10 Tanqueray Life Lessons: What We Learned from Stephanie’s Infamous Internet Tattletales
Humans of New York (HONY) — a project by Brandon Stanton sharing slices of the lives of people in New York — has been popular on social media for years. The stories always elicit emotional responses. Sad, funny, inspiring, or shocking, they make the world and the distance between us a little smaller. Stephanie, formerly known as Tanqueray, shared a story unlike any other in 2019 and HONY followers have been asking for more. Everyone was thrilled to learn that more of Stephanie’s story would be shared with the world in an effort to raise money to cover her care and living expenses.
Stanton had recorded sessions with Stephanie for a podcast that will no longer be produced because of a decline in Stephanie’s health. Instead, Stanton used the recordings to deliver her story in 32 parts on social media. For one week, hundreds of thousands of strangers obsessively refreshed their browsers, wanting to read every installment as early as possible. Each part added revealed another dimension of Stephanie’s life, ended on a cliffhanger and led to days and days of comments.
Who is Tanqueray?
Stephanie describes herself best in the post below but to provide an overview; Stephanie a.k.a. Tanqueray was a stripper in the ’70s and rubbed shoulders with influential men and mobsters, becoming one of the most popular dancers in New York City. She had a challenging and abusive childhood, and even experienced a brief stint in prison. As an adult, she created a name and unforgettable persona for herself experiencing ups and downs in her personal life along the way.
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(1/32) “Tanqueray, Tanqueray, Tanqueray. When this photo was taken, ten thousand men in New York City knew that name. My signature meant something to them. They’d line up around the block whenever I was dancing in Times Square, just so I could sign the cover of their nudie magazine. I’d always write: ‘You were the best I ever had.’ Or some stupid shit like that. Something to make them smile for a second. Something to make them feel like they’d gotten to know me. Then they’d pay their twenty bucks, and go sit in the dark, and wait for the show to start. They’d roll that magazine up tight and think about their wives, or their work, or some of their other problems. And they’d wait for the lights to come up. Wait for Tanqueray to step out on stage and take it all away for eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes. That’s how long you’ve got to hold ‘em. For eighteen minutes you’ve got to make them forget that they’re getting older. And that they aren’t where they want to be in life. And that it’s probably too late to do much about it. It’s only eighteen minutes. Not long at all. But there’s a way to make it seem like forever. I always danced to the blues. Cause it’s funky and you don’t have to move fast. You can really zero in on a guy. So that it seems like you’re dancing just for him. You look him right in the eyes. Smile at him. Wink. Put a finger in your mouth and lick it a little bit. Make sure you wear plenty of lip gloss so your lips are very, very shiny. If you’re doing it right, you can make him think: ‘Wow, she’s dancing just for me.’ You can make him think he’s doing something to your insides. You can make him fall in love. Then when the music stops, you step off the stage, and beat it back to the dressing room.”
Her story gave us lessons that can only come from a life of considerable challenges lived by a person with determination and focus on her own wellbeing. We’re counting down ten memorable moments with Stephanie a.k.a Tanqueray:
1. Time and Memory
“For 18 minutes you’ve got to make them forget that they’re getting older. And that they aren’t where they want to be in life. And that it’s probably too late to do much about it. It’s only 18 minutes. Not long at all. But there’s a way to make it seem like forever.”
Stephanie was a dancer in several clubs in New York City decades ago. It wasn’t her dream job, but she had been dealt a tough hand and needed to make it on her own. Through her work, she learned about the nonlinear nature of time and the impermanence of memory. She manipulated time and memory, stretching minutes and clearing the minds of patrons in those clubs with the movements of her body. Like them, she wasn’t where she wanted to be, but she knew they could all be transported to a different reality by her own power.
