11 Secrets of Backup Dancers

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?

Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.

1. THEY DON'T NEED FORMAL DANCE TRAINING, BUT THEY DO NEED TO CONSTANTLY BE LEARNING.

"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."

Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."

2. SOME WILL CHANGE THEIR LOOK TO BLEND IN BETTER.

Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."

3. THEY LEARN HOW TO ADJUST TO AUDITIONS TO AVOID GETTING CUT.

Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.

4. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO MAKE LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THE ROAD.

Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."

And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"

5. IT'S NOT A PARTICULARLY LUCRATIVE CAREER.

Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.

"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."

Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."

6. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO GO WITH THE FLOW.

While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.

Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."

7. THEY'LL SOMETIMES WEAR IN-EAR MONITORS ON STAGE.

It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."

8. TWO CAN SOMETIMES BE BETTER THAN ONE.

Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.

But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."

9. EVEN WITHOUT A SIBLING, DANCERS CAN FEEL LIKE FAMILY.

For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.

"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"

(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")

10. FOR DECADES, DANCERS HAD NO UNION OR HEALTH CARE ASSURANCES.

The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.

11. THEY ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.

"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."

Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.

In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.

9 Secrets of Fine Art Auctioneers

Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie’s LTD. 2019

If a fine art auction can be compared to a well-coordinated circus, then the auctioneer is its ringmaster. At any given auction—which may include hundreds of people in the room and hundreds more watching online—the auctioneer is center stage, directing the audience's attention to lots big and small, generating excitement, and making sure the bidding runs smoothly. Auctioneers manage "all this while having charisma and a sense of engagement and great energy,” says Tash Perrin, an auctioneer who also holds a couple of senior management titles at Christie’s auction house. To find out what it takes to perform in such a fast-paced setting (and whether they always talk the way you see in the movies), we spoke with three New York City-based auctioneers who work for some of the world’s largest auction houses: Christie’s, Phillips, and Bonhams.

1. Auctioneering is mostly a side gig.

Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Bonhams

At the big auction houses, practically no one is hired to work solely as an auctioneer. As Perrin explains, “Nobody here at Christie’s is an auctioneer full-time. All of us have full-time jobs and then we do the auctioneering as a side gig.” Some auctioneers manage a particular department within an auction house, while others work in a variety of roles that may take advantage of their specialty in a particular field, whether that’s Chinese ceramics, Islamic art, or jewelry.

As a specialist in postwar and contemporary art with Bonhams, for example, Jacqueline Towers-Perkins sources all of the artworks for auction, researches their origin, and makes sure they’re authentic (and not some knock-off). Finally, as an auctioneer, she gets to find a new home for them. “When it comes to selling [an artwork], that is sort of the icing on the cake,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. Auctioneers need to be licensed in some states.

More than half of all U.S. states stipulate that individual auctioneers must get a license before selling items at public auctions. New York state does not have such a law, but leaves the decision up to individual municipalities. New York City—the location of many big-name auction houses—does mandate it. Would-be auctioneers must go to the Department of Consumer Affairs—“the same place that hot dog vendors get their license,” Perrin says.

3. Not all auctioneers speak quickly.

If you’ve been picturing an auctioneer who talks a mile a minute, you’re probably thinking of cattle auctioneers, who rattle off increments in an almost meditative style called "chanting." A few other types of auctioneers talk this way, but you won’t hear it at any of the major art and antiquities auction houses, which also sell across categories including jewelry, handbags, watches, wine and spirits, books and manuscripts, and more.

That’s because an auctioneer’s cadence largely depends on what they’re selling. Speed is especially important for cattle auctioneers because they often have more lots (a.k.a. individual cattle) to sell than the typical art auctioneer. (They also talk that way to "hypnotize" bidders, according to Slate.) However, when it comes to prized artworks and rare artifacts that rack up millions of dollars at auction, an auctioneer’s goal is slightly different: to generate excitement and build suspense. Sometimes, they might even slow down and allow a moment of silence to fill the room before speeding up again. “A really important element to being a good auctioneer is your ability to speak silence,” Perrin says. That means allowing for pauses when necessary—such as when a potential buyer might be thinking about a bid. It’s also about creating a welcoming atmosphere for bidders. “We want this to be a really great environment ... We don’t want to rush people through it or make it intimidating," Towers-Perkins adds.

