BRISTOL, Pa. — John Fetterman will readily tell you he’s had a stroke. It was the first thing he mentioned in his rally stump speech at a riverside park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on Sunday — well, the second, after he razzed Dr. Mehmet Oz, his GOP opponent, for living in New Jersey. He noted he’s likely to mispronounce some words and slur others together, and over the course of 12 minutes, he occasionally did. He asked audience members to share if they’ve ever experienced any personal health challenges — and slammed Dr. Oz for mocking his recovery. “What kind of a doctor roots for somebody that was sick to stay sick?” Fetterman asked.
After he finished his brief remarks, Fetterman’s circumstances suggested he’d lumber back onto the campaign bus from which he’d emerged. Instead, he met his wife, Gisele, at the base of the stage. They were going to do a rope line, lingering stroke symptoms be damned.
As they approached supporters lined along the metal barricades, Fetterman offered only high fives and fist bumps, repeating a gruff “thank you.” It was Gisele, staying just a pace ahead of her husband, who took the questions, accepted the compliments, and carried on conversations — some on behalf of her husband, some about “something they saw on my Instagram,” where Gisele documents her family’s life to more than 43,000 followers. A little girl with a broken arm asked Gisele to sign her cast, onto which Gisele scribbled “SLOP,” the moniker she’d given herself as the new second lady of Pennsylvania when her husband won the lieutenant governorship in 2018.
“I had no idea who a second lady was or what her role was,” she told me during an interview in Philadelphia later that day. “I’m like, ‘How do I make this role relatable and accessible?’ So ‘SLOP’ was born.”
Indeed, “SLOP” was never the plan. “I’ve always hated politics,” says. As a former undocumented immigrant from Brazil, standing in the spotlight runs counter to years of warnings her mother gave her to “be invisible.” Over 15 years of marriage to Fetterman, she was content using the platform his offices afforded as an extension of the career she’d built helping the needy — like when she opened the pool at the lieutenant governor’s residence to the public, so children without water access could learn how to swim.
Then her husband had a stroke four days before the primary for the U.S. Senate. Suddenly, the reluctant political spouse became the de facto candidate. “I just had to survive, I just had to go,” she says of that time. Did she consider asking John to step out of the race? “It wasn’t my decision to make,” she says. “If you have the ability to make lives better, then it’s your duty to do so. And if he has the green light from every doctor, then I support that.”
To find herself center stage in one of cycle’s most-watched Senate races is one of the many times Gisele has found herself somewhere she never expected to be. The first was Queens, New York, as a frightened newcomer; later, the depressed steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, as the wife of a new mayor; and this year, as the key surrogate for her husband in his race for U.S. Senate. Each time, she’s found herself not just surviving in uncertainty, but thriving. Vivacious, outgoing, and empathetic, there’s little surprise that she emerged as an asset to her ailing husband. Her reluctance to step into the political spotlight — and her talent for doing so anyway — has been a key extension of the authenticity that first drew voters to the Sheetz-eating, hoodie-clad candidate.
“It’s obvious to people that she’s not part of the political process,” John says. “People are attracted to that.”
Gisele spent the first years of her life in Jacarepagua, a middle-class community in Rio de Janeiro that abutted one of the city’s biggest slums. The proximity put her family in the crosshairs of violence: Her mother required stitches when a thief ripped a necklace off her; a botched carjacking left a cousin paralyzed. When eight-year-old Gisele returned from school one afternoon, her mother asked her to pack her favorite possessions into two suitcases. The family took off for Queens, New York, where they lived undocumented in a room above a doctor’s office. They later moved to Harrison, New Jersey, where every knock on the door spurred a “lump-in-your-throat, sinking feeling,” she recalls. “There were a lot of moments where you’re just like, ‘That’s it? It’s over?’”
“I adapt,” Gisele adds. “I lived in survival for a really long time, and I think I’m really good at survival.”
