Interview with Tish and Snooky, Founders of Manic Panic (pt. 1)
interview by rachel lee
photos by meg wachter
My first act of teenage rebellion was dyeing hair. High school was punctuated with dyeing parties on the weekends where I played hairdresser: slapping two or three jars of hot pink dye on my friend’s hair in a cramped bathroom when her parents weren’t home, or nearly asphyxiating from the fumes of a raven black dye I sloppily painted on. I never ended up dyeing my own hair – I was always told it was too thick to bleach properly – but it still felt like an act of rebellion to facilitate the crop of bright colors my friends modeled on their heads, a small victory against our school’s conservative culture.
Tish and Snooky Bellomo, the brilliant founders of Manic Panic, channeled a DIY ethos in the creation of their company, one I came across in my amateur hair styling career. Before starting Manic Panic in 1977, they had made a name for themselves by singing in punk bands, and wearing their unique look (think ripped tights, ironic nun outfits, and fuchsia hair). Tish and Snooky sold their hair dyes, clothes, and accessories at the original Manic Panic store on the Lower East Side’s iconic Saint Marks’ Place, a street that was home to the punk scene in New York in the 1970s. Manic Panic was the first punk store in America, selling everything and anything they thought matched their look. “All of our products are still things we really love,” Snooky told me. “We wouldn’t sell something if we didn’t love it.” A walk through their office in Long Island City, Queens has the look and feel of the original punk shops scattered around lower Manhattan today. Their walls are covered with newspaper and magazine clippings featuring their products, posters of gigs they played and musicians they idolize, and celebrities wearing Manic Panic colors in their hair (Cyndi Lauper, Rihanna, and Kelly Ripa are just a few of Tish and Snooky’s personal favorites).
When the sisters started out in cosmetics in the late 1970s, there was no market for non-natural hair dye colors – they literally changed the game by selling bleach and semi-permanent dyes in a huge array of crazy colors. Forty years after starting the company, Tish and Snooky are still as involved in Manic Panic as they were when they started out, and still dyeing their hair – Snooky prefers cooling blues and purples, while Tish wears whatever makes her happy.
It’s hard not to feel inspired to dye your hair after talking to two pioneers of the hair dyeing industry. After I met Tish and Snooky, I went home, cracked open every window I could, and unwrapped the boxes of bleach and dye they gave me. They had mentioned receiving fan mail about just how transformative Manic Panic can be, but I didn’t believe it for myself until I rinsed off my hair and looked at my ultraviolet ends. I finally caught the hair dyeing bug.
How long have you been dyeing your hair?
Tish: The first time we dyed our hair was when we were 15 and 17. We bought drugstore dye kits – I did mine black black, and Snooky did a red highlight.
Snooky: it didn’t really work, because I didn’t understand you had to lighten your hair first.
I’m sure it was harder to find wilder colors.
Snooky: They didn’t have them! Back then, the most extreme thing you can do was either black or orangey-red.
Tish: Mine came out looking chalky black. As my mother put it, it looked dead, which I really liked. When we opened Manic Panic, which was in 1977, we had hair dye, and the first color I did was bright fuchsia.
There are been some huge cultural changes surrounding dyed hair since you started Manic Panic in 1977. What does the current culture for dyed hair look like to you?
Tish: It was so different back in those days. You were looked at like such a freak if your hair was a different color. It made people upset sometimes, rather than making people happy with beautiful color therapy. The way we dressed, the color of our hair, our music – everything was very alien to the masses. Now, it’s like nothing. Everyone can dye their hair now. It’s a nicer place to live, in a way, because you can go to work with green hair in most places. Even if [they’re not using Manic Panic products to dye their hair], I like that people can make themselves happy by having colored hair like ours.
You mentioned people having strong reactions to your look when you were walking down the street in the 70s. Can you tell more about that?
Snooky: We got such ridicule, such abuse, everywhere we went.
