As one of the hosts of the popular Netflix show, 'The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals,' Jo Franco is paving the way for women of color in travel television.
Jo Franco says she feels most alive when she’s jumping in the snow. As a first-generation mixed-race traveler, 29-year-old Franco has been up close and personal with some of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders, and she considers herself blessed.
For Franco, traveling has been an entry point to exploring cultures. As a Brazilian immigrant, both frugal adventures and extravagant jet-setting are her definitions of living the dream. Most recently, Franco’s presence on Netflix’s World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals made television history and cemented her as one of the first women of color travel show hosts on Netflix, an inspiration for all travel lovers. Franco has particularly impacted the women of color who often feared to travel alone and travel fearlessly. Her advice to women of color exploring is to choose affordable, off-season trips that involve learning a language, a dance, or cooking.
As a lover and speaker of over five languages, Franco says the way she travels is all about cultural learning, but the journey has its own roadblocks. She knows traveling solo as a Brown woman is a radical act. But with over 215,000 Instagram followers, she’s inspiring Black and Brown women to globetrot bravely. Franco sat down with Fodor’s Travel to share her journey from travel vlogger to Netflix host and financially-freed adventurer.
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It’s such a dream to meet you! Your presence on World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals was really important to me. To see a woman of color on a travel show for the first time, living in limitless freedom, showed me that I—as a Black girl from North Carolina—could do this too.
Of course, it’s possible! I feel the same way. Where are the Black women? Where are the women of color, where are the colorful creators?
Exactly! Your story is so interesting. I know you started as a travel blogger and content creator. Can you tell me more about your back story?
So first of all, I have to take you way back. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, and my family is mixed. We’re all mixed. I have African, European, and Native American heritage, and I grew up around people of all colors. Everyone in Brazil is a little mixed.
How did growing up in a predominately white environment affect how you saw and experienced the culture and your place in the world?
We moved to the states and grew up in Connecticut, where there were only white all-American kids, for the most part. The few people of color that were there became my friends; my best friend was Puerto Rican. There was always this feeling of seeing others from where I stood, which came not only with skin color but also with language and culture. My accent started growing in Portuguese as I speak to my family in Portuguese, and my accent in English was melting away. I tried my hardest to shrink myself to fit in.
Wow. I feel like it’s so innate in us, as women of color, to shrink and fit in. What kept you going?
I was usually the only person of color and the youngest woman at most of my jobs. I was trying to look as normal as possible. I started learning French in elementary school, and I really loved it. I knew enough to know I could get good at it, so that’s why I studied international business in college. I was a freshman in college when my nephew’s father said, “Why don’t you take a look at broadcast journalism?” It was then that I started thinking of being on camera, but when you grow up undocumented, contrarily, you have to hide.
That resonates with many women of color who are living in fear of being seen. What finally made you take the plunge?
I started with submitting audition tapes. In my freshman year, I met a friend named Damon, who wanted to be a tv host, and I wanted to be a businesswoman. So, we started making travel videos on YouTube. As a junior in college, I was pitching executives in New York. It was the first travel show where a white guy and a black girl would be traveling the world and doing it cheaply to inspire others to do the same. Every executive we pitched said we were cute and great before rejecting us.
That’s really disappointing! I would have loved to see two biracial kids on a travel show!
We started putting videos on YouTube when I graduated college. I got a job at a travel agency. The irony is that the same travel agency booked all of our flights for Netflix seven years later. The pay was excellent, and I was going to take it. But then I thought if I take this, I wouldn’t be able to focus on YouTube. So, I turned down the job offer and moved to LA with Damon in 2015 and grew our YouTube channel from 40,000 subscribers to 200,000 in a few months.
That’s amazing! How did you grow your YouTube channel enough to make a living and support yourself?
By sacrificing everything. We were posting three weekly videos in English, Portuguese, and French. Eventually, I learned Spanish too because we took a trip to Latin America for three months. Initially, there were many barter opportunities. In return for making promotional videos, companies used to cover our Spanish school costs. We created a channel of over 600 videos and over a million subscribers from 2015 until 2019. Afterward, I branched out on my own to talk about language and financial freedom.
So, you just had to give up on the dream after you built that following?
Well, we ended that in November 2019. Around the same time, I got an email from Netflix that they were pitching a travel show and looking for hosts and wanted me to audition. It was like every single thing that I had ever done in the travel space all led me to the point in the audition where I was comfortable. Then next thing you know, they hired all three of us—me, Megan Batoon, and Luis D. Ortiz. They were initially only looking for two hosts, but Megan and I hit it off, and they loved our chemistry together. We now have such a beautiful relationship because we share a similar kind of journey.
It was a delight to watch two women of color living lavishly. Was there a cultural difference in traveling with your other hosts?
Megan Batoon is a first-time traveler. She never stayed in a communal space and really wanted to see what that looked like. Meanwhile, that’s how I started my travels—in hostels and communal living.
You’ve been all over the world; what are some of your favorite places?
Definitely the ranch in Montana (episode two, season one). It was a cowboy territory and real rustic. Staying there, it sunk in that I am a person of color, and is it safe to stay there? But that’s why, as a person of color, I really appreciated it and fell in love with the ranch. I enjoyed access to things I never got access to until I started traveling, like herding cattle with a cowboy in the middle of a location where you would normally be concerned, racially. It was a beautiful exchange.
Confession: I was in tears watching you jump in the snow, doing the salsa on a yacht, and tightrope walking across mountains. I can’t recall ever seeing folks of color doing such adventures. How did you find the courage?
I think we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I’ll always say “yes” to such opportunities because people like us, of lesser privilege, will never get the chance to. I thought about that every time they said, “Jo, this is your room,” and meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “I used to clean rooms like this.”
You had the epitome of what it is to be a woman of color and be enjoy immense bliss.
I think we are limitless. I know it sounds cliché, but to give you an example, I never found a job where I could learn languages for a living. The idea that I could create my own path, that’s something I would love to share with others. We were undocumented for twelve years of my childhood. So, the idea of living in France was impossible, right? But I took a risk, applied for a study abroad program, got in, and it became possible. Sure, I had credit card and student loan debt, but in the end it was the best investment I ever made. An investment in myself.