4. Auctioneers sometimes stick out their tongues and recite Humpty Dumpty as a vocal warm-up.

Because auctioneers are talking non-stop for several hours at a time, the vocal warm-ups they do before an auction can get pretty ... creative. “Reciting Humpty Dumpty with your tongue out is definitely something we would encourage,” says Perrin, who also coaches auctioneers-in-training. In the above video from The New York Times, Christie’s former head of auctioneering, Hugh Edmeades, can be seen reciting this nursery rhyme to loosen up his facial muscles and warm up his voice. Perrin says some auctioneers might also recite their increments (we’ll get to those later) in the shower before coming to work, while others might use breathing and vocal techniques that are similar to the ones employed by actors and singers.

5. The auctioneer’s book is their bible.

Auctioneers can glean everything they need to know about a sale from something called the “auctioneer’s book”—although at some auction houses, it's a digital file on a laptop rather than a physical book. The book contains the lot number (the identifying number of the item or group of items up for sale), the item’s description, and the amount of money it’s expected to go for. It also has one crucial piece of information that neither the bidder nor the general public gets to see: The reserve price. This is the amount of money the owner of the lot will—or will not—sell it for.

6. An auctioneer's ability to multitask is crucial.

Auction staff talk to bidders on the phone
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Juggling multiple tasks at once is a skill auctioneers must learn to master. In addition to remaining aware of the reserve price, auctioneers must also check their book for any absentee bids that have been placed prior to the sale. Bids are also coming in over the phone and online, and those bidders must be given the same attention and opportunity that bidders in the room are afforded. Throughout all this, auctioneers have to be engaging and charismatic. “If it looks like you’re very methodical and have a sense of just trying to get the job done, you’re not engaging the audience,” Perrin says.

While auctioneers are on the hook for most of the sales proceedings, they do get some help from a bid clerk. This person stands next to the auctioneer and surveys the room—including the phone bank, where staff talk to potential buyers over the phone and hold up a paddle whenever a bid comes through—to catch bids the auctioneer might not have seen. This extra assistance is especially helpful when there are 700 or so bidders in one space. “They play an incredibly important role, and I often refer to them as my best man up there,” Perrin says.

7. There’s a lot of math involved in auctioneering.

Auctioneers can only use certain increments, which means they’re limited in the exact price they can offer to bidders. “It’s very set,” Towers-Perkins says. “The numbers go up in tens at the beginning, then in twenties, then in fifties, then in hundreds.” (The precise numbers can vary by house.) This gets all the more confusing when absentee bids are factored into the equation. Auctioneers must ensure they’re referring to the exact amount declared in an absentee bid, which means they must think ahead and do a bit of quick math to figure out which number they should call out. Perrin calls this skill “numerical dexterity,” but there’s another term for it too. When everything goes well and auctioneers offer the correct increments, it’s called “landing on the right foot.” (And when things go wrong, it's called, naturally, landing on the wrong foot.)

8. Auctioneers can tell the difference between an involuntary nod and a bid.

Auctioneer Sarah Krueger
Auctioneer Sarah Krueger conducts a sale for Phillips.
Phillips

Sometimes, a nod is just a nod. Other times, it’s a bid. Auctioneers are trained to observe bidders’ body behavior and know the difference. Customers usually raise their paddles to place a bid, but some might prefer to remain discreet. Sarah Krueger, an auctioneer and head of the photographs department at the New York City branch of Phillips, said auctioneers get to know the bidding styles of frequent clients: “A nod or a slight move might indicate a bid from one person, but for another they might just be waving at a friend across the room.” Perrin says one client in England bids by raising his eyebrows, while other bidders wink to raise the stakes. Usually, an auctioneer can judge whether or not a bid is intentional by paying attention to the bidder’s level of engagement—for instance, if they’re looking at the auctioneer or still have a paddle in their hand, they’re probably interested.