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(3/32) “I was the fly in a bucket of buttermilk. All my neighbors were Italians and Jews. My first crush was a boy named Neil Murray. He’s fat and bald now, but back then he looked like a Kennedy. Every day he’d carry my books home from school. Until one day the nuns gave us a lecture about how you can’t be interracial, so that stopped real quick. But I did everything else the white kids did: ice skating, snow skiing, horseback riding. My mother sent me to a private Catholic school, and we were reading all those classic novels: The Illiad, The Oddysey, Tale of Two Cities, all that stuff. We even studied Latin. No black kids were taking Latin in the 1940’s, but I was near the top of my class. Every time there was an art thing going down, the teachers would put me right in the middle of it. One Christmas they put me inside a big refrigerator box, and wrapped it up in wrapping paper. All the parents gathered around. Then the music started, and the box opened up, and there I was– dressed like a doll. Standing on pointe. I began to dance, and the parents went crazy. My mom was so proud that day. Because none of the other kids could do it, even though they were white. Sometimes on the weekends I’d go over to these kids’ houses, and they had families like you’d see on television. Everyone would be talking nice. Like they were happy to be together. Even the dog would be wagging its tail. But there was nothing like that in my house. My parents didn’t even sleep in the same bedroom. There were no hugs or kisses. My only friends were my dolls. At night I’d pull a blanket over the top of an old card table and pretend it was my home. I’d be under that table, with all my dolls, in their beautiful dresses, and it was like I had a little family. I’d gather them real close and we’d say a prayer: “Lord, please get me out of here so I can find a family that loves me.” I’d say it over and over. “Lord, please get me out of here so I can find a family that loves me.” One night my mother must have heard me in the hallway, because she burst into my room. She kicked over that card table and slapped me across the face. When I came home from school the next day, all my dolls were gone.”
2. Love and Family
“Lord, please get me out of here so I can find a family that loves me.”
Stephanie had a difficult childhood. She didn’t get the love she craved and knew was possible. For her mother, she was only as good as she was useful.
In the comments on this post, many people insist that Stephanie’s story be made into a movie. They write about how unbelievable or sad it is, they lament the terrible circumstances, and then they demand entertainment. It is odd to see the hunger for tragic, heartbreaking tales. It’s difficult to find the distinction between “I want to watch this movie!” and “This woman deserves to have her story on the big screen!” Every story isn’t meant for consumption through every form of media.
In other comments, people invite themselves to Stephanie’s family. By reading her story and having emotional reactions to it, many people have evidently decided that Stephanie now has the family she has always wanted. There are likes, there are comments, and they are people turning on notifications for the next installment. There is a difference between a captivated audience and a family. Sometimes, even given the distinction, a person is satisfied with being heard.
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(5/32) “I knew my mother wasn’t going to let me come back home. So I decided to leave Albany for good. I was gonna go to New York and live a fantasy life like Esther Williams, with music and dancing and smiling people all around me. But first I needed to sneak back into my bedroom and get the rest of my clothes. I waited until late at night, when everyone was asleep, and I climbed inside the window. I started filling up my bag with all my dolls and my clothes. And I almost made it. I was just about to climb back out. When suddenly the lights flicked on and there was my mother—standing in her bathrobe, madder than hell. She called the cops and had me arrested for burglary. The judge gave me a choice. Either I could give the baby up for adoption, and go back to live with my mother– or I could do ‘one to three’ in Bedford Hills prison. I agreed to give the baby up. But I wasn’t going back to my mother’s. So I told the judge to send me to prison. The whole courtroom gasped. Three weeks later my son was born. The hospital sent him straight to St. Margaret’s Children’s Home, and I was shipped off to Bedford Hills. It was a modern prison. There weren’t bars on the cells or anything. But I was scared. I was only eighteen. I’d never been around criminals before. Since nobody from the outside was putting money into my account, I had to get a job in the prison factory. Back in the day all the bras and underpants were made by convicts—so that’s what we were doing. I’d always been good at art, so on the side I started making marriage certificates for all the lesbians. I’d use crayons to draw little hearts and stuff. Then I’d sign it at the bottom to make it look official. In return they’d give me cigarettes—which was money. Pretty soon I had a little reputation. I was like the artist of the prison. The warden even asked me to choreograph a dance for the prisoners on family day. Nobody had any problems with me. I was certain that I’d get paroled after nine months. But on the day before my interview, the warden called me into her office. ‘I’ve got some bad news,’ she said. ‘Your mother is fucking the head of the parole board.'”
