The Best Medicine
Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski sits down with actor, podcaster, and (very) funny woman Michelle Buteau to chat about making the world LOL.
Comedian Michelle Buteau has popped up just about everywhere over the past year, and the bangers keep coming. She's impossible to ignore in the Netflix original films Someone Great and Always Be My Maybe, and steals a ridiculous number of scenes in the media provider's miniseries Tales of the City, which highlights the lives and relationships of gay, lesbian, and trans people. When she's not busy taping Adulting, the (hysterical) podcast she co-hosts on WNYC, she's off shooting the BET+ series First Wives Club, a reboot of the 1996 original with a primarily black cast, out September 19th. There's no doubt: Buteau is absolutely killing it—and her star potential grew even more obvious when she recently sat down to chat with Antoni Porowski, Queer Eye’s tender-hearted lover of homemade porchetta and author of Antoni in the Kitchen. The duo, whose simultaneous rise into pop culture’s pantheon eventually led to their real-talk level friendship, covered everything from the biggest boner-killer in the world to healing the effects of the patriarchy, one hit show at a time. –Remy Ramirez
A: How did we first meet?
M: Booty call.
A: [Laughs] No, I'd seen you perform before.
M: You had?
A: Yes. I saw you somewhere in New York, so I knew who you were and was incredibly intimidated because you're so fucking funny and smart.
M: Oh my God, I feel like a size 12.
A: Intelligence and humor together is the biggest turn-on for me. I've met a lot of super-interesting people in the past couple years, and comedians are always the most intimidating. I don't understand how someone can be so funny and sharp all the time. It takes me a while to process things, but it just fucking comes out of you.
M: Yeah, it's like gas. It just keeps coming out. But no, we met at that festival. I was introducing shows, and they said they wanted me to help with this food demo because whoever was supposed to intro you had dropped out.
A: That's what it was.
M: I remember sitting at that table, and everybody was talking. I feel like people who love to talk never have anything to say, so I just let everybody talk. Even though I’m outgoing, it's taken me a very long time to be here because I’m also shy. I don't know if you remember that.
A: Yeah, but you had really good questions, and you’re so comfortable in front of a crowd. With some comedians, there's always this wall or divide, like the person is just projecting a performance. You're very good at having a relationship with the crowd.
M: Yeah, I don't feel like being guarded will get you anywhere. Being vulnerable is great. Obviously protect yourself—don't give everything to everybody—but I always think it's very special that people show up and put their cute dress from Macy's on to go see me, or you, or anybody else. Like, who are they? It's not just about me.
A: This is kind of jumping ahead, but you touched on vulnerability. In your stand-up, you talk a lot about very personal things. Are there certain topics you’d never discuss? I'm not going to ask you what those are, but, like, tell me about the things you never want to talk about!
M: [Laughs] I think you figure it out as you go because you can't talk about all your business; you have to keep something for yourself. When you're on the other side of something, that’s when you can make it funny, but you really have to let yourself go through it first. I remember I put this album out called Shut Up! in 2015, and I told a story about finding out that my college boyfriend didn't know how to read. I was only able to talk about that 20 years later. When I'm in something, I'm drunk on the emotions and can’t think clearly. I feel like people don't allow themselves time to grieve or process sometimes. They want to live in the now, the 140 characters, the hashtag, the Instagram of it all.
A: Right, it can be so messy in the moment.
M: Yeah. How do you get through and unpack it all? Do you make a pros and cons list?
A: I have a mini team of people: a therapist that I meet with regularly, a couple best friends, and my sister, who I talk to when I have some kind of hesitation. Like when Queer Eye started, I was like, “I’m not going to talk about gay shit.”
A: But lo and behold, in Season 1 we meet this guy, AJ [Brown], who wants to talk about coming out, so I decided to share my story. That’s why it's tricky. As a public person, I realize now that there's a bit of responsibility because somebody could actually benefit from hearing your story and realizing, "Fuck! I'm not the only person in the world going through this.”
A: It’s such an important thing for me because I always think I'm the first person to ever be recognized walking down the street, but a lot of people have [had that experience].
M: Yes. Being recognized sometimes feels like you’ve run into a person at a party who doesn't know how to leave. And you're like, “I gotta go!” And they just touch you with their dirty fingers. Like, we haven't spoken since like high school. Why are we here?