9. They take their gavels seriously.

A gavel on a table
Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

Krueger has her own personal collection of six gavels: Three of them she uses in auctions, while the other three are more like collector’s items. Each auctioneer has their own preferences in terms of the style of gavel they use. “For my purposes, what I’m looking for in a gavel is something that fits comfortably in my hand and isn’t too heavy,” she says. “You also want to test it out against your sounding block and make sure that it’s giving you the right sound.” After all, auctioneers say that the moment the hammer falls, signifying the end of a sale, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. “The sound the gavel makes on the rostrum is incredibly satisfying—particularly on the very first lot you ever take and the most expensive lot you’ve ever sold,” Perrin says. “That’s extremely gratifying.”

11 Secrets of Opticians

iStock.com/Emir Memedovski
iStock.com/Emir Memedovski

Whether they need glasses or not, most people understand what an optometrist does. The same doesn’t always apply for the optometrist’s in-office counterpart, the optician. Even people who have been wearing glasses or contacts for most of their lives might not know exactly what these eyecare professionals do. Here are 11 secrets about being an optician, some of which might change the way you see your glasses forever.

1. Opticians aren't salespeople, and they don’t get commission.

When you go to the eye doctor, you don’t just sit in the chair, read some letters off a chart at the far end of the room, and then walk out with a pair of glasses. After the optometrist determines your prescription, you’re typically directed to the office’s optician, who will help you pick out your next pair of glasses or contacts. Think of them as the pharmacist of the eyewear world: The doctor determines your generic prescription, but the optician is the one who fills it for you.

“I am the person that makes sure we get a frame that fits you, that is going to work for your prescription, and is going to last you,” explains Maayan Shuval, an optician at Eyedentity, an eye care practice in Kirkland, Washington.

And despite what some people seem to think, opticians aren't just there to direct you to the most expensive pair of frames in the office, or to up-sell you on the priciest add-ons. "People always assume we make commission and we want them to buy the most expensive thing," Shuval says. "I’ve never made commission."

Still, many customers think that opticians are just glorified salespeople out for more money. “The misperception comes from the idea that glasses are glasses or contacts are contacts, and they’re all the same,” says Steve Alexander, an optician in Arlington Heights, Illinois who worked as a practicing optician for 13 years and is currently a consultant with The Growth Cooperative, a national consulting firm for eye care providers.

But the upgrades that opticians offer can make a real difference for your vision, whether it’s transition lenses, anti-glare coatings, or another high-tech feature. “I think people think that the upgrades in lenses are kind of a scam, and they’re really not,” Alexander says. “The coatings make a significant difference in the physics of light and how light actually interacts with your glasses.”

2. Only some states require opticians to be licensed.

The requirements for becoming an optician vary significantly depending on where you live, and fewer than half the states require opticians to be licensed. Alexander, for instance, works in Illinois, where he’s not required to have a license, while Shuval works in Washington state, which does require licensure—meaning she had to do an apprenticeship and take a state exam in order to legally practice, and she now has to spend a certain number of hours each year doing continuing education classes to keep her license.

Even within states that require licenses, there are a lot of differences between the certification processes. Some states require opticians to be certified by the American Board of Opticianry and National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE), a national credential that requires continuing education and expires every three years. Other states have their own certification processes with different requirements for continuing education hours, expiration periods, and more. That means that a practicing optician in one state can’t necessarily practice in another state without going through the whole certification process anew. (Some of the national optical chains require their opticians to be licensed regardless of the state they're in—Warby Parker, for instance, requires its opticians to obtain the American Board of Opticianry’s certification.)