3. Counter-Intuitive Choices
“Either I could give the baby up for adoption, and go back to live with my mother — or I could do ‘one to three’ in Bedford Hills prison. I agreed to give the baby up. But I wasn’t going back to my mother’s. So I told the judge to send me to prison.”
Even when she was in trouble and the odds were against her, Stephanie carefully weighed her options. She made careful, unpredictable decisions because she prioritized herself. She didn’t worry about what other people might think or the short-term discomfort. For her, it was better to be punished for sneaking into her mother’s house than to be sentenced to living there again, devoid of love. Freedom delayed was going to be better than freedom denied.
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(6/32) “The warden knew that the fix was in. She told me that my parole would be denied. But she was cool. She knew I didn’t belong in prison. So she told me that if I could wait one more month, the head of parole would on be on rotation at the men’s prison in Dannemora. Then she drew up some fake papers and claimed that I was locked up in solitary. My board hearing got rescheduled—and the next month I went in front of a whole new panel. My test scores were off the chart. I was like the valedictorian of the prison. And the warden even wrote me a letter of recommendation, so my parole was approved. I knew just what I was going to do. I was never going back to Albany. I was going to catch the first bus to New York City, and begin a brand new life. But before I left prison, there was one more thing I wanted to do. There was a white-haired woman named Roberta who lived on my wing. She came from Poughkeepsie Mental Hospital, and everyone was kinda scared of her because she had these bad dreams at night and screamed like her whole body was on fire. But she was also kinda famous for reading palms. So the night before I got released, I let her read me. I gave her my last cigarette, and she looked at my hand and started describing all these things. She told me that I’d live my entire life in New York City. And I’d only be in love once. And that it would be a tough life. And a lonely life. But that one day a lot of people would know my name. And the craziest shit about it, is that every single thing came true. Well, almost everything. Roberta told me that I’d come into some real big money one day. And that better happen quick. Cause I’m already 76.”
4. A name to Remember
“She told me that I’d live my entire life in New York City. And I’d only be in love once. And that it would be a tough life. And a lonely life. But that one day a lot of people would know my name.”
Stephanie saw a palm reader before she left prison, then went on to live through the predictions. She eventually took on the stage name Tanqueray, suggested by her friend Oscar. She became wildly popular in New York City, particularly as a burlesque dancer. Her finale trick ensured that no patron ever forgot her, and many of them returned for more. When she gained famed, it was all about the experience she gave to others.
Even as her story is shared, people manage to center themselves. They cheer for her and congratulate themselves for being people who know her name. Yes, we are tuned in and we know her name, but why would we think we are the first when the story itself tells us otherwise? Even completely engrossed in Stephanie’s story, many cannot help but to make themselves a part of it.
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(7/32) “I arrived in New York City on Valentine’s Day. It was like being reborn. All my mistakes in life: the pregnancy, the prison time, everything—had been because I was trying to get away from something. But I was finally where I wanted to be. Now my mistakes would be my own. The first thing I did was get a room at the Salvation Army. I had nothing in my bag but $90, a pack of baby powder, and a bar of prison soap. My roommate was a prostitute named Edna, and she had the exact same bar of soap as me. But neither of us are admitting that we just got out of prison. I started working at a clothing factory off Washington Square. We were making waiter jackets or something. At first I was just cutting threads off stuff, but when the owner found out I could work an industrial sewing machine—he moved me up quick. On my days off I’d go out and explore the city. Back then a subway ride cost fifteen cents, but I always took the bus. Because I wanted to see everything: every park, every square, every skyscraper. There was none of this stuff in Albany. I’d always get off on the corner of 59th and 5th and watch the wealthy people walk down the street. Every single one of these women dressed like my mother. There was real money in New York. We had money back in Albany, but it always seemed like pretend money. Like everything was a ‘put on.’ If a person in Albany had a really nice ring, it was usually to distract you from the polyester they were wearing. But I can read fabric. So I knew the truth. And when you’re really rich, everything reads money. That’s how it was in New York– money from head to toe. Leather all the way to the floor. One of the first things I did was get my wardrobe together. I could never afford what these rich people were wearing—I did all my shopping at the discount store– but I managed to get a little something going. I bought myself a hat for every day of the week, just like my mother. The rest of my clothes were pleather– except for my shoes. People with money only wear leather shoes. So I saved up for three weeks and bought myself some brand new leather shoes.”
