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

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
iStock
iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
iStock

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
11 Secrets of Book Conservators
iStock
iStock

Books might contain timeless wisdom, but the objects themselves aren’t immortal. In addition to normal wear and tear, they can succumb to mold, pests, environmental hazards, and other threats if not stored and handled properly. Book conservators are the people who help repair this damage, preserving and protecting books for future readers. We spoke with a few of these experts to learn more about the job, from their favorite projects to the surprising utility of commercial freezers.

1. THERE'S NO SINGLE PATH INTO THE FIELD.

According to Mindell Dubansky, head of book conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a book conservator requires an intensive mixture of hands-on and academic experience. "It's very challenging because there aren’t that many formal educational opportunities," she says, "and [the route] is not that straightforward."

People may get into book conservation through bench training (i.e. learning on the job as a lab technician), working in a commercial bookbindery, taking bookbinding classes, earning a degree from a handful of specialized trade schools, or going through a book arts, material culture, or library science master’s program. But Dubansky says that where you study—and the collections you have at your disposal—will shape your skill set and determine the course of your career. She herself received an undergraduate arts degree from Carnegie Mellon before studying bookbinding and restoration at what's now London's Camberwell College of Arts. She later earned her master's in library science and a certificate in library preservation from Columbia University. Today at the Met, she works on a collection that includes everything from artists' sketchbooks to Beethoven's funeral invitations.

2. THEY NEED TO BE GOOD WITH THEIR HANDS.

Loving books is great, Dubansky says, but it's no substitute for fine motor skills: Conservators spend lots of time sewing, measuring, gluing, rebinding, handling sharp objects like knives, and treating books with chemicals. She recommends that aspiring book conservators take basic bookbinding classes before deciding whether to pursue a career in the field. The experience should let them know whether they enjoy working with their hands, something they'll be doing frequently once they become full-fledged professionals.

"The process [of bookbinding] is simple but requires great accuracy," Dubansky says. That accuracy becomes even more important when you transition from a bookbinding class to on-the-job conservation.

3. OLD BOOKS CAN BE EASIER TO RESTORE THAN NEW BOOKS.

You might think that centuries-old books are always more fragile than newer works. But Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries, says that's not always the case: "We have books from our collection that are hundreds of years old, and that paper is in better shape than modern paper. That’s because the process of making paper from cotton and linen changed around 1840. They started incorporating wood pulp and they weren’t de-acidifying it first." When paper becomes too acidic, it degrades and turns hard.

As a result, even well-made books from the late 19th century onward can be brittle to the touch. "If a book is pre-1840, it's often easier to restore than a book from 1940," Wagner says.

4. THE MAIN TOOLS OF THE TRADE HAVEN’T CHANGED FOR CENTURIES.

“If a bookbinder from the 19th century walked into our room [at the Met], they would feel very much at home,” Dubansky says. Book conservators have used the same equipment for hundreds of years, from basic hand tools like bone folders (used to make sharp creases in paper and other materials) to thread and needles used to re-sew tattered tomes.

Changing technologies have added new techniques to the mix, of course, “but day to day, it’s the basic tools that we probably use the most,” Wagner says.

5. SOME CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES ARE SURPRISINGLY BASIC.

Even schoolroom supplies can find new life in a conservation department. Take, for example, the humble eraser. Victorian-era volumes sometimes have sooty pages if they were housed near coal-burning furnaces, and according to Wagner, erasers can remove this residue. But since the pressure of a regular eraser’s point can cause streaks and lines to form on the page, bookbinding supply companies sell ground-up eraser crumbs, which conservators sprinkle onto pages and then rub in circles. Once the white eraser crumbs have turned black, they’re carefully brushed from the page, and new layers of crumbs are applied until the stains have faded. (Not all conservationists opt for erasers, though; some prefer to use small rubber sponges called soot sponges.)

Another conservation technique involves an appliance you might not expect: When conservators spot mold growing on a book, they stick the volume inside a commercial freezer, which Wagner says inhibits growth.

6. EVERY DAY ON THE JOB IS DIFFERENT …

No two books (or their materials) are exactly alike, which keeps the job fresh and interesting. "I'm always getting something new to treat," Wagner says. Books from different eras and places vary in their materials and construction, as well as in the kinds of traumas they've experienced, whether it's water or insect damage or mold exposure. Amateur fixes from prior owners—a taped page, for example—can inflict their own kind of damage.

Repairs can include re-backing books, patching tiny holes and tatters with Japanese paper (it's thin and strong), humidifying paper to separate stuck pages, and deciding which methods of treating stains work best with the book's ink and materials. Some books might be good candidates for washing using de-ionized water—which can remove dirt and debris—although this method isn't conservators' first line of treatment, since it changes the structure of paper.

"You have to look at each object as its own entity and decide what’s best for it," Wagner says.

7. ... BUT LIKE ALL JOBS, THERE ARE DULL MOMENTS.

When they’re not repairing old tomes, book conservators can sometimes be found tackling paperwork of a different sort. “For every rare book I treat, I have to write a condition report,” Wagner says. “When that book comes in I have to photograph it, and I have to note its size, its condition, how it’s bound, and the problems it’s having. That can be time-consuming."

8. THE BEST CONSERVATION JOBS ARE INVISIBLE.

A conservator’s job typically isn’t to make an old book look like new again (unless it’s, say, going on display in a period room), but to make it readable using as little work as possible. “I’m not going to rebind a book because it’s old and beat-up,” Dubansky says. “I treasure the fact that it’s old and beat-up. What I’m going to try to do is repair all the parts that are vulnerable to make it functional.”

9. THEY OFTEN FREELANCE.

Book conservators can be found working at bookbinderies, museums, college and university libraries, public libraries, and other types of institutions. Some, however, also tackle freelance projects on the side, working with clients to restore items like tattered family Bibles, old journals, and heirloom books. Many conservators are also self-employed: Instead of working a 9-to-5 at a single institution, they'll work part-time or with institutions or private individuals on a project-by-project basis.

10. DIGITIZATION HELPS SAVE OLD BOOKS.

Some books are beyond repair, like when they're "so brittle that they're breaking to the touch," Wagner says. In that case, the book may be a good candidate for digitization, since at least then the subject matter will be available to researchers. Conservators will use special copiers or take individual photos of each page ("very, very carefully") to immortalize the words without harming the book itself.

11. THEY SOMETIMES GET TO WORK ON HISTORY-CHANGING DOCUMENTS.

In 2013, a life-changing first edition passed through Wagner's hands: Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), which details the English physician's work with what would ultimately become the smallpox vaccine. "That was amazing because he’s the father of immunology," Wagner says.

While rare and influential, the book itself wasn't in great condition. Its inside pages were covered in mold, and its stitching had unraveled so that sections were detached from the binding, among other damage. The first thing Wagner did to treat the book was to stick it into the freezer to blast its mold. Then, after dry cleaning it with a brush, she dismantled the book's text block (a.k.a. the "block" formed by a book's cut and stacked pages), washed individual pages in de-ionized water, and humidified and dried the color plates. Wagner then patched holes from mold growth with Japanese paper before re-sewing them together and re-casing them in their original binding.

Wagner says she still remembers the project because of the amount of labor that went into it—and the importance of the book in medical history, now preserved for future generations to enjoy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER