During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, your eyes are probably glued to a single microphone: the one on stage, which students grip each year as though their lives depended on it.
But behind another mic, just a few feet away, sits a man who’s been at every Scripps bee since 1991: the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who won the bee himself in 1980. But his job is much more than reading a list of words. He’s something of an icon among the students. “A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine,” he says.
Below, Bailly divulges how the words are chosen (well, kinda — a lot of “what happens in word club stays in word club”); how those used-in-context sentences are crafted (sometimes, Scripps hires comedy writers to write funny ones); and the most evil word he’s ever faced.
Even though it’s not a full-time gig, the job requires year-round work. “It’s basically a joy,” Bailly says. “They did start paying me for it a while ago, but I’d do it even without pay.”
“Spelling is kind of a gateway skill, like arithmetic,” Bailly says. “It’s nowhere near the destination.”
If you want to be famous, you can spend your life striving for success and acclaim.
Or you can hire a few actors.
Scott Cramton is the founder of Famous for a Day, which lets you rent any number of paparazzi and even bodyguards to make you feel special. The company, which he started in 2006, now operates in 25 cities across the U.S. While they don’t get many gigs in LA (“I think they’re kind of over it there,” Cramton says), in places like Kansas City, cars stop on the street to ogle the photographers just as much as the “star.”
“The paparazzi legitimately hounds you like you’re Kanye or a Kardashian, and you get that amazing feeling,” Cramton coos. By “paparazzi,” of course, he’s referring to four or five trained actors who show up with corded mics leading nowhere and cameras with enormous flashbulbs. They’re screaming your name, but only because you — or maybe your best friend or bridesmaid — filled out a form ahead of time, telling them where to meet you and what to shout.
“It’s as close to functional magic as I’ve ever seen,” Cramton says. Photo: hirepaparazzinewyork.com
Outside of work, Andrew Freedman tries not to tell anyone about his job. Not because it’s a top-secret government position; yes, it’s a government job, but probably one you never knew existed.
His official, jargon-y title is director of marijuana coordination for Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado—a title that didn’t exist before he got the job in February 2014. But he may be better known as his unofficial, colloquial title: marijuana czar.
“[Telling people what I do] has ruined almost every dinner conversation I’ve had,” Freedman says. “Sometimes I get caught up in a pro- or anti-legalization debate, so I’ve witnessed everything from admiration to anger.”
Colorado made history when it became the first U.S. state to legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in 2014, but Freedman steers clear of advocating for or against legalization. Here’s how he got the job, the challenges he faces, and why half-baked ideas (sorry, had to) for getting rich quick off Colorado’s pot market don’t usually pan out.
The otherwise nondescript office where Freedman (left) works has some old prohibition posters hanging, to remind them of where they are historically.
If you haven’t heard of Escape the Room, you’re missing out.
The concept, which was initially inspired by online games, is much more thrilling as a live experience. You’re locked inside a web of 150-square-foot rooms for an hour, maybe with your closest friends or maybe with strangers (you decide which is scarier), where you must work as a team to find hidden objects and decipher clues in order to solve the puzzle and break free.
Behind the curtain — or in this case, behind a big TV monitor on a perch outside the room — is Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-founded several Escape the Room locations with his friend Max Sutter. (“Think of it like a karaoke bar,” he says. “Anyone can open one.”) They now have three spots: New Haven is their flagship, but the Escape Industries network, which they co-founded with local partners, also includes Sacramento and Rhode Island. They build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years.
“When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer, so similar tendencies are at play with the Escape the Room design,” Rodriguez-Torrent says. He’s experienced 20 or 30 different rooms, but he’s still no master: “I should be better than I am.” Here, he discusses the key to success (in Escape the Room, but also in life), how he creates puzzles in a former brothel, and the time he almost banned a bachelor party. Spoilers ahead.
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Max Sutter.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney distinctly remembers the time he traveled halfway across the world to the middle of nowhere.
To see a cloud.
A few years ago, he trekked from his home in the English countryside to the Australian outback to see a Morning Glory cloud, which stretches horizontally across the sky like tubes, a rather rare phenomenon. They look like elongated cotton balls, if you pulled a bunch of them apart and placed them next to each other, rising and sinking like ocean waves along the horizon.
A Morning Glory cloud approaching Kangaroo Point in Australia, 1993. (Photo: Russell White)
“It’s a mecca for glider pilots who go there to surf this cloud,” Pretor-Pinney explained. They form in different parts of the world, but this one stretched hundreds of miles in length. “When I first got there, it was looking dicey. I was worried I would have to go home and say I just saw a blue sky.”
For Prettor-Pinney, clouds aren’t just a hobby anymore; they’re his business. The Cloud Appreciation Society operates from an office adjacent to his barn in Somerset, UK, which is covered in cloud posters and has a big etched hand pointing up toward the sky.
It doesn’t take much prompting for Prettor-Pinney to begin waxing poetic: “Clouds don’t just get in the way of the sun, they are the most dynamic and poetic aspect of nature.” His idea for the society arose as a joke in 2004, and has since taken on a life — and membership base — of its own. In fact, it’s given quite a meteoric jolt to how we classify the wispy white stuff above us.
The magic happens in a room with a giant tub that looks like Play-Doh, in a 810,000-square-foot factory, in a small city named after Paul Revere.
The New England Candy Company, better known as Necco, produces 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts — those colorful conversation hearts you got from everyone in your third-grade class on Valentine’s Day — each day for nearly the entire year, even though they’re only sold for several weeks in January and February. They’ve been around for decades — 150 years, to be exact — but Geoff Bloom, the creative director at Necco, is tasked with finding ways to keep them fresh. (“On Fleek” is one of the phrases you’ll find on the hearts this year.)
Valentine’s Day, a one-day holiday to you but a six-week one to Necco, is the company’s biggest moneymaker; about 2 billion Sweethearts are eaten each year. But none of that would be possible without Bloom’s careful touch.
“It’s not a very subtle outfit, but it’s not a very subtle job,” says Anthony Petrina, the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel.
“I never thought you could get a condescending look from a duck, but as it turns out, you definitely can,” Anthony Petrina explains.
He remembers the day clearly: It was his second week on the job as the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and he thought he was doing a pretty damn good job of marching those ducks down the red carpet in an orderly fashion. (It’s a twice-daily occurrence at the hotel that attracts hundreds, including names like Jimmy Carter, Oprah, an incognito Michael Jordan and Nicholas Cage.)
But he had pressed the wrong button on the elevator, and instead of opening into the lobby, Petrina was greeted by an open expanse of balcony. The five mallards turned around and just looked at him – the duck equivalent of major side-eye.
Along with his assistant duckmaster, a retired hotel veteran, Petrina oversees the decades-old, now-famous Peabody Duck March – and the care and keeping of the ducks. He can even see the duck palace on the roof of the Peabody from the window of his apartment down the street. “I can literally keep an eye on them at all hours,” he says, “though that’s probably taking the job a little too far.”