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Spray tanning's golden moment

Will orange-hued politicians, celebrities and aspiring princesses turn the faux-tanning industry into a billion-dollar business?
Image:Nicole \"Snooki\" Polizzi
Television personality Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi turned her ochre tint into a deal as the face of Sunlove self-tanning accessories.Mike Coppola / Getty Images North America
/ Source: Business Week

When Jimmy Coco shows up for work, "somebody's getting naked," he says, "and it's not going to be me." That's because Coco is a pioneer of the spray tanning movement. In 2003 he created the world's first mobile spray tanning kit, known as The Bomb, which has helped him amass clients such as Heidi Klum, Victoria Beckham and Katy Perry. For up to $350, Coco visits his customers' homes and gives them a full-body service in their shower or his tanning tent. His main skill, he says, is the ability "to connect with somebody who's about to take off their clothes."

As the world's first celebrity spray tanner, Coco is living in the golden age of bronzing. It's an industry that has come a long way since burnt-orange legend George Hamilton patented the George Hamilton Sun Care System in 1989. In the intervening years, faux tanning has transcended class boundaries and developed into its own flourishing business.

"Jersey Shore"'s Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi recently leveraged her ochre tint into a deal as the face of Sunlove self-tanning accessories. This spring, Kate Middleton's fake tan at the royal wedding prompted the sale of tanning products at U.K. department store Debenhams to spike by 219 percent. Kelly Osbourne, who straddles the line between British royalty and déclassé reality star, admits spray tanning is a "confidence booster" that's helped her "look and feel beautiful from the outside in." She's now the "self-esteem ambassador" for self-tanning line St. Tropez. Meanwhile, respectable politicians (John Boehner), regular politicians (Silvio Berlusconi) and celebrity politicians (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are proudly sporting suspiciously orange glows. Market research firm Mintel International values the sun protection and sunless tanning market at $701 million, nearly double its 2005 size.

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It's a remarkable transformation for an industry that was once a joke. When it was introduced in 1998, Mystic Tan, which is widely credited as the first mainstream spray tan, often resulted in a bathed-in-Cheetos look. Yet in recent years, spray tan manufacturers perfected their recipes, decreasing the amount of dihydroxyacetone — the ingredient that darkens the skin — from 25 percent to just under 10 percent. Now the "artists with a spray gun," as Coco describes his peers, have gone from maligned outsiders to wealthy specialists. "This year," says Coco, "I'm getting more requests from new clients than I can handle." Rick Norvell, the president of Norvell Skin Solutions, a salon and sunless tanning product manufacturer in Alexandria, Va., has experienced a similar boom. "My sales have grown by 50 percent this year," he says. "I make about 6,000 gallons of spray tan solutions every week."

Yet much like rehab centers and fad diets, the spray tanning economy revolves around its famous ambassadors. "Spray tanning is celebrity-driven and everybody knows it," says Lorit Simon, the president of Tanning Vegas. She giddily recounts how her new product, a self-tanning "mist" called Sevin Nyne — which somehow contains ingredients such as goji berry and chardonnay and costs $35 for a five-ounce bottle — was featured on MTV's "The Real World." Not long ago, Simon says, spray tans were being purchased mostly by "old people, like in their 30s." These days, however, our sordid cultural obsession with the likes of Snooki and the Middleton sisters has helped the movement transcend all age categories. "We've tanned as young as 5 to 7 years old," Simon says. She also recently bronzed an 87-year-old woman who was preparing for a cruise and wanted to "rock her tan in a bathing suit."

As spray tanning becomes less gauche, it's also going corporate. "I tan a lot of very powerful older businessmen," says Anna Stankiewicz, the master airbrush tanning guru (that's her official title) at Suvara, a New York City sunless tanning salon. This helps her justify the steep price: Stankiewicz charges $100 for a tan, which she fretted was too high until she considered the spending habits of some of her clientele. "These are women who regularly spend $300 to get their makeup done for an event," she says. "And they just wash it off the next day. With a spray tan, it lasts 5 to 10 days. You get a lot more for your money."

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Tanners also charge for artistry. Norvell, a pioneer of the sunless trade, specializes where the sun don't shine. "You can spray armpits, you can spray between the thighs, you can have them lift their boobs and spray under [them]," he says. "You can even spray under their butt cheeks, where everybody gets a little smiley grin because of the butt overlap." Michelle Sturiale, an artist with a spray gun at Manhattan's Rita Hazan Salon, prides herself on blending colors for every racial skin tone. Sturiale, who says she's tanned both Olsen twins and Monica Lewinsky, is now trying to corner the Asian fake-tan market. "Sometimes I'll have to mix another solution that has a reddening effect," she says, "so they don't look orange."

It can take years of study and training to perfect such a craft. That's why Kelly Richardson, the owner of the B.Bronz sunless tanning company in Santa Rosa, Calif., has been teaching workshops for amateur spray tanners since 2007. As the "tanning adviser" to the San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush Cheerleaders — a position that, she was told, was "the most important job in the NFL" — Richardson is able to command up to $2,000 for her seminars. These are taught "virtually every weekend," she says, in cities such as Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. "They spray it everywhere," she says of her least talented students. "They go in a left-to-right pattern rather than a vertical pattern. They have their gun set wrong, there are a million things they do wrong." Richardson remembers one "cracked out" student who even ended up shooting tanning formula into someone's eye and throat.

Still, there have been triumphs along the way. Earlier this month one of her disciples, Darby Fisher from Fresno, Calif., broke the world record for most bodies spray-tanned in an hour. Her unofficial count (the results are still being verified by Guinness World Records) was 175 tans, which works out to about one tan per 20 seconds. The previous record was 78.

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Despite such achievements, the spray tanning community remains under attack by its perennial foe, the tanning bed industry. Burdened with cancer warnings from the World Health Organization and a government-mandated "tanning bed tax," the bed advocates have been known to play rough. Their de facto leader, Chicago osteopath Joseph Mercola, has published numerous essays with scary titles such as "The hidden dangers of spray tanning" and, earlier this week, "Some spray tans stop you from producing vitamin D." Mercola vociferously suggests that many tanning solutions include trace amounts of arsenic, lead and mercury. However, a 2006 Businessweek article criticized Mercola for "relying on slick promotion, clever use of information and scare tactics" to make his case. Coincidentally, he's also the founder of Vitality Tanning Beds. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Nevertheless, Mercola's allegations have forced many spray tanners to search for organic alternatives. Amie Burkholder, the owner of BronzedBerry in Stafford, Va., works with a manufacturer to create her own somewhat natural tanning products and solutions, made with, she says, the "least amount of chemicals possible." Burkholder, an admitted lifelong tanning junkie, guarantees the products' safety because she tests them out on herself. As a result, her customers can get a dark, quasi-realistic-looking tan along with the peace of mind that comes from knowing they haven't absorbed any arsenic.