After seven years working in the tech industry, Jenny Richman decided that she needed more magic in her life. So she traded her keyboard for a pair of shimmery wings, taking a job as a professional faerie at children’s parties. There, she found the job fulfillment she had been hoping for.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
The first time Richman walked into the Treehouse, the offices of Happily Ever Laughter, it was in the hopes that Fae Diddle Diddle, the company’s faerie queen, would offer her a job. (Quick note: We’re using the company’s spelling of “faerie” throughout this piece.) The California-based company employs performers for children’s parties, training them in the ways of faerie, pirate, and princess. Richman was looking for something more than a job, though. She was looking for the magic that had been missing from her tech career.
“I just kept thinking, ‘There has to be more purpose or something more satisfying than what I’m currently doing with my life,’” Richman tells me when we speak over the phone. While she’s not as bubbly or as hyper as her faerie persona, Pepper, Richman is incredibly cheerful in conversation. Her enthusiasm for what she does and the character she has created bursts through, even when she’s talking about the more frustrating aspects of her current job.
“And I was just browsing through Craigslist and I saw an ad for a faerie pirate princess mermaid. And I thought, ‘This sounds amazing! Who wouldn’t want this job?’”
Her friends thought it sounded crazy, but Richman was undeterred. She saved up some money, quit her tech job, and set to work becoming a professional faerie.
The Faerie Employment Office
Richman ended up applying to Happily Ever Laughter months after she saw the original ad, but fortunately she caught the company during a hiring round. The problem, as she saw it, was her lack of experience.
“I was not qualified at all,” she says, “not remotely. I had never worked with children. The most acting I had done was back in high school.” But she figured out a way to make her application stand out anyway. For one thing, she made her cover letter rhyme. For another, she transformed her resume from that of tech professional to that of a silly faerie who happened to work in the tech industry. She removed the references to servers and MySQL, for example, replacing them with job descriptions like, “I look at computer screens all day! And oh my gosh, there are so many numbers!” She scored an interview.
(Update: Richman emailed me in response to comments complaining that her resume change seemed anti-feminist. She clarifies that she changed her resume because “Human technology and faerie magic just doesn’t mix very well.”)
Richman arrived at the Treehouse with a copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses tucked under her arm. Fae had asked her to bring a children’s book, and that was one of Richman’s childhood favorites. After Fae asked her a bit about herself and why she was changing careers, she launched into the most difficult part of the interview: Richman had to read her the book. Richman was going to pretend that she was a faerie working at a party and Fae was going to play a child attending the party — the most obnoxious child ever.
The point of the book-reading test, Richman explains, is not for the faerie to finish the book. After all, the children aren’t there for the story; they’re there for the faerie. Richman’s challenge was twofold: She had to hold Fae’s attention and she had to keep her in the room.
So Richman opened her copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and started reading. It wasn’t long before Fae, pretending to be that child, began to interfere. “All of a sudden, Fae was coming up to me and she’s trying to turn the pages, ‘Oh, let me help you! Let me help you! Oh, I can read this!’” Fae interrupted her as she read, babbling about this one time when she had been a princess. At one point, she shrieked that another child was poking her. At another, she suddenly stood up and announced that she was going to her room. The whole time, Richman was being evaluated on how she responded to Fae’s rude behavior.
Richman was sure she had botched that portion of the interview. “I kept thinking I was doing a terrible job. I was laughing a lot. Luckily, I have a habit of laughing when I’m nervous.”
But once the trial was over, Fae hugged her afterward and told her she’d gotten the job. Next came faerie training.
Video of Happily Every Laughter’s various characters. While Richman says she and many of performers are faeries at their core (though others are mermaids or other characters) and maintain the same personas from party to party, they employ different themed costumes. Other performers do employ different personas with their different costumes, however.
The First Faerie Gig
Her first solo show was, by Richman’s own admission, a bit of a mess. She was attending as a pink princess, a character who wears a dress with a giant hoop skirt, but she’d neglected to ask what the space situation was like at the venue. It turned out the venue was too small and the dress too large; she struggled to maneuver between the tables. She’d taken the wrong approach to face paints, choosing elaborate styles instead of faster ones, which made it difficult to get through the endless line of eager children. During the balloon-twisting part of the show, she felt something yank her skirt. When she looked down, she saw a young child crawling out from beneath the pink fabric. “It’s a good thing I was wearing bloomers!” she laughs. “And gosh, I have no idea how long he must have been under there.”
It was raining that day, and on the way to her next show, her dress filled with water. Once she had finished all her shows, she called Fae, shocked at how trying the day had been. “I didn’t think anything about this would be hard,” she says. After all the training she had gone through, she thought performing at a party would be, if not precisely easy, at least not that difficult.
Faerie training, it turns out, is quite rigorous at Happily Ever Laughter. The performers need to learn how to twist balloon animals, perform magic and puppet shows, and meet the company’s particularly high face-painting standards. (Richman confesses that she wasn’t a natural; it took a lot of practice for her to master the ropes.) And performers have to develop social tools as well as performance skills — things to say that will make the children feel more at ease with this strange person on their special day. After all, Richman points out, you’ve been invited to someone’s big celebration “this momentous thing. So it’s important to become part of that.”
But for Richman, it’s not just about the skills. It’s about wanting to insert a little magic into children’s lives.
The weekend before we spoke, Richman worked a bunch of shows where the children all had one thing in common: They were skeptics. When Richman showed up in her lavish dress and shimmering wings, she was greeted with shouts of “Fake faerie! Fake faerie!”
