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‘Abbott Elementary’ and the Glow Up of Quinta Brunson’s Janine Teagues

‘Abbott Elementary’ and the Glow Up of Quinta Brunson’s Janine Teagues

When Quinta Brunson first introduced second grade teacher Janine Teagues in season one of Abbott Elementary, she purposely had the character dress in awkward clothing, from frumpy sweaters paired with chunky belts to long maxi skirts with sneakers. She barely wore makeup and didn’t pay much attention to her hair.

But in season three, as Teagues takes a break from teaching to work at the Philadelphia school district, viewers see her forge ahead: She’s in tailored suits, fitted blazers and heels. She’s stepped up her makeup game and her curls are defined. And the middle part in her hair drives the point home: This is her glow up.

It’s something Brunson has been planning from day one.

“I always wanted this evolution for Janine,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I always joke that [Janine] watched some YouTube videos over the summer. She learned a quick makeup tutorial. She learned how to define her curls, [and her best friend] Erika took her shopping.”

“And to be honest, we give season one and season two Janine a lot of shit, but I feel that who she’s evolved from is still important and still valid and still beautiful. I want to be clear in saying, it’s not like we thought she was a troll before,” she continues. “Its evolution.”

Quinta Brunson in seasons one and two of Abbott Elementary.

Prashant Gupta/ABC; Gilles Mingasson/ABC (3)

When Brunson looks back at the character she plays onscreen, she says her clothes showcased “not only a teacher trying their best, but a girl trying her best in her twenties. Janine’s not the coolest. She’s a bit of a nerd, and honestly clothes to her are a way to express what she’s feeling on the inside, but that doesn’t mean she’s good at it.”

The actress-writer-producer was happy viewers saw the point she was trying to make this season, which wraps on May 22. “I really wanted her to be a character that was a juxtaposition of what we had been seeing in television recently, which was a lot of wish fulfillment wardrobe. I really wanted Janine to go the opposite direction — I would look at old pictures of me from high school and go, ‘What the hell did I have on?’ And I think that’s such an important part of a young person’s development, a young woman’s development, a young Black woman’s development.”

“I knew it would garner some attention, but I really wanted that. I wanted it to evoke something in people [to ask] — ‘What is she wearing?’ — [without] telling the audience that you’re going to be on a ride of evolution of style.”

Abbott has been a hit since the Brunson-created series launched on ABC in 2021. Its first two seasons won four Emmys — with 15 nominations — and 34-year-old Brunson made history as the first Black woman to win the best comedic actress award in over 40 years. The show has been renewed for a fourth season and it is so popular that guest stars have included Bradley Cooper, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Hart, Ayo Edebiri and several Philadelphia Eagles players. And others want to be involved: Even A-lister Bette Midler turned to social media to say she wants a role on the series (more on that later). 

In interviews with THR below, Brunson — along with hair department head Moira Frazier, makeup department head Constance Foe and costume designer Susan Michalek — discuss developing the principal character’s story arc through fitted clothing, natural curls and jewel-toned eyeliner.

Quinta Brunson in season three of Abbott Elementary.

Gilles Mingasson/Disney (2)

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Let’s start with the middle part in Janine’s hair, which has gotten so much attention. 

QUINTA BRUNSON I remember having a conversation with Moira at the top of the season and I was like, “We’re going to do a middle part this year.” And it’s really exciting for something so small to be that big to us, and not only to us, but the audience. When the promos for the season first came out, people were like, “Janine, buss down, middle part!”’ And I think it’s really beautiful to be able to build those moments for your characters. It’s so rewarding and it really makes the journey feel personal for both the character and audience.

[During season one] they constantly wanted to make the hair look better. And I so often was like, “Guys, I get it, but there’s a story that I really want to tell with Janine.” And you’ll have those opportunities with [Janelle James’ character] Ava and with guest cast. But with Janine, it’s really important to protect the evolution of a person learning to take care of themselves, love themselves and know themselves. 

MOIRA FRAZIER For Janine going into this district, she wanted to be taken more seriously [after] getting rejected by her love interest. She’s like, “OK, let me refocus back on me. I’m going to get myself together.” That middle part speaks volume, honey. Hair tells a story, and it’s important for me to bring characters to life through the story of hair. Hair telling is what I would call it. 

[We’re also showing] how you can wear your natural hair in the workplace. We had to show that. 

Moira, are you making all of the cast wigs from scratch?

FRAZIER Yes, I make all these wigs from scratch. Our main cast, those wigs get ventilated from scratch, honey. It took me seven days to ventilate Quinta’s wig, seven days to ventilate [Sheryl Lee Ralph’s character] Barbara’s wig. It took me two days to ventilate our custom topper pieces. For Lisa Ann Walter [who plays Melissa Schemmenti], I ventilated a whole headpiece to add more volume. I made Ava two lace-front wigs and that was two to three days [of ventilating]. 

What was it like coming up with Janine’s new wardrobe for season three?

SUSAN MICHALEK Before it was very big stuff and she would cinch it in with a belt and we would sort of fake-alter it really quickly. And this season I deliberately went for knits to make them fit her better. And it was some prints, mostly stripes, and some lower necklines and shorter skirts and fitted blazers. People keep saying she’s lost weight. And I’m like, “I think it’s that she’s wearing clothes that fit her now.”

BRUNSON When I was in college, I walked around wearing my dad’s sweaters. I would steal his sweaters and wear them because, ultimately, I was hiding my body in a way. And that’s what made me feel comfortable and I liked dressing that way. As I got older and got a little bit more comfortable with my shape, it made me more comfortable wearing fitted clothing, and that’s what I wanted to show with Janine. But it’s also her finding that balance between, “OK, what’s too fitted for the classroom? What’s fit enough so that I like the way I look?”

Brunson in Season three.

Gilles Mingasson/Disney

Susan, for season three did you shop at the same stores compared to season one and two?

MICHALEK I went to Aritzia, which is a higher price point for Janine, but I needed to. And I got the suits at H&M and I got some ZARA blazers, and I went to AKIRA. I was doing ASOS before. It’s mostly the same places [but] I got the different vibe.

I did a pilot with a school teacher and she was wearing Prada shoes. There’s no negative [energy] to the actress, but she wanted Prada shoes and that’s what was expected. If I were doing this show 10 years ago, I’d be shopping at Saks, Neiman’s and Barneys. But Quinta’s want from the beginning — which is very unusual coming from the past — was to try to keep it at what teachers could afford. 

[Quinta is] the trendsetter of the future. It’s a real shift in television to actually try to shop for a show with low price points. That comes from Quinta and she’s changing things. She’s going into this old format and modernizing it.

What was it like incorporating the makeup changes into season three?

BRUNSON I’ll never forget the first season of Abbott. My makeup artist at the time, she was not happy because I said, “I don’t want to wear makeup.” I wanted as little makeup as possible for Janine. When we started this season, Constance [Foe] and I did a quick run-through test and it’s like, “OK, let’s tone that down. I don’t know that Janine would be able to do that.” And I still want it to look like Janine is doing her makeup, not like she’s going to Sephora every day, or that she’s a girl that has the time in the morning to beat her face for an hour. 

CONSTANCE FOE I went with more jewel-toned eyeliners because we all know her jelly bean belt that has all the different colors and stuff like that — that’s Janine. I was like, “How can I bring teacher Janine into district Janine?” I also went with more lip liners [and] lip glosses and color in her lip because she’s a lip gloss girly and she’s more toned down, but again, she’s stepping it up. You can’t take her from barely nothing to va-va-voom like she’s Ava or … Kim Kardashian or something like that. It’s very important to follow the story and build her character continuously as a female and a human being. 

I’ve played with some of the shadows. She has little hints of purples and deep browns with the jeweled liners, which you didn’t see in past seasons. Making it subtle but making it a little sultry, especially when you see her with Gregory Eddie [Tyler James Williams] and she’s batting those eyes — those lashes are a little bit more flutt-ier than they usually are.

Y’all see so much this season that Abbott has never had. With Gregory, a lot of people don’t know that he’s tatted up and I literally covered him … in the cold opening with the basketball scene. It has to look like skin. I had to basically plaster him with sealant, because I was putting sweat on him. With Chris [Perfetti, who plays Jacob], we did his beard this season. We laid that beard up on him and started plucking and kept going to Quinta, “What you think?” She was sitting right there, “Go a little shorter” because it has to be realistic.

Social media loves this show and has chimed in about Janine’s new look — what are your thoughts on that?

BRUNSON I’m having this experience that I do think is unique and I’m looking forward to talking to some other Black women creators about all of these thoughts that I’m having. Issa [Rae] and Yvette [Lee Bowser] who did Living Single, I want to talk to them about what their experiences were. But of course, I’m protective over my characters and very protective over Janine [and] I sometimes get so heartbroken watching people be hard on flawed characters.

And it’s not unique to Abbott. It’s my goal to let my female characters be flawed. But I’ve seen it happen with Sex and the City. Carrie [Bradshaw], I think, is one of the most dynamic characters of all time, but the way she is still to this day torn apart on social media is so fascinating to me. It happened with Issa’s character on Insecure and Molly; Joan in Girlfriends. It’s really, really fascinating. And if you’re a good writer and you’re aiming to constantly protect yet evolve your characters, I think it’s jarring. You want to do it, but then it’s jarring to see the audience actually react the way that you imagine they would, engaging with the character. It feels very exposing, and it makes me want to protect Janine further.

But I think it’s important to still push for that evolution no matter how uncomfortable it may make our audience. It even happens with my male characters. I’ve seen people say things about Gregory where I’m like, “He’s just a guy. He’s a young man figuring it out.” And sometimes it’s like, “Yeah, Gregory’s a dirtbag.” And I’m like, “Incorrect. What?” But I also think it has a lot to do with how we see ourselves. I think sometimes people watch these characters do something on-screen that looks like a human flaw or human error that they don’t want to commit, and it’s a very negative reaction. But the truth of the matter is we’re committing errors every day, but we’re not reading a book about ourselves. We’re in our bodies, but we do fuck shit up every day.