M: I can't speak for you, but as a woman, life is just different. When you have a hole between your legs, you don't know what's going to happen! Like, Thank you so much for liking my stuff, but I have to go now. It gets wet and wild for a bitch sometimes.
A: Oh gosh, I've never even thought of that. Because you talk about sex so openly. Have you ever had an incident where somebody makes an assumption?
M: Oh, all the time.
A: Yeah, I’ll be at an event—and I’m not comparing this to a woman’s experience at all—but people—and it’s always straight white girls who are very drunk—will come up and immediately think they can touch me wherever they want, and like, put their hands on my waist.
M: Yes! So your waist is a black girl's hair? They think they can get in it. When you have big tits or freckles, people think you're just a life-size doll.
A: [Laughs] Okay, I want to talk a little bit about the past year, which has been one hell of a fucking act! You’ve had breakout performances in two Netflix movies, Someone Great and Always Be My Maybe. Plus the Tales of the City reboot. And you launched your podcast Adulting on WNYC. And you're starring in the very first BET+ series, First Wives Club. I've seen two episodes, and it's fucking hilarious because you’re really just being yourself!
M: I mean, it’s taken maybe 15 years of bad auditions and thinking I’m supposed to be this certain thing to realize I just needed to be myself. I really had no idea. But yes, I worked really hard, and it’s all happening at the same time. People are like, “Wow, you really came out of nowhere.” It's just like, Bitch, I've been here 18 years shaking my titties up and down this country doing stand-up.
A: Right. And reboots like First Wives Club and Queer Eye, for example, are showing that these stories can be told through the lens of diversity.
M: Yes. It's so important, especially in Tales of the City and Queer Eye because people feel seen and heard. With all the damage this administration is doing, we’re bringing people together in a way that feels like Thanksgiving dinner. It's not always going to happen at a march, or parade, or CNN panel. It's going to happen when we literally go behind that closed door and realize we all want to be loved, to feel good, to take care of ourselves and our families. It's so necessary, what you guys are doing [on Queer Eye].
A: Thanks. It’s an incredible honor to be on that show. I wanted to talk more about First Wives Club. It’s a reboot of an iconic film [the original starred Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton] with the theme “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but you still get to inject a personal quest into it.
M: Yeah, this is the first black show I've ever been on. I'm usually the token—the friend, the neighbor, the whatever. To work on a show where the cast and crew is hella diverse, it’s like they're setting us up to be our best. But also, I don’t think people will think this is a show exclusively for black women. Friendship is universal. Friends are your chosen family, and you can go through really major things together that you have to figure out as a team. That’s what happens in this show, and it’s amazing. Also working with Jill Scott was fucking maaagic. Working with black moms in general is everythaaang.
A: Another thing—because I love a little backtrack—when you were mentioning going to auditions for years, I can relate. I went in for “French waiter” or “Polish terrorist” for, like, nine years because of my name.
M: [Slow clap]
A: And then they hear me talk and are like, “You don't sound Russian.” But yeah, for years I tried to be whatever they wanted to see. Queer Eye taught me to lean into who I am. It kind of makes me think about your podcast, Adulting. Do you feel like you have ultimate freedom there?
M: Well a podcast, especially for a comedian who loves to host, is sort of like putting your album up on Myspace back in the day. You have total creative control. But now, podcasts are getting turned into TV shows because executives are just thinking in numbers and aren’t always creative. Sorry executives, but you know it's fucking true.
M: So what happens when you let an artist actually do their thing? They make some fucking amazing content. 2 Dope Queens inspired me because I really thought I had to be out here doing it by myself, but they showed that you can work with a friend and lift each other up. Jordan Carlos and I have been friends since I started stand-up, and we decided to do a show totally being ourselves and see whether we liked it or not. It reminds me that when I took acting classes in LA back in the day, my teacher told me, “If you're nervous before you go in for an audition, repeat to yourself, “‘You are enough. You are enough.’"
A: That’s my morning thing that I tell myself! It's so important.
M: It's so important. But I think I only started believing it two years ago, which is crazy! You can say it, but until you drop into it, I don't think anything will happen. It really is about your relationship with yourself.
A: Yeah, and it’s continuous. You have to keep growing and learning.
M: There's nothing more unattractive than somebody who's just like, "I don't need to know anything else."
A: That's the biggest boner-killer in the world
M: Yeah, I could never put my face in someone’s crotch if they were just like, “I know everything.”
