Just like enjoying the namesake candy, speaking to Junior Mintt is a refreshing and delightful encounter. Drag queen / cosmetics entrepreneur / trans rights activist, she is an organizer of the Black Trans Lives rally In Living Color—a “highly melanated & genderfully extravagant” drag show—and a supporter of organizations like Okra Project, Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Glitz inc., and For the Gworls, alongside her educational and inspirational Patreon account. Her vivacious personality, beaming with positivity, takes material form in her joyous brand, Mintty Makeup.
The brand range currently consists of the EmpowerMintt Eyeshadow 15-pan palette, a curated collection of greens, gold, and neutral shades, Treatmintt Lip Duo liquid lipstick and lipliner sets (available in five shades ranging from strawberry red to a deep burgundy), and as of November 2021, the Bedazzlemintt Blush palette comprised of rose, hot pink, raspberry, and mulberry.
Currently, Black trans makeup lines are few and far between. Examples include BatMe! Cosmetics, founded in 2017 by Jayla Roxx, and Fluide, founded in 2018, but these examples are still a vast minority in the wider context of the industry. The need for allyship extends far beyond the realm of cosmetics. More trans people were killed in 2021 than in the whole span of 2013-2019. According to a survey by National LGBTQ Task Force, half of respondents in school who identify as trans or gender-nonconforming experienced harassment, 49% have attempted suicide, and 34% live on an income of less than $10,000 per year—more than double that of trans people from all races and eight times the general US population.
BeautyMatter sat down with Junior Mintt to discuss her journey as a cosmetics brand founder setting up shop during the pandemic, how current representations of drag are actually undermining the history of the art form and those who have paved the way, and why ultimately all beauty is drag.
What inspired your drag name and how did you establish yourself in the drag scene?
Growing up, my mom called me her little Junior Mint, and it is one of my favorite candies. Every time we would go to a store, she would look at them, and she'd go, “Look, it's you, Mint.” When I started doing drag, I had a feeling that it was going to be very tied into who I was, personally. I originally came up with the name when I was in college in Boston. I had never done drag at that point, but was just like, “This is definitely going to be my thing.” When I moved to New York after I graduated, expecting to find Paris Is Burning and my Black queer community, it was the most difficult thing in the world. It was very classist, elitist, white, based on cis bodies.
One of the things that really pushed me into doing drag was wanting to find my community, because the only time I could actually see them was on Drag Race. I would see all of these out, Black, queer people. I wanted to be in the room with them. I'm so thankful that I started doing drag, because that was how I got in the space with Black, queer, trans people that helped me to understand myself as a trans woman.
I signed up for a drag competition at a bar. I didn't win, but two producers came up to me afterwards and booked me for two other gigs. And then there were these two Black women in their 40s who ran up to me after my performance, crying and happy. They told me it was the first time they ever saw someone onstage actually represent a piece of themselves and speak to them. That was a feeling that I never forgot.
It's beautiful to see that ethos of speaking for others also, being a part of your makeup brand and activist. Drag and makeup is so intertwined with one another, I'm curious as to how it has informed your approach to beauty.
Outside of my Blackness and my Black community, drag is the second-biggest influence. That's because what drag has taught me is that there's nothing more important than the ways in which we choose to decorate ourselves. Our body is truly a temple, and the ways in which we decide to decorate it say so much about us, and deserve to be cherished, valued, and praised in every corner.
That's what I wanted to create with the makeup line: the opportunity for anyone who wanted to use any of my products to know that they can use them in any capacity for their beauty. To know that 1) it's valid, 2) it's beautiful, and 3) I want you to use it. If you use this eyeshadow palette to contour your face, rather than ever do an eye makeup look, or you use it to slightly cover up or highlight a tattoo that you have, it's the wild ways in which people can decorate their bodies and transform it to whatever way they want temporarily or permanently, that makes me so happy. I tried so long to hide all the pieces of myself that I didn't understand and thought should be shunned and put into a corner. Drag was the thing that made me realize how beautiful and valuable I am, and the fact that however I present myself, I'm always worth a million dollars. Whether I wake up dysphoric, euphoric, confused, or anything else, I'm still beautiful, amazing, deserving of love, and deserving of praise for it. With the makeup line, however, it highlights the beauty, and however you feel is the real joy of doing beauty and drag. It's the feeling, not necessarily any of the technique or anything else that goes into it.
