Raised in the tiny town of Graham, North Carolina, Jeanne Robertson was always encouraged by her family to find the humor in everyday life. At 6’2″ — the height she’s been since age 13 — and with an impressive drawl, she’s striking yet warm and always wearing a smile. In her youth, Jeanne excelled on the basketball court, later getting her degree in physical education (and a minor in speech) from Auburn University. Though she intended to pursue a teaching career, when she won a beauty pageant during her junior year at Auburn (one that she never intended to enter in the first place!), her life took off in a completely different direction, and she hasn’t stopped talking about it since. Now, at 73 years old — and even as she’s recovering from a femur break — Jeanne shows no signs of slowing down. She’s a self-described “grandma gone viral,” she writes her own Facebook posts, and on January 6, 2017, she begins her 54th year in speaking and doing theater shows. We’re thrilled to introduce you to Jeanne Robertson as our newest FACE of the South!
How did a beauty pageant lead you to a career in public speaking and doing theater shows?
Pageants were big back in the ’60s. At the time, the Jaycees ran the pageants, and all the money they made off pageants, they put back into the community. I was a senior in high school, and they asked me to be in the Miss Graham pageant, but my sisters said, “You have no talent at all. What are you gonna do? Shoot [basket]ball?” So I told the Jaycees I was gonna get some talent. They called me when I was a freshman at Auburn, and I said I didn’t have my talent. Then they called my sophomore year … So when I was a rising junior, they called again. By then I had a ukulele, and I knew four chords. I had written a song and it was hilarious. I sang the song [for the pageant], and I won! There were only six of us, but that let me go to the Miss North Carolina pageant, which at that time was around 70 or 80 contestants. And I was named Miss North Carolina. Then I went on to the Miss America pageant, and I won Miss Congeniality. The pageants take so much criticism, but what they gave me was a year that I toured and spoke every day. By the time I was 20, I had given 500 speeches … two and three times a day for a year. It took me a week after I won the title to realize that if I said something funny, the audience laughed, and I loved it!
What they did at pageants at the time was bring out talented contestants from previous years’ pageants to kill time. And the Jaycees said to me, “We have been bringing in talented contestants from previous years, but what if you just walked out on stage and were funny for the amount of time we needed?” I said okay, and that next summer when I gave up the title, when they needed to fill a little time, they’d say, “Jeanne, come on stage.”
I went back to college and finished my degree and taught physical education and speech, but the invitations were pouring in because of word of mouth, and every weekend, I was going to speak at pageants and conventions. I was making $100-$150 a speech, and then we went to $200. It just turned into a speaking career. I didn’t know much, but I got into it early. I have all the top awards in speaking, and it was absolutely because I got in early.
How did you transition from public speaking to theater shows?
I was in the meeting planning world, speaking at conventions, but (entertainment promoter) Al McCree said I should put my stories on iTunes. He said, “I think clean humor will go. And you’re not telling one-liners, you’re embellishing true material. It will go.” So I gave him one tape to try. Then he said, “We’ve gotta figure out how to market it,” and we did. And then it exploded! When Sirius XM started airing me every day on their family channels, all of a sudden, people were calling and saying, “When is Jeanne’s show coming to Nashville, or Kansas City, or … ” pick a town. I’ve gone viral twice on YouTube — that’s when you get 10,000 hits an hour. He said because of that, we could do it. So we tried two cities. One of them was Dallas, and we sold out in two weeks!
Tell us about your “Rocking Chair Tour.”
Three hours before I was to have my hot dog supper last December, I broke an inch above my knee completely across. And then three weeks after the surgery, I had a major medical issue. When I broke my femur, we had five or six conventions and 26 theater shows in the first four months of the year that we had to move. So we started again in April, and in each city, we would buy rocking chairs from Cracker Barrel, because Cracker Barrel was everywhere. I’d sit in the chair and just rock away on the stage. It’s hilarious! People ask us, “Why do you give away the chair? They’re expensive!” But I say, “We give them away because you can’t get a rocking chair in the overhead bin!”
Tell us about your family.
I’m married to Jerry (aka “Left Brain”), and we have one son, “Beaver,” who is middle-aged, and two grandsons. I have a grandson who’s a senior at Elon University, where I’m on the board of trustees, and I have a grandson still in high school.
If a child were to ask you what your job is, what would you say?
I would say that I make people laugh. Look, I’m not saving the world, but you let someone come [to a show] who’s lost a child or a spouse, and they say, “I haven’t laughed since then, and this felt good,” that feels good! Everyone’s split up … religion and politics … I don’t get into any of that. When I look in the audience and see people of various religions, ages, races, backgrounds, and they’re all laughing at the same thing? There’s a bond. When you make eye contact with someone who is different from you, and you’re laughing at the same thing, that feels good. You know you’ve found the common ground — that’s what I love about looking out in the audiences!
How do you come up with your material?
Finding humor is what I do — you get your material from everyday experiences. I preach it to the speakers all the time — first you get a speech and you get it down pat, and then you have to go on. I’ve done four shows in Charlotte and five in Atlanta, but I haven’t done the same show twice. The thrill of it is to keep looking for stories — I have a 30-minute opening on the femur break.
We all talk about “you can’t take it with you,” and we’re talking about monetary stuff, but if you don’t record and put down your family stories in some way, they stop getting told, and you take them with you. So when you’re family gets together, ask Aunt Susie to tell that story again.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“You need to be yourself.” I’ve made a living out of just being myself.
When you’re not touring or speaking, how do you spend your free time?
Looking for humor. Everywhere, everyday. You have to have a humor buddy. It can be a spouse or your bestest friend. I have people who I just say, “Tell me something funny.” It’s called life — you just have to look for the humor in every day.
What is the key to staying relevant in a fast-paced digital world?
You have to stay relevant if you want to stay in business. The internet is the newest, fastest method of word-of-mouth. It’s through the digital world that I’m able to market myself, which leads to speeches, theater shows and product sales. All of it keeps me busy.
I embraced the internet in my 60s. I had a lot of speaker buddies who said, “I’m so glad I had a successful career before this whole internet thing.” And I think Are you nuts? They can find us now!! You have to be able to do this … to keep up.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Take advantage of opportunities. I am the example of taking an opportunity that was given to me and putting it to good use.
Do you think you’ll ever quit doing this?
The public will tell you on the theater shows if it’s time to quit — they’ll quit buying tickets. For the speaking circuit, I’ll keep doing it as long as people want me. What I would not ever want is for someone to say, “You should have heard her when she was really good.”
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Snooze control, pimento cheese and humor.