Cinde Cortelyou had her doubts about entering Hallmark Cards' Girls Gotta Laugh greeting card contest in 2010. On a whim, the Tampa resident created a card for the contest and just 48 hours later received word that her entry was a winner. Using a black-and-white photo of her stern-faced great-grandparents stiffly posing with twin infants — her mother and aunt —she penned a cheeky question: "Do these babies make me look fat?" On the inside, the card read: "Nah, you always look hot." Cortelyou works for the state of Florida, helping determine eligibility for Medicaid. "It's my left brain's activity," she said. "When I am not working, creating award-winning greeting cards for Hallmark balances out my right brain." Cortelyou recently sat down, with dog Zoe by her side, and spoke with Times staff writer Aimée Alexander about her success with winning three greeting card contests and what's in store for the future.
How did you find out about the contests?
One of the local newspapers wrote an article years ago about a woman I knew at work. Her golden retriever was on a card that read: "Have a golden day." And the card is still for sale. I saw her at a meeting and was so impressed and asked her how she did it and she encouraged me to enter. I never thought I would win. I entered on the last day and just said, "I am going to do it."
What do you remember about entering your first contest?
For my first one, the card asked for a funny caption. I have a lot of family photos. My dad was a shutterbug, and I love photography, so I chose a photo of my great-grandparents holding my infant mother June and her twin sister, Juel, my aunt, and they both just look so stern, like curmudgeons. I never met my great-grandparents, so this was a picture that only family would see. So it's very cool to me that other people are aware of it and buy it online to send to other people.
Whenever you write something like that by yourself, you don't have anybody to tell you if it's funny or not. You don't know. What is nice about Hallmark is that they have a whole support community online with judges giving out hints and clues about the winners. So it's pretty cool to get feedback. The excitement that comes from other peoples' comments, that they can't wait to see the winning card makes it really fun, too It's not a stuffy corporate contest; it's very low-key.
How did it feel to win?
I was shocked. It was my first contest, too. When Hallmark calls to say you have won, if they don't get you live on the phone, they leave a very exciting message with a group of people cheering in the background: "Woohoo! Way to go!"
The second time you won, your dog Zoe became the star in the family. What led you to enter again?
I entered more contests from time to time until I finally won the Mother's Day one in 2011. I actually entered the Mother's Day contest twice with the same picture of my dog Zoe but with two different captions. I showed it to one friend and the caption was "Spin around on your butt, you'll love it." And my friend said: "Ummm … I would just do Happy Mother's Day." I am glad I didn't listen to her or I never would have won. Zoe is going to be 10 this year. I got her when she was 2 years old; she was a rescue dog. She's a really good dog. She came knowing sit and stay and never climbs on the furniture. She's not really a spinner, but in the picture she looks like she's about to spin around. That card was so popular that it not only went on sale online but also in stores.
What was it like to see your card for sale in a store?
I was in Walmart, where they had a whole Mother's Day section called Unleashed and it was all pet cards from a pet to mom. I found myself overjoyed. That was the biggest thing. Imagine walking into a store and seeing your dog's face. And to see people buy a card with my dog's face on it. It was just a thrill.
And then over a period of time, people would say "I saw your card. I bought your card." So I made a book out of all the people who sent me pictures of themselves holding my card and called it Zoe's 15 Minutes, or How a Shelter Dog Won a Hallmark Card Contest and Became a Nationwide Star. Really, really fun. Childhood friends, high school friends, old boyfriends, even Zoe's surgeon.
Your most recent win was in 2013 was for caringbridge.com. Tell me about that card.
Grief was a real departure. I was a caregiver for my mom, who'd had a stroke, and I learned a lot about caregiving. I watched my mother go down that road and thought about how tough it was. She died on Christmas Day in 2003, a year before my brother Geoff was diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer. After surgery, chemo and radiation, he was given a 50/50 chance to live. I also drew inspiration from him for the Caring Bridge card. He and I share the same sense of humor.
How did you capture the image for the card?
One evening at dusk, I noticed a glorious sunset over the pond by my house. I ran inside to grab my camera before the sunset disappeared. I showed the photo to my neighbor, who commented that it was an award winner.
Why did you choose a sunset?
I thought about how life passes us by like a sunset, from day to night, and life to death.
Any future plans to enter more contests?
It's always inspiring to win. It motivates me to enter more because you get $250 if it wins online and $250 if it sells in the store. I believe Hallmark is scaling back the contests a bit, but I will keep entering them.
Have you ever considered creating your own greeting card line?
Well, I have been making cards for friends for years and the ones Hallmark does not accept usually go to friends, too. My latest card is a picture of me and my young friend Lori, both holding balls. It reads: "We always have a ball together." I even created a popup ball to attach to the front of the card and plan to superimpose other friends' faces, too.
What does your boss think of your greeting card fame?
He has been very supportive and thinks it is pretty cool.
Weekend Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.