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Inside the World of Fan Fiction

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Fan fiction—that is, fiction that uses an existing universe created by another author and expands (or pirates) it—has literally been around for centuries. Consider the "infancy gospels," later texts that explored the life of the infant Christ and other figures in the original gospels.

But right now, we are living in an unprecedented era of devoted—even rabid—fandom, where the dedication of a few can actually bring a dead series back from the brink (Firefly), can rocket a first-time author to the top of the bestseller lists and keep her there (Twilight, Harry Potter), and can even influence the source story as it unfolds (Babylon 5, Undeclared). The power of the fan is only now being realized—and fan fiction is on the front lines of that power.

It's a subtle revolution, one that's mostly occurring online, which is why we've put together this introduction to the world of fan fiction:

A (very) brief history of fan fiction

For as long as people have been dreaming up characters, fans have been dreaming up ways to create new situations for them to try on, copyright laws be damned.

The various sources for the Epic of Gilgamesh seem to indicate that later generations were adding and adapting the tales on their own, and literary history is littered with other examples: Unauthorized "sequels" to Don Quixote, fan-penned tales set in Alice's Wonderland, even early-20th century stories creating new adventures for Sherlock Holmes and his trusty Watson.

But it's been two 20th century developments that have led to a burgeoning on a grand scale. The first was Star Trek. One of the most beloved of created universes, the original series has given fans enough material to create their own versions of events and stories for decades. In the late 1960s and "˜70s, fans began to share their stories with one another through fanzines, the first of which was called Spockanalia and sent through that thing that came before the Internet, the postal system. The second most important thing was the Internet itself. Without the Internet, its immediacy and its democratic underpinnings, fan fiction would hardly exist in the force that it does today.

If you're interested in a more academic take on fanfic, check out the work of Dr. Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and the author of one of the first books written about the phenomenon of fan fiction. Jenkins contextualizes fan fiction, placing it within an evolving "participatory culture," where media interacts with consumers on a much more personal and reciprocal level. But moving on"¦

A practical fanfic primer

There is a vast amount of fan fiction currently circulating around the internet: and both have millions of members and millions of entries, ranging from short poems inspired by Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty series to full, novel-length explorations of Harry's life if he'd never gone to Hogwarts. Then there are the sites for individual universes: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, and many more.

But before you go trolling for fanfic, there are a few things to note: First, due to the sometimes violent or sexual nature of some fanfic, many sites come with a rating system. Fanfic sites police themselves, adhering to a standard that is an amalgamation of existing entertainment ratings systems and that can differ between sites. What's G on one site can be K on another, PG-13 can be T, R can be M, NC-17 can be MA—but be sure to check the rating before reading any story, just so you know what you're in for.

And second, like any community, the community of fan fiction comes with its own language. Here are just a few of the terms: "Beta" refers to fellow fanfic readers and writers who will act as editors of a story; "canon" is the universe as created by the original author or authors (note that what is considered "canonical" can actually change as the original story develops over time or should the originator wish); "fanon" generally means facts or conditions that are not explicit in the canon but are accepted by the majority of the fandom. Going a bit deeper, there's "Mary Sue," a critical fanfic term for a character who is the embodiment of the author's wish fulfillment fantasy, for whom everything tends to work out; "shipper" is a fanfic writer who writes a certain romantic pairing, say Hermione and Draco; and then there's "slash," the somewhat controversial fanfic exploration of homoerotic and sometimes outright pornographic pairings of two male characters (more on that here, in the context of Harry Potter).

Famous fan fiction writers

For the record, fanfic isn't just pale teenagers whiling away their waking hours hunched over the computer and tapping out torrid Harry/Draco romance stories or unauthorized future installments of the Twilight saga: Famous authors, too, have dabbled in other writers' universes. In the years after Alice in Wonderland was written, for example, famous authors such as Frances Hodges Burnett (The Little Princess and The Secret Garden), and E. Nesbit (Five Children and It), thought they'd take a hand in re-writing or revising the now classic and classically trippy text.

Nowadays, it's kind of cool to admit you write fan fiction—Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries, came clean recently and admitted she wrote fan fiction based on Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern world. Naomi Novik, author of the acclaimed Temeraire series, said that she started out writing fan fiction. She's also the head of the Organization of Transformative Works, which seeks to promote the legality of fan fiction and other fan works.

Fan fiction damns the man

Because fan fiction takes its bones, so to speak, from an existing work owned and copyrighted by another creator, it can legally be considered a "derivative work"—and under copyright and intellectual property laws, that's a bit of a no-no. (Parody, by the way, is an entirely different issue and is protected from prosecution under copyright laws.) Most fan fiction writers believe that if they write fan fiction without the intent to profit from it, then they and their work are protected; to that end, many stories come with a disclaimer indicating that the characters in it belong to the original author and that the story was written with no intent to profit.

Not exactly. While damages sought from copyright infringement rest on whether or not the fiction seeks to profit from the work and how much, the originator of the copyright protected work can still sue, or at least, fire off cease and desist letters.

britney-fanficWhether or not they do so often sits with the original creator's feelings toward fan fiction. Some creators encourage fanfic: J.K. Rowling, for one, has given her blessing to fanfic writers, saying that she was "flattered" people would want to write stories based on the world she's created. Last year, Britney Spears even launched a fan fiction contest, calling on fans to write stories based on songs chosen from her latest album, The Circus. The winner of the contest would see their story turned into a digitally animated film.

Other authors and creators, however, have taken a dim view of fanfic: Anne Rice, author of the Interview With a Vampire series, famously frowned on stories based on her universe, requesting that online fanfic archives remove any works based on her worlds. (This is somewhat hypocritical, given that you could argue Rice is herself a fan fiction writer: Her most recent books are fictional expansions of the Gospels, exploring the life of Jesus Christ.)

Most situations that reach the lawsuit stage arise when a fanfic author has sought to publish his or her work and therefore, to make a profit from it. Last year, for example, lawyers for J.D. Salinger, the Catcher in the Rye author who passed away last month, filed suit against an author writing a sequel to Salinger's most famous book. The alleged sequel, called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, featured a character named "Mr. C," an elderly escapee from a retirement home bearing a striking resemblance to Rye's Holden Caulfield.

Because of fan fiction's questionable legal status, fanfic sites have to be somewhat careful how they go about things. For example, is one of the major fanfic sites and as such, costs money to run. In order to keep it going for the hundreds of thousands of users, it is now a registered 501©3 tax-exempt charitable organization and subsists on donations from its users.

There's been some commotion in the fan fiction community after one author, who goes by the name of LadySybilla, insisted that it was her right as a fan to publish her work of fan fiction. LadySybilla sought to publish and sell Russet Noon, a "tribute sequel" to the fourth book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn. She and her publisher, AV Paranormal, even went so far as to offer copies of the book on eBay. But after realizing that fighting the forces of publisher Little, Brown would be a losing battle, she gave refunds to everyone who tried to by the book and instead, is putting the book out a chapter at a time online. AV Paranormal has also said that the book will be released for free in a physical copy.

The publisher argued Russet Noon was taking a stand for the little guy, releasing a statement practically quivering with righteous indignation: "Every universe or, to put it in more commercial terms, franchise, feeds off our fantasies, dreams and hard earned dollars. When we give life to a universe, when we become its fans and financial supporters, we become the human batteries that keep its matrix alive"¦ Authors write fan fiction and sell it all the time. They just change the identities of the characters to protect themselves from lawsuits. Unfortunately, when an author is honest about their unconventional views about fanfiction, they get called a 'thief' and their ethical values come under attack. The only problem with this self-righteous, judgmental thinking is: How can you steal something that's already yours?"

If fanfic's murky legal status is worrying to its writers, it's not enough to keep them from writing it or from championing it. Supporters of fan fiction, such as the Organization for Transformative Works, claim that not for profit fan fiction should be considered "transformative" and come under fair use exemptions from copyright prosecution.

