How Quinta Brunson memed her way to success with a little help from her L.A. friends
On the Shelf
She Memes Well
By Quinta Brunson
Houghton Mifflin: 320 pages, $25
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Some may know her from her prolific BuzzFeed video sketches, others from recurring roles on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” Most people who know Quinta Brunson, however, think of her as a meme.
Before she was navigating any of those roles, Brunson, 31, was just another aspiring performer navigating her 20s in Los Angeles.
In her debut memoir, “She Memes Well,” Brunson describes what she found in her adopted city that wasn’t available in her hometown of West Philadelphia. It wasn’t just auditioning opportunities. “I’d create my own scene, my own culture, right there in the middle of Hollywood!” she writes.
Brunson essentially did. But like most stars, she could never have predicted how.
It took about three years to write the personal essays in “She Memes Well,” which document her journey into an industry that could be welcoming one minute and alienating the next, especially for Black women. By the time she finished the book, Brunson had lost and then rebuilt her identity on the West Coast.
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“I think L.A. has made me more of a calm and free spirit,” she says during a recent phone call. “I think that’s a little cliche, but it’s true. Philly, which is kind of a hustle and grind city, is great, and I’m happy that I was born there and it made me who I am.”
L.A., on the other hand, “has a little bit more of a relaxing energy. Yes, people still do hustle and grind, but I learned to appreciate taking my time a little bit more. Maybe that’s the privilege of a career in L.A.”
There’s plenty of hustle and grind in Brunson’s career. Viral fame led to roles in both film and TV; more recently, she created the forthcoming ABC comedy “Abbott Elementary,” in which Brunson will star. And the memoir transfers Brunson’s wit and energy into yet another medium.
After taking improv classes, turning down a prank-show gig and doing a brief stint as a phone sex operator, she found her tribe in L.A., a close group of friends that helped her develop her self-produced Instagram series, “A Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date.” The skits, in which she played a woman marveling over acts of minor generosity from a man (“He got money!” was her catchphrase), became her first viral hit in 2014.
“The whole video was a product of me being like, ‘Man, I miss dating,’ because dating was easier in Philadelphia and was much harder when I first moved to L.A.,” she says. But she maintains that her social media success was anything but strategic. Rather, it was thanks to friends as supportive as they were web savvy. They “pushed me to put that video online. ... I had never even used Instagram as a platform. I really wasn’t into the internet at all.”
Not long after she posted the video, one of its scenes was turned into a meme that went viral and changed her life forever.
“It was shocking because I didn’t really know what was happening,” she says. “There’s a common misconception that the video was on YouTube first, but it was actually on Instagram first. Instagram Video had just come out and it wasn’t even a thing.”
Nor was Instagram sharing much of a thing. “It was before you could just send them the way you can now. You had to show it to someone or tag someone on a video at the time. It was incredible, especially because I saw myself never being an internet user for my comedy. I was doing my comedy onstage. ... For something I just happened to put on my Instagram profile to get all of this attention — it was pretty nuts. It showed me like, OK, here’s an entire stage over here.”
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Several years and many memes later, Brunson is a keen scholar of the medium. She compares memes to hieroglyphics — symbols embedded with multiple meanings, open to interpretation, with lives of their own.
“It’s not like I’ve ever made a meme on purpose,” she says. “It’s usually my face that turns into a meme and then people decide how that meme will be used.”
Yet the internet hasn’t suddenly removed the traditional hurdles to a happy life in Hollywood. After landing her job at BuzzFeed and bringing in millions of views, Brunson found herself increasingly consumed with how she appeared to the viewers.
“The truth was, the more pop culture I ate up, the more I wasted away as a person,” she writes in the book. “I wasn’t me anymore.”
She writes about not only losing too much weight in the struggle to assimilate to mainstream standards of beauty, but also losing her grasp on who she really was in a predominately white industry.
“I liked who I was before I fell for the ads and commercials that pushed this nasty POV on me,” Brunson writes. “I wanted to go back to viewing myself with the same enthusiasm and self-assurance I had when I was younger.”
Regaining a healthy sense of self has meant curtailing her own consumption of the pop culture that literally feeds her.
“You know what? I don’t need to be obsessed with everything that’s out,” she says. “I also keep a balance in trying to discover things that are pop culture that aren’t literally popular. There’s things that are just special to me, you know what I mean?”
The same goes for her identity, both public and private — the process of figuring out when being “the odd person out” can actually be a good thing.
“In life, you can’t avoid awkward situations or feeling like the odd one out,” she says. “That’s going to happen to everyone at some point. What you can do is find your space and find your people and, you know, find where you belong.”
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