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14 Ethereal Secrets of Skywriters

The first time humans saw a message written in the sky was during World War I, when pilots in the British Royal Air Force used skywriting to communicate with troops. In 1922, a Royal Air Force captain took the technique to the world of advertising, writing aerial messages in England and New York City. Brands such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ford, and Pepsi soon employed skywriters to advertise in the great blue yonder, a practice that continues today.

If you’ve ever looked up at a sky-written message and wondered about the person flying the plane, you’re in luck. Check out these secrets of skywriters for an inside-the-cockpit view.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY ACROBATS IN THE SKY.

“Your professional sky-writer is a trained aerial acrobat,” famed aviator and skywriter Oliver Colin LeBoutillier wrote in the March 1929 edition of Popular Science Monthly. Besides successfully navigating a plane at 10,000 feet, skywriters must also diagram and memorize each maneuver and perform it with complete precision. They have to write their messages upside-down and backwards, so that it’s legible to people on the ground, and they can’t see what they’re writing when they’re up in the sky. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and still there’s a learning curve,” skywriter Greg Stinis tells Quartz.

2. THEY VALUE BREVITY.

If you find Twitter’s character limit challenging, you’ve probably never written a message in the sky. Depending on weather conditions, a skywritten message will evaporate within a few minutes to a few hours. Because of this time pressure, skywriters need to keep their messages brief. They’re also limited by the amount of fuel and skywriting fluid their plane can hold. Most can only write 10 letters, but skywriter Suzanne Asbury-Oliver and her husband, Steve Oliver, have a modified plane that makes it possible for them to write up to 25 letters.

3. THEY VIEW THEMSELVES AS ARTISTS.

Although they’re highly skilled pilots with tons of technical knowledge, skywriters think of their work as an art form. They begin a job by sketching the message on a piece of paper, planning and diagramming each twist and turn. And once they’re in the air, they have to use their intuition to feel their way around the letters. “The only bad part is that I can’t take my canvas of art away with me. Eventually it fades away. It goes with the breeze,” Stinis says.

4. THEY LOVE HOLIDAYS AND BIG ANNUAL EVENTS.

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According to Glenn Smith, a skywriter based in Australia, holidays and big annual events are his bread and butter. “It is the big events of the year that guarantee the work—the Melbourne Cup, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and Valentine’s Day,” Smith says. Companies may hire skywriters to advertise during music festivals, movie premieres, and baseball games because the message will get a lot of eyeballs. And Valentine’s Day is a popular day for marriage proposals and other big romantic gestures.

5. THEIR CUSTOMERS PAY THEM LARGE AMOUNTS …

Skywriting is a costly enterprise. Because skywriters must pay for a high-horsepower plane, plane maintenance, fuel, and skywriting fluid, which can cost $10 a gallon, a typical job costs thousands of dollars. And the price can quickly go up. Asbury-Oliver tells Bloomberg that the most expensive part of skywriting is transporting the airplane to the job. “It costs about $2 a mile to move the airplane. If we’re in Tucson, Arizona, and [clients] want something in San Francisco, we have to charge them for mileage.”

6. … BUT MOST SKYWRITERS NEED A SECOND JOB.

For Smith, who owns an engineering company, skywriting is not a full-time job. “My primary income is from my engineering business—you wouldn’t be able to run an airplane, run a family, and pay a mortgage out of skywriting. You do it because you have a passion for it,” he says. Today, because fewer companies are hiring skywriters, only a few people are able to earn enough to make it their full-time job. “We always have called [skywriting] a lost art because it was dwindling when I started and it still is dwindling … There's really just a handful of skywriters left,” Asbury-Oliver tells The Atlantic.

7. TYPOS ARE THEIR GREATEST FEAR.

Because skywriters don’t have the luxury of using erasers or pressing the delete key, complete precision is a major job requirement. Although skywritten typos and misspelled hashtags do happen, it’s rare for a professional with years of experience to make a mistake. When mistakes do happen, though, a pilot might draw a line through the error and start the message over. And in a large city, millions of people will see the typo before it evaporates.

8. A CLOUDY DAY MEANS THEY CAN’T WORK.

Because skywriting fluid appears white, cloudy days mean that a skywritten message won’t be visible. Skywriters aim to work on clear, cool days with high humidity and minimal wind. Since weather can be unpredictable, most skywriters won’t promise that your message will be written at an exact date and time. “We need at least a three-day window to get their message up there,” Oliver explains.