“All my mistakes in life: the pregnancy, the prison time, everything — had been because I was trying to get away from something. But I was finally where I wanted to be. Now my mistakes would be my own.”
Stephanie’s story, though rife with grief and disappointment that balanced the satisfaction and success, is one of a woman in control. As a child, she had been a victim, but as an adult, she became a survivor. From the moment she had her freedom, she resisted the allure of perfection. She knew life wouldn’t be easy and she wouldn’t always do or be the best. Instead of chasing the impossible, she focused on making decisions for herself without fear of failure. She accepted mistakes as norm. Stephanie went after the life she wanted within the constraints of her reality as a Black woman in New York City.
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(13/32) “After a few months in New York I was finally starting to get a little something together. I managed to save enough money to get my own room at the Times Square Hotel. It was just a sink and a bed and a radiator, but it felt like The Plaza to me. For the first time in my life, I could close the door at night and relax for a second. But that didn’t last for long. One morning the owner of the factory called me into his office. I thought I was getting a promotion. But he closed the door behind me and said: ‘Here’s how it’s going to work. Either you sleep with me, or I’ll give a bad report to your parole officer, and you’ll go back to jail.’ This was some old, scroungy looking white guy. Exactly what you’d imagine a factory owner to look like. And I’m not saying I would have fucked him if he was any younger—but you’ve got to be kidding me. So I told him where to put it. I walked out of his office feeling good. I felt like I had some power. But that only lasted for three minutes, because I remembered I was living at the Times Square Hotel and rent was due next week. At the club that night, I started telling Vicki about my problems. She reached into her purse and pulled out a clipping from the Village Voice. It was an ad from a talent agency– holding auditions for GoGo Dancers. ‘They’ll never know you’re black on the phone,’ she said. ‘give them a call.’ And she was right. They asked my cup size. And my measurements. But they never asked if I was white. I practiced all week for my audition. Most Gogo Dancers wore the same ballroom shoes that the Rockettes were wearing, but I could dance in heels. So I bought myself some bright red five-inch heels. And the moment I walked in the door, the guy’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor. I was the blackest thing in the world. I think he’d already made up his mind that he was going to tell me ‘no.’ But I put on some BB King and started to dance. And I knew just how to do it. All slow and sensuous. Not like they do in Harlem. Like they do downtown. And when the music finally stopped, he was quiet for a few seconds. Then he stood up, smoothed out his pants, and said ‘I think we can work something out.’”
6. Just a Little Extra
“Most Gogo Dancers wore the same ballroom shoes that the Rockettes were wearing, but I could dance in heels. So I bought myself some bright red five-inch heels.”
Stephanie knew what she was up against. In every situation, she knew the reasons she might be denied whatever she was trying to get, and she used it to her advantage. She knew how to distract from the obvious by bringing something no one else could. Stephanie understood competitive advantage, and she wasn’t shy about showing off exactly what would give her the win she needed.
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(19/32) “We’d been living on 34th Street for a few years when a prostitute moved into our building. Her name was Candy or something. And at first I thought Carmine was fucking her, because she kept knocking on our door. But one day the elevator wasn’t working and I caught the two of them shooting up in the stairwell. Carmine swore it was a one-time thing. But I started to notice little changes. He didn’t want to go out much anymore. He kept dozing off on the couch. And then my tip money began to disappear. Later I’d find out that Carmine had been using for years. But I’d been too square to notice. He was the only junkie in the world who could keep a 9 to 5. And he was shooting up between his toes, so I never saw tracks on his arms. Everything seemed normal. I never had to tell him to do anything. It would always be: ‘I’ll wash the dishes tonight,’ or whatever. Junkies don’t do that. There wasn’t much sex, I remember that. But he’d give me hugs. We’d watch TV together. So for the longest time I never knew. We tried a few programs after he finally came clean. But every time he went to rehab, he’d just meet another connection. Then he’d go straight back to the drugs. I couldn’t handle the lies anymore. It was like I was living with someone who wasn’t real. And everything he said was part of a script. I think Carmine sensed what was coming. Because every day he was asking me to marry him. And the worse he got on drugs, the more he asked. I’d always tell him no. It wasn’t because I didn’t love him— I loved that man more than I’ve ever loved another person. I just couldn’t be with a junkie. It wasn’t easy to leave. We didn’t have any savings. And the apartment was in his name, so I had nowhere to go. At some point I figured in my crazy mind that if I married him, I could divorce him. And if I divorced him—at least I could keep the apartment. So the next time he proposed, I said ‘yes.’ We went to city hall. I wore a black dress because I knew it was the end. He didn’t know, but I knew.”
