The Only Female Pro Skywriter in America

The first time Suzanne Asbury-Oliver flew a plane, she was 14 years old. That was the easy stuff, in a sailplane, back when she could actually see in front of her.

As a skywriter for Pepsi, Asbury-Oliver spent 25 years crafting messages with smoke in the sky, frequently taking her dog along for the ride in the front seat. She flew an antique biplane, which completely obscures one’s line of vision. That means she’s writing the mirror image of words at 10,000 feet above Earth, effectively with her eyes closed. “It’s seat-of-the-pants-type flying,” she says.

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Asbury-Oliver, several decades ago while working as Pepsi’s skywriter. Look closely for the “Suzanne” painted on the plane’s side. Image: airandspace.si.edu

Now, without a corporate sponsor, she and her husband own their own plane and skywriting business called Olivers Flying Circus. They received plenty of requests in the leadup and aftermath of Nov. 8 — yes, just like the ones you’re imagining — but Asbury-Oliver refused, on a no-negativity principle.

Since letters only last in the sky about 10 minutes, the beginning of a word will sometimes disappear by the time that word is finished, but Asbury-Oliver doesn’t worry about that. “It’s like a ticker tape; you know what it says even if the first letters are gone,” she says. Or, more fittingly, like an original Snapchat — except, of course, that anyone within a 20-mile radius can see it if they simply look up.

The most crucial lesson Asbury-Oliver has learned from a career in skywriting is survival. “Never fly straight over a swamp,” she advises sagely. “If you have an engine failure and end up going down, nobody will find you, except the alligators.”

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Hollywood’s Go-To Prosthetics Makeup Artist

“How are we gonna kill that person this week?” is a question that Matthew Mungle would periodically ask himself when working on the set of The X-Files in the late 90s. “I couldn’t wait to get the script to see what monster we had to create next.”

That might seem strange for a man with a terrible phobia of blood, but Mungle’s job is hardly within the realm of normal. Though you may not recognize his face, you’ve surely seen the prosthetic makeup Mungle has done in more than 200 film and TV projects, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which he won an Academy Award. And it’s not just faces: He’s also designs prosthetic pensises, breasts, and pregnancy bellies. “We’re known for realistic-looking work,” Mungle says. “We don’t do too many aliens.”

But the work is Frankenstein-esque in the sense that Mungle hatches new creatures from scratch. He and his team may spend an entire month on one effect, like someone’s hand getting cut off in CSI. That work could be edited together so it’s only on screen for four seconds. But hey, those are still pretty impressive bragging rights.

Special Effects Makeup

Mungle at work on an autopsy body for CSI.

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The Professional Bridesmaid

Here’s an alternate ending for 27 Dresses: Katherine Heigl is fed up with the bridesmaid schtick. But instead of letting that take her down a vulnerable path to love, it takes her down a path to a self-sufficient business plan.

Perhaps that’s not a recipe for box office success. But it’s Jen Glantz’s story. She started her own company, Bridesmaid for Hire, after she realized just how much time and energy it took to help plan her friends’ weddings. Why not get paid for it?

The normal boundaries of business don’t apply. Often, because she’s an unbiased party and not a close friend, brides feel more comfortable telling her things, like doubts about their weddings. Then it’s her job to coach them through it (that is, once she learns the fiancé’s name) and handle any dirty work on the big day. “It’s like a friendship on an accelerated time frame,” Glantz explains. She travels to weddings across the U.S. — all expenses paid by the bride, of course, who will often keep Glantz’s true identity a secret — and racks up a lot of dresses in the process, which she stows in her tiny New York City apartment.

Jen Glantz at a wedding dress store.

In her element at a wedding dress store.

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The Snake Milker Who Doesn’t Wear Any Gloves

DSC_0027Only three or four people in the United States extract snake venom — the real deals, that is. Jim Harrison is one of them.

He typically “milks” about 150 snakes in two hours, or approximately a minute per snake; it’s kind of like an assembly line of venom. He doesn’t wear gloves — they hinder his dexterity — and while he’s “only” been bitten nine times in almost four decades on the job, his shortened right forefinger is due to a kickboxing mishap, not a snake bite.

