By Ilana Kaplan published
You’ve probably seen Michelle Buteau sometime over the past two decades without knowing her: as Cynthia, a New Yorker who gets pulled into Jenny’s meltdown in Someone Great; Trudy the tour guide in Happiest Season; Sasha’s sassy childhood friend-turned-assistant Veronica in Always Be My Maybe; the feisty Bree Washington in BET’s The First Wives Club—just for starters. Perhaps, most recently, you stumbled upon her Netflix stand-up special, Welcome to Buteaupia, which boasts a Cardi B cameo. “I've done a ton of daytime TV shows and even a bunch of stand-up on late night, but people will stop me from a Key and Peele sketch from 2013 and be like, ‘Are you the girl that was in that sketch and did that thing?’” Buteau quips to Marie Claire over the phone from Atlanta, where she’s preparing to shoot the second season of The First Wives Club.
Regardless of why people may recognize Buteau, the charismatic and scene-stealing multi-hyphenate still doesn’t know if she's landed her big break: It’s a “good ass” question, according to her. “I feel like everything is such a stepping stone for something else, and it's also hard to keep track. You don't know what an executive has seen, so you don't know if it's stand-up, hosting, or some sort of small acting gig.”
In her new collection of personal essays, Survival of the Thickest (out today), she reflects on all of it: growing up as a curvy, Caribbean, Catholic, light-skinned Black woman in New Jersey; her colorful collection of hook-ups; leaving her newsroom job to do comedy; beginning her career in stand-up opening for strippers; being in an interracial marriage with her Dutch husband Gijs van der Most; IVF, surrogacy, and parenting.
The 43-year-old, who has long been an underdog in the comedy world, had contemplated writing a book for about seven years, but she battled recurring self-doubt. “It was one of those things where I'm like, ‘But I'm not a writer,’” she says. “If you sing karaoke, does that make you a singer? It's like, no, you just find joy in it.”
Her book was initially intended to be about self-acceptance and was tentatively titled, “Maintaining Chunky: A Thick Girl's Guide to Not Getting Fat.” But she felt that subject was more of an essay and less of a book. Ultimately there was more she had to say. “Sometimes writing does feel like a fart—you just have to get it out and you feel better,” she laughs.
Buteau, a sucker for metaphors, compares eventually naming her book to naming a baby: “You have to see their face first!” The comedian speaks from recent experience. She welcomed her twins, Hazel and Otis, in 2019. Writing about her journey to motherhood was cathartic and painful, but very necessary. “Now, people like Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen who have a proper platform—people who the world looks at and thinks that they have it all—are sharing pain that every woman goes through,” says Buteau. “And it's not even just what a straight couple would go through, going down the surrogacy route. I've met a lot of gay couples who have also been disappointed, and have gone through some trauma as well, trying to create a family.”
While it has been challenging to share the deeply personal moments of trying to conceive, she knows it's worth it if even just one person feels less alone.
“When I was going through it, it felt like I had no one,” she recalls. Friends would send her books or give her unsolicited advice, but it wasn’t what she needed. “I'm like, ‘Nobody asked you. You're not Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil. I just need a hug.’ And ‘Are you going to be okay? I'm sorry this is happening to you,’” she adds.
Another topic the comedian found difficult to address? Her family. “You want to be respectful, but you also need to tell your truth,” says Buteau. She knew she had to be fair, but also be true to herself. Though, she is haunted by the fact that “print is so final.” At Thanksgiving this year, her uncle—who’s a priest—told her how excited he was to get a copy; Buteau couldn’t help but think about all the sexcapades she penned: “I'm just like, ‘Oh, God. Is there a way I can just get him a copy of this book without the sex chapter?’”
At the end of the day, she owns it. She’s in her forties and this is her life as she lived it. (She did after all, confidently joke about foreskin in front of her mom during her Netflix special.) What she’s not worried about are the exes she mentions in Survival of the Thickest. Her mantra? “If you don't want to hear from me, you're going to hear about me. Bye, bitches! They are exes for a reason. Get out. You can double-tap my shine and keep it moving,” she exclaims.
Ultimately she wants her book to be funny and entertaining, and she wants to “educate through love.” “I hope if there is an oddy body, awkward adult or kid, that they know that it’ll get better. Love yourself first, and people will find the way. I just really hope people take away that self-acceptance is where it’s at.”
In addition to the book, Buteau is slated to appear soon in another supporting role that is sure to make her even more recognizable: 2021’s highly-anticipated rom-com Marry Me, alongside Jennifer Lopez. Yes, she’s just as in awe as anyone would be to have spent time in J.Lo’s presence. “Working with J.Lo was bananas because she's an entity,” she says. “She's like a whole walking Shark Tank episode of diversity, gorgeousness, and bossness.” Reflecting on the matter, Buteau is virtually speechless but—because she’s Buteau—she’s not literally speechless. “I don't have one word. How do you have one word?” The comedian finally settles on praising Lopez for knowing “her angles” and knowing “what everybody else should be doing.”
While working alongside Lopez was a total dream, Buteau doesn’t have one definition of success in mind. She felt like she accomplished her dream the minute she was able to quit her job and pursue comedy full-time. “I know my lane, and I love, love, love stand-up, hosting [and] acting, so I'm here forever.” And any other wins that come her way? “It’s just part of the journey.”
Ilana Kaplan is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She covers music, culture and entertainment and has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, NPR, GQ and more.
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