When you decided to launch your own makeup company, what was that process like, and what were some of the challenges along the way?
I still can't believe it happened. This was in the midst of quarantining and in the depth of the pandemic. I was meeting with a friend to catch up and talk about life, and they were asking me what I wanted to do with my career besides performing. One of the things that I always wanted to do was a makeup line. But as a Black man's woman living in Brooklyn who's poor, who grew up having to fight for everything that she had, to say I want to make a makeup line sounded a little foolish, like how is that going to happen? I'm so thankful for my friend and all the friends just like them because they are the reason why I believe I can accomplish anything in this world. They remind me that there's nothing that I can't do, and that's exactly what he said: just start it, why not?
Luckily, they worked in the creative business and understood the bare bones of how to make this and create that. They taught me about how to reach out to different manufacturers, all these different things like getting samples, going through a regimented list of formula ingredients and understanding what each one does in a different mix for an eyeshadow as opposed to a setting spray. I taught myself after he gave me the tools. I had also previously studied scenic design, so I understand color theory. One of the hardest hiccups for the whole creation of it was the self-confidence and understanding that like that I'm in the same process that every makeup creator has been on, reminding myself that my decisions were right. That was one of the biggest hurdles, as well as making sure that the product was the quality that I required it to be. Understanding my community and the people that are going to consume it, which is majority Black trans people, I don't want them to spend the money that they have on a product that's not going to serve them. It feels so good to be able to say that it's a product that I and my community are happy to use. A lot of manufacturers will promise you something of quality, it's your job as the person creating it to make sure that what's reaching the audiences paying for it is what they deserve.
Nowadays you have the possibility to do your makeup line, without having been in the industry for 20 years. But then that comes with its own set of hurdles: making sure you stand your ground and you don't get into bad business partnerships. In a recent interview with Darian Symoné Harvin, you talked about your makeup line as a tool for helping others find and define their value. What is the importance of a message with beauty rather than just selling a product?
Growing up, every image that I ever saw of anybody that I can identify with was one which forced me to change part of who I was. It was something that made me resentful. I grew up 60 pounds overweight, all I wanted was to throw something on my body, leave out the door, and not have to think about it, because there was not a single thing geared towards making me feel like I should be beautiful and that I deserve to feel that way. To sell a product brings me no joy, my goal in life is not to be a saleswoman or a business entity. My goal in life is to be a person who uplifts and values their community. That is why for me to sell this product is one in which I want people to find their value and joy.
It's about seeing yourself reflected in the product that you're about to purchase, not because it is flashy, or I’m out of the loop if I can't afford this. This is literally a tool for you. If you can't afford it, if you can't get this, we will find a way to get it to you. On top of it, it's a very deep situation of this makeup not being a tool that should be used to make somebody feel any form of negativity. Oftentimes [the message] is get this product in, maybe you can look like this model. No. Get this product, you can actually feel the tools of expression that you can use for yourself. There is no wrong way to use this. The whole goal of it is to uplift each individual on their own terms.
Oftentimes all of these different products are just brands that are teams of white people trying to figure out ways in which to get you to spend your money. The amount of times where I had to choose between makeup or a meal because the only thing of quality that came in the shade that will work for me was $60…beauty is supposed to be something that you’re supposed to revel in, find your space in, and craft your own space for it. That's what Mintty Makeup is all about: finding yourself in the makeup and not in fact believing that the makeup is going to be your identity. This is just a beautiful tool.
Sometimes it’s this little boxed idea of beauty being sold. You conform yourself to it or you're an outsider. Taking something which may have been oppressive and its idea of beauty standards, and being able to turn that into something empowering is really special.
That's the history of Black trans people.
On that subject of Black trans representation, how can the industry at large and consumers support that? What changes can be made?
First and foremost, support Black trans businesses, Black trans leaders, Black trans artists. It is a shame that I have one of about three Black trans makeup lines that I know. It is me, Black Opal, and Fluide. One of the things I love about our community is that when I announced my makeup line, it was love and support from them. The whole thing that I always want to do is create a community and uplift. For me, there's no such thing as scarcity. Scarcity is a whole mindset built to further capitalism and make us believe that we need more. We have more than enough. To see my community owning their own businesses and makeup lines supporting me, that is the same thing that everyone else who calls themself an ally needs to do. Put your money where your mouth is, put the money in the pockets of Black trans people.