9. THEY’VE CAUSED TRAFFIC JAMS AND CAR ACCIDENTS.

Skywriters have the power to turn heads, stop traffic, and distract drivers. Because skywriting appears slowly, letter by letter, people often try to figure out what the message is as it’s being written. “When people see [skywriting], they literally slam on their brakes in green lights and stick their heads out the window,” Asbury-Oliver says.

10. THEY KEEP THEIR TRADE SECRETS CLOSE TO THEIR CHEST.

Because skywriting has historically been a highly competitive field, skywriters have carefully guarded the technical secrets of their job. Oliver tells mental_floss that there’s no certification program and no written training manual. Aspiring skywriters, even if they’re highly skilled pilots, must learn the craft from someone who knows it already. Asbury-Oliver, who worked for Pepsi’s skywriting program until it ended in 2000, couldn’t reveal trade secrets to anyone without violating her contract. And today’s skywriters, such as Stinis, try to keep the business in the family—his father taught him how to skywrite, and he taught his son.

11. SKYTYPERS HAVE BROUGHT SKYWRITING INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD.

Traditional skywriting differs from skytyping, a digital form of skywriting in which multiple planes (usually five) use a centralized computer system to quickly and accurately create a message. Stinis’s father Andy patented skytyping in the 1960s, and Stinis’s company uses the technique, which is similar to dot matrix printing, to create automated messages. Skytyping requires less artistry than regular skywriting because the planes rely on a computer (rather than pilot) for much of the work.

12. THEY LIKE SOCIAL MEDIA.

Social media has boosted skywriting’s popularity. With Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat, and Instagram, people around the world can see a skywritten message even as it’s being created, the messages reach more eyeballs, and they can be preserved for far longer. Although the message is lost when the smoke vaporizes, the internet is forever.

13. THEY TRAVEL ALL AROUND THE WORLD FOR WORK.

Because skywriters are few and far between, companies are often willing to pay them to travel. It takes time and money to transport a plane, though, so Stinis and his son Stephen own planes in Spain, France, and South Africa. Stinis has done jobs in Japan and Dubai, and Oliver and Asbury-Oliver have skywritten messages in all 50 U.S. states, Mexico, Canada, and El Salvador.

14. WE MAY SEE COLORED AND GLOW-IN-THE-DARK SKYWRITING IN THE FUTURE.

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Although it is possible to skywrite with colored (rather than white) fluid, it’s more difficult to work with. For over four decades, Stinis’s company has experimented with dyes to produce colored smoke, but hasn’t found a functional, cost-effective solution yet. If the technology progresses, we may regularly see colored skywriting—or even glow-in-the-dark skywriting for nighttime use—in the future.

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11 Secrets of Personal Shoppers
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Personal shoppers aren't just for big spenders—they can help regular folks find clothing and accessories that are flattering, stylish, and budget-friendly, too. We spoke to a few of these fashion mavens to get a behind-the-scenes look at their job, whether it's how they can save you money, when they might encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, or why their feet are probably sore.

1. THEY DO MORE THAN SHOP.

“When I tell people I am a personal shopper, they think all I do is shop and hang out at the mall,” Nicole Borsuk, a personal shopper in Atlanta, tells Mental Floss. While buying clothing is a big part of the job, it's not as simple as it may sound—personal shoppers work closely with sales associates at retail stores to hunt down elusive pieces, put promising items on hold, and determine when new clothing will arrive at the store. And whether they are working with sales associates or advising their clients on what looks fashionable, personal shoppers need excellent communication and people skills. “You have to be very good at building relationships,” Borsuk says.

Personal shoppers who work as independent consultants also spend considerable time running their business: they write blog posts, search for new clients, and manage their finances. “Finding ways to grow and market my business … is one of the most important things I do,” Borsuk says. “However, I would much rather be spending time with my clients and be putting fabulous outfits together.”

2. THEIR WORK STARTS LONG BEFORE A CLIENT HITS THE DRESSING ROOM.

A young woman helping another woman assess a dress in a dressing room
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According to Lori Wynne, a wardrobe consultant and personal shopper who owns Fashion With Flair in Atlanta, a personal shopper's work begins before a client is trying on clothing in a store’s dressing room. “My service starts by analyzing their closet and current wardrobe, creating ‘new’ outfits with the clothes they already own, culling items that do not fit their body or lifestyle, and creating a personalized shopping list,” she tells Mental Floss. Based on a client’s current wardrobe and shopping list, Wynne then chooses a store that best fits the client’s needs. “I shop before the client arrives in the store. I load the dressing room with the items, then the clients arrives. No sifting through the racks or going from store to store,” she says. “It is a very effective use of time for my busy professionals or stay-at-home moms.”

3. THEIR FEET ARE PROBABLY SORE.

Personal shoppers have firsthand knowledge of what it's like to "shop ‘til you drop." The constant walking through stores and standing in front of racks can make for some seriously sore feet. “My least favorite thing [about my job] is how much my feet hurt after a long day of shopping,” Wynne admits. Personal shopper James Gallichio adds that a desk job would be much easier on his body. “The hardest part is the constant exercise. Four days a week I do 5-8 hour shopping sessions where I’m walking around constantly, which takes a fair drain on energy,” he writes in a Reddit AMA.

4. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO SHOP FOR ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.

Turquoise women's t-shirts of various sizes from small to large hanging on wooden hangers
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Personal shoppers emphasize that shopping for other people requires a vastly different skill set than shopping for oneself. “Some people may think that if they have great style, they can dress anyone,” Wynne says. “Your individual style doesn’t look good on every body type, age, and gender. A personal shopper must understand styles for all ages, budgets, and body types.”

Competent personal shoppers, then, have a comprehensive understanding of types of fabric, garment construction, and how different clothing brands flatter (or don’t flatter) diverse body types. Personal shoppers also pick clothing and accessories in colors that will complement a client’s skin tone and hair color, rather than opting for hues that they personally like.

5. THEIR FEE STRUCTURE CAN VARY CONSIDERABLY.

Personal shoppers who are employees of department stores are usually paid a salary and receive commissions on any items they convince a customer to buy. But independent personal shoppers, who are not affiliated with a store or line of clothing, have more flexibility. Because they directly bill their client, they can charge a variety of fees for their services, whether it's an hourly fee, a flat rate, or a package of multiple sessions. Some personal shoppers even offer a "complete makeover" package that includes additional services such as makeup application and hairstyling.

6. WEALTHY PEOPLE AREN’T THEIR ONLY CLIENTS ...

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“Most people see hiring a personal shopper as a luxury,” personal shopper Lauren Bart tells Vogue Australia. But personal shoppers disagree. “You do not have to be wealthy to hire a personal shopper. I actually save my clients money and time,” Wynne says. By guiding them toward quality pieces that will last many years (rather than pieces that wear out after a few months), personal shoppers can save their clients some serious moola. Plus, they can discourage clients from buying clothing and accessories that they don’t love, minimizing the chance that clients will get bored of their purchase.

7. … BUT THEY PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS FOR BIG SPENDERS.

That said, personal shoppers also know how to cater to big spenders. Nicole Pollard, a celebrity stylist and personal shopper in Los Angeles, tells The Hollywood Reporter that she arranges for stores to open early, has a tailor on call, and pops expensive champagne for VIPs. “I live on text. It’s the fastest way to get things done such as opening Chanel on New Year’s Day or any other Rodeo [Drive] boutique at the crack of dawn,” she says. “Champagne, chocolates, coffee—whatever the store needs to do to keep the clients happy. The sky is the limit.”

Pollard will also go far to ensure her celebrity and royal clients don't end up in the same clothes as someone else at a big event—for example, by researching the colors of a particular dress shipped to local department stores and then ordering other hues unavailable locally for her clients.

8. THEY COAX CLIENTS OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONES.

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Besides giving their clients advice on which garments complement their body and skin tone, personal shoppers also encourage people to go a little wild. Without a personal shopper’s gentle nudging to experiment with a patterned blouse or shimmery sandal, a client may never consider certain items wearable. “I love it when my clients say, ‘If I had been shopping by myself, I wouldn't never [have] chosen that item. Now that I have it on, I love it!’” Wynne says. “It makes me feel good that I have encouraged them to try something new or out of their comfort zone. They immediately see the benefit of my expertise.”

