Q&A: Gisele Fetterman Talks Her Thrift-Store Wardrobe, Scrabble and Her New Oculus

She was by John Fetterman’s side for a stroke, a brutal campaign, and a hard-fought victory. Now, Gisele Fetterman emerges on the other side to take on whatever comes next.

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Gisele Fetterman at her Free Store nonprofit in Braddock / Photograph by Linette & Kyle Kielinski

Gisele Fetterman was born in Brazil. Her mom brought her and her brother to Queens, where she remained undocumented for more than a decade. Today, she’s the spouse of Pennsylvania’s newest senator. But don’t discount her as a “Washington wife.” After all, what Washington wife would be photographed for this article in clothes she got at a thrift store?

Hello. I’m not sure what I should call you. You were the First Lady of Braddock. Then you became the Second Lady of Pennsylvania. But what does one call the wife of a senator?
[Laughs] Gisele totally works! Everybody should just call me Gisele. I don’t mind Mrs. Fetterman, if somebody calls me that. But I do love being my own person.

Well, Gisele, I’m so glad this finally worked out. You were harder to get on the phone than Quinta Brunson from Abbott Elementary!
Oh, I am such a huge, huge fan of Quinta and that show. I watch it religiously with my kids, especially my daughter, Grace.

And I understand you just came from a concert at your son’s school. Adorable?
Riveting. [laughs] Yes, it was adorable. But earlier today, he told me, “Mom, don’t yell anything embarrassing!” Last time, I yelled out, “I love you, August!”

He’s already doing the embarrassed-kid thing? Mine didn’t do that until they were teenagers.
Yes. He’s already there. At eight. But I do have a teenager, Karl, in the house, too. We have three kids: eight, 11 and 13. Actually, I feel like I have two teenagers. My daughter, Grace, is 11 but is already teenager-angsty. She’s been that way since she came out of me. She came out like, “This is my moment to shine!” And she’s been that way ever since. All the time. But we’re used to it and love her for it.

What was the big Christmas present this year?
A family Oculus. The thing you put on your head and you go running around the house and you’re in the game. Virtual reality.

Are you big into that kind of thing?
I’m basically a Sudoku champion. In high school, I was the Tetris champion. These are my things. And I love Scrabble.

Now you’re talking my language. My daughter, who is 15, just got three seven-letter words in one game — her first time doing so. And the only person in the house other than me to ever do it.
That is so awesome for her! Tell her I said so. You have to pass the torch.

Now that John is a senator, and given how highly publicized the campaign was, do you get more stares than normal when you walk into school concerts and while out and about?
If I do, I don’t really notice. I mean, I have always talked to everyone. And I still do.

Well, your social media following has certainly grown over the last several months.
I love Instagram. That’s my medium. Because of the race, I felt I had to join Twitter. That’s really been a new thing to me, but I think I’ve found my space there. But people are way, way nicer on Instagram. Less angry.

That’s for sure. How is John feeling these days? Recovery going well?
He’s really doing so great. Very busy. Recovery is going great.

That’s awesome to hear. I have to say, I watched the campaign very closely —
Oh, I’m so sorry you had to be subjected to that!

Well, it’s part of my job, and I am, after all, a citizen of Pennsylvania. But yes, it was a brutal campaign. What was it like being on the end of the Dr. Oz attacks?
Unfortunately, we knew to expect it. We knew it would come. I expect the most out of people and secretly hope that they rise to meet my expectations. It doesn’t always work out like that. But this just shows how important it is to be that good example.

That’s true. But there was no shortage of negative ads about Dr. Oz.
This is very important: None of those came from our campaign. They were put out by other people and organizations. It was very important to me and my family to show that politics can be done differently. It doesn’t have to be this awful space. We all have the responsibility to stand up and do what’s right. And if we don’t, things will never change.

How aware were your kids of all this negativity? Did you shelter them from it?
I sheltered them from events. I didn’t want them going to campaign events. In two years, they attended two or three rallies. I wanted politics to be a very small afterthought for them. Like, I have a basketball game, and then I’m going to my friend’s house, and oh yeah, Daddy is running for senator. Of course, they couldn’t get away from it completely thanks to YouTube and television. But we were prepared for what was to come, and we prepared them for it.