That doesn't just mean businesses. That means the Black trans person on your corner who is homeless, the Black trans person performing in your bars. It is every single individual that you come across, plus on top of it carrying Black trans power into every space you go into. I say this because it fully ties back into supporting Black trans beauty. If you go to a local beauty store and you see that none of the shelf space is taken up by Black trans makeup lines, go to that manager and ask why there are none, and tell your friends to do the same. In every single capacity, we all have the power and opportunity to create change and space for Black trans individuals—it's just whether we choose to use that power. It's a privilege whether we use that power. Every single person needs to see that there is so much power inside of you. That's a beautiful thing, to be nurtured and cherished. As a Black trans person, I don't have a choice, which is why I made a makeup line at the age of 26 in the middle of a pandemic. That way people can look into a huge mirror [in the palette] and see their beautiful face and how beautiful they are before they ever put on makeup. If you put this on, it's only amplifying. That is truly it. I hope everybody can take up and recognize that power, and then become responsible to actually use that power.
Another subject from your interview with Darian Symoné Harvin was the beauty industry using the trans community’s creativity but not giving them adequate opportunities. I was wondering if you want to elaborate on that.
Our lives are used to sell whatever product they want, but what support do they ever give to our community? Which seat at the table is ever offered to us? I can see Black trans people on a billboard for a product capsule collection, but then who was actually helped by this? In what way did a Black trans person's life or livelihood be fixed by this?
Black trans people getting paid is needed, and it's never the onus of the Black trans models to feel like they need to do any more. It's the white business owners who are only using our faces and not supporting our community. That's the biggest issue, especially since a lot of these big makeup lines' majority audience are white people. They're using the hashtag and the fact that we are Black trans people in a time where we are finally getting seen, using our faces and our images, to sell their products, when really, there's barely even a color for anybody my shade, let alone somebody darker.
These are all of the issues which consistently pervade the whole beauty industry. It blows my mind sometimes when I'm looking at these makeup companies and every single person involved is white, and barely any femme people. Y'all are the people who decided to put the image of me on a poster for something—it feels even more calculated and manipulative, because you see the whole picture. You think that this is a Black-owned business, because of how many times they put our face on it, but no. They're not fighting for more shelf space for Black trans makeup lines, not actually putting their money where their mouth is, and the money that they end up making stays within their company, in the pockets of white cis straight men. It is horrible and disgusting. That's part of why I'm for an independently owned makeup line, where I can feel if I put my money into this, it's going to serve my community or another community.
I look around at some of these amazing Muslim-owned brands that I'm so happy exist. All of these different makeup lines that are actually supporting communities. I want to give you all my money, because this money is going into paying employees who are Black, trans, or from your community. It's all these necessary steps of not only having a seat at that corrupt table, but also having your own table because their system will always be at play. We always have to keep an eye on that system, but in the meantime, we need to be building our own beautiful, equitable system. It might actually be building something that's worth representing.
Something that really stuck with me in an interview with Noelly Michoux, founder of 4.5.6 Skin, a range for melanin-rich skin, was when she said: If you're putting one type of person on your poster and then creating a product that's formulated for another, you're not being inclusive, you're just capitalizing on a business opportunity.
Exactly. I'm so thankful for Fenty Beauty because it legitimately made a lot of people realize that things deserve to be built for us. Not accommodating us, built for us from the beginning. On top of it, that beauty lines are tangible things that anybody can create. When I found out Rihanna is doing makeup, it was that moment where I thought: I could possibly do that one day. I'm so thankful for Rihanna. She's an icon.
She really opened the door on that, and it's not going to be shut again. Going back to the product, could you take me behind the scenes of the production formulation process?