Those survival instincts resurfaced on a Friday in May when John walked out of a Sheetz restroom feeling under the weather. When they got in the car, Gisele noticed as the left side of her husband’s mouth momentarily drooped. The couple had been on their way to a campaign event at Millersville University. John, slurring his words, insisted he was fine; Gisele, cussing and frantic, demanded he go to the hospital. The police officer assigned to their detail sped to the closest nearby. It happened to have a stroke ward up to the task of yanking a blood clot out of John’s brain that, left there for much longer, would have undoubtedly killed him. “This was a stroke that could have ended my life, if it had happened at a different time or in a different place in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman tells me. “At a minimum, I would have had significant damage beyond where I was at.”
For two days, the campaign said nothing, canceling events without giving a reason. On Sunday, the campaign announced John’s stroke. “It all happened very fast,” Gisele recalls. “I didn’t really have time to, like, think it through. I thought, ‘How do I talk to my kids about this? What is it going to feel like to them to see this on YouTube when they’re like, watching their videos?’” Her eyes swelled with tears. “Going through a health crisis is really challenging for anybody — trying to heal privately is really difficult. But then we had to heal extremely publicly, which was challenging.”
By the time primary day arrived that Tuesday, the doctors had determined John needed a pacemaker for a weakened heart. It wasn’t the time to think about politics, but she couldn’t avoid them. “Every doctor said he was going to make a full recovery,” Gisele recalls. “That’s when it was out of my hands.”
Gisele invited the press to tag along as she went and cast her primary ballot. She returned to the hospital, then went home to shower and check on her kids and dogs before hosting the campaign’s election night party at a Pittsburgh Hyatt, where she accepted her husband’s nomination. The 20-minute speech she delivered was earnest about the stakes of the election ahead with a touch of gallows humor, even in the hours after her husband emerged from a procedure from which he wasn’t certain he’d wake. “Before I get started, I would like to take a moment to address the elephant in the room — which is that my husband, John Fetterman, is not in the room tonight,” she said to laughs. She took the call from President Biden to congratulate John on his victory as her husband slept. She, not John, gave the victory interviews to every national outlet. “They wanted to know about his health.” She pauses. “I mean, it was a lot. That day was a lot.”
Her approach to campaigning that evening bore little similarity to her husband’s. “She went up to every single camera and reporter in the room who John would never have talked to,” Rebecca Katz, a senior adviser on the campaign, tells me.
Gisele is most things her husband is not. John prefers to keep to himself; Gisele loves talking to people and normalizing public crying. His voice is low and gruff; hers is melodic, like a Disney princess. He almost exclusively wears hoodies and gym shorts; she dresses up — a habit leftover from her Brazilian upbringing, “but I think I upped it because he was so underdressed.” On the day we met, John had taken the rally stage in jeans, a rarity; she wore a long black floral dress and knee-high snakeskin boots with bright red lipstick, her long black waves of hair falling halfway down her back.
“His campaign would be so boring without me,” she jokes now. But her contributions in those early days were serious. She was responsible for updating a desperate press corps on her husband’s condition, often with her characteristic optimism that belied the severity of it. She threaded the needle on “gotcha” questions from cable news networks — like the one CNN lobbed at her after the primary about whether or not her husband was still “a progressive” after backing away from the title. “Whether you voted for him or not, he wants to be a senator for all of Pennsylvania,” she told the network. She attended political events in her husband’s place, like the opening of campaign offices for Pennsylvania Democrats or a rally for gun violence. When the campaign needed someone to rally volunteers, Gisele stopped into the Zoom to give them a pep talk.
“She was helping John get his recovery in order, she was dealing with the end of the school year. She was doing a bunch of press hits because we wanted someone out there. We threw so much at her,” Katz recalls. “But Gisele was the obvious person to do this.”
If Gisele had things her way, she wouldn’t have been the obvious person — and definitely wouldn’t have been discussing politics with me in a park in Philadelphia on a Sunday evening. She’d be a few blocks away in the city’s Gayborhood, where we’d encountered a roaring street festival an hour earlier. Under a canopy of rainbow ribbons and air thick with weed, Gisele moved with ease past the pulsating dancers, several of whom asked for a photo when they realized who was in their midst. “I love Philly, I love parties, I love learning about different places,” she tells me. “If I wasn’t in this position, I would probably be there partying.”