9. THEY GO THE EXTRA MILE TO PLEASE THEIR CLIENTS.

Personal shoppers don't just bend over backward to please their uber-wealthy clients—they also go the extra mile when it comes to their regular customers. Many clients text and email their personal shoppers at the last minute for fashion emergencies, and personal shoppers often work on tight deadlines to find the perfect outfit. When Borsuk worked with a client who was hard to find tops for, she scoured stores looking for the perfect outfit for an upcoming bris. “I went to every store I could think of in metro Atlanta. We thought we had found the perfect outfit, but the skirt couldn’t be altered because of the way it was made,” Borsuk says. “The week before the bris I went to Neiman Marcus. They had items overnighted and had a courier take outfits to her house.”

Thankfully, a skirt that Borsuk threw in at the last minute worked with the original top. “Everyone thought she looked amazing, and she got so many compliments. She was thrilled! I was so happy that my client looked so good on such a special day,” she says.

10. THEY’RE UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THEIR CLIENTS’ INSECURITIES.

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In the process of seeing a client’s home, closet, and naked (or barely clothed) body, personal shoppers can get to know their clients quite intimately. In the course of working together, some personal shoppers may even spot signs of body dysmorphia, compulsive buying disorder, or hoarding in their clients. Personal shopper and stylist Michelle McFarlane tells Cosmopolitan that helping people try on clothing requires vulnerability and trust. “People bring all kinds of insecurities and hang-ups with them when it comes to their clothes and their image, so you have to be adept at making people feel at ease,” she says. “Part of it is just having a kind, friendly, and understanding personality; the other part is prepping things ahead of time so the shopping experience goes off without a hitch.”

11. THEY LOVE USING CLOTHING TO MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY.

Personal shoppers stress that helping people find clothes they like is about more than clothing. With the right skirt or top, people may experience profound shifts in their body image, confidence, and self-esteem. “I love seeing how happy my clients are after our session, and how good they feel in their new clothes,” Borsuk says. “It is a great feeling to be able to make my clients feel more confident about the way they look.”

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hand Models
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You don’t know Ashly Covington, but you’ve probably seen her hands. As one of the top hand models in the industry, her digits have appeared in ads for McDonald’s, Huggies, L’Oreal, Nikon, UPS, and hundreds of other companies. She’s on billboards and TV, in magazines and books. “Most everyone has seen my hands and has no idea,” Covington says.

Indeed, hand models are in high demand. Every brand from Revlon to Taco Bell needs someone to show off their products with perfectly buffed nails and smooth, spotless skin. After 13 years in the industry, Covington still loves her job, but says there’s more to it than just having a pretty hand. We spoke with her and a few other people in the business about what it takes to have famous fingers.

1. THEY’RE OFTEN DISCOVERED IN PUBLIC. 

Most hand models didn’t grow up dreaming of this career. Instead, they fell into it by getting noticed. Covington, for example, wanted to be an actress, but early in her career, an acting agent told her to forget her head and focus on her hands. “I was like, should I be offended by that?” she recalls.

Carmen Marrufo, a “parts” agent, sometimes stops people on the street or in the office to tell them they could have a career in hand modeling. “I once had a woman come in to the office and leave me an envelope,” she explains. “I looked at her hands and said, ‘Oh my god.’ I ran after her. She was in the business for a while and made a lot of money.” 

What are agents looking for in a hand? Long, straight fingers and wide nail beds for showing off polish. No lumpy knuckles, lines, or scars. And an even skin tone is key. But all of this can also depend on what “category” of hand modeling you’re hoping to break into. Female hands with shorter nails and nude or no polish are “mom hands,” good for cooking, cleaning, and showing off household items (sexist, but true); longer nails are great for “fashion hands” that model jewelry and high-end fashion items; smaller hands can even be good for holding kids’ toys, since kids don’t always have the attention span for sitting still under hot lights for hours on end.

2. THEY CAN MAKE A LOT OF MONEY …

According to Forbes, a successful hand model can make upwards of $75,000 a year. Covington says she once made $13,000 for two hours of work.

3. … BUT, THERE’S A CATCH.