There’s a lot that people get wrong about the job, Harrison explains. Plenty of people call him up, wanting to learn how to extract snake venom as a get-rich-quick scheme. But in reality, it’s a limited market, and the hardest part comes after the venom has been funneled into tubes and shipped out.

Harrison runs the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, where about 2,000 snakes reside, along with his wife Kristen. He proposed in 2004 while filming for the National Geographic show Snake Handlers in St. Lucia. “People think of venom and they think of death,” he says. “I think of venom and I think of life. It saves more lives than it will ever take.”

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The Sword Swallower

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Swallowing a sword is one of the most uncomfortable sensations the human body can possibly experience. A 24-inch metal blade is wedging its way down your esophagus, between your lungs and nudging aside your heart.

Your body constantly wants to gag as saliva is trying to trickle down your lungs. The sword could impale your heart, killing you instantly. And because no nerve endings exist beyond your upper throat, you can’t actually feel the blade once it gets down to the bottom of your stomach. And you’ll have “sword throat” afterward from the abrasions and scrapes.

So who would actually choose to make this his or her career? For good reason, there’s only about a dozen professional sword swallowers today.

Dan Meyer, once a scrawny, soft-spoken kid who was endlessly tormented at school, is now a seven-time Guinness World Record holder and president of the Sword Swallowers Association. It took him several years and 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, but now, he can swallow swords underwater; he can swallow 21 swords at once; he can swallow a red-hot sword, heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. And he has no plans to quit.

“If you can take everything I love to do and put it into one job, this would be it,” Meyer says. “I’m living the dream.”

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The Shark Conservationist

David Shiffman, 27, poses with a lemon shark in the Everglades National Park.

David Shiffman, 28, takes ahold of a lemon shark in the Everglades National Park. The species’ name originates from its yellow coloration.

A natural reaction upon seeing a shark is run! Hide! Swim away as fast as possible!

Not so with David Shiffman. Born and bred in Pittsburgh, Pa., where the closest in proximity he came to the predators was through the glass panes of a local aquarium, Shiffman now studies sharks in the flesh in Miami. Below, the shark conservation biologist and blogger takes a deep-dive into the dangers of his job—and the dangers of shark fin soup.

Age: 28
Graduated from: Duke University, biology degree with a concentration in marine science; College of Charleston, Master’s in marine biology. “Now, I’m at the University of Miami getting my Ph.D., and a student at the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program and the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.
Based in: Miami, Fla.
Previous jobs: Counselor at a science and scuba camp in the Florida Keys; research assistant at Duke University

What first drew you to sharks? Most little boys – and girls, too – have a thing for sharks and dinosaurs. And I just never grew out of mine.

How would you sum up your job in a few sentences? I’m studying how sharks fit into the marine ecosystem and why they’re important to the ocean. I want to dedicate my entire life to being a university professor doing university-level research on this.

"I would like to dedicate my entire life to [working with sharks," Shiffman says.

“I would like to dedicate my entire life to [working with sharks],” Shiffman says. Photo: Christine Shepard

So, I’ll ask the obvious: why are sharks important? Most predators are important to keeping the ocean balanced. The decline in shark population affects the entire food chain. Sharks are one of the most endangered groups of animals in the world; scientists have observed population declines of 90% or more in some species in areas where they were once abundant.

The biggest drivers of endangerment: The demand for shark fin soup is the single largest driver for overfishing, without a doubt. Bycatching is probably the second-largest issue facing sharks—that’s when you’re trying to catch one species of fish, but you accidentally catch another near your target. Millions of sharks a year are victims of bycatching, and often die even if released back into the ocean.

Do you physically handle the sharks? Yes. Every time I’m out on the boat catching sharks, I get a thrill.  Our primary protective gear is closed-toes shoes—no flip-flops—and sunglasses and sunscreen.

Most people think of sharks in the context of shark attacks. Does that make it difficult to gather support for shark conservation? Yeah, you have a one-in-five chance of dying from heart disease, but a one-in-five-million chance of dying from a shark attack. No one is afraid to go to a fast food restaurant, but a lot of people are afraid to go in the water.

One of the school groups with Shiffman's team on the boat, after watching a blacktip shark. The pump in the shark's mouth helps it breathe when out of the water.

