Vivid, rainbow and candy-colored tresses have undergone a renaissance in recent years, gracing the manes of today’s it girls like Katy Perry, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Sisters Tish and Snooky Bellomo, the founders of the revolutionary hair dye company Manic Panic—which started out as the first punk store in America—are excited that the style they’ve loved for 40 years has finally gone mainstream.
With roots in the rebellious punk subculture of the ’70s, the Bellomos have spearheaded the color craze by supplying vibrant dyes to nonconformists and famous fans, such as Cyndi Lauper and Steven Tyler, for decades. Marrying a shared passion for beauty, a humble attitude and an immense work ethic, we largely have Tish and Snooky to thank for making wild colors unintimidating for everyday wear. The sisters sat down with Beauty Store Business to discuss the mark they’ve made on the industry—and what’s to come.
Growing up in the Bronx, the Bellomos were passionate about music. “We grew up singing together, putting on shows, dancing, putting on makeup and fooling around with our hair,” Snooky says.
Taking style cues from the iconic girl groups they admired like the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, and later Tina Turner, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, the sisters became deeply immersed in the heart of the thriving punk rock scene of the mid-1970s as frequenters of bars in the East Village like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City—ones which embraced brazen hairstyles, daring outfits and rebellious youth culture. And at such bars, they befriended fellow scenesters like Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers and performance-artist Gorilla Rose, all part of a tightknit community.
“It was gutter glam, trashy glamorous,” Snooky says.
“With Max’s and all those early clubs, everyone had a free spirit and a DIY attitude because nobody had any money. Everyone was poor, so everybody made his or her own outfits and created their own looks. It was mostly thrift-shop glam and punk glam,” Tish says.
“Nothing could stop us though. Whatever obstacles were put in front of us, we just kept going.”
Across from CBGB, Tish and Snooky performed in a wacky vaudeville show called “Palm Casino Review” in Manhattan’s Bouwerie Lane Theatre. There they met many drag queens at the show who shared their makeup tricks for applying eyelashes, contouring and using glitter, which they still use to this day. “They taught us practically everything we know about makeup and glamour,” Snooky says.
One day, at the recommendation of friend Gorilla Rose, Blondie members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who were in search of backup singers, came to watch Tish and Snooky perform. They liked what they saw and invited them to a rehearsal the next day, and the rest was history as the sisters joined Blondie as early backup vocalists. “It was that simple in those days; everybody knew each other and it was just very organic,” Snooky says.
“It was so cool back then because the nights would never end. We’d always be coming home from the clubs as everyone was running off to work in the morning,” Tish adds.
MAKING PUNK APPROACHABLE
Even in their youth, others would ask the Bellomo sisters how they achieved their edgy style. Self-proclaimed packrats (“We’re borderline hoarders,” Tish says), they used to put on “rock ‘n’ roll rummage sales” at their friend Gina’s apartment to sell surplus odds and ends—like a scarf that once belonged to one of the New York Dolls or vintage accessories collected on trips to England. As scenesters of the punk movement, people constantly inquiring about their style and cosmetics naturally led to opening up a store as a sideline to their singing career. Using a name coined by their art therapist mother and scrounging up $250 for rent, Tish, Snooky and Gina opened the Manic Panic boutique on St. Mark’s Place in 1977.
“New York City was almost bankrupt at the time,” Snooky says, “so there was more opportunity in a way back then. Even though everyone was so poor, you could actually do things you can’t do now.”
Local musicians, artists and music fans flocked to the punk store, which gained a lot of publicity as the first of its kind in America—owned and operated by authentic counterculturists. Soon people were traveling all the way from New Jersey, Hawaii and even Japan for a glimpse at their unconventional private- label cosmetics, curated hair dyes, thrift- shop clothing, wigs and huge eyelash selection (“We totally brought that to the forefront,” Tish says).
“We became known for beauty products and cosmetics at Halloween because we were the only ones who had that kind of stuff, so there would be a line out the door,” Tish says. Other than Manic Panic, if you wanted “anything interesting” you’d have to go to the theater district for theatrical makeup. Yet unlike their competitors, Tish and Snooky valued customer service and would do consultations or custom-mix hair dyes for patrons who wanted a specific shade they didn’t offer.
“We knew beauty and [our competitors] stole everything else from us, but they couldn’t take that. We’d take these trips over to England and bring back something really cool, and next time we went to get the same stuff they’d tell us, ‘Your competitor from down the block told us not to sell to you anymore.’ [Our competitor] could because he had money, so then we’d get cut off. But the one thing that nobody could take away from us was the beauty products—that was us and that was our market,” Tish says.
Other punk stores also had reputations for being rude and unapproachable. “We were the only store on the block that was nice to customers. If any of our employees gave attitude to customers we’d reprimand them because it’s not who we are or how we are. We treat everybody the same,” Snooky says.
Selling only the things they personally wore and loved, Tish and Snooky grew an avid fan base. When they were forced to hire a doorman to control the fervent crowd, they knew they had tapped into something special.
PITFALLS AND PERIL
Though the Bellomos’ hair colors and store were attracting a lot of attention, it wasn’t always positive. “We were tortured, persecuted, ridiculed,” Snooky says. “It was not easy in those days. It was really a big statement, a real act of rebellion. We made it safe for people nowadays, but in those days it was really scary.”