7. Strategy Helps
“We went to City Hall. I wore a black dress because I knew it was the end. He didn’t know, but I knew.”
Stephanie needed to get out of her relationship with Carmine when she realized he was battling addiction, but she didn’t want to end up with nowhere to live. She wasn’t interested in money or other assets. What she needed was a safe place to live. The best way to get it was to marry Carmine, divorce him, and get the apartment in the settlement. It was another one of her counter-intuitive choices. A little discomfort today for a better tomorrow, and a black dress to remind herself that the day was no fairytale.
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(26/32) “I could bring home $3000 a week if I was working the road. That was real money. Only the porn stars were making more than that, because nothing draws a crowd like having your face in a movie or magazine. In the 1970’s– the biggest porn star around was Gloria Leonard. She was like the Meryl Streep of porno. I used to work with her a lot. Whenever she had a new movie screening at Show World, I’d go along with her to warm up the crowd. But Gloria wasn’t just a famous actress. She was the publisher of High Society, which was one of the biggest adult magazines going back then. Gloria was always trying to convince me to do a spread in her magazine, but I kept saying ‘no.’ Those shoots were full nude. But Gloria and I became good friends because she loved listening to my stories. One day we were laughing about something that happened, and she tells me: ‘You’d make a lot more money if you wrote for me.’ I told her: ‘C’mon Gloria. It’s all an act. My sex life is boring. There’s nothing to write about.’ That’s when she leaned in real close, and whispered: ‘It doesn’t matter. Just make it up.’ I went home that night and started typing. And when I showed Gloria what I wrote, she agreed to give me a column every other month. We called it Tattletales From Tanqueray. The pay was $500, and it only had to be two pages. The writing part took me forever because I’d failed typing class three times. But the ideas came easy. All I did was take a regular situation, and make it X-rated. I pretended like I was having sex everywhere: grocery stores, movie theaters, the DMV. I even wrote about having sex in prison. And people believed I was actually doing that shit. Gloria published everything I wrote. She said I was the only writer that they never had to edit. I still wouldn’t let her put my picture in there– just the headshot. But it didn’t matter. Because everybody read High Society. You couldn’t buy that type of publicity. And after the first issues came out, I was like famous. Gloria would send boxes of the latest issue to all of my gigs. Guys would be lining up on the street to get a signature. And my salary went up– big time.”
8. Opportunity Chains
“All I did was take a regular situation, and make it X-rated. I pretended like I was having sex everywhere: grocery stores, movie theaters, the DMV[…]Gloria published everything I wrote[…] You couldn’t buy that type of publicity. And after the first issues came out, I was like famous.”
Stephanie wasn’t thrilled about the idea of writing, but she saw the potential. The people reading her outlandish stories in High Society would come looking for her. Not only would she get paid for her wild stories, but the readers would become patrons. Stephanie mastered the art of turning one opportunity into another.