Becoming licensed is typically a lot of work (not to mention some money) but it does help opticians keep up with the current research on eyes and eyewear. “[One] class that I attended was a two-hour course about vision therapy, and how a lot of what we’ve known about and practiced with regards to amblyopia—which people call a 'lazy eye'—is entirely incorrect,” Shuval explains. The class had a profound impact on her practice. “My whole world shifted upside down over the course of this two-hour class. [Amblyopia] is super reversible if you have the right information. That’s amazing.”

3. Many patients have unrealistic expectations of opticians …

Patients aren’t always realistic about how much eyewear will cost and what is available. One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to Shuval, is assuming that all glasses and contacts are the same, when in fact, lens types, coatings, and other adjustments make a huge difference in how you see. They often suffer from sticker shock, too.

“I’m here to help my patients see and look better,” Shuval says, but customers don’t always appreciate how big of a purchase new glasses can be. “It can be a really angry conversation because people are like, ‘Why are you charging $600 for glasses?’” Aside from the fact that you’re probably going to wear those glasses all day, every day for a year or more, that price seems a lot more reasonable when you remember that every pair of glasses is a custom, FDA-regulated medical device. “What people really don’t realize about eyewear is 100 percent of glasses made are custom-made,” she adds. “No two pairs that I make are alike.”

Furthermore, as patients get older and start to need bifocals, they often don’t understand the limits of modern optical technology. “People just want to put on glasses and say, ‘Oh my god, I can see,’” Shuval describes. But adjusting to a new pair of glasses can take weeks. Your brain gets used to compensating for certain vision deficiencies, and you have to get used to a new prescription. And in some cases, lens technology still isn’t good enough to replicate the natural abilities of the eye. When it comes to technology like progressive bifocals, patients actually need to be taught how to use the lens, for instance.

4. … Especially when it comes to contact lenses.

Alexander says many patients get upset when they’re told that their prescription for contact lenses will expire after a year, and that they’ll have to come back into the office in order to get a new one. “What patients don’t consider is that you are putting a medical device into your face,” he says, “and if they’re not properly managed it can lead to serious complications—it can lead to infections and ulcers and corneal issues.” Patients don’t necessarily understand that they're paying for vital preventative care: “It’s a medical device in an incredibly sensitive part of your body," he explains.

5. Opticians are obsessive about fit.

Adam Bentley, an Optical Field Leader at Warby Parker based in San Francisco, says his biggest pet peeve as an optician doesn’t occur in the office—it’s when he sees crooked eyewear around town. “I’ve often found myself looking at a crooked pair of glasses on the subway [and] wishing I could walk up and fix them,” he admits.

6. Opticians often choose which frames their stores carry.

In private practices, the optician might be responsible for more than just showing customers the latest glasses. They might also be the one determining what frames the shop offers. “I personally am the frame buyer for my store,” Shuval explains. That means she can answer a whole host of questions for customers beyond the realm of fit or function, including queries about where the glasses are made. That has become increasingly important as more and more customers become aware of the eyewear monopolies. Luxottica, an Italian frame company, makes an estimated 25 percent of the frames in the world, while Essilor, a lens company based in France, makes an estimated 45 percent of prescription lenses. Many blame the corporations' vast reach for driving the price of glasses up to artificially high rates. (The two corporations also merged in 2018.)

But Shuval says that buying glasses from shops like Warby Parker isn't the only way to escape the EssilorLuxottica monopoly. “I seek out the small companies [that make frames] and I can tell you about all the designers and factories where they’re made, because that’s important to me,” she says.

7. Many private opticians aren’t fans of online retailers.

In fact, despite the accessible price points, neither Shuval nor Alexander expressed much enthusiasm for the idea of buying glasses online. The main issue is that being fitted for glasses isn’t only a matter of finding a frame that won’t fall off your face. Online shopping can offer very inexpensive options, as Shuval explains, and “sometimes they’re good options for people, but it’s [about] making sure that custom medical device that’s sitting on your face all day is actually going to be helpful.”

