, too, could make a career out of acting. When she decided that this was her path in life, she never looked back. During a 2009 interview with Binghamton University Magazine, Courtney remarked, "I was never tortured over whether I wanted to become an actor. There was never another option in my mind."

She moved to NYC to study acting

Although Stephanie Courtney knew she wanted to be an actor, she dealt with a few setbacks. She first auditioned for a scholarship at the Penguin Repertory Theatre but didn't make the cut, so with some persistence from her father that she attended college, she enrolled at Binghamton University for her degree in English. In her 2015 Cosmopolitan interview, Courtney said, "I did plays, plays, plays, and then one year, one of my acting teachers said, 'You should really go to a Meisner technique class.' It's an improv-based acting technique."

So, after graduating from Binghamton University in 1992, the young actor went off to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City and spent the next two years studying what she was truly passionate about. Courtney loved the environment of her acting classes, but she had to make ends meet while she was in school. "That's when I also realized that I was going to have a bunch of survival jobs and I would have to get comfortable with being fired a lot," she said.

Courtney worked as a waitress, a grocer, and a telephone operator during her time at school, but after she left the Neighborhood Playhouse was when the grind really began. She auditioned constantly between 1995 and 1996 while also writing and putting on plays with friends, but she soon found another group she resonated with: stand-up comedians.

Stephanie Courtney got involved in comedy in 1996

Auditions had been grueling, but in 1996, when Stephanie Courtney was invited to perform in her friend's comedy show, "Newborn Comics — Actors Who Stand Up!" she seemed to have found her calling. Speaking with Cosmopolitan, Courtney explained, "She invited me and said I had two weeks to come up with six minutes to perform in a comedy club. That changed everything for me. Comedy felt a lot more comfortable. To write my own material, I just thought about the stories I tell my friends that make them laugh. It's empowering to be your own writer."

That same year, Courtney was discovered by Naomi Odenkirk, wife of Bob Odenkirk and manager of comedians like Bill Hader, and she offered to represent the soon-to-be Flo if she moved to Los Angeles. "By that time, it had been some fun but very hard years. So I was like, 'Absolutely!'" Courtney remarked. She moved across the country with her sister in 1997 and landed in La La Land, where they attended a show at The Groundlings, an improv and sketch comedy theater, and it became her mission to become a core member of the company.

She joined The Groundlings 1997

When Stephanie Courtney attended her first The Groundlings show, everything changed. In an interview with BroadwayWorld in May 2020, she said, "It blew my mind! The cast included Mindy Sterling, Cheryl Hines, Michael McDonald, and Holly Mandel. I signed up for classes the next day." With the hopes of making it big in the Los Angeles comedy arena, Courtney put her blood, sweat, and tears into The Groundlings, climbing the ranks of the improv group and following in the footsteps of other notable members like Lisa Kudrow and Melissa McCarthy.

However, Courtney was still disappointed that she couldn't win over the executives at "Saturday Night Live," who would often attend shows in search of the next Phil Hartman or Laraine Newman. They did, however, find "Saturday Night Live" alum Kristen Wiig, a friend of Courtney's, at The Groundlings, which must have stung terribly. "['Saturday Night Live'] were like, 'Stop sending her stuff in.' Like, 'We're not interested.' I remember feeling so terrible. And just embarrassed. Like a weird shame," Courtney remarked to The New York Times in November 2023.

Although Courtney didn't make it to the "SNL" stage in New York with some of her classmates, her time at The Groundlings wasn't for nothing. To this day, she still performs in many shows with the troupe every week, like "The Crazy Uncle Joe Show," alongside Amir Talai and Roy Jenkins, a former writer for "The Conan O'Brien Show."

Her first professional commercial was a 1999 Super Bowl spot

Stephanie Courtney was working hard at her stand-up routines, and she continued to attend auditions in the hopes of landing enough work to pay her bills. Eventually, as she told Backstage in May 2020, "My agent at the time said, 'Why are you catering and killing yourself when you can book a commercial and that can be your acting scholarship?' She worked hard to get me a commercial agent. I booked a really good one early on and spent all that money in a month, then crawled back to all my survival jobs."

That "really good one" was a spot in a 1999 Super Bowl commercial for Bud Light. You can just about see Courtney in the background, staring impatiently at two guys trying to decide between purchasing toilet paper or beer (of course, they decided on the beer). Thankfully, it paid well because it was a Super Bowl commercial and it continued to air for several weeks afterward, allowing the actors to claim residuals.

Courtney continued, "I made a bunch of money — and then I spent it. On rent, lots of sweaters, fur-lined Ugg boots I only use now for costumes, and paying off credit cards. That money goes fast." On top of commercials, she began auditioning for television roles as well, but Courtney was landing only less than one paid job a year and relied heavily on catering and babysitting gigs.