Tish recalls the opening night of the Mudd Club in 1978, when she was trying to hail a cab with friends on Church Street and all of a sudden a bunch of kids from Long Island started punk bashing (“It was a thing back then when people from the suburbs came into Manhattan to [beat up punks],” Snooky says). Tish was yelling for them to stop hitting a man who was on the ground when someone suddenly tapped her and then punched her in the face as soon as she turned around. “I went down like this dying swan and woke up five minutes later to be put in an ambulance,” she says.
Luckily Tish and Snooky’s open-minded mother was supportive, and encouraged her daughters to look however they wanted; but most weren’t as accepting. “You should have seen our neighbors. One woman would scream at us, ‘There’s people coming in and out of the building with green hair! It scares the old people!’ It sure did,” Tish says.
In addition to being judged on their appearance, being business owners presented other challenges. “It was difficult making the rent, being young, having no business experience. Being women, we were not taken seriously at all; and especially being young women in outrageous attire, we were not taken seriously,” Snooky says.
At the time, St. Mark’s Place was a dicey neighborhood riddled with vandals and drug addicts. Despite chasing down shoplifters, Tish says the store had the reputation of being the easiest shop on the block to rip off. They invested all their profits back into inventory, but in ’89 lost their lease and were given two weeks to move out.
In an act of desperation to keep the company afloat, Tish and Snooky relocated their wholesale business to Snooky’s then-boyfriend’s third-story studio apartment. “We were doing it all ourselves: packing the orders, taking the orders, rolling the boxes down three flights of stairs and then driving boxes to UPS and shipping them,” Snooky says.
“It’s great that what we’ve always loved, endorsed and promoted has finally caught on.”
“Nothing could stop us though. Whatever obstacles were put in front of us, we just kept going,” Tish adds.
Eventually Manic Panic found a temporary home, again on St. Mark’s Place, in a tiny basement. When Tish and Snooky were unable to renew that lease, they moved to East Village’s 9th Street, in another basement with “cool vibes” (Jimi Hendrix was a previous resident). “It was down these rickety metal steps, so people were afraid to go down there,” Snooky says.
Manic Panic moved once more to a bigger loft in Tribeca, but outgrew that space over the course of five years as business thrived. Their most recent move in 1999 was to their over 15,000-square-foot headquarters in Long Island City (the company also has distribution centers in the U.S. and Europe, and about 30 employees).
“Now that we’ve pioneered Long Island City, once our lease is up here, we hear that we’re not going to be able to stay, so we’re going to have to move again. So here we go pioneering not only the hair dye revolution, but there’s the New York City real estate problem; you keep pioneering a new neighborhood and then you get trumped out of it as people with more money come in. That’s the nature of the beast,” Tish says.
A LEGACY OF LOVE
Manic Panic’s classic and Amplified hair dyes have been distributed in beauty stores and salons since the beginning, but the new pro gel line is “no longer a back- room secret,” Tish says. With the help of manufacturer rep group Jay Halaby and Associates, the company has recently penetrated the professional beauty world. With SKUs ranging from 44 shades of semi-permanent, High Voltage colors that condition hair (free of PPD, ammonia and peroxide) to dramatic lashes and nail lacquers, Manic Panic has made going bold easy and attainable.
“It’s amazing the looks we got beat up for are now popular,” Tish says. “It’s great that it’s evolved into something way beyond everybody’s wildest dreams as far as the color combinations, the rainbows and the melts. People were so put down for having roots in the old days, and now roots have been so popular. It’s all fun, and people have to learn to have fun with their hair, enjoy life and enjoy experimenting—it always grows back.”
Despite bright hair colors gaining popularity, the downside for Manic Panic has been that the market, which once had 10 to 15 competing brands, now has hundreds vying for sales. But the sisters remain confident that most of their competitors won’t last in this over- saturated market. And even if the trend changes tomorrow, the company will be unwavering in its message. Tish says, “We’re not doing it because it’s selling; we’re doing it because we love it.”
Snooky adds, “It’s great that what we’ve always loved, endorsed and promoted has finally caught on. It’s finally acceptable, and it’s finally safe.”
Manic Panic is also proud to be vegan—long before it was ever cool. The sisters are animal lovers and rescuers, and have held charitable benefits for animal rights.
Because of their many contributions to the beauty industry, Tish and Snooky were recognized at this year’s ICMAD CITY Awards in the “Industry Contributor: Entrepreneur” category at Cosmoprof North America. “We’ve always been the underdog in the beauty business, always the outcast and outsider, so it was great to be honored ... we’re still reeling from that,” Snooky says.
Tish and Snooky have started licensing the brand name, and there are now three Manic Panic Salons for those who prefer to get a cut and color by a pro (one is in Ricky’s NYC beauty store on 39th St., the other two in Los Angeles and Fresno, California). They’ve licensed products in Japan, an eyeshadow palette for Hot Topic and even have their picture on the label of a bottle of wine called Rock ’N Roll Red, made at Blondie original bassist Fred Smith’s winery. Though they’re tight-lipped about product releases down the pike, one thing’s for sure—they show no signs of slowing down after their unprecedented 40th Manniversary.