One of the roadblocks patients run into while shopping for glasses online has to do with measuring the position of their pupils. Opticians measure your eyes to make sure that the centers of your lenses are positioned exactly over your pupils. While patients can try their best to measure this at home on their own, it’s not the same as having it measured in an office by a professional.

Almost any online glasses shop is going to ask for your pupillary distance (PD), which is the horizontal distance between your eyes. You might be asked for your binocular pupillary distance, which is the distance between your two pupils, or the monocular distance, which is the distance from the bridge of your nose to your pupil—expressed in two different measurements, since faces aren’t always symmetrical. However, those measurements aren't everything. “In order to make a really good lens you need more information than that,” Shuval says.

In fact, there is a secondary measurement that most online shops don’t ask about—the vertical measurement, known as the ocular center height. “[The] ocular center is a top-to-bottom measurement for the patient, and that can’t be measured until you have the frame,” Alexander explains. “If you don’t know where their eye sits in a given frame before the lenses are made, then while the optical center might be aligned left to right, it’s not going to be aligned top to bottom.”

If your lenses aren’t positioned over your pupils correctly, you won’t see as well, and the eye strain can cause headaches and other discomfort. Lenses that don’t fit you right might make you feel nauseous, affect your depth perception, and more.

While you can get your ocular center measured by an optician at a Warby Parker retail store, buying glasses from Warby Parker’s online shop doesn’t require ocular height, just pupillary distance. In response to questions about this policy, Warby Parker provided the following statement: “A common misconception is that this measurement is required for all orders, when in fact it’s not … For online orders, we’ve developed tools and proprietary technology that allows us to help predict this type of measurement based on previous customer data. We also have in-house opticians to help online customers in the event that customers need extra assistance.”

8. Opticians love to answer questions …

“I love when patients come and ask me, 'Is there any cool new technology we should be looking at?’” Shuval says. Opticians are experts in their field and spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the latest technological updates in eyewear. Most love to share that knowledge. “We like getting to explain stuff,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important for people to be educated consumers.”

9. … Except for one particular question.

Glasses are so personalized and there are so many possible options that it’s impossible to quote someone a single price tag, but that doesn’t stop patients from asking. “One of the more common questions that I used to get as an optician [that used to] drive me crazy,” Alexander explains, “would be, ‘How much are glasses?’ And it would be through gritted teeth that I answered, ‘Well, it depends on the frame that you choose and the lenses you need.’ But it’s a question that never made any sense to me because you’d never call up a car dealer and say, ‘How much is a car?’”

10. They'll gladly fix your glasses ... if you're a patient.

If you buy your glasses from an optician, adjusting and servicing those frames (for example, if they need to be straightened or have a screw replaced) is usually part of the initial cost. However, if you’re not a patient or bought your glasses online, you shouldn’t expect to get free repairs from the office.

“When an office charges for an optician's time or replacement of parts patients will get up in arms about it,” Alexander says. “If it’s somebody who wasn’t a customer of ours and has not taken care of their eyewear, to come in and get upset at being charged for a service we’re providing is always very frustrating for me.” That said, he says he would never charge one of his longtime patients for repairs.

But if you do need to get your glasses serviced and you're not already a patient, any charges will likely be minimal—at most, he says, you’ll probably need to pay $10 or so. So don’t be afraid to walk into your local optician’s office and ask. Just don’t get too snarky when they ask you to break out your wallet.

11. They don’t always follow their own advice.

“I clean my glasses with my shirt or whatever is lying around,” one anonymous optician tells Mental Floss. “It's a big optician ‘no, no.’” If you really want to take care of your specs, you’ll clean them with a microfiber cloth and lens spray instead, and always keep them safely tucked away in their case when you aren’t wearing them.

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