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Gisele and John Fetterman in Philadelphia in November 2022 / Photograph by Samantha Laub/Al Dia News media/Getty Images

What do you tell your kids about the way so many adults act these days? So angry, so divisive, so polarized.
I teach them to be the opposite. Use everything as a learning opportunity. Take the lowest moments and the worst they’ve seen and do the opposite. They were shocked and appalled by some of what they’ve seen. That’s a good thing. Because when we lose the shock factor, we’ve accepted it as a norm. And some of this behavior shouldn’t be the norm in politics — or anywhere.

You were the one who realized something was wrong with John when he had a stroke, and you probably saved his life by acting immediately. What made you do that?
I think I must have seen a PSA at some point that stuck with me. We were heading to his campaign event, and his mouth had this sudden movement I had never seen before, drooping to one side and then returning to normal position. I could have just missed that, but something told me it was wrong. His energy was fine. His speech was fine. I don’t know. I just instinctively knew and reacted. With a stroke, it’s all about how fast you respond. I tell people: Err on the side of caution. Someone has a stroke every 40 seconds in this country.

After somebody has a stroke, their chances of having another one go up significantly. Do you worry about that?
I don’t, because I live very much for today. My goal is to make today the best day ever. I am not prone to a fear of the future. I am lucky to have been there. And hopefully more people have learned about this because of John. We get letters and emails from all over the world with people talking about their strokes. Actually, a local VA office just reached out to say that they had treated a vet who came in during an active stroke. And he said he only came in because he learned what happened with John.

This all had to be incredibly stressful for you. What was your self-care routine during the campaign — during all of this?
I focus on the good. Not the noise. I am also an artist, so I spend a lot of time doing art.

Oh? What is your medium?

Are you familiar with the work of Isaiah Zagar in Philadelphia?
Of course! I love Magic Gardens. It is very much my happy place.

How does John being in the Senate affect the family schedule? I understand you and the kids will remain in Braddock.
I plan to be in D.C. a couple of times a month doing spouse stuff and figuring out my space. I’ll bring the kids sometimes, and he’ll be home on weekends as much as he can. I’m not worried. It’s healthy to have time apart.

Valentine’s Day is coming up. Are you Valentine’s people?
February is my birthday month, too! The 27th! I’m a Pisces. Very much a Pisces.

Which means what?
I’m artistic, sensitive, creative and peaceful. My daughter will say that I use the zodiac as an excuse. I’m famous for saying things like, “I’m a Pisces! I can’t handle this!” My daughter will say, “You can’t use that line for everything, Mom.”

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Gisele Fetterman at a campaign rally in Philly in September 2022 / Photograph by Tom Williams/Getty Images

So you’re a Pisces, and John is …
A Leo. But a strange one. Leos like attention and are comfortable in the spotlight. John is very, very shy.

But back to Valentine’s Day.
John is the romantic one. But he’s not really a card person. And we try not to do the restaurant thing that day, just because it’s so busy. Any day is a good day to celebrate love!

How did you meet John?
Now, that is a romantic tale. I was at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, looking for a magazine in the hotel lobby. There was only one in English. So I pick it up and I’m reading it, and inside, there’s this article about someplace called Braddock where the mayor, this guy named John, was working to revitalize it through art. I read it, filed it away, and went on with my life.

But the article talked a lot about abandonment — abandoned places. And I had never seen abandonment before. I had only lived in densely populated places like New York City, Rio and Newark. I never even knew abandonment was a thing. Anyway, I was living in the New York area, working as a nutritionist while doing finance consulting on the side. And I was in love with the Brooklyn Bridge — my favorite structure in New York City. And I come across another article. This one is about the Brooklyn Bridge. And there’s this line about how some of the steel they used came from the Braddock area!

I wrote a letter to the township saying I wanted to visit and learn more. The letter wound up in John’s hands, and he called me. I went out to see Braddock, he gave me a tour, and it was so clear to me during that trip what a good person he is. We stayed in touch, and he visited me in New York. And then I moved to Pennsylvania, and we were married in June of … [long pause] … uh, 2008? Two-thousand seven?

Wait. Don’t quote me on that.

I’m totally quoting you on that, and John is going to know that you don’t know when your anniversary is.
I want to say ’08. I’m sorry. John remembers everything. I’m bad at it. I might have to pull out my marriage license.

Well, you’re a Pisces, right?
Exactly! [laughs] It’s a lot for me to hold. June 9, 2008. Bam!