Oh my God, it is a journey. I was reaching out to all these different manufacturers, sitting in a pile of samples. You're trying to piece together what is in each of the bases off of the formula list, the color payoff, putting things in stacks. I felt like Elle Woods [from the movie Legally Blonde] in law school, sitting there, figuring out how the samples swatch, when they have a primer underneath versus not. There's always going to be a different take, you have to sacrifice one thing for another because you can only put so many ingredients into one formula. Do you want something long-lasting, do you want something highly pigmented? You can get all of these things in the formula at the end of the day, but it then becomes an amazingly expensive product. That's how you have Pat McGrath with an absolutely amazing product, but also how much does it cost to make it? One of the hardest things that we had to juggle consistently was how do you keep the quality while also keeping it at a price point that is actually affordable and achievable for people within my community.
The palette that I knew I wanted was mint green and colors that would go very well with melanated skin, greens and golds, as well as all of the brown shades needed to contour, highlight, and do a natural eye. All of those things take multiple months. It usually takes a year to do one palette, but because we were in quarantine, I had nothing else to work on, so I could sit there for 12 hours, swatching and figuring this out. But it was a lot of juggling, figuring out what you actually wanted in the makeup. The thing that we landed on was we wanted it long-lasting, highly pigmented, and extremely blendable. That way, no matter what eye you wanted to do with it, it can blend seamlessly into one another. With many palettes, I'll find that I can't mix the darks and lights together. Then you have to end up doing a very subtle eye where you have 50 transition colors. For me, I like to do drag, go in with a crease of black and then a whole lid of yellow. I want that to blend seamlessly without me having to use three different colors. It's different things like that which I love, because people have come up to me and talked to me about these very specific things. Somebody recently recreated a Pierrot the Clown watercolor-y makeup, inspired by Lady Gaga’s “Applause” music video look, with my palette. It was one of those moments where, when I created the makeup line, I would have never in a million years imagined that type of artistry coming from it. I was just so excited to give it to people, to see what they have come up with. I sit there and cry sometimes because it's really special.
Funnily enough, Pat McGrath did that makeup for Lady Gaga if I’m not mistaken.
Pat McGrath, I cannot wait to meet her one day. I'm speaking it into existence.
Imagine, it's like meeting God, right? You mentioned people doing some really interesting looks with your product. How has the general reception of your brand been with customers, but also the industry?
It has been beyond amazing. I always have zero expectations for everything, I just go into it. What happens is what happens and I'll process it. I can't believe the response. It's overwhelming kindness, overwhelming love. It is an appreciation for the message behind everything, but also the actual product, which means the world to me. Those are the two things that I wanted to make sure of, that people understood, but also appreciated it. It’s even down to friends of mine, without telling me, buying the palette and then gifting it to their nieces and nephews, giving these palettes to people in their family and telling them, this is a makeup line by a Black trans woman and she wants you to find your beauty with it. It's the type of thing I can't even put into words, because it's been amazing. Every single person I know who has worn it has reached out in messages and comments about how high quality the makeup is. I stand in dressing rooms with people who didn't know I was performing with them, and they are using my palette. On the most recent season of the TV show Dragula, there’s multiple moments where the drag performer La Zavaleta is using my palette on camera. I’m beyond thankful because the reception has been so warm, beautiful, and amazing. I'm excited to get to the point where I can keep growing Mintty Makeup, because I want to see all of my community turn into the stars that they are. I can't wait to be able to pay my community to be influencers for the makeup line, that my community are the people who are getting the benefits of you paying for this makeup. While I'm in the community, it does me no good if I'm the only person with the resources I have. All I want to do is give to every single person in my community.
It’s makeup with a soul. You can instinctually tell if it's someone's labor of love or being pumped out for the sake of it.
There's multiple times where I see a makeup line and it’s the most pre-packaged, no-personality thing. I don't know what this is supposed to make me feel, but all it does is make me feel poor, honestly.
As a child of the ’90s, it's funny to see so many collaboration launches with TV shows and movies from that era. You're not capitalizing on my nostalgia, sir!
That part [laughs].
On the subject of the popularization of drag, how much it's grown as an art form, do you think that the relationship between drag and makeup has changed?
The understanding of drag has definitely expanded because of its popularization. What has happened is the conversations that drag performers and queer people would have in smaller circles now happen in larger spaces. That way, we have a more inclusive and accepting understanding of drag than we did before, mainly because of the interconnectedness of us all now. We are able to see and hear everybody, and value everyone.