One of the student groups with Shiffman’s crew on the boat, after catching a blacktip shark. The pump in the shark’s mouth helps it breathe on dry land.

Best part of your job: When we take students out on the boat with us. Last year, our lab took over 1,000 high school students from around the country out into the field to help with our research. Our boat can accommodate up to 20 guests, in addition to our crew. I love getting to see a shark through the eyes of a kid who’s never seen one in the wild before.

I’m guessing their eyes are often filled with fear. Well, most people grew up being afraid of sharks. Even if high school students haven’t seen Jaws, their parents have. So, yes, some are excited and some are nervous when we pull a big shark onto the boat.

Did you grow up afraid of sharks? Not really. Pittsburgh is pretty far from the ocean, but the aquarium there had some great shark tanks. I used to sit there all the time.

Most challenging part of your job: The hours. An article in Forbes called university professors one of the least stressful jobs around, but that’s nonsense. None of my colleagues work fewer than 50 or 60 hours a week.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s not that scary. People always ask if I’ve ever been bitten, and the answer is no. Most of my photos of sharks—that I’ve snapped while scuba diving or snorkeling—are of the sharks swimming away. They’re scared of us. I was seriously injured once, but it wasn’t because of a shark. I accidentally put a giant fishing hook through my hand.

The biggest shark you’ve ever encountered: We recently caught a bull shark that was about 9 feet long and 400 pounds. But we’ve caught bull sharks almost twice as heavy as that. The biggest shark I’ve ever caught was 13 feet; the biggest shark the lab has ever caught was a 16-foot tiger shark.

The sandbar shark (pictured here in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) is one of the biggest coastal sharks in the world.

The sandbar shark (pictured here in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) is one of the biggest coastal sharks in the world.

You’re very vocal on Twitter. How do you see the platform helping your work? I’m very involved in the online communication of science, both through my lab and through my personal blog and Twitter. The Internet is great at spreading correct information, but it’s also great at spreading rumors and lies.

Twitter must-follows: That list would be longer than the rest of this interview. There’s no way to list just a few people without someone feeling left out—and I will get phone calls about it. People interested in learning more about sharks should follow the hashtags #SaveSharks, #Shark, and #Sharks.

How should government play a role in saving sharks? The solution is a sustainable global fishery that is well enforced by quotas and rules from a responsible government. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, but that’s the solution. People can help by lobbying the government or getting involved with responsible conservation organizations that are already lobbying the government.

Your dinner plate at seafood or sushi restaurants includes: In southern Florida, local mahi-mahi and stone crab are some of the most sustainable fish around. I avoid most kinds of tuna, and Chilean sea bass and red snapper are usually trouble. Sustainable seafood means it’s been harvested in such a way that it doesn’t harm the population of fish or damage the environment.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Study hard and do well in your math and science classes. You know that stuff you learn in math or science class that people say, “When are you ever going to use this?” Well, I use that stuff every day. Also attend scientific conferences—and ask questions. Or simply ask me questions on Twitter at @whysharksmatter.

Unless noted otherwise, all photos courtesy of David Shiffman.  

Next up in seafaring No Joe Schmos: the professional mermaid.

The Dog Colorist

TK

Pet groomer Dawn Omboy owns two standard poodles, one toy poodle, and one Pomeranian.

If you ever wished for a poodle with a hot pink Mohawk or leopard-print nails, you’re in luck. At Klippers, a full-service spa of sorts for cats and dogs based in Columbus, Georgia, Dawn Omboy specializes in creative pet styling – dyeing fur, attaching feather extensions, and painting nails with water-based Pawdicure Polish Pens, marker-like pens that fill up with paint when shaken and pressed.

In her creative styling classes, Omboy teaches colorists-to-be the importance of sharp color lines, elegance, and a “wow” factor. She has dyed dogs’ fur to resemble pandas, dragons, and jesters. Once, she painted pirate features onto one of her own pups. “One of her legs is a lot shorter than the others,” Omboy explained. “So I colored it to look like a [pirate’s] wooden leg.”