Tish: I got punched in the face. It was the opening night of the Mutt Club, and we were trying to hail a cab. A bunch of kids got out of the car from Long Island and started a street fight. Someone tapped me on the back – when I turned around, he sucker punched me and knocked me out. I ended up on an ambulance to the hospital, and it was because we looked like weird punks. They were out punk bashing.
[The way we looked] upset people. We were sitting on the subway doing our makeup. Some guys were bothering us, and we ignored their behavior. When they got off the train, they smashed the window in against our heads. Luckily we didn’t turn around, but all this glass came pouring down onto our backs.
Tish: Can you imagine us saying, “Fuck you, you and your suit!” to some guy walking down the street? I’ve never taken anything anyone has said to me seriously. I judge the way I look on my own terms, and I like the way I look. I’m not dressing for them. I like thinking that I’m in control, at least of what I look like. There are some things you can’t control, like age [laughs], but I can choose the color of my hair, my makeup. It at least gives you some kind of empowerment. No one looks like me, or sounds like me.
Snooky: Except those two drag queens [laughs]. Someone posted on Twitter that these two drag queens got into an Uber, and their driver said they looked like the owners of Manic Panic. We were so complimented by that.
Tish: We have had a few drag queens imitate us, which is really such an honor. We started in vaudeville, and it was full of New York underground celebrities and drag queens. We learned so much about makeup and hair from there.
Both of you were involved in the punk scene of the late 70s – how did you transition from performing to hair dye?
Snooky: We never did transition! We’re still doing both. We’re making a lot more money selling hair dye than playing music now, but we just did a gig last weekend singing backups for the band Blue Coupe.
We were in this wacky show, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein saw us, and we were invited to one of their rehearsals. We sang in Blondie and a few other bands. People liked our look and asked us where they could buy our clothes, so we decided to open a store as a sideline to our singing career. We opened this store, and sold what we loved. It was the first punk store in America. We didn’t know what we were doing, and hardly had anything to sell, but we got so much publicity because it was the first of its kind.
We sold hair dye and cosmetics. We would buy lots of vintage 50s and 60s cosmetics from close-out sales, wacky stuff like Twiggy eyeliner. Tish designed clothing, I knit loose-knit sweaters. Our partner Gina silkscreened t-shirts of bands. We would go over on buying trips to England and found things like pantyhose and dayglow socks. We went in one day, and we were cut off from buying because our competitor from down the block had more purchasing power, even though we discovered the stuff! We didn’t have the power of people who were in business much longer than us, and our sources were cut off at every turn. The only thing he and other male business owners on the block couldn’t take away from us were beauty products – we knew beauty so much better than them, and actually wore it. That’s what we ended up specializing in.
Can you share more about your experience starting out as two young female entrepreneurs?
Tish: A lot of people didn’t take us seriously at all because we were women.
Snooky: I think we were the only women business owners on the block. We were young, we didn’t have any business training, we didn’t have any money, and we were women. We had all these strikes against us, and we weren’t taken seriously at all. One day, some smarmy salesman came in the store asking to speak to the owner. I told him I was the owner, and he kept saying, “No, the real owner, the man.” He wouldn’t believe me, and stormed out! I didn’t look like a “business owner.
How does your career in punk music influence the way you design products or manage the company?
Tish: We still have that DIY mentality. We’d rather come up with something that we love rather than hiring someone from the outside to come up with some slick product that would make us more money. We care about our company. We try to solve all our problems, and it’s wonderful when you get a few people to work with you that have the same quick mentality. If you can’t in through the front door, you go through a window; if you can’t get in through the window, you drop down the chimney. You have to do whatever it takes.
When we hire people, like some people from the corporate world who we tried to partner with – it never works out. We think about it every once in a while, but they don’t get it, and they can’t help us. We always say we get by with a little help from our friends. Anyone who works here ends up being our friend. It’s not like we just have employees – it’s still a family business.