But after a little time with Pepper, the faerie character Richman portrays, those kids became believers. There’s a smile in Richman’s voice as she thinks back on those shows, “By the end, they got it, and they had that magic again. They understood that you can really keep that magic in your world, create your own imaginary things that help you and lift you up.” The same children who had accused her of being a fake faerie ran up to her with stories like, “We found your faerie hideout! It’s over there! You need to come see!”
Beyond maneuvering hoop skirts and choosing the right face paints, that’s a major challenge professional faeries face: getting children to suspend their disbelief. “It’s just very important; we’re in character the entire time,” Richman says. “There’s not a single point in time where we’re not going to be in character.” She relates the story of one performer who reached into her magic kit and accidentally cut her fingers on a piece of broken glass. “She didn’t even hesitate to just wrap it up quick and continue on as if nothing had happened. And the show went on fantastically.”
I ask her how that applies to more mundane issues. Does she explain to children that faeries drive cars? Richman doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh, you know, my dragon is very shy. Human-dragon relations have gone downhill the past few millennia or so. So he likes to stay away. My dragon’s name is Azra. He likes to stay away and I call him when I need him. Sometimes when I’m lugging things pretty far distances, every once in a while, Faerie Godmother will send us in a chariot, which is so nice, but we don’t even know how those things drive.”
And fortunately, on those days when things don’t go quite according to plan, Richman has other people who understand. “We’re such a large community,” she tells me. “In all honesty, it feels like a large family. I call the sisters my faerie sisters, my faerie brothers, my elf brothers, because that’s how it feels, because we get so close. We’re talking all the time about these things that people can’t really relate to. Who else is going to have a thing of like, ‘Oh, I lost a ribbon and nothing was close, so oh! A balloon! A balloon will work in place of a ribbon any day’?”
Video from Happily Ever Laughter’s 2013 company retreat.
At one point during the interview, Richman asks if I’d like to speak to her faerie persona Pepper. “Let me go get her,” she says, moments before a fizzy voice comes on the phone. “Well hello, hello!” There is no mistaking Pepper for Jenny.
I suddenly feel that I’ve been plunged into an improv scene for which I am not mentally prepared. I also start to wonder if it’s rude to poke too hard at Pepper’s story. I’m comfortable with Jenny, but for the first few seconds, Pepper seems like a total stranger and I don’t want to accuse her of being a work of fiction.
That feeling quickly subsides, because Pepper answers my questions with increasing enthusiasm. It’s only later, when I’m listening to the recording, that I realize that Pepper employs some verbal stalling tricks while the wheels are turning in Jenny’s brain. Pepper will sometimes repeat my questions back to me or giggle and begin her answer with “Oh my goodness!” But the longer she speaks the more fluent — and, frankly, interesting her answers become.
Pepper’s reasons for working at children’s parties are simple, “Oh my goodness! Because, you know, I just love the human world. An faerie-human relations, we need to keep that going, right?” She’s initially vague about her last gig, tending pixie dust trees, but soon she’s spilling volumes about the properties of different types of pixie dust (Green is Pepper’s favorite, because “that’s the kind that makes you super happy when you’re not feeling that happy.”) and the lives of snow fairies. When I ask her how she unwinds after work, she starts ranting about the nearby goblins who spread around a nasty substance that gives Pepper an allergic reaction. (By the way, she’s named Pepper because “a lot of faeries are born with a laugh, but I was born with a sneeze.”)
There are also places where Jenny’s professional experience slyly overlaps with Pepper’s whimsy. When I ask her how she deals with children who say they don’t believe in faeries, Pepper replies, “Sometimes they even accuse me of not being a real faerie, which is silly, because you can plainly see on my resume that it says ‘Professional Faerie.’”
I’ve met Richman in person, although I’ve never seen her perform. When I’m talking to Pepper, however, I’m not picturing Richman. I’m envisioning someone smaller, sprightlier, with more sparkles. At the same time, Pepper’s personality feels enormous, like she’s somehow taking up much more of the phone line than Richman did. I can understand how she converts skeptical children into believers; it’s hard not to believe in someone when there is so much of her there, actually speaking to you.
When I finally ask Pepper to put Jenny back on the phone, Pepper is gracious, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s almost a relief to hear Richman’s voice again, like I’ve returned to terra firma.
Richman says that she actually doesn’t remember character development being part of her faerie training — but it’s something all the performers do anyway. She creates Pepper and develops her stories both at parties and on her own time. “I‘ll go on adventures in my mind with Pepper and I’ll share those adventures with children at shows,” she says.
It’s a form a storytelling, but one where Richman feels it’s paramount that she truly embody the character. “When I’m Pepper, I am Pepper. And I’m not lying to the children with what I say.” Perhaps the best evidence of that is Richman’s own experience portraying the faerie, telling me, “There are things that Pepper can handle that Jenny never could.” She recalls one day when she did three shows, only to get home and realize she was in excruciating pain. It turns out that she had been performing with a kidney infection, “something that Jenny never would have put up with. But Pepper?” She says, “Pepper was Pepper. She was fine.”
Perhaps it’s odd to hear that someone went looking for more purpose in their working life and settled on a job as a professional faerie. But talking to Richman, it’s clear that she views herself as more than someone who distracts children with a few showy tricks at a birthday party. Her mission is to bring a sense of fantasy to their lives, one that hopefully lasts after the party is over. Thinking back on a successful show, she says, “You need to keep a bit of that magic in your life, you know? The eyes that you looked at the world through when you were four years old, when everything was just wonder. It’s important to keep those with you.”