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Pageant queen. Go-getter. NFL wife. Senator. ‘SNL’ target: The ascent of Katie Britt

Katie Britt, a 42-year-old Republican senator from Alabama,  delivered a widely-mocked rebuttal to the State of the Union – taking aim at the President’s performance while delivering a memorable one of her own years after winning titles on pageant stages  (AFP/TNN)
Katie Britt, a 42-year-old Republican senator from Alabama, delivered a widely-mocked rebuttal to the State of the Union – taking aim at the President’s performance while delivering a memorable one of her own years after winning titles on pageant stages (AFP/TNN)

Not since Tina Fey exploded onto screens as a dead ringer for Sarah Palin has a Saturday Night Live political skit so uproariously hit the mark with American audiences.

Two nights after Alabama junior senator Katie Britt unleashed a bizarre rebuttal to the State of the Union, Scarlett Johanssonn appeared in SNL’s cold open wearing an identical green blouse, diamond cross and wild-eyed expression as she hilariously imitated the 42-year-old Republican’s animated kitchen rant.

Johansson, who has a BAFTA and two Oscar nominations under her belt, parrotted back Britt’s criticism of President Joe Biden’s SOTU as the “performance of a permanent politician.” But what Britt had failed to mention was that she herself was giving the performance of a lifelong stage veteran and pageant queen – and its reception has proved the darkest moment ever for her political career.

This is one of the first and few (if any) failures in the married Alabama mother’s life. Her ascent from her father’s hardware store to the Senate floor has been marked by shrewd, strategic and diplomatic ambition, cloaked in the elocution and poise of a pageant pro  – even if that wasn’t on display last Thursday.

Katie Britt delivered a rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address that was remarkable for its setting, tone and over-the-top facial expressions (CNBC)
Katie Britt delivered a rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address that was remarkable for its setting, tone and over-the-top facial expressions (CNBC)

“It totally is not a true representation of who she is, that State of the Union response,” Rev. Robert Turner, a reparations activist who served as Britt’s campaign manager during their student government days at the University of Alabama, tells The Independent.

Part of the issue may have been the medium.

“She knows how to speak from a stage, and she knows how to speak in front of a live audience, but she does not know how to speak into a teleprompted camera – she just has  failed to take her TV training,” adds Bill Alverson, an Alabama lawyer and pageant coach who’s monitored the senator’s career since childhood on the influential state pageant circuit.

Britt was born into the role, her mother, Debra Boyd, a former pageant queen and dance teacher. Her father, Julian Boyd, owned a hardware store in Enterprise, 90 miles south of the state capital of Montgomery and less than an hour’s drive from the Georgia and Florida borders. As the eldest of the four Boyd daughters, Britt made her mark on the town from an early age.

“I said then that Katie would be the first woman president of the United States,” her first grade teacher, the late Felicia Morrow Metcalf, said in one of Britt’s 2021 campaign videos.

Growing up, Britt worked in her father’s store and at her mother’s dance studio. She badgered other local businesses for jobs, too – all while working her way through the fiercely competitive world of Alabama pageants.

She was crowned Little Miss Enterprise in first grade, then 1989 Little Miss National Peanut Festival the next year – following in the footsteps of her mother, who’d won the peanut title years earlier and who became the first former winner whose child won too, the Dothan Eagle reported. (The local press has traditionally treated Britt with what can only be described as reverence. And, lest the uninitiated think pageants involve only dresses and shiny hair, they are hard work, essentially a cottage industry incorporating studying, coaching, skill, presentation and deep, cutthroat competitive streaks. Especially in Alabama.)

“She’s always been a go-getter, but nobody really knew the direction,” Alverson tells The Independent. “All your pageant people thought she was a go-getter to be Junior Miss and that’s it.” (Britt did win the title of Alabama Junior Miss in 2000 and was a runner-up at nationals.)

