Our Lady of Pittsburgh

Gisele Fetterman has steered her family through hell and back. What’s a few more fires?

Gisele Baretto Fetterman gets ready to pose in her uniform in the station where she works as a volunteer firefighter, just down the street from her Braddock, Pennsylvania, home. Photo: Susana Raab
A woman with long, dark hair clips a firefighter's helmet onto her head. She is wearing a khaki-and-neon firefighter's uniform.
Gisele Baretto Fetterman gets ready to pose in her uniform in the station where she works as a volunteer firefighter, just down the street from her Braddock, Pennsylvania, home. Photo: Susana Raab
A woman with long, dark hair clips a firefighter's helmet onto her head. She is wearing a khaki-and-neon firefighter's uniform.
Gisele Baretto Fetterman gets ready to pose in her uniform in the station where she works as a volunteer firefighter, just down the street from her Braddock, Pennsylvania, home. Photo: Susana Raab

“I have a face that people think they can say anything to me,” Gisele Baretto Fetterman says, dipping a plastic knife into soft serve at a Burger King in Braddock, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. (There were no spoons.) Before she became recognizable as the magnificently browed, Brazilian-born five-foot-nine wife of the state’s six-foot-eight junior senator, she says mothers who heard her speak Portuguese with her three kids addressed her as if she was their nanny. There were many such cases of mistaken identity — like when a woman thought she was staff at a book signing the couple hosted in 2015. “There were 200 people in my house. I was just overwhelmed, and I snuck into the pantry,” she tells me. “I went to have a glass of wine. This woman came inside and said, ‘I just want you to know I saw you take a drink and I’m going to tell Mr. Fetterman.’ And I said, ‘Please don’t, because I don’t want to get fired.’” Ten minutes later, Fetterman and her husband went to the front of the room and welcomed their guests. The woman who chastised her was in the front row. Afterward, Fetterman says she apologized. “I considered leaving,” the woman said, “But I know I would see you again somewhere. I’m so sorry.” They had a glass of wine together.

Fetterman chose not to correct these assumptions in the moment but allowed the women to come to the mortifying realization they’d gotten things wrong on their own. It’s not that she wanted to embarrass them. It’s that she thinks “we have to expect the best out of people, and people will rise to meet those expectations” — including owning when they’ve been an asshole and attempting to avoid being one going forward. Some of this empathy might come from Fetterman being aware hers is not the image people conjure when they think “political spouse.” She is a formerly undocumented immigrant, openly uses marijuana to treat her chronic back pain, and, since May, works as a volunteer firefighter. But her ability to calmly disarm people has been an asset to John Fetterman as he ascended from small-town mayor to lieutenant governor to U.S. senator.

Most of John’s D.C. colleagues have been nice to her. “Not everyone,” she notes, before clarifying: “All the wives have been so lovely.” But the muck of Washington is part of why Fetterman mostly stays in Braddock. She will travel down for events like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where she was in awe speaking with Vanderpump Rules star Ariana Madix. Fetterman says she tells John, “If you make it fun, I will go to D.C. … If politics is just miserable, I just can’t.”

Fetterman works to bring resources to the community at the Free Store in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which is open three days a week. Photo: Susana Raab

The couple met in 2007, after Fetterman, then a nutritionist living in Newark, New Jersey, read about John’s work revitalizing the abandoned steel town of Braddock in a magazine and wrote him a letter. He invited her to visit, and within a year, she’d moved to Pennsylvania and the couple had eloped. They are complementary in their opposition. While he’s usually in basketball shorts and a hoodie — “Do I think John dresses well now?” Fetterman says. “Of course I don’t. But also I don’t care what he wears” — she is casually chic in thrifted dresses and expertly winged eyeliner. She is the placid foil to John’s brooding hulk, an on-the-ground problem solver where he is an ambitious policymaker.

