“The internet is an actual dumpster fire,” said Franchesca Ramsey to an audience in March, explaining why, though she’s built her career online, she’d been retreating from social media lately. As a woman of color, she said, she dealt with a lot of harassment, and unplugging had been “paramount for my mental health.”
Ms. Ramsey was on stage at Caveat, a Lower East Side speakeasy tucked underground behind a nondescript door and a long set of stairs. She was one of three comics who had been invited to speak on a panel as part of The Box Show, an “intersectional feminist” program run by writer and director Kaitlin Fontana, who had for several years been performing inclusive comedy skits with a multicolored cast. That night’s presentation was The Box Show’s last.
Ms. Ramsey’s work, as a comedian, writer and actress who comments on inequality, is perhaps particularly vulnerable to vitriol — and a new book may expose her to more. In “Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist,” out May 22, she mines her own errors and condenses what she’s learned into a sort of manual on social justice, complete with a glossary of terms like ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) and ally (someone who defends the rights of marginalized groups to which they do not belong).
Over lunch in early April, she expressed some anxiety over how her book would be received. “I feel very vulnerable,” she said. Ms. Ramsey wore a burnt orange shift dress and a chunky wooden necklace with an abstract black and white pattern. Her signature embellished nails were painted a light pink with a gold glitter edge, a trio of glued-on gems on each of her index fingers.
She’d taken to ignoring her trolls — some of whom have created a host of videos dissecting and disparaging her work and role as a “social justice warrior,” a pejorative term used to describe activists who speak out online — but with the publication of her book, she said, “I know it’s going to ramp back up.”
Ms. Ramsey, 34, got her start on YouTube, and her big break came in 2012, after her video “Sh_t White Girls Say … To Black Girls” — a parody of the seemingly innocuous but actually offensive comments some white women make when interacting with black women — went viral. In the video, Ms. Ramsey wears a long, platinum blonde wig, and, in scene after scene, her character makes problematic statements such as “Is it, like, bad to do blackface?”The video made Ms. Ramsey an online celebrity, and she pioneered a particular type of content: politically correct, identity focused comedy skits and commentary. In 2015, she signed a deal with MTV to create and host a web show called “Decoded,” now in its sixth season, where she creates similar videos for a broader audience. And her subject matter has expanded to address issues like xenophobia, classism and mental health stigma. In 2016, she also joined the now canceled “Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” as a writer, bringing her internet expertise to a standing segment called “#HashItOut with Franchesca Ramsey,” where she dissected the Twitter controversy of the moment.
Though there is a precedent for online creators crossing over to television — “Insecure” creator Issa Rae and “Broad City” stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are standouts — there is no true precedent for Ms. Ramsey; her career built around her like a constellation, with activism as her North Star.
Ms. Fontana, the producer of The Box Show and a collaborator of Ms. Ramsey’s, said Ms. Ramsey has done “what we all wish we could do,” which is “as we get better in terms of technical acumen and writing, and all the parts of the puzzle get sharper, the core of that person’s work and what they believe in stays the same and true to who they are. I think that’s true of her for sure.”
In person, as in her videos, Ms. Ramsey is expressive and animated, often pumping her fist into her hand to punctuate a point or breaking into an impression in the middle of a story, but she pairs this playfulness with biting sarcasm. In the first episode of “Decoded,” for instance — in which she discusses the ramifications of associating black Americans with watermelon and fried chicken — there is an interlude in which she bites into a slice of watermelon, moans and, with a knowing look to the camera, says, “Tastes like oppression.” In another, she plays an instructor at a “race ambassador” training and cheerfully promises to teach the group of people of color to navigate the “brand new, awesome responsibility” of representing an entire culture in their office or neighborhood.
But she also has a sober side. On the panel on mental health in March, she was thoughtful and subdued. She listened more than she spoke, her face relaxed into an expression of concern while one of the other comics joked about the excruciating process of having her eggs frozen. Ms. Ramsey gave career advice, encouraged positive self-talk and offered the audience resources for finding a therapist. Later, when I introduced myself to her, it occurred to me that, though Ms. Ramsey is tall at 5 foot 10 inches, and I am nearly a foot shorter at 5 feet, she bent to my eye level.
“I think it’s just part of my personality,” she said a month later, when we met again on a rainy, blustery day in late April, this time at a nail salon near Union Square. Ms. Ramsey says she inherited her father’s emotional breadth (at the panel in March, she quipped, “My dad’s basically Drake”), and that she often tries to put herself in others’ shoes.
This ability — to empathize even with those who disagree with her — is core to her work. But it’s gotten her some blowback. “I’ve had lots of people say, ‘Oh, Franchesca’s content is just for white people,” she said. “But I try to talk about identity in a way that’s accessible to lots of people and is not a pointed finger,” because “we can’t all wake up and know everything.”
Even before YouTube or Twitter, the internet was kind of Ms. Ramsey’s thing. An only child, she was raised in West Palm Beach, Fla. and exposed to computers early; she took a typing class in the third grade and had a website by the time she was in high school. It was the mid 1990s, and she didn’t own a digital camera, so she’d upload scanned photos to her site and blog about what was going on in her life.
“Every party, I would take pictures at, every play,” she said. “I liked just keeping track of everything. For some reason I just thought it was really cool. And I didn’t care that no one was reading it.”
Ms. Ramsey attended a performing arts high school, and later tried to study acting in college, but found the experience “emotionally abusive” for its insistence that students draw from their most painful memories. She switched to graphic design and worked her way through college doing freelance design. Her senior year, she started dating her now-husband, Patrick Kondas. And in 2009, when he got a scholarship to study law at St. John’s University, they moved to New York, where she tried breaking into the entertainment industry.
“I burned DVDs, and I had a sticker made with my headshot on the disc,” she said, a little mortified, “I sent it out to all these agents, and I was so heartbroken, because I didn’t get one call. I couldn’t get auditions.”
She never thought her YouTube videos, which she used as a creative outlet, would help her career. But they did, and now, Ms. Ramsey may soon be taking her talents back to television. In January, she premiered a pilot at Sundance called “Franchesca,” a short-form docuseries where she explores the intersection of beauty and culture. She also has a comedy sketch show “with an identity focus” in development with Comedy Central. Ms. Ramsey said she wants to do “less educating and more ‘slice of life’ commentary” to showcase her creative range.
Ms. Fontana, who directed “Franchesca,” said about her: “I think she has the potential to be a contemporary Oprah, because there is this dazzling quality to her, but she also seems like a real person that you can hang out with, spend time with, feel like you have a connection to, laugh with and make laugh, and it doesn’t feel like she’s untouchable.”
When we had lunch, Ms. Ramsey also joked that she’d like to be like Oprah Winfrey — but she pointed to a different aspect of the talk show titan’s personality. “She puts all sorts of people on,” she said, in reference to Ms. Winfrey’s penchant for advancing others’ careers. Ms. Ramsey would like to do the same by helping the next generation of creators in the social justice space. “I want to manage people,” she said, and in recent seasons of “Decoded,” she’s begun inviting other hosts to join her on the show. “The internet has been so good to me; I see its potential to help other people.”
Still, the internet contains a cacophony of voices, said Ms. Ramsey, adding: “If you want to be a creative in any field, at some point you have to stop listening to what everybody else is saying about what you’re doing and just do.” As for the trolls? “Even Beyoncé has haters,” she joked.
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