“But here’s what’s interesting: A lot of people that won Alabama’s Junior Miss … roll in, become clients of mine and want to be Miss America, okay? She decided not to do that,” Alberson said. “This girl could have been Miss Alabama and gone to Miss America. She clearly knows how to run an interview room, she will get community service points … At one point, she was a Broadway performance-level dancer. She legitimately has a great talent. When I’m telling you she brought the room down, I mean, she’s like watching So You Think You Can Dance, here’s a star.”

Instead, she abandoned it for another form of pageantry. “When she got into college, she became SGA president,” Alverson said.

Britt had displayed a politically-adept cunning from a young age. At just nine years old, the future senator had asked for a job at Enterprise store Kid’s Korner, owner Rhonda Welch, told the Dothan Eagle.

“People would come in my store and she would be-bop up to that front door and say ‘How can I help you?’ If she didn’t know where something was she wouldn’t let on. She’d say, ‘Just a minute, I’ll find it’ and that was my signal to help her,” Welch said, noting Britt’s savvy.

“Her little mind was always going. There was something so unique about her. She was like a unicorn, a one-of-a-kind person.”

Less than a decade later, after cheerleading in high school, that unicorn enrolled at the University of Alabama, majoring in political science and government, and successfully ran for student government president in 2003 – with Turner her campaign manager and then first Black SGA chief of staff.

They’d met four years earlier, when they were both participants at American Legion Auxiliary-sponsored youth programs fostering leadership, faith and patriotism.

“She had just become Girls State governor and I was in Boys State,” Turner tells The Independent, when “we all kind of had that air of inevitability that we were going to do something in our lives. We didn’t know what, exactly.

Scarlett Johansson parodied Britt in the SNL cold open, bearing a striking resemblance to the Alabama mother (Saturday Night Live / YouTube)
Scarlett Johansson parodied Britt in the SNL cold open, bearing a striking resemblance to the Alabama mother (Saturday Night Live / YouTube)

“We were going to be involved in making the state of Alabama and the United States of America great – and, of course, we had different opinions about how to do that,” he says. “I was an activist even in college; I was an activist for Black people, racial justice. And Katie, while she definitely is not an activist, she knew my heart in that area and how I saw it as the best way of providing America the chance of being a more perfect union.”

The pair’s work, both individually and as a team – Britt a woman and Turner a Black man at a Deep South institution – was not only unusual; it also did not sit well in some corners at a university, where there’d been a cross burning at a student’s off-campus home just a few years earlier. On top of that, Britt’s government helped make the morning after pill available at the UA’s student health centre.

She’d be attacked for that pro-contraception position years later during her congressional campaign – with Turner pointing out her Senate seat marks Britt’s first elected office since student government.

After graduation, Britt walked into a job for longtime and legendary Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby; four years later, she married fellow UA alum and star offensive lineman Wesley Britt, who was then playing for the New England Patriots. He was released in 2009, and the young couple began building their life back in Alabama, welcoming their daughter, Bennett, in 2009 and son, Ridgeway, in 2010. The retired NFL player returned to UA to study for his MBA, and his wife was in her first year of a law degree at their alma mater when the couple’s lives took another dramatic turn.

They were at home watching TV with their children, Britt’s two sisters and a family friend when the deadly April 2011 tornado super outbreak descended – and they were directly in its path. At least 250 people were killed as 62 tornadoes, including two EF-5s (the highest category of tornado), tore through the South, hitting the Britts’ home in Tuscaloosa on 27 April.

“Wesley moved us to the back of the house,” Britt told AL.com. “He put us in between two closets. He’s a big boy, so he moved a dresser in front of the two closets. And he puts a mattress, he kind of bended it in half, put it on top of us.”

As the monster directly hit the house, she said, it sounded “like you’re in the bottom of a washing machine. Ears are popping. It’s loud.

“And when we came out everything was gone, including the second story of the house. What should have been our bedroom was the sky.”