Gisele’s estranged father, who held public office in Brazil, disinclined her from running for public office — let alone marrying someone in it. “I would never date a politician — never ever ever,” she tells me, “but life is funny and does that to you.” She’d been running a nutrition nonprofit in Newark when she read about Braddock in a magazine. Inspired, she sent a handwritten letter to its new mayor, John Fetterman, to see if her work could be of any assistance. He invited her to visit, and she went there for the first time in October 2007 and met John in his front yard. The two were married the following summer. They live in the converted second floor of Braddock’s old Chevrolet dealer, across the street from a still-active steel mill.
Her life in Braddock had been a string of efforts focused on helping the majority-Black and highly impoverished population. She opened the Free Store, a nonprofit that collects new items and gives them for free, no questions asked, to anyone who walks into the old shipping container that houses it. A few years later, she co founded another nonprofit that rescues still-good groceries destined for the dumpster and redistributes them away to families in need. In the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim countries, she commissioned hijab accessories for Barbies so her daughter and other children could see diverse representation across their dolls.
Gisele’s intersections with John’s career often took place on social media, where the very online pair frequently razz each other. A frequent favorite: Gisele will post a selfie of the two them with John’s head cut off, teasing how much taller six-foot-eight John is that her. “I wasn’t that different before politics,” she tells me. “I’ve been fighting with him to wear pants for the last 15 years.” On the Senate campaign, she’s been a key collaborator on the Twitter strategy centered on mocking Oz: “She’s somebody that I use as like, ‘Does that pass the mean test?’” John says, meaning Gisele is the one who often tones them down.
But for the most part, his elevated platform gave Gisele an opportunity to advance cherished causes. She appeared, for example, on the cover of Weed World magazine to advocate for marijuana legalization. (Gisele consumes cannabis topically and through a vape pen to treat back pain that resulted from a years-old accident.) “We’re completely separate individuals,” Gisele explains. “I can hate politics, but I can support him because I know he’s gonna make things better.”
Politicians, we’re told, are supposed to be authentic — some unknowable amalgam of relatability and candor that, whether real or perceived, registers among voters. It’s how John Fetterman catapulted into the national spotlight and past his khaki-wearing competition to win every county in Pennsylvania in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. He doubled down on that unfiltered quality as he returned to the campaign trail in August before he’d fully recovered. Gisele joined him for his first television interview, fielding the early questions as John regained his comfort. In the campaign’s final stretch, she joins him at events, like the rally in Bucks County, and introduces him as a “stroke survivor” before he takes the stage. She even commands her own audience: She holds events without John and the campaign sells a T-shirt that reads, “I’m with Gisele’s husband.”
“I have a joke where I should have a button on my shirt saying, ‘Where’s Gisele?” John says. “That’s what people say, ‘Hey, where’s Gisele?’ That’s like my name.”
How the Fettermans have handled John’s ongoing recovery has been a fount of attack fodder for his GOP opponents who have sought to undermine confidence that he’s fit for office. It’s also been a source of speculation for the media, which continues to wonder aloud just how open the campaign has been about the extent of John’s impairment. The latter took center stage in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday night, when John used the closed-captioning technology he requires to compensate for his auditory difficulties and fielded questions about why he hasn’t released more medical records.
It cast Gisele into yet another role: defending her husband against attacks she views as ableist. “Have these ‘journalists’ never heard of the [Americans with Disabilities Act]?” she tweeted, noting 15 percent of the U.S. identifies as hard of hearing and in need of accommodations. “Really curious to learn how they feel about wheelchairs and glasses.”
Gisele has been an especially active — and as her Twitter clapback demonstrates, reactive — participant in her husband’s Senate bid for someone who could have never imagined getting into politics. It’s not really about the politics for her, though. “I’m just being a good friend and a good support system,” she says. “I don’t see my role as anything specific of defined. I’m just being what’s needed right now.”