Authorized "fan fiction"

But there is fan fiction that does make it out to the for-profit world, like the source-sanctioned novel explorations of popular shows and movies, such as Star Trek (William Shatner even got into that racket), Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

rhett-butlerBut it's not only the sci-fi and fantasy franchises that have seen authorized fan fiction. Despite the fact she's been dead since 1817, Jane Austen's Regency England universe continues to make it onto the printed page with astonishing regularity. Because Austen's works lie primarily in the public domain and her characters are not trademarked, anyone can access her characters and use them however they wish (Mr. Darcy's Diary, Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters).

In cases where copyright or trademark restrictions still apply, published stories that use famous characters often have authorization from (or have paid licensing fees to) the estate of the original author. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a figure who has been adapted and adopted by other authors, with permission: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon's The Final Solution explores an aging Holmes, while mystery writer Laurie King's Mary Russell series pairs the famous sleuth with a new female partner who later becomes his wife. Margaret Mitchell's opus, Gone With the Wind, was followed up many years later by the much maligned Scarlett, the authorized sequel, and then Rhett Butler's People, also authorized by the Mitchell estate, and also a sequel (the unauthorized The Wind Done Gone, which told the story from the perspective of Scarlett's half-black half-sister, was ruled by the US Court of Appeals to be a parody).

Fan films

While much of fan fiction lives in the world of words, film has proven just as inspirational a medium to fans. And now, ever-improving uploading speeds on the Internet and increased access to filmmaking and special effects equipment means that more fan fiction can and will become fan film.

hidden-frontierStar Trek has inspired several would-be filmmakers to produce new narratives based in the existing universe, including a very polished web-based production that relied on green screen effects to recreate the bridge of The Next Generation Enterprise called Hidden Frontier. That program lasted seven seasons on the Internet and was entirely produced, directed, written and filmed from fan/producer Robert Caves' spare bedroom. The makers of Hidden Frontier have now gone on to produce two other series, Star Trek: Odyssey and Star Trek: The Helena Chronicles. The shows have attracted a significant fan following, which contributes to the shows' production through donations of time, in kind and money.

That there's simply more fan film out there means that some—definitely not all—are of a higher quality. And that's getting the notice of the general public, not just folks in the fandoms. Since 2003, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-by-shot labor of love that recreates Steven Spielberg's seminal action film and took seven years to make, has enjoyed tons of press and screenings at theatres and film festivals across the world. In 2008, the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida, issued its first-ever call for fan film submissions, and, in a very meta moment, Son of Rambow, the highly acclaimed 2007 film about two boys in the English countryside making their own film inspired by First Blood, may be one of the first films about fan film.

Some creator companies, like Paramount has with the Star Trek iterations, have simply ignored the existence of fan film, as long as the producers and actors don't use it to make money. LucasFilm, on the other hand, encourages fan films and even partners with online AtomFilms to hold the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge, allowing the use of footage from the original films in mash-ups, the use of the action figures, and the liberal production of parodies (The Eyes of Darth Tater is a notable example of the latter). Winners of that contest have had their films screened at Cannes—and while a number of terrible non-fan films have been shown at Cannes, we may be able to take it as a sign that fan film is growing up.

Where doesn't fanfic go?

Virtually any franchise, any universe is open to fan fiction—so yes, California Dreams, that bland early "˜90s teen sitcom from the Peter Engel school of entertainment, has its own fanfic. If you can watch it, read it, or play it, you can write fanfic about it: Jake and Elwood, aka the Blue Brothers; The Saddle Club; Girl, Interrupted (which is weird primarily because the source work there is a memoir); the histories of Herodotus; The Summer of My German Soldier; The Kite Runner; The Witch of Blackbird Pond; Polar Express; Quills; The Adventures of Lavaboy and Sharkgirl; Daria; Golden Girls; Gomer Pyle, USMC; Hogan's Heroes; I Dream of Jeannie; and even high school marching bands are their own genre in the fanfic universe.
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So let's hear it—have you ever read (or written) any fan fiction? What did we leave out that's worth mentioning?




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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.


The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.