With everything that's good, there's always a negative side too. As the popularization of anything goes, so does appropriation and not understanding the bounds of participation in viewership, with allies, with the queer community, with all of the boundaries regarding understanding and respecting everyone’s gender expression. When it comes to drag competition shows, there’s only three out there: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Camp Wannakiki.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has done something instrumental, aka in our country, a bunch of white cis men and women in the middle of this country, who have not walked into a space where there are out queer people, interact with a visible representation to humanize queer people. But at the same time, with the perspective that is given on the show, and the fact that the only situation you're watching queer people in is us competing with and yelling at each other, where the only thing that they want from us is a death drop, a snappy line, or wanting us to read, when they don't even know what the word means—what people got is a lot of exposure without a lot of education.
This then puts the onus on every last queer person they come in contact with to be this educator. That is what I don't like about it at all. On top of it, there’s RuPaul fracking, and all of the horrible things that he said about the trans community. The list goes on and on, but at the same time, I didn't expect anything else from a person who has closed more doors than he has opened. When it comes to RuPaul, it is a very elitist thing that he has created, that requires a lot of money. That now causes people to believe that they are in a hierarchy as opposed to a community.
I have a lot of critiques for RuPaul’s Drag Race, all being about the show and the creator of it, never about any of the performers on it. For some people that's what they want for their career. Follow your heart, I don't shame any queer person for what they got to do in order to get their coin. But the institution and structure, especially when RuPaul’s Drag Race wins an Emmy and you see a majority of white people as your production team, and then RuPaul’s response is going to be, “This is the stage of diverse queer people”? That's the big issue for me. This is not intersectional; just because they're queer people in the space does not mean this is diverse. Where are the trans people? Where are the Black and Brown people? Where are the differently abled people? Where's anybody else who is not a cis, able-bodied gay person? I also have an issue with non-drag performers judging these drag performers. The only person on that panel who knows what they're going through is RuPaul, and not even because while RuPaul was doing drag, he didn’t have to spend $20,000 for a package of drag.
It’s interesting because on YouTube, there's footage of RuPaul from the very beginning. There's one scene in a bodega and he is wearing this blond fried wig, and the toes are doing a cliffhanger [hanging over the ledge] on his shoes. That's where it started.
I'm not joking, I watched that last night in my room with two of my friends. You can fully see how fame and money change the person. All of those scenes were filmed by a great friend of his, Nelson Sullivan, who created reality TV with those videos. He was walking around with a selfie, recording life in the queer community. There's all the videos of Lady Bunny and everything. RuPaul, before he became famous, helped to get those videos archived after Sullivan passed away. I thought, Where is this RuPaul, the person archiving and sharing queer history? Even on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when they did an episode about the Stonewall Riots, they made it seem like it happened because Judy Garland’s funeral was on that day. Bitch, that's the least important fact. You have all the opportunity to hold a goddamn door open.
They always say, you don't need money, you just need creativity for a drag look. But then one of the queens on the UK version was wearing an H&M dress and they were like, “No fucking H&M.” Not everyone has that team and budget.
Nobody. On this most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Veronica Green, who wasn’t able to complete the previous season because of catching COVID, came back, but this is in the middle of the pandemic. She has no gigs, her health is not the same, she came on with the things that she could afford and was the third person to go home. On the season before she was the frontrunner. This is outrageous, the fact that queer people are taking out mortgages and loans in order to get on a show that's supposed to be for them. People don't have to do that for Project Runway, Top Chef, The Amazing Race, any other show. But RuPaul has created a show where there's a literal entry fee. Or you could be the first one to go home if you want.
And also aesthetically speaking, I feel like it's a very narrow presentation of drag and what’s beautiful. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been such a big thing. Even if you think about [the documentary] Paris Is Burning, of course there are ballroom scenes and Crystal LaBeija’s sassy one-liners, but it was actually heartbreaking at the end to find out so so many of them either died of AIDS or were murdered for being Black trans women. There’s a whole other side to that.
And then on top of it, none of them got any of the money from the documentary. The white woman who created it kept all of the money, the notoriety, and none of the people who were in Paris Is Burning were happy with the representation that they got. That's the story of it and exactly why we not only deserve a seat at their table, but our own table as well. At the end of the day, Black trans people are inhabiting every space, profession, every single thing since the beginning of history the same way every other goddamn person has. We have just been treated as invisible, pushed to the wayside, and fallen through the cracks for no other reason than for who we are.