Stephanie Courtney auditioned for several well-known roles

In 1998, Stephanie Courtney booked her first credited role on a television show, "Mr. Show with Bob and David," which starred her talent representative's husband. From then on, she began landing minor, one-off roles on shows like "Angel," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Without a Trace." And although it took her many years before she would become a series regular, it wasn't for a lack of trying. Courtney even tried out for some iconic characters, like Pam Beesly on "The Office" and Joan Harris on "Mad Men."

Of course, she didn't go on to embody these characters as Jenna Fischer and Christina Hendricks, but she did eventually secure the part of Marge on Season 1 of "Mad Men," and managed to blend right in, just a year before she would book her most recognized role to date. In speaking with Cosmopolitan, she said, "Originally I auditioned for Joan for 'Mad Men.' They said, 'You didn't get that, but will you play a switchboard operator instead?' I said, 'Sure!' Then I saw Christina Hendricks in that emerald dress, and I went, 'Oh, I get it now.'"

She landed the role of Flo in 2007

Flo from Progressive is a character that seems practically made for Stephanie Courtney and it's hard to imagine her being played by anyone else. In her interview with Cosmopolitan, the actor explained how she got her job as Flo and, unbeknown to her at the time, set herself up for life. "With commercial auditions, less is usually more, but this was a big character. 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."

After auditioning with just one line, Courtney secured a callback and received the news that she would be Progressive's Flo in December 2007. Just a month later, her first commercial with the insurance company aired, and as more commercials were shot, it became a regular job she could begin to rely on.

After she had been making appearances on our screens between regularly scheduled programming for nearly two years, Courtney was asked by in 2009 about her experience so far. "You're not expected to love commercials, but the fact that people enjoy them makes me extremely happy because I know that some people don't get a choice what commercials they have to watch during a show," she replied.

Stephanie Courtney got married in 2008

Aside from the brilliant training and recognition Stephanie Courtney has received while working with The Groundlings, there was another life-changing element that arose from her time with the improv troupe. The actor met the love of her life, Scott Kolanach, the venue's lighting director, and married him in November 2008. As she told People, "Every crazy old lady character I ever walked out as on that stage had beautiful, peachy gem lighting because he liked me." While Kolanach seems to keep a low profile, he has also been credited as a producer on 2012's "Janeane From Des Moines."

The happy couple also welcomed their first child together five years later. In speaking with Cosmopolitan, Courtney has admitted that getting a bit of a later start on life, including when it came to having her family, has been beneficial for her. "I booked Flo when I was just about to turn 38. I got married at 35. I had my kid at 40. I'm a late bloomer. But it tastes just as sweet when it's late," she quipped.

She's continued performing comedy, acting, and writing

Since Stephanie Courtney made her debut as Flo from Progressive in 2008, she's continued performing comedy and acting, and you might recognize her from tons of movies and shows. Courtney has appeared on shows like "United States of Tara," "House," and "2 Broke Girls," as well as TV movies, landing the role of Kevin's mom in "Fred: The Move" and its sequels and spinoffs. In 2018, Courtney secured a recurring role on "The Goldbergs," playing Essie Karp, the best friend of Beverly, in seasons 5 through 10.

In terms of her own creative outlets, the iconic Progressive spokesperson has been writing her own material, as she explained to The New York Times in 2023. "I shouldn't even say this, but I'm writing something for myself. 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." However, Courtney is well aware that her reputation as "that lady from Progressive" has pigeon-holed her into a very specific niche and she's uncertain whether she would secure funding for her own projects.

She's rarely recognized today

Flo from Progressive is easily one of the most recognizable faces in American commercials today, having sported her apron, winged eyeliner, and persistent grin for over a decade now. However, when Stephanie Courtney isn't all done up in her character's signature style, she says she's rarely recognized. "[M]aybe once a month," she told The New York Times in 2023. Courtney added that as much as people may enjoy her on-screen persona, she avoids dressing in character unless she's working. "You might like Flo, but do you want to deal with her now, against your will?" she quipped.

Despite the fact that Courtney can often go about her life without being hounded by fans for photos and autographs, her character has achieved icon status. Joe Jonas dressed as Flo for Halloween in 2022, fully decked out in the wig, makeup, and Progressive apron, and he shared the look in an Instagram post captioned "Go with the Flo." Where some might think the fascination with her character borders on strange, Courtney seems primarily flattered and even told in 2009, "The Halloween costume, the fact that people dress up as Flo, that makes me so happy. That's one of the highest compliments. I love that so much."