Very good. I have to admit that when I first heard of Braddock during the campaign, I thought it was somewhere in the middle of redneck Pennsylvania. I had no idea it was literally down the street from Pittsburgh, a city I love. So if I come to Braddock, what do I do there?
You would come to my nonprofit, the Free Store. You would visit the first Carnegie library in the country, built in 1888. Pay a visit to the Braddock battlefield museum. And you would eat a delicious dinner at Brassero Grill, a wonderful Mexican restaurant. I’ll show you around.

Deal. So tell me more about the Free Store.
The Free Store is an idea that there is enough in the world for everyone, and that mutual aid can help solve problems. We were the first Free Store in the country and just turned 10 years old. It’s entirely volunteer. We operate out of three decommissioned shipping containers that had been at sea. We are solar-powered. Free Store is completely efficient. We serve 100 families an hour, providing them with everything from formula to diapers to food to shoes to toys to dishes. You name it.

How is this funded?
We are completely sustainable. We don’t require any money. The expenses are so minimal. The goods we are giving out were going to be headed to the landfill — surplus goods from department stores or grocery stores, or your kid is growing out of an outfit. So people come and shop for what they need, for free. I work at the Free Store three days a week for an entire shift. And my second nonprofit was 412 Food Rescue, which got over 100 million pounds of food into the hands of people who need it. And I also have a women’s incubator space in Pittsburgh. We house 13 full-time women entrepreneurs from all over our community. And with the Free Store, we helped open 14 more locations.

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Gisele Fetterman at her Free Store, which operates out of shipping containers, in Braddock / Photograph by Linette & Kyle Kielinski

Plus three kids at home and a senator husband. No one could accuse you of being a slacker.
[Laughs] No, they could not. And I’m becoming a firefighter.

Wait, what?!
Yes, I’m training to be a volunteer firefighter at my community’s station. Soon, I’ll be able to drive a fire truck and fight fires.

Wow. When did you immigrate here from Brazil?
It was me, my mother and my brother, in 1990. She had the American dream. She was concerned about violence in my home country, which was so frequent that it had become normalized. So with pure courage and little else, she made the decision to bring us to Queens. In Brazil, she ran a medical facility and had advanced degrees. Here, she was a single mom with two kids. She didn’t know a word of English, and she became a domestic worker, trying to figure out life in this new place.

As an immigrant from a South American country, what do you think when you see the governor of Texas sending busloads of migrants to Philadelphia and elsewhere?
It’s very hard to watch, especially since I was an undocumented person for over a decade. There’s such a lack of compassion.

Do you get back to Brazil often?
Not too much. I’m going in March, my first time since the pandemic. I’m taking the kids, and this will be their first time. John isn’t coming. He’s never been there. He’ll be in session. And I’d be very nervous to bring him. He stands out so much. And I’m nervous to take my kids as well. Kidnappings still occur. Crime. It’s a country I love so much, but it is one with many challenges.

Do you and John cook Brazilian food at home?
I don’t cook anything well. John does most of the cooking, including Brazilian foods. He also cooks a lot of salmon and chicken. I’m a vegetarian. If he wants to eat meat, he has to make it.

How long have you been a vegetarian?
Forty years. My entire life. I’ve never had a piece of meat. I was raised that way.

Changing subjects dramatically, I need to ask you about your clothes, which you very publicly make clear on Twitter and Instagram are almost always thrifted. I imagine you’ll be the only Washington spouse at whatever gala wearing a $20 dress. What’s the deal there?
I’ve always done it. I have a commitment to 80 percent of my wardrobe being thrifted. When I was growing up, my mom would bring clothes home from the houses she cleaned when the kids would outgrow stuff. And I love having clothes that had a previous life and a story. And as I became older, I learned about the environment and the impact the fashion industry has on it. For me, it’s a very easy choice to have something that already exists as opposed to something created en masse, hurting mostly women who work in these factories around the world.

Will we see you on the cover of Vogue next month in a gorgeous thrifted gown?
[Laughs] Whatever magazine wants me to be on their cover, I’ll be on it in something that is thrifted. I can guarantee you that.

So other than fighting fires and all the other things you’re doing this year, any goals for 2023?
You know, just making life as pleasant as possible for my three kids, my tripod pit bull, Artie, and my Lab mix, Levi — both amazing rescues. Supporting John. And finding my space in the world in this new journey that life has brought to me.

Published as “Just Gisele” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.