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(28/32) “Everything was fine when the music was playing. When people were laughing, and clapping, and shouting for more. But I knew I was tanking. Even when I was on the stage, and having fun—I was tanking. Some nights I’d go back to the dressing room, and look in the mirror, and I’d realize that I don’t even exist. Nobody’s clapping for Stephanie. They’re clapping for Tanqueray. And sometimes I’d get so depressed thinking like that, I’d just start crying. I’d feel like running away and hiding from everyone. At least when I was a kid, I could crawl under the card table with my dolls. But that pretend shit wasn’t working anymore. I was too old to fake like someone cared about me. But whenever I started to fall apart, I’d pull myself together and think about how lucky I was to be Tanqueray. At least I was successful. At least I had a career. At least when I’m Tanqueray, and I’m around people, I make them smile. I make them laugh with my stupid jokes. They’re not trying to hurt me. But Tanqueray never came home with me. She always stayed out on the stage. It was Stephanie that walked out the back door, and nobody cared about her. Nobody except for Carmine. A few years after our divorce, he reached out through a mutual friend and asked if we could talk. They both came over to my apartment together. Carmine looked nice. A little older—but nice. He was dressed like the old days. He told me that he’d started a new life as a limo driver, and he wanted to work things out. He promised he was off the drugs. I listened to his whole speech, but then I told him that I wasn’t sure. I was scared. I couldn’t tell if he was on drugs or not. He seemed clean, but he had seemed clean when I was living with him. And if he started acting rough again—I had nobody to call. I didn’t know any mob guys anymore. I think I told him that I needed a few days to think about it, and that I’d give him a call. But I knew I was never going to call him. As soon as the door closed, I fell on the floor and started to cry.”
9. Multiple Selves
“Nobody’s clapping for Stephanie. They’re clapping for Tanqueray. And sometimes I’d get so depressed thinking like that, I’d just start crying.”
Stephanie knows the difference between her private life and her life as Tanqueray. In her story, she tells us that the applause and awe for Tanqueray didn’t make Stephanie any warmer at night. Predictably, people in the comments assure her that they are clapping for her. Stephanie is probably grateful for their enthusiasm, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are not her. They are easily consumed parts and versions of herself that she is willing to share with the world. There is something about our discomfort with other people’s sadness and the rush to assuage them that makes the space for authenticity a lot smaller. That may be why so many people have multiple versions of themselves in the first place.
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(29/32) “I can’t tell you the last time I danced burlesque. It wasn’t some big thing. They don’t throw you a retirement party at the Sheraton. The phone just stops ringing. It gets quieter and quieter until one week it’s so quiet that you sorta decide you can make more money doing something else. If anything I was kinda happy about it. I could finally calm down on the make-up and start wearing dungarees. I remember the first thing I did was go out and buy a pair of loafers. But they didn’t seem to fit right. I’d get this sharp pain in my leg every time I walked more than a few blocks. The doctor told me I’d been wearing heels for so long that my calf muscles were completely shrunken. And the only way to build them up again was to wear lower, and lower, and lower heels until I could walk without pain. I guess when you’ve been one way for so long, it’s not easy to be something else. But I had no choice. There’s no next step on the ladder when you’re dancing for tips. The moment you step off that stage, you’ve got to start again at the bottom. So that’s exactly what I did. But I wasn’t worried. I’d been reinventing myself for my entire life. You wouldn’t believe all the things I’ve done: I’ve managed a brothel, I’ve made adult baby clothes, I’ve done make-up for cross dressers. For three years I was one of the top dominatrixes in New York City. I have so many stories. Sometimes I’ll remember the things that happened to me and I’ll just start laughing. I hope when I get to heaven God shows me a movie of my life. But just the funny parts. Not the in-between parts, cause then we’d both start crying. Underneath all the laughs and the gags, it was always about one thing: survival. Tanqueray was a lot of fun. But Tanqueray was Stephanie. And Stephanie was a teenage runaway from Albany: doing what she needed to do, and being who she needed to be, to get what she needed to get.”
10. Accepting Changing Phases
“I guess when you’ve been one way for so long, it’s not easy to be something else[…] Tanqueray was a lot of fun. But Tanqueray was Stephanie. And Stephanie was a teenage runaway from Albany: doing what she needed to do, and being who she needed to be, to get what she needed to get.”
Tanqueray faded away. She was no longer the hot ticket, and Stephanie was satisfied with shifting to another phase of life. Even switching from heels to flat shoes was a process, but she went through it. There are many seasons in life and as many iterations of ourselves as we create. Stephanie’s story shows that almost everything is temporary. What we get to keep and control is our own spirit.
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