Lisa Ann Walter with Brunson in season three.

Gilles Mingasson/Disney

Makeup, hair and wardrobe are usually talked about on shows like Game of Thrones or Bridgerton, but there were so many subtle changes on Abbott this season… 

BRUNSON I really appreciate that, because I think it’s easier to see when it’s done. There’s a public joke of people [saying], “The Tyler Perry [TV show] wigs, why do they look that way?” So it’s easy to focus on the negative, but it’s not as easy to focus when people are doing it in a really [seamless way]. I don’t want to talk bad about Tyler Perry shows … It completely goes missed when it comes to Black hair and makeup when it is done in a subtle way, but it’s important.

It was very exciting last year when the hair team was nominated [at the Emmys]. I’m always happy for the nominations and for my cast especially, but that one almost made me cry.

We’ve constantly heard stories from Black actors about being on set with makeup artists and hair stylists who are not familiar with natural textures and dark skin. How has it been on set filming Abbott?

BRUNSON I’ve had multiple people come on my show, guests, who have said they’ve never had a Black hair department head, which has been jarring for me. Multiple people, Black people. And same thing with makeup. And I wasn’t used to that experience because I did three shows as an actor before Abbott and one of them was A Black Lady Sketch Show, where the entire hair and makeup department was Black. And that weirdly rewired my brain to be like, “This is and can be the norm.” And that was easy for me when I started up Abbott. There were no questions about it.

Even if I didn’t have a predominantly Black cast that was going to be part of what I aim to do. So it’s wild to still, three years later, have people come into my hair and makeup trailer and tell me they’ve never had a Black [artist or stylist]. One girl who was on this year, who isn’t Black [but] Middle Eastern, who has curls, she’s like, “I’ve never had my curls taken care of on a set before.” She pretty much used to come washed and ready, and here she got to come and actually feel like she was getting her hair taken care of. I’m very proud of my crew and they do incredible work on top of being kind of an enigma in this industry, which is crazy.

FOE I’ve been on so many different shows and [the talent] don’t know exactly who they’re going to. I know people who bring their own makeup bag because they don’t know exactly what they’re going to run into. When they see me, they’ll be like, “Oh, thank God.” I’m like, “For my talent to feel that way, it’s a problem.”

“Why can’t you match their skin?” You should be able to match anybody because you call yourself a professional. But [diversity] is so imperative, especially on our show because it’s predominantly Black. It’s the representation. It’s the fact that we can have those conversations and be real with each other while they’re getting their service and they’re comfortable, they’re free, they’re able to let their hair down and they don’t feel like they have to be quiet or be in a box. They’re actually who they are. We provide not only a service, but a safe space for them.

Brunson in season one and season two.

Scott Everett White/ABC; Gilles Mingasson/Disney

How do you feel like Janine has grown over the years and do you feel like you’ve grown with her? 

BRUNSON I think that’d be fair to say. I do look at Janine as a totally different entity. I look at her as a version of me because to be fair, I was never as corny as Janine, but as a version of me from 10 years ago. I’ve definitely done so much growing since Abbott has started. In the time that it’s been on the air I’ve had so many personal life changes, so much more responsibility. I’ve always been a very responsible person, but having a television show both publicly and internally, privately comes with a wave of responsibility that you have to take on. You could not take it on, but your decisions affect so many other people. And I love my show and I love my crew, and I love my cast.

I love being responsible for them because it feels like the best version of love I can give to these people, and this workplace. And people always say the workplace is not a family, which I agree with, but you have to find your ways of showing appreciation and respect and love for these people, especially when you’re as fortunate as I am and they’re making a literal dream come true. And so I’ve learned newer versions of responsibility, newer versions of accountability and in learning accountability is knowing that you have to grow into a new version of accountability. It might not look how you thought it looked before, but you have to grow into it. And I think that’s been my biggest learning lesson over the past three years is what accountability looks like for me. I think what I’ve learned, along with Janine, is the power of self.

I’ve always been a really independent person, and I’ve always trusted myself, but being in this industry and Abbott being where it is in this industry, everyday is a winding road, whatever that lyric is, and you really got to be in tune or, I don’t know, you can wind up doing whatever. I believe in what I’m doing. I believe it doesn’t matter if everyone’s trying to push you one way, you really start to have a very good sense of self, and it’s about trusting what you think. And I feel like Janine has had that growth in her story.

Did you see that Bette Midler tweeted about Abbott and wants to play the role of Melissa Schemmenti’s mother?

BRUNSON I did. Bette’s an icon and a legend, and I’m over the moon that she even knows what Abbott Elementary is. It’s moments like those with people like that where it’s like, “I can’t believe this person is watching this show.” And I know some people may say, “Duh, people are watching,” but you never know. I move through the world with the safe assumption that people haven’t seen the show. I just imagine Bette Midler sitting at home like, “You know what, Janine’s hair is looking good.” I think that’s so funny to me. I’m really honored that she cares for the show that much. It’s incredible.

Abbott Elementary airs its season three finale May 22 on ABC at 9 p.m.

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