Snooky: It wouldn’t be us, or ours, if it were made by some corporate person. [Our products] need to have our touch, our feel, our flavor.
[Our hair dye] has actually saved people’s lives. We’ve had people write to us, saying they were going through bad depressive periods, and dyeing their hair pink has helped them come out of it and feel empowered.
There was this woman in Canada, who was in her 80s. She colored her hair purple with Manic Panic after feeling so invisible, and everyone started talking to her. She became a local celebrity. It made her so happy in her twilight years. When she passed away, her whole family dyed her hair and went to the synagogue with purple hair.
Tish: It’s empowering. You don’t always have to look like everybody else, you don’t have to fit in. There’s nothing wrong with being who you are. We like to promote that.
What’s the weirdest, or most memorable, challenge you’ve had in running this company?
Snooky: We went to a manufacturer for our idea for glitter lipsticks, and they kept us waiting for a year. This was more than twenty-five years ago, when we were really new to cosmetics, and gullible and naïve. We went to this private label manufacturer in Brooklyn with the idea for glitter lipsticks. Every time we went to their office to see what was going on, it was looking more and more like ours. Right before they finally delivered our goods, they launched the same thing with another company at the same trade show we were launching ours at! They had a huge booth at least five times bigger than ours, and we were heartbroken. They didn’t even wait for us to launch before they knocked us off!
And with the internet, it’s just a free for all.
Snooky: And it’s the way it is nowadays! People feel like they can do anything and act any way they want with no repercussions, and I guess there are none. No ethics, or accountability, or feelings.
I saw that the proceeds from your sales in October are going towards breast cancer research – did you start off intending for Manic Panic to take a charitable or activist direction?
Tish: We’ve always [been taking a stance], but we haven’t been tooting our horn about it.
Snooky: We did it because it’s what you should do. We’ve been doing that for forty years, but we started documenting and publicizing it recently. I had breast cancer about two years ago, and that made it one of our main causes.
Tish: Before that, we were mostly doing animal rescue. We donated to cancer-related causes, mental health, and education.
Snooky: I always thought charity and good deeds should remain anonymous, but nowadays, because of the culture and social media, you have to tell everyone what you’re doing. It’s so great that we’ve gotten so successful we can give back and give a lot. That’s why you should want to be successful and have money – so you can give it to worthy causes and be of help.
Who are you admiring right now?
Tish: We always mention our mother, who is no longer with us. We give a scholarship in her honor at the School of Visual Arts. The student has it in art therapy, because our mother started the program in art therapy there. We still idolize our mother – she was a single mother who brought us up with all of her energy and spent her last dime on us.
Snooky: We have some amazing women who work for us at this company. They inspire us, and we inspire them. We’re so lucky to have them!
Our friend Cindy Dunaway, who designed all the stage wear for Alice Cooper and really changed the look of rock and roll. She is responsible for glam rock and trashy glam.
There’s Sylvia Scott, who runs Girls’ C.E.O. Connection. Let’s Get Ready is great too, which prepares kids from low income families to get ready for college. The guys in Blue Coupe are amazing! They’re amazing musicians, and so nice and humble. It’s such an honor and privilege to sing with them.
You’ve been running Manic Panic for 41 years now! What is the future of the company, and of your personal careers?
Tish: We’re expanding into products like shampoo, conditioner, and add-on products that compliment our brand. We’ll be revamping our cosmetic line and veganizing everything. When we first started selling cosmetics, we were told by the manufacturers that everything we were selling was vegan, but they’re not. Most of it is, but we’re veganizing everything. Our hair dye has always been vegan, but certain ingredients and pigments, like carmine, is made from insects. It’s the right way to be: to be cruelty free and vegan. It’s not anything new for us – it’s just the way we want to live.
Snooky: We’ve always thought Manic Panic was more of a lifestyle brand that just cosmetics, so we want to license our name for everything: clothing, accessories, home goods, all of it. Even if we license our name, we want it to be everything we ever wanted and would wear.