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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of NASA Mission Controllers

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Films such as Apollo 13, Armageddon, and The Martian depict NASA’s Mission Control Center as a place of high stress and nail-biting suspense. But what’s it really like to work there? We got the inside scoop from several current or former flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas—NASA’s primary Mission Control Center for human spaceflight. (You might know it by its radio call sign “Houston.”) There, flight controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts and spacecraft, monitoring the International Space Station (ISS), and providing constant operational support from the ground.

1. “FLIGHT CONTROLLER” IS A GENERAL TERM.

There are a variety of roles that are essential to making Mission Control run smoothly, and “flight controller” is an umbrella term that encompasses many of them. For each mission, a group of engineers, scientists, managers, technicians, biomedical engineers, quality control inspectors, and designers all work together to ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft. According to Ben Honey, a NASA ADCO (Attitude Determination and Control Officer) flight controller, team sizes vary from a skeleton crew—the minimum is six people—to more than a dozen individuals.

“A busy day (say, a vehicle docking or spacewalk) could have a full team of at least a dozen people in the front room and many more in support rooms,” Honey tells mental_floss. A skeleton crew, meanwhile, consists of six roles: Flight Director, Ground Control, ETHOS (Environmental Control Systems), SPARTAN (Power Systems), ADCO (Navigation Systems), and CRONUS (Data and Communications Systems), Honey says. But no matter how many people work in Mission Control at any given time, the ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the flight director, who manages the team of flight controllers.

2. THEY’RE YOUNG.

According to NASA Vehicle Systems Engineer Holly Griffith, who worked as a flight controller for the Space Shuttle Electrical Power System at the Johnson Space Center from 2004 until 2012, people are often surprised to learn how young most flight controllers are. “I was 25 when I started, and the majority of my colleagues were similar ages,” she tells mental_floss. Even during Apollo 11—the 1969 NASA mission that landed the first two humans on the moon—the average age in the control room was just 28 years old.

That youth can be a big asset when it comes to working the long hours required of the job. As Griffith points out, young flight controllers who lack the added responsibilities of marriage and children are often more willing (and able) to work nights, weekends, and holidays. (It’s not so much that NASA specifically recruits young people for the job, interviewees say, as that young people are more likely to apply.)

3. GETTING THEIR JOB IS NO EASY FEAT.

Flight controllers at NASA come from a variety of educational backgrounds, but most earn degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics). Some flight controllers earn additional degrees in business or communications, which may help prepare them for the job’s high level of cooperation and demanding team management responsibilities. After completing their education, grads who want to work in Mission Control may apply to a NASA internship or work for a NASA contractor that provides personnel to NASA.

Once they get their foot in the door at NASA, aspiring flight controllers must complete up to a year of rigorous training. Depending on the team they want to join, most new hires take classes, get tested on what they’ve learned, and take part in simulations that help them practice how they would respond to surprises such as malfunctioning equipment, a debris strike, depressurization, or a fire. They’re also observed by supervisors while they learn to carry out tasks. The end result of the training process is certification, which is highly individualized depending on which role a flight controller is aiming toward. Once certified, the flight controller is responsible for carrying out their job duties without a supervisor watching over them.

4. COMMUNICATION SKILLS CAN MAKE OR BREAK THEM.

Forget the stereotype of a nerdy scientist who doesn’t speak or interact well with others. While flight controllers are first and foremost engineers, responsible for applying an enormous amount of technical knowledge, good communication skills are equally important.

“For a job in engineering, communication was just as much a part of the job as technical knowledge,” Griffith explains. “We were set up in the room by our systems, and if something in the power system fails that cuts power to a fan in the environmental system, I may need to be able to explain higher-up electrical concepts to the environmental person and they will need to tell me why it's important that we get the fan back ASAP.” The ability to communicate accurately and succinctly with colleagues, especially under pressure if a major failure occurs, is vital. “Much of our training is spent on good communication and our communication skills are a huge part of our feedback and could even fail you in the certification flow if not good enough,” Griffith says.

5. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME DOING PAPERWORK.

“Much of a flight controller’s job is paperwork and the integration and coordination that go along with that paperwork,” NASA flight controller Robert Frost writes on Quora. When Space Shuttle missions were still running (the Shuttle retired in 2011), that paperwork could start years before a mission. Even today, tiny changes in the technology or software used aboard the ISS can involve multiple international stakeholders, all of whom need to be kept informed via paperwork.

Once a mission begins, flight controllers are also "sitting console”—being perched at a large desk with multiple monitors receiving data from equipment in space. Their job is to continuously monitor that data, and make sure each piece of equipment is working as it should be. That way, Mission Control on the ground stays connected to what’s going on up above.