A: [Laughs] Okay, so you have a shit ton of stuff going on professionally, and then you became a mother! Of twins!
M: Yes. I busted my ass last year and was like, “All this stuff will drop, and I’ll get to stay home and watch myself on TV while feeding babies,” and it's just like, no bitch, there's press and everything else. And then you get offers to do more stuff. It's wild and wonderful, but planning a family, especially alternative family planning with a surrogate—it’s a lot. It all took about five years, four miscarriages, and a lot of money. It was crazy. Plus, I was flying around the country, performing and playing happy clown—
A: Oh my gosh.
M: —while I was going through all this. And what's crazy is that nobody talks about it! Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer, nobody knows how to act, nobody knows what to say. But it's just like, whatever you're going through, can we just talk about it? You know, keep it to five sentences or less. I'll be like, “I'm so sorry for you,” and we'll just keep moving.
M: So yeah, what was wild, too, was that I was playing a pregnant person in Always Be My Maybe—anytime we do an Ali Wong project, she's definitely showcasing a pregnant woman because they out here doing stuff, the most boss-ass bitches. So every day—while I’m trying so hard to get pregnant—I had to strap on this huge belly and listen to people be like, "Oh my God, you look so good pregnant! Do you want kids?" I just had to give them the elevator pitch version.
A: You don't speak from your heart for that; you speak from the throat.
A: By the way, one of these days, I will have a corgi. That's my version of a kid.
M: Well, you don't have to be a parent to understand parenting. Some of my best friends do not have kids but they take care of so many people in their lives. And finicky plants.
A: I have a shit ton of flowers everywhere. I love flowers, and the floral market is two streets south.
M: I didn't know you lived in Clinton Hill. We just put an offer on a house in City Island. It's a little island that's part of the Bronx. They call it the New England of the Bronx because people have private beaches.
A: Everything about you is so New England, so it makes total sense.
M: Wait, like a ghetto Martha Stewart?! [Laughs] Yeah, so we're going to move to City Island and harvest our own oysters on our beach and—
A: Stop! Who are you?!
M: I don't know. This is what happens when you marry Dutch people. You think anything's possible.
A: Speaking of family, what kind of a mom are you? You’re managing so many things and so much stress while you have two extra beating hearts at home.
M: It's such a gift, and it's also the perfect excuse to say no to things, which I'm getting better at.
A: Oh my gosh, teach me. Do I need to have kids to be able to say no?
M: No! Maybe, but definitely my main goal is making family time. My parents both worked corporate [jobs], and I was home alone a lot. I don't want that. I don't want somebody else raising my kids. I don't mind a village, but I want to be there, too.
M: But yeah, I hope I'm a chill mom, like on some Lisa Bonet shit where if you want to try drugs or a sip of something, you can come to me. I don't have that “Don’t embarrass me, I’m your mom” thing. I look at these two individual souls that are in the world now and wonder how I can facilitate them doing good in the world and being the best versions of themselves. I’ve already set up a fund in case one of them wants gender reassignment. My parents helped me make my dreams come true; I want to do that [for them], too.
A: I wanted to ask you about your stand-up work—was it the first thing you wanted to do?
M: No. I would go to stand-up shows, and people were always depressed and uninspiring. They were like, “I'm broke! The world sucks! How can I get my dick sucked?”
A: Would you feel sorry for them?
M: Yeah, but I was also just like, “Do better. This is a show. People paid money to be here.” And then I also noticed there were no females, and if there were females, they'd really set it up like, “Okay, we're gonna switch it up now! Really take it from a different point of view!” And it's just like, what are we doing? It's just a woman, and I can tell she's a woman by the time she gets on stage; you don't have to fucking announce it. That’s when I decided to try stand-up—I just felt like there needed to be more females.
A: It’s interesting that you felt underrepresented around these straight, white, comedian guys and didn’t see anyone you could identify with or look up to. When you're LGBTQIA, often we don't have people we can look up to or model ourselves after. I used to think that was really shitty, but I'm learning that that can actually be incredibly freeing. There’s no blueprint, and we kind of get to figure it out as we go. Do you feel like that's the case in your career?
M: Yeah, it's almost like you can't mess it up. I hate to give advice off a magnet, but definitely be the change you want to see. Whatever that is to you, just do it.
A: Somebody's got to do it, why the fuck not you?
M: That’s exactly it.