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and organizations like these makeup lines that try to present like they are for our community, but really just use and abuse it, remind me of how badly I need to keep existing. How badly I need to keep talking and uplifting everyone around me, so that way they can keep using their voices as well. It's horrible and despicable that the highest platform that a queer entertainer can get to is RuPaul’s Drag Race, when there are far more. A show where you go over a month and a half without seeing your family, get about five hours of sleep at night, run your body ragged, do these challenges, wear heels, be corseted, put on wigs, tuck–do all of these different things while also being $20,000 in debt, and also not sure if you're going to be able to recoup any of that money. Now have fun and, as RuPaul says, “Everybody say love now.”
They get locked in their hotel rooms. I remember seeing footage where they were putting tape on the bottom of the door.
But then you watch Project Runway where everybody is FaceTiming their family when they go into the work room. I don't know why in a queer television show is where they decide to dehumanize queer people. They create a formula to get them to fight. It's despicable. In RuPaul’s Drag Race, I'm seeing queer people fighting, in Queer Eye, I'm seeing queer people having to help everybody out. When can I just watch queer people exist and shine? Either we have to be helping out cis straight people, making them realize they have value in order for us to have value, or we have to be competing for a crown to prove that we have value. Can't we just have value?
With drag and the beauty industry, I think of something like contouring, which originated with drag queens, not Kim Kardashian's makeup artist. If we're looking at the beauty industry overall, how has drag contributed to that?
The beauty industry is drag. It's the exact same thing, except they like to call it subtlety. But it really isn't, that's the thing. That's what I love about every form of a transformation. No transformation is subtle. It may appear like you've transformed through one slick, but that's not a simple anything. Drag is rooted in the Black and Brown trans community. We are the creators of culture. Every trend that I see happen in the beauty industry, I saw in drag before: that whole wet wig look from Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala, this is drag informing the beauty and fashion industry. A lot of what we do in exaggeration is what cis and straight people look at and emulate. They’re like, “I'm not a drag performer, I'm going to tone it down,” when really this is that alteration of drag, you're just doing your own form of it.
It makes me so happy whenever I see people taking on that transformative state. It's the moment of the transformative nature of makeup, of performance. It routes back to drag: the contouring, the term “cut crease,” the different eyeliner wing shapes which are routing back to the goth and punk scene in the ’80s.
A lot of the goth makeup was evolving at the same pace as the drag makeup, because the communities overlap so deeply. The goth and queer scene are basically the same thing. A lot of the makeup artists who push trends are queer people who also take from the drag scene in a way, which is their community, so it's not appropriation. That's the beauty of the fluid nature of makeup, of drag, of beauty—it all informs one another. But the beauty industry is stemmed from the drag world, there is no reverse to it.
I find that the more specific you go with what you identify with, the less you're singing of where it's coming from. I wish that more of the cis and straight people who identify with beauty understood the drag in it, so that way they can understand the history of what they're doing and where it is coming from. That openness is drag, the fact that like my eyebrows could be up here or down here today. It's living in that gray space, that fuzzy space that may not have the easiest words to define it, the space in which two truths can exist at the same time. This makeup can be so influential, impactful, and created by drag performers, but it can also be a thing that cis and straight people can connect with.
What's coming up for the makeup line, your drag career, and activism work?
There is a lot cooking up. We are working on a new eyeshadow palette which I'm very, very excited about. It is one of the most demanded things that I've ever gotten from the moment I started the line. Everyone has always been asking for a nudes palette. People tell me all the time that they use the three nude shades in the EmpowerMintt Eyeshadow palette for their highlight, contour, and multiple things on their face. They were asking for bigger pans and multiples of the shades.
We're messing around with the shape, packaging, pan size, and shades in order to accommodate multiple options. We are also in talks for a possible capsule collection, a collaboration. In terms of my drag life, there's so many beautiful things coming down the pipeline, I am working on a one-woman-show. It's basically written out, I am doing a promo shoot for it next week, actually, and am going to be in rehearsals later on this month. I can't believe it. I'm just thankful that I get to live a life where I get to be my authentic self without having to sacrifice any of it, because that's the whole goal: to exhibit myself in all capacities.
With all the colorful possibilities at our disposal.
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