Even then, "we're always doing paperwork—we're constantly keeping a log," Griffith says. "We have a Word template that logs MET (Mission Elapsed Time) and GMT of every call/action from/to the crew, other flight controllers, the Flight Director, etc. We log everything and the other team reads this during handovers."

6. THEY DON’T GET MUCH VITAMIN D.

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Because the ISS is a 24/7/365 operation, Mission Controllers are used to working in a dark room, seeing only the artificial light emitted by their monitors. “Most of us have engineering degrees so are already used to working nights during college or in labs doing research, so this part [of the job] doesn’t really take much adjustment,” Honey says.

But while they might miss seeing sunlight stream through the windows, Mission Controllers do have ways to get some Vitamin D. “We don't have to sit inside Mission Control for our nine hour shift without leaving," explains Honey. "On most shifts (but not all), there are times we can take a break, and I will often go for a short walk outside to get some sun if it is a day shift.”

7. BAD WEATHER IS ONE OF THEIR BIGGEST CHALLENGES.

If a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes Houston and shuts down power to Mission Control, NASA has a backup control center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to ISS flight controller Pat Patterson, who works at Marshall but is part of the Mission Control team in Houston, one of their greatest challenges is dealing with weather. “Since our control room operates around the clock, 365 days a year, and we are in Alabama, even snow and ice can result in issues getting to and from work,” she reveals in a Reddit AMA. “When hurricanes shut down Mission Control at JSC in Houston, key flight controllers came here to use a backup control room.” And if that backup center in Huntsville loses power or undergoes major maintenance, flight controllers have yet another backup location in Huntsville they can head to. “It’s small and only has enough space for a bare-bones team, but it works,” Mason Hall, another ISS flight controller, writes on Reddit.

8. COFFEE AND SNACKS KEEP THEM GOING.

With limited breaks and long shifts, people who work in Mission Control turn to caffeine and snacks to help them stay alert. “As with any 24/7 ops facility, food and coffee are a big part of what keeps us going,” Honey says. “People often bring in lots of goodies for big events. Sometimes we will have a special cake for a crew’s undocking day, for example. But we also just like to stock snacks at the consoles to get us through the night shifts.”

9. THEY’RE INTIMATELY ACQUAINTED WITH ACRONYMS.

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To work in MCC at NASA, you’ve got to be good with acronyms. Flight controllers speak (and think) in abbreviations, such as FDO (Flight Dynamics Officer), EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager), PDRS (Payload Deploy Retrieval System), and MMACS (Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm, and Crew Systems). Flight controllers even have acronyms on their consoles, which describe the function they’re associated with (and sometimes the call signs by which they're known).

Do all the acronyms ever confuse laypeople? As Hall says: “I have a friend who misreads my ‘ISS’ tweets as ‘ISIS’ every now and then, and it makes me laugh!”

10. GENDER IS LESS OF AN ISSUE THAN IT ONCE WAS.

All flight controllers at NASA were male until 1972, and all flight directors were male until 1991. But today NASA makes an effort to be diverse. According to Griffith, who has had four female managers, gender was fairly mixed during her time at mission control. “I feel like I’ve been so lucky at NASA—at one point our group was 50/50 men/women.”

“Could we be doing better?" she asks. "Yes, but that brings up another question—overall fewer women tend to go into things like mechanical engineering (in the U.S.). When I graduated women were 20% of engineering grads … that number isn’t much different now.”

11. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE MOVIES THAT DEPICT THEM.

Mission Controllers are divided about movies that depict them and their colleagues, arguing that some films are accurate in their portrayals while others are laughably inaccurate. “Honestly it depends. The Martian was fantastic and Andy Weir did an amazing job researching before he wrote the book. Apollo 13 was also great,” Griffith says.

Her take on Armageddon? “Nah. I mean I liked the film but if what you’re going for is realism I wouldn’t pick that one,” she says.

12. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN CREED.

Given the huge responsibilities they shoulder, flight controllers take their job seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have their own creed, which is posted in Mission Control. Besides pledging to strive for discipline, teamwork, and toughness, the flight controller’s creed acknowledges the privilege (and burden) of holding people’s lives in their hands; they pledge “To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”

13. THEY MARVEL AT HOW INCREDIBLE THEIR JOB IS.

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Working for NASA is a normal job with coworkers, bosses, and a paycheck, but the surreal nature of supporting space missions does hit flight controllers from time to time. Besides helping to advance our understanding of science, technology, and space exploration, flight controllers have the privilege of communicating with humans who live and work approximately 250 miles above the surface of Earth.

“Sometimes, it’s really crazy to think about what we actually do for a living,” Hall writes. “Sometimes we go outside and watch the ISS fly over at dusk. We see it soar across the evening sky like a really bright star, and then we can go inside our control center and watch live video from inside that bright point of light and see the astronauts floating around and performing science experiments. It really blows your mind!”

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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.

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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.

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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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