New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.


Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.


A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.


The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.


Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.


The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.


Marcin Wichary, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.


You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.


Visit Mississippi, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.


America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.


sporst, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).


Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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Kimberly White/Getty Images
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12 Secrets of Sephora Employees
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Kimberly White/Getty Images

With more than 2000 stores in 33 countries, Sephora has arguably become the ultimate destination for all things beauty-related. Founded in France in 1970, the cosmetics giant sells a variety of makeup, nail polish, perfume, and skincare products, but it’s not your average beauty store. The shops offer customers an interactive experience, with beauty advice and free samples galore. We got the skinny on what it’s like to work there—from the special vocabulary they use to why they’re always happy to give out samples.


Sephora employees use a variety of terms to refer to themselves, their wardrobe, and where they work. Employees who interact with customers on the sales floor (a.k.a. the stage) are dubbed cast members, and managers are called directors. Continuing the theatrical theme, Sephora employees refer to their uniforms as costumes and call the back area of the store the backstage. There's also a particular term they use to describe all the free loot they get—gratis.


A Sephora employee in uniform applies eyeshadow to another woman seated in a chair
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Sephora employees sometimes jokingly refer to their costumes’ futuristic style—black dresses with red stripes or black separates with red accents—as Star Trek attire. But besides donning Trek-y garb, Sephora employees must also wear fragrance and a full face of makeup. “We had a minimum amount that we had to wear every day, and we got written up if we didn’t wear it,” writes Garnetstar28, a former color and fragrance expert at Sephora, on Reddit. “In the beginning it was fun, but when I started working the opening shift I really started to hate having to put that much makeup on at 6 in the morning."

While most employees must wear eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, foundation, blush, and lipstick, some of them can get away with wearing less makeup, depending on their area of specialty and the location of the store. And although they don’t necessarily need to wear products sold at Sephora, management often encourages employees to do so because many customers ask cast members about the products they personally use.


Reps from various beauty brands regularly visit Sephora stores to educate employees about their new products and how to use them. In these trainings, which typically occur a few times a week, Sephora workers may receive free products (in full, half, or sample sizes) to try. That can add up quickly, with some employees estimating that they’ve accumulated thousands of dollars worth of products. “I will most likely never have to buy mascara ever again,” writes Kaitierehh, a Sephora Color Lead (the manager of a store’s color cosmetics section), on Reddit.


A line of women pour over a new Sephora display of makeup in Australia
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

If Sephora employees want a specific product that’s missing from their gratis goodies, they can always purchase it from their employer—at a steep discount. Store policies vary, but most employees enjoy a 20 percent discount for in-store and online products. During the winter holidays, this discount increases to 30 percent, and products from Sephora’s own collection are always available for a 40 percent discount. Additionally, Sephora employees who work at stores inside J.C. Penney (Sephora has a partnership with the department store chain) enjoy a 20 to 30 percent discount on J.C. Penney products. Not a bad deal.


At Sephora, most new hires—who don’t need to have any makeup application experience—start at the bottom, working as cashiers or stocking the shelves overnight. But opportunities for growth abound. “Once you feel comfortable you can let your managers know you want ‘to go through build’ where you will learn about all the different ‘worlds’ the store has to offer,” a Sephora employee going by littleboots writes on Reddit. “Eventually you will be tested, and if you pass, you will have your very own brush belt.”

Sephora employees go through plenty of training, from the Science of Sephora (a curriculum covering makeup application and customer service) to hands-on learning from brand reps. “Sephora is amazing about education,” says Kim Carpluk, a Senior Artist and Class Facilitator at one of the company's New York City locations. “I’ve grown so much as an artist in just three years with the company,” she tells Mental Floss.

Cast members who complete additional training (beyond Science of Sephora) are eligible to earn a Skincare PhD, a senior title bestowed upon employees who have comprehensive knowledge and serve as personal beauty advisors to customers. Additionally, a select few become part of the Sephora Pro team, traveling the country to demonstrate makeup application techniques and represent the company on the brand’s social media channels.