While John works on federal legislation in the Capitol, Fetterman runs three local nonprofits, including a service for people who are food insecure and a business incubator for women entrepreneurs. At the Free Store, a charity shop she founded in 2012, anyone can show up and take donated goods at no cost. Over the course of two humid hours on an August morning, Fetterman holds someone’s sleeping toddler as she walks between the converted shipping container that houses home goods and the racks where she hangs clothing. I talk to a volunteer introduced as “Mr. Guy,” who’s 83 and has been with the Free Store since his wife told him to find something to do in retirement. He describes the devoutly unreligious Fetterman as “Mother Teresa.” It is she who compels Mr. Guy more than the charity itself, which he doesn’t feel sets its shoppers up to succeed in a capitalist society. When he asks Fetterman, “How do you know they’re taking what they need?” she responds, “Because they say so.” Fetterman tells me later, “He can grow from that place.”

Fetterman’s own capacity was tested in the middle of the Senate campaign in May 2022, when she stepped in as her husband’s surrogate following his hospitalization for a massive stroke. She delivered the victory speech when he won the Democratic Senate primary four days later. The same woman who’d cried through her childhood birthday parties because she was uncomfortable with the attention was loose, funny. The crowd was laughing, even though people must have been wondering, Is this campaign over? Fetterman says she “hates politics,” but she was effective enough that many Republicans branded her the Pennsylvanian Lady Macbeth, concocting elaborate fictions about her vying to take her husband’s Senate seat if he resigned. “I had to do it,” she tells me of the speech. “They weren’t there for me. They were there for John’s election party.” She reassured the crowd that the next senator from Pennsylvania would be back on the trail in no time.

More candid conversations had taken place at home. Fetterman’s children asked her if their father was going to die. “I don’t know,” she told them. “Whatever happens, we’re going to make it through.” Rather than reassure her kids, Fetterman gave them the truth. “I want them to always be able to come to me if it’s hard or complicated or whatever,” Fetterman says. “If they have questions, they know I’m going to be honest with them.”

John’s recovery was concurrent with a brutal midterm-election campaign against Mehmet Oz, a Republican TV doctor who mocked him and questioned his fitness for office. Attack ads implied John was a racist, that he let convicted murderers run free, and that he brought on his own stroke by not eating vegetables. John won, then moved to Washington and was sworn into office earlier this year. Debilitating depression followed. Fetterman had never felt hopeless in her mind before, but she understood the trapped feeling of chronic pain. She’d already read books about depression 14 years earlier, when she’d first suspected John was suffering but before he’d acknowledged it. “I’ve tried to get him to read some. I wanted him to see it,” she says. “But someone has to get there on their own.” She encouraged everyone in the family to go to therapy.

Fetterman gets a hug from her son, August, while working at the Free Store. Photo: Susana Raab/© Susana Raab 2023

Fetterman was straightforward with John about the fact that something had to change. Less than six weeks after he was sworn in, on February 15, John entered in-patient treatment for depression at Walter Reed. After leaving, John would tell people Fetterman had said to him, “Your kids are going to remember you as a sad sack of shit.” She says she actually told him, “If something happens to you tomorrow, your kids are going to remember you as a sad person. Is that how you want them to remember you?”

After the stroke, the Fettermans had to adapt to new ways of communicating with John, who has challenges with auditory processing. The family now goes to see movies with subtitles, and there’s a voice-to-text app that lets the kids show John what they want to say if they’re somewhere noisy. “We’re newer to the disability world as a family,” Fetterman says, but she believes it’s making her kids more thoughtful. “They’re like, ‘This sidewalk, how can a wheelchair even get through this sidewalk?’ I think they’re more aware of it because we’ve had to fight to get closed captioning in spaces for dad.” She’s referring to the Senate floor, where the average age of legislators is 65.3 and one would think visual aids would be welcome.

Fetterman has dealt with the fact that life is inherently blighted with difficult things since she was a child. When she was not quite 8 years old, her mother gave her and her brother one day’s notice to pack a suitcase; they were relocating from an unsafe neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro to the United States. Now, when people ask Fetterman about her five-year plan, she tells them, “I don’t know if I’m alive. I can’t think that far. But I’m really good at today.”