Age: I’ll be 54 this year.
Graduate from: I didn’t attend college. As far as grooming goes, I’m self-taught.
Based in:
Columbus, Georgia
Years in the business:
I’ve known for about 39 years – since age 15 – that I wanted to be a pet groomer.
Previous jobs:
I did some restaurant work in my younger days.

Growing up, did you tend to your family’s pets? We had a cocker spaniel and a couple of schnauzers, and I groomed them all. I wanted to do hair, and I liked animals better than people.

Daily responsibilities: We come into the salon and make sure that the shampoos are fresh and the towels are fluffy and folded. Then, we receive the clients, one by one, and discuss their wishes for their pets: bathing and brushing, shaving their hair, painting their nails (sometimes with art, like little flowers or stripes), and dyeing their fur.

The animals sit still long enough for you to paint their nails? The nontoxic paint dries in less than 40 seconds. But not every dog is a candidate for it. Most dogs really appreciate the grooming aspect – they love the attention – but not all of them want you to touch their feet or nails. We have to train them to accept grooming – the buzzing of the razor, the rubbing of their heads, the water on their fur. [Each pedicure with nail art costs about $20.]  

Dog that looks like fox

An all-white coat underwent this foxy transformation.

A few years ago, pet owners in China received a lot of press for dyeing pets to resemble other animals. Do you provide that service at Klippers? Yes. We don’t charge a lot for it, since it’s not a high-market area – a panda trim on a small dog would probably be around $75. We use an applicator brush to set in the dye, and then rinse the fur so the dye doesn’t bleed.

Your craziest trim: For a Looney Tunes-themed competition, I painted Tweety Bird on one side of a dog’s fur and Bugs Bunny on the other side. I called her Looney Grooms.

What’s the appeal of your work? For a special occasion, or to put a smile on their face. The color lines should be nice and sharp and conform to the dog’s body. Maybe someone wants to paint their dog with school colors for a big football game, or with pastel colors for Easter.

Your website also boasts feather extensions and hair tinsel. You don’t think that’s a bit excessive? I don’t, but I know that some people do. Once, I was walking with my pink poodle, and a girl hollered at me that dogs aren’t supposed to be that color. But she had purple hair! A companion dog’s job is just that: to be one’s companion.

Fur.

Omboy uses dyes made with beeswax and cosmetic grade pigments, which often last about six to eight weeks.

Some even consider painting pets a form of animal cruelty. In fact, prior to July 2012, dyeing pets was illegal in Florida. I can show you pictures of things that are cruel. Neglect is cruel. Creative grooming is far from cruel. That law in Florida was meant to prevent people from dyeing Easter bunnies and chicks, but it blanketed all animals. In July 2012, they removed the law completely – after all, there are products made for animals.

Did you work in Florida while the law was in effect? I competed in creative styling competitions there for a few years, until some officers from animal control came in and made a stink about it. No charges were pressed against me.

Number of regular customers: More than 1,000 cats and dogs. Some are weekly, some are monthly, and some are yearly clients.

Only cats and dogs? Mostly. I’ve had some freaky animals come in, like guinea pigs, ferrets, and sheep. Once, a lady brought in a miniature horse for us to shave down.

How steep is the learning curve to become a pet groomer? I started off attending trade show competitions and seminars to further my education in the field. Then, I studied with the Nash Academy in Lexington, Kentucky, and now I’m a National Certified Master Groomer with the National Dog Groomers Association of America.

One of Dawn's poodles sported the NBC signature peacock for an appearance on The Today Show in 2007.

One of Dawn’s poodles sported the NBC signature peacock for an appearance on The Today Show in 2007.

Best part of your job: Playing with my dogs and taking them to work.

Most challenging part of your job: Watching dogs grow old and die.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s very physically demanding, and you’re on your toes all the time. I probably work on about 12 to 16 dogs each day.

Your email signature: “Making the world more colorful, one dog at a time.”

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Make sure the [animal] is comfortable with what you’re doing. This line of work is a labor of love. Learn different coat types; for example, soft, curly hair is easier to color than a coarser coat.

For more No Joe Schmos accompanied by furry friends, meet the airport canine ambassador and the pet detective.

All photos courtesy of Dawn Omboy and Klippers’ Facebook page.

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