A display of Mar Jacobs makeup a a Sephora store in Australia
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

The various testers around the store let customers dab on concealer, experiment with a new shade of gloss, or test a bold eye shadow. Although Sephora employees work hard to monitor and sanitize the testing stations, they can’t completely control what customers do. “I’ve seen people with cold sores, people with really nasty chapped lips, and people who were visibly sick using lipsticks and glosses on their mouths,” Garnetstar28 says. Besides the gross factor, contaminated makeup brushes, applicators, and wands can harbor bacteria (including E. coli) and spread infections. To minimize the risk, Sephora employees use alcohol-based sanitizers and encourage customers to use disposable applicators.


Unlike salespeople at other beauty retailers, Sephora employees don’t work off commission—so they feel free to give customers their unbiased opinions about products. “We just really care. The reason a lot of us work for Sephora is because we don’t have to work off commission,” Carpluk says. “We’re there to support each other and make our clients feel beautiful and happy, and suggest what’s right for them based on their particular concerns.”

To encourage cast members to be positive and friendly (without the motivation of commissions), Sephora offers customers online surveys that allow them to rate their experience at a store. Managers may also reward cast members who meet hourly sales goals (selling more than $100 worth of products in the next hour, for example) with free beauty products. “If we do extra well a manager might randomly let you choose extra gratis,” littleboots reveals.


5 Sephora employees, 2 of them male, pose in front of a display in a Santa Monica store
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images

While many of Sephora’s employees (and customers) are women, you can still find plenty of men in the store. “I have three beautiful amazing super talented drag queens on my artistry team," Kaitierehh says. “At one of my previous stores, I even had two straight boys on my cast.” At Carpluk’s store in New York City, the employee ratio is almost 50/50 males to females. “We have a lot of men that work with us,” she says. “We even have a lot of male clients come in. I recently did a small makeover for an actor—I walked him through how to use foundation and concealer.”


Sephora is generous when it comes to free samples, and employees fully embrace the store’s bighearted policy. “I love to give out samples,” Carpluk says. “We’re there to help and to give out as many [samples] as possible. If you’re having trouble choosing between two foundations, we want you to take them home and try it out.” Typically, employees stick to giving three samples to each customer, but some are happy to give even more. “Anything we can squeeze into a container is the easiest—think foundation, primer, skin care,” littleboots says. “We can make a sad attempt to scrape out lip gloss or cut off a piece of lipstick too, it’s just not as effective.”


A selection of makeup on display at a Sephora store in Beverly Hills, California
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Sephora’s return policy lets customers return anything (even "gently used" products) up to 60 days after buying it for a full refund, and customers who return items without a receipt get full store credit. While customers love the flexibility of trying products and returning them, some Sephora employees get frustrated when customers abuse the return policy. “I’ve seen entire articles written about how to take advantage of Sephora’s generous return policy by returning half used products and shades when the trends change and you get tired of them,” writes Ivy Boyd, who worked her way up at Sephora from a Product Consultant to Senior Education Consultant. “It infuriates me, to be honest, and is a very entitled attitude. When items are returned used, they are damaged out. They are destroyed. They go to complete waste.”


Sephora employees are passionate about makeup, but many of them choose to go barefaced on their days off. Besides saving time by skipping makeup, they can give their skin and pores much needed time to “breathe” without being smothered in products. Not all employees forego makeup on their days off, though. “Every single day of my entire existence I wear makeup,” Carpluk admits.


A male Sephora employee applies powder to a seated woman holding a mirror and smiling at her reflection
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Besides scoring free products and getting paid to work with makeup, Sephora employees love making people feel confident and beautiful. Whether they help a customer with acne find a good concealer or boost the self-confidence of someone with the right mascara, Sephora employees know the importance of self-image and the power of makeup to transform. “That’s actually why I feel happy going to work ever day,” Carpluk says. “A lot of women haven’t heard how beautiful their skin is, or how sparkly their eyes are, or that their lips are their best feature. I try to compliment my clients as much as possible throughout the service to let them know how gorgeous they are.”


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