While John went after what Fetterman calls “his dream” with the Senate campaign, she decided to pursue hers: She enrolled in a fire academy. She’d been thinking about it for years. “When I lived in Newark,” she tells me, “there was a house on my block that had a devastating fire. They had no detectors, and everybody died in the building.” She adds, “It really haunted me.” When she announced the news of her enrollment, the children were nervous. Her 9-year-old, August, was afraid Fetterman would be killed in a fire; 14-year-old Karl was afraid she would pose for a sexy firefighter calendar. Fetterman told them, “You guys are my world, but I have to pursue things, too.” Prioritizing one’s own goals over their children’s and partner’s desires is perhaps another atypical quality in a politician’s wife. “I would never tolerate him standing in the way of me wanting to become a firefighter or whatever it is,” Fetterman says of John. “In relationships, you support each other.”

Fetterman now works at the Rivers Edge Volunteer Fire Department, just down the road from her house. She gives me a tour of the station and puts on her enormous khaki-and-neon uniform over a long dress that does not seem conducive to fitting under pants but somehow does. She implores me to lift the 40-pound air pack she wears to breathe on calls. (I can confirm 40 pounds is extremely heavy.) The firefighters were all men when Fetterman started at the academy, but two other women trained with her. She was the oldest person in her class and nearly twice most of her fellow recruits’ ages.

Fetterman poses in one of the outdoor areas in her home, a converted car dearlership in Braddock that sits directly in front of a US Steel plant. Photo: Susana Raab

On the job, Fetterman wears a nameplate with her maiden name, Barreto, to minimize the disruption her local celebrity has on the 61 calls she’s done as of August 31. “I do all the 3 a.m. calls, the 2:30 a.m. calls, because I can just go right back to sleep and it doesn’t bother me at all,” she says. More disruptive is what the smoke does to her hair. “I’m like, Oh my God, if I wash my hair today, I’m going to be in a fire tomorrow. So every day I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’” Fetterman can go up to 14 days straight without a refresh. “It’s disgusting,” she says before telling me she showered yesterday in honor of our interview.

When Fetterman is called, she leaves a radio at the house so the kids can listen to what’s happening. “At first, it was a cat in a tree, and they were like, ‘Okay, Mom’s good,’” she says. “Then when it’s something more serious, they don’t want to listen to it anymore. But they know that’s an option. I’m not keeping it from them.” Fetterman says she never gets nervous when she goes to a fire. “I am always calm,” she tells me. She claims she has never yelled, not even in her dreams. “Nothing comes out,” she says of when Dream Gisele opens her mouth to scream. “I wish I was strong and tough.” When I tell her she does seem strong and tough, Fetterman says, “When people are mean to me, I start to cry. It’s happened a million times.” I haven’t been mean — I think — but she begins crying, which involves tears but a startling lack of change in her expression. “I’m sorry,” she tells me.

If her transparency and independence have scarred Fetterman’s children in any way, they’re hiding it well. When we’re sitting down at Burger King, Fetterman asks the kids to play in the indoor playground until she can “see sweat dripping” so that she and I have space to talk. Nevertheless, her youngest son and his friends come over to put stickers in her lustrous (and, today, clean) hair while she pretends to not notice. Fetterman says, “I’ve tried to raise the kids to be really flexible to prepare them for life.”

Recently, after family friends announced a breakup, Fetterman says Karl asked his parents if they would ever get divorced. They responded at the same time. John said, “Never.” Fetterman said, “Maybe.” Understandably, her husband asked his wife why. Fetterman says she told him, “I love you so much, but life happens. And if something were to happen, I don’t want it to debilitate them.” She sees this not as pessimism but optimism. “Whatever comes, we’re going to figure out a way through it,” she says. “There’s comfort in that.”

Gisele Fetterman’s Had a Hell of a Year