Britt and her husband have credited that experience with bolstering their already strong faith and family bond; she went on to earn her law degree in 2013, returning three years later to her old political employer, Shelby, as his chief of staff from 2016 to 2018. She left to become the first female president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, then stepped down to run for Senate. In a keen example of Britt’s shrewd knowledge of her base – and her state’s uniquely insular political system – she told the Girls State conference about her campaign two days before she announced it to the media.

Those instincts have informed her political trajectory to date in a way, Alverson theorises, that shows Britt “didn’t want to be tagged as … the other pageant queen that’s already hit the wall: Sarah Palin.

“Sarah Palin was a runner up for Miss Alaska to go to Miss America and ridiculed her for her pageantry … and so I think that’s what we saw with Katie Britt: That she didn’t go that way because she didn’t have to, because she launched into The Machine,” he says, referring to the well-known (and secretive) political influences at UA, also the alma mater of her predecessor Shelby.

“A lot of people don’t give that the credence that they should, because, until the last 20 years, every major elected governor, every elected major senator, etc, all came out of the Machine at the University of Alabama.”

Many of those names gained national prominence, for better or worse – think former Attorney General and Sen. Jeff Sessions; controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore; and famed segregationist Gov. George Wallace.

Alabama’s current governor, Kay Ivey, attended rival Auburn University – but, like Britt, was a delegate at Girls State.

Britt was elected in 2022 to the US Senate with the endorsements of Shelby and Trump (even if he’d initially backed her opponent), becoming the youngest Republican woman and the second-youngest woman in history ever elected to the Senate.

Now Britt’s trajectory has dovetailed with Palin’s in a frenzy of SNL-parody national pillory. Both women, too, have touched the arena of the vice presidency; while Palin joined the 2008 Republican ticket as John McCain’s running mate, Britt was rumoured to be a dark horse for the 2024 VP nominee after securing the rebuttal spot.

Palin’s image during the 2008 campaign was unquestionably affected by Fey’s SNL impressions, which were inescapable at the time. The “Fey Effect” was even the subject of a 2012 paper by three political scientists in Public Opinions Quarterly, outlining research into how the comedian’s imitations of Palin seemed to make Republicans and Independents less likely to vote for her ticket in the 2008 race.

“When all other variables in the model are held at their mean, those who watched the SNL clip had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain,” they wrote. “This same probability drops to 34 percent among those who saw coverage of the debate through other media. Exposure to the clip had no significant effect on the likelihood of voting for Obama.”

Britt was going viral on her own long before the SNL sketch for all-over-the-place delivery and the debunked facts of her sex trafficking story, which gave social and mainstream media more than enough to have a field day with – made all the more surprising by the revelations that Britt has built a career on her presence. Just a few months ago, well-known Alabama political commentator and historian Steve Flowers was nearly fawning over her civic performance.

“In all my years of following Alabama politics, I have never seen an elected official handle a new position with such skill and personal poise. Britt has achieved the best first year in U.S. Senate history,” he wrote, continuing: “She conducts herself with old-school southern grace, integrity, and class, which has resulted in her being respected and liked by colleagues and constituents on both sides of the aisle.

The woman grinning clownishly from the television kitchen on Thursday was unrecognisable to many who know her.

Turner, whose kids call the senator “Aunt Katie,” sounds bemused from Baltimore, where he is pastor of Empowerment Temple. He watched his college buddy deliver the rebuttal on the night and immediately thought to himself: “This is a terrible setup.”

“On top of that, the top of her party’s ticket, the presumptive nominee being Donald Trump .. you and I don’t know this for a fact, but you can kind of assume he has some influence on her speech, on the topic, so who knows,” he tells The Independent. “I mean, that was a bad setup. That was a bad, bad setup.”

Turner has “never seen a rebuttal done well, honestly,” he says.

“I’ve never seen a rebuttal help the person who did it in long-term politics,” he says. “I have not, and I’ve been involved in politics since I was alive. But Katie has always taken challenges. She’s always taken challenges, and she is still young enough where this does not have to be the death of her. She’s still 42, the youngest [Republican] female senator in American history. She can bounce back from this. I think so.”