Because most hand models are freelancers, the amount of work they get in a month can fluctuate wildly. So while $13,000 for one day of work might seem like a small fortune, it might have to last for a few months if the work dries up. Plus, hand models get called in for last-minute work all over the country and often have to pay their own way. Covington splits her time between the east and west coasts, and once flew to California twice in one week for an indecisive client. It’s for times like these that she keeps a go-bag packed and ready. “The last-minute flights are the really expensive ones,” she says. “They won’t book us until a day or two before and so it’s not as lucrative as all these people make it out to be.”

4. THEY DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT THEY’RE MODELING.

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

Hand models aren't always given a lot of detail about their assignments. For example, a model might know the client is Baskin Robbins, but only find out on-set that she’ll be playing with Oreo cookies for the shoot. Kimbra Hickey, whose hands grace the cover of the book Twilight, only knew she was shooting a cover for a teenage romance novel. She had no idea the book would become an overnight sensation, and has since tried to get in on the fame by touring with the cast, recreating the cover shoot in public, and selling apple-scented lotion.

5. THEY’VE PLAYED CELEBS’ HANDS. 

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

The next time you see a commercial featuring a famous actress applying a skin cream or mascara, remember this: That’s probably not her hand. Parts model Adele Uddo has doubled for celebs such as Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon. And trying to maneuver around a celebrity so that nothing but your hands are in the picture can require some awkward acrobatics. “A lot of times it’s me crouched behind them trying to hide with my hand coming up under their arm and over their face,” Covington explains.

6. FINGER EXERCISES ARE A THING.

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Sometimes a hand model needs to move a single finger just slightly in one direction without moving the rest of the hand, which can be really difficult. To practice, Covington started doing finger exercises designed for musicians like flute players, in order to gain muscle control over her individual digits. “I’d be on the subway or at home watching TV and I would run through them,” she says. “I still do. I can move most of everything independently. I invented my own sort of school for that.”

7. BEER-SLINGING IS AN IMPORTANT SKILL. 

Much of being a hand model involves handling objects with absolute precision over and over again. For example, a beer commercial required Covington to slide a few beers across a table so that they stopped with the labels facing the camera. “What you don’t see is there’s a camera over my neck, my head is bent all the way to one side, and I can only see with one eye what my hand is doing,” she says. “It’s all about speed and pressure. It’s like how baseball pitchers think when they’re throwing.”

Sometimes, it can get awkward. If the hand model is affecting how the light hits the object, they’re covered in a sheet from the wrist up (see above). “I’ve been positioned between a director of photography’s legs a couple of times,” Uddo says. “And sometimes I have to do intricate moves where I can’t even see what I’m doing, like pouring while I’m underneath a table.”  Here’s a picture of Uddo hidden behind a screen on set:

A photo posted by Adele Uddo (@adeleuddo) on

Covington taught herself to pour a beverage so that it splashes at just the right angle in the glass. And because some clients want her to chop things on camera, she takes a knife skills course every year. 

8. OLIVE OIL IS THE BEST LOTION. 

Covington’s key for smooth hands? “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.” She usually uses olive oil or coconut oil. Uddo has been making a concoction for years in her own kitchen that includes coconut, almond, and olive oil with vitamin E. A good, thick layer of moisturizer gets slathered on multiple times a day.

Also, many hand models don’t wear jewelry because rings and watches can leave marks on the skin. Covington says she hasn’t worn hand jewelry for 13 years. 

9. GLOVES ARE WORN ALL YEAR ROUND.

A scratched finger, bruised knuckle, or broken nail is really bad for business, so many hand models wear gloves when they’re out and about. “I got a cut once because a lady was pushing her way onto the subway and her big gaudy ring hit my hand,” Covington says. “Most people have cuts on their hands all the time and they don’t even know where they got them. If that happens to me, I can’t do the job tomorrow.”

10. TEA BAGS AND GLUE ARE A HAND MODEL’S FIRST-AID KIT.

Need a quick remedy for a broken nail in a pinch? Find a tea bag and some nail glue and you’re good to go. “The first big job I booked in New York was for Dior and I broke a nail like two days before I was flying out there,” Uddo recalls. “I called a celeb nail technician and she came over the next day and re-secured it with a tea bag and glue. It was amazing. You couldn’t even tell.”

The glue sets the nail in place, and the tea bag acts to bind the two pieces back together. Top with a layer of polish and nobody would know it was broken. If you want to see how it's done, here's a demo.

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