Gisele Fetterman: On the Move with the Second Lady of Pennsylvania
Fetterman has carved out her own identity as half of a political power couple. But you’re more likely to find her on the ground — and on the move — than at a formal event.
Gisele Barreto Fetterman, Twitter superstar and self-proclaimed SLOP — Second Lady of Pennsylvania — is celebrating her birthday. Instead of raising a glass in a stately Harrisburg mansion, the wife of the lieutenant governor is handing out diapers in a gravel lot in Braddock.
She skitters around, ducking in and out of Free Store 15104, a nonprofit shop she created with an old shipping container and people’s castoffs — the kind of stuff she once searched for as an undocumented, child immigrant from Brazil. As the volunteers serenade her, Fetterman pauses to nibble on a slice of cake.
She’s 39. A young, never-stops-moving 39.
Her wavy, jet-black hair falling from a yellow and beige wool cap, she celebrates for a few minutes before getting back to what she did before CNN’s Jake Tapper called her a national treasure. Before a woman in an Aldi parking lot spewed racist slurs at her. Before her Twitter mentions blew up in response to her playfully razzing her husband, Lt. Governor John Fetterman. Now preparing for next year’s United States Senate race, he’s the hulking, bald, shorts-wearing counterpart to her lithe and fashionable self. (Calling herself his “number one troll,” she regularly posts photos to social media with his head cropped out of the frame.)
With the brief moment of cake-eating complete, Fetterman arranges food and housewares and cleans up. “You would never know that she is the Second Lady of Pennsylvania,” says Dave Stash, a 72-year-old volunteer from Port Vue. “If someone drops a McDonald’s wrapper, she’s out there with her broom and dustpan.”
But then he whips out the latest issue of Weed World magazine, with a smiling Fetterman on the cover in front of a wall of marijuana plants. Separate from her husband’s high-profile campaign to legalize marijuana, she has used medical marijuana to alleviate chronic back pain caused by a childhood injury.
The volunteers pass around the magazine, their eyes widening as they let out exuberant whoops. “I’m versatile,” she yells back.
“Shut up! I want to be you,” shouts Jeannette Embry, 46, of Braddock. Embry holds up the magazine. “You look so good. Top model.”
Embry’s admiration goes beyond looks. “She’ll help anyone, no questions asked. In Braddock, we have families who are the victims of violence or fires. She makes sure they get brand-new everything.”
For someone so public on social media, she’s soft-spoken and a bit shy in person. She’s also always on. A whirl of motion, she roots around and rearranges a rack of clothes before disappearing into the store to replenish the supply.
Now you see her. Now you don’t.
Most people can’t name the second lady or gentleman of their state (or the first lady or gentleman, for that matter). But Gisele Fetterman is almost as well-known as her 6-foot-8-inch husband.
It’s almost impossible to talk about John without Gisele coming up — or about her without mentioning him.
But even some people who aren’t big fans of John are fans of Gisele. Though he gained more of a national following while debunking claims of election fraud after the 2020 presidential election, his reviews are mixed in Braddock, where he served as mayor for 13 years. Fetterman’s supporters credit him with helping youth, reducing gun violence and bringing amenities and visibility to the town. But critics say he was more interested in his own self-promotion.
Chardae Jones, his successor as mayor of Braddock, endorsed Philadelphia’s Malcolm Kenyatta for the U.S. Senate seat. But mention his wife, and Jones doesn’t hesitate. “Gisele is an angel in the community. I wish there was a Gisele Fetterman in every community.”
Jim Busch, a retiree living in the nearby Mon Valley municipality of White Oak, admires both members of the power couple. “I like John, and I like his wife even more. Gisele’s from Brazil, but man, she adopted Braddock like it was a homeless kitten.”
John says he is used to being the second-favorite person in the team of two. “She is literally everyone’s favorite — my parents, the kids, the dog.” Whenever Gisele leaves the house, Levi, a rescue dog with his own social-media following, sulks. “People gravitate more to her than me, and not without good reason … Kids just love her. She radiates kindness and warmth.”
She’s a constant hit on the campaign trail, too. John jokes that he should have a name tag for when she’s not around: “I’m sorry. Gisele is not here, but I am.”
If Fetterman gets outsized love from the public, she also has received occasional attacks. In October 2020, a woman yelled racist slurs at her inside an Aldi supermarket, eventually following Fetterman into the parking lot. The confrontation continued as Fetterman drove away, with the assailant shouting through the car window that Fetterman didn’t belong in the United States. Fetterman was able to capture part of the rant with her phone; when she posted it to Twitter, it went viral. Police identified the woman (though did not name her publicly) and said the incident rose to the level of a criminal act; Fetterman chose not to pursue charges, instead expressing her wish that the woman receive counseling.
As Second Lady, Fetterman tweets frequently — about immigration reform, about the need for everyone to fill out their census form, about the vital importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. She even offered on Twitter to hold the hand of people squeamish about the shot and got one taker. When she posted about a virtual storytime she did for an elementary class, she got about 45 requests to do the same for classrooms across the state and even as far away as California and Arizona. Of course, she said yes to all of them.
The Fettermans did not move into the official lieutenant governor’s mansion outside of Harrisburg, equipped with a chef and gardener, after John was elected in 2018. Instead, they stayed with their three kids in their Braddock home, an industrial-chic former car dealership. She has a long list of Mon Valley charitable projects. Conversations with Leah Lizarondo led to the creation of 412 Food Rescue, which partners with grocery stores and wholesalers to transport perfectly good food, that otherwise would go to waste, to people in need.
With 412 Food Rescue up and running — and Lizarondo overseeing its growth as CEO — Fetterman left to concentrate on her other activities at For Good Pittsburgh, the umbrella organization of her nonprofit. The Hello Hijab initiative sells small hijabs that can be worn by Barbies and other dolls, and The Hollander Project serves as an incubator space for female entrepreneurs in the Mon Valley.
Free Store 15104, started nine years ago, serves 1,600 people a month and is entirely volunteer-run. Fiercely loyal, the volunteers say if Fetterman has a fault, it’s that she’s too much of a soft touch. “Gisele opened this store from the goodness of her heart, but people take advantage of her,” says Cookie Sullivan, a 64-year-old volunteer from Swissvale. “She lets people get away with anything. I will tell her someone already has something. She says, ‘Miss Cookie, just let them.’’’
Never satisfied with each success, she has helped start nine Free Store spinoffs in other communities and is partnering with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Duquesne as a pilot project; she wants to expand to other Boys and Girls clubs.
“Gisele’s a dreamer. She doesn’t get caught in the weeds of logistics and worries,” says Kristen Michaels, co-founder of For Good PGH. “The reason we work so well together is because I am very practical, and she has a new idea every other day.”
Even at social events, Fetterman can’t stay still. When Fetterman came to Michaels’ house after their kids played together, Fetterman kept asking her, “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” Michaels replied. Fetterman kept asking.
“You’re annoying me,” Michaels said. “Go clean my daughter’s room.”
So Fetterman went upstairs and cleaned.
“She did a really good job too,” Michaels says. “Another time, she built a wall.”
— Jeannette Embry
In Fetterman’s constant movement, she is offering the kind of services that would have been helpful when she and her family were immigrants growing up in Queens, furnishing their one-bedroom apartment with castoffs found on the street.
Her personal story is well known. Gisele Almeida was born in Rio de Janeiro. Fleeing from violence, her mother, Ester, left Brazil as a successful hospital nutritionist with two young children. Gisele was just 7 when she and her younger brother arrived in Queens, New York.
As a single mother who didn’t know a soul or any English, Ester cleaned houses and hotels and worked the coat check at a club. “I don’t know that I would be as strong or brave,” Fetterman says. “She taught me from a young age that you can always start over. Nothing is the end. You just keep going.”
Ester gave her daughter another piece of motherly advice: Stay invisible. A knock on the door might risk deportation. The children were not allowed to play sports because they couldn’t risk injury without health insurance.
Fetterman, who studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, became a nutritionist, working in food justice and equity. She received her green card in 2004 and became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
A magazine article she read in 2007 while on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica would change her life. It was a profile of the Harvard-educated John Fetterman, who moved to Braddock, won the mayoral race by one vote and set out to revitalize the town. There was something about the article that gripped her. The steel for the Brooklyn Bridge, her favorite bridge, came out of Braddock. But the town that had done so much to build America had been discarded.
She wrote to Fetterman and asked if she could come to Braddock and visit him. He thought the request was odd, but said sure — why not?
They married a year later.
John bristles at the notion that he took one look at her and fell head over heels. “It’s kind of a joke with her that she says, ‘Oh, I came to visit, and he fell madly in love.’ Everyone believes her because I look like an ogre. It makes me roll my eyes. Number one, it makes me sound like a weirdo. Number two, it’s not true.”
John Fetterman says he saw something else in his future wife. “She drove all the way from New Jersey to spend some time in a town that had lost so much. She was very earnest and sincere. It was incredibly thoughtful.”
Fetterman says their obvious size difference has caused some awkward moments — like the time she went to get her nails done, and the teenagers in the salon assumed she must be a celebrity and he her hulking, tattooed bodyguard.
But they want the same things, and they both think big.
For Free Store 15104, she has not only opened her arms to neighborhood donations but also forged deals with major companies, including Ikea, to donate unused stock. Initially, she called retailers and brands and asked for last season’s goods. “I asked really nicely.” Now companies contact her.
On a spring Saturday, For Good PGH invited women from Braddock and surrounding neighborhoods to the Hollander and gave them new merchandise to help them celebrate Mother’s Day. They walked around the lawn on Braddock Avenue, stopping at tables to pick out everything from Kate Spade purses to Ikea comforters to new bras. Wearing a stylish, thrifted sundress — “$3.99,” she said with pride — Fetterman greeted the mothers as they waited their turn.
“I missed you,” a little girl told her.
“I missed you more,” Fetterman said.
She said hello to people she knew and ones she had never seen before. Fetterman didn’t stop to ask anyone to sign in or to list their incomes or addresses. “I believe in the goodness of people,” she said, before disappearing to get more bags to hand out to the women in line.
Cristina Rouvalis loves to write profiles. Her stories have appeared in Hemispheres, PARADE, AARP the Magazine, Inc, Smithsonian.com and other national publications. When she is not writing with a cat or two on her lap, she can be found biking along the Great Allegheny Passage.