The punk rock origin story of Tish and Snooky's Manic Panic
For many “dye-hards,” Tish and Snooky’s Manic Panic is a way of life. It’s a temporary hair dye that comes in a range of outrageous colours, first popular with punks and goths, and now seen almost everywhere (runways, the drugstore, perhaps on your little brother). For brand founders, radical entrepreneurs, and original punk rock queens Tish and Snooky Bellomo, it’s been more than just a way of living. The sister duo have been through a number of ups and downs over the past 35 years—turning the shop they started in 1977 while in their twenties into an internationally recognized brand with a cult following. It’s no wonder this bright hair colour is so popular with a do it yourself audience—the brand’s DIY story makes it a compelling choice for colour.
You guys are known for your line of hair colour and cosmetics that has this huge following all over the world. But my understanding is that you started your business without any experience, opening a very small (and very legendary) punk boutique on St. Mark’s Place?
Tish > Well there were no punk boutiques in the Americas and we started the first out of necessity. There was nobody selling anything like it.
Snooky > We were always on stage, or out at clubs, and everybody liked our style and wanted to know where they could get something similar. So we thought we could sell stuff as a sideline to our singing career. We had no idea how to do it, but we just decided we would try. We learned how by doing everything, every step of the way. We had no business background, no business experience. We were just singers and we still are singers! When we were kids we were always putting on shows—charging pennies for entry and serving Kool-aid and stuff, you know, selling them refreshments. We had a little monopoly going on. It’s funny how things turned out so similar.
What kinds of things were sold in the original Manic Panic shop?
Snooky > Basically, everything and anything we liked.
Tish > I was sewing clothes and Snooky was knitting. We were selling cosmetics, hair colour, things we picked up in thrift shops.
Snooky > Debbie Harry had turned us on to this great basement full of unused vintage shoes—all these incredible stiletto shoes still in their boxes. It was like this goldmine. We would go there and bring back tons of beautiful ’50s and ’60s stilettos and sold those. My boyfriend at the time, rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, drilled holes in the wall, and we stuck the stilettos into the holes. That’s how we displayed them. When we started Manic Panic, we each had $250, and any money we made we just put back into the business. Luckily we were young (I was 25 and Tish was 23) and living at home with our mother, so we didn’t have a lot of overhead. When we first opened, we hardly had anything to sell. But we got so much coverage from all the media—every newspaper, magazine, and TV station covered our opening because it was the first punk store in America. So we got all this press and people started coming; then we had to get stuff to sell because we didn’t have enough! We just learned by doing and it’s been great.
The cosmetics that you guys were selling, were you importing them or were they your own formula?
Snooky > It was a variety. We were bringing some in from the UK, we were buying some from various local companies. We were putting it all together. None of it had the exact selection we wanted. We wanted to make what we thought was the best cosmetic line in the city—which I think it was, actually—and there was nobody, especially in the downtown area, that sold anything that was the least bit theatrical. You could go to the theatre district and go to some of those makeup stores to find extreme colours or weird stuff, but I think it was our store that had the biggest variety.
Tish > Oh yeah, we definitely did. And we had cornered the market on cosmetics downtown. All the other store owners in the area were mostly men and didn’t know about cosmetics or beauty products, so they couldn’t compete with us. They knocked us off in every other area, in every other category of items we were selling. You know, we would find great stuff in England, great pantyhose or really cool stuff, and the next time we’d go back there, they’d say, “Sorry, we can’t sell to you anymore, we’re selling to your competitor down the street and they asked us not to sell to you.” But we introduced a lot of these lines to America.
Snooky > Our competitors would say to these companies We’ll pay twice as much as them, or three times as much as them, so sell to us. They used to send their employees in to buy stuff. We realized soon realized that we were just giving them all their ideas. But they couldn’t really compete with us in beauty.
Tish > That’s right, we were and are more beautiful.
Snooky > We knew what we sold. We wore what we sold and we loved what we sold. We were walking advertisements. But we still did really well with clothing despite the market. We just had to keep being one step ahead, and find other sources for fashion.
How have your personal styles evolved over the years?
Snooky > Mine hasn’t really evolved. It’s like I’m stuck in a time warp in the ’70s. I still have all the same clothes—only more of them now—that I did when I was like in high school even! I still have the same things that maybe don’t all fit, but I still have ‘em and love ‘em. My style did evolve from more vintage to a little more punk over the years.
Tish > I think I’m more of a fashion-follower or whatever, maybe a fashion leader. I like to change more than Snooky in general, I think I buy more stuff than she does and I’ve evolved over the years. I was like the kid that had to have pink, I had to have turquoise. I couldn’t bear wearing anything that wasn’t feminine. And when I became older, we had no money, so we took all the hand-me-downs we got, and I liked to sew, so I took the sewing machine and would make all these ’50s outfits into new shiny dresses and revamp everything. I have way too much stuff. My attic is cracking my ceiling. Clearly, I have way too much, but I still keep buying and still keep wearing this stuff. I still have, of course, a punk attitude in most of my clothes.
Snooky > Tish is more tailored.
Tish > That’s right, you know, somebody told us that the way he remembered the difference between Tish and Snooky is that Tish is tailored. T for Tish and T for tailored.
Snooky > So my husband said, “Well I guess that’s S for Snooky and S for sloppy!” Which is about right.
What was the St. Mark’s Place scene like?
Snooky > Well at first it was dead.
Tish > It was a pretty burned out neighbourhood, tons of empty storefronts.
Snooky > There were some vintage stores around the block.
Tish > Yeah, that was the look back then.
Snooky > And then when we opened, we were the wacky punk rock store end no one knew what to make of us.
Tish > As a matter of fact, we tried to sell some of our stuff before we opened to some of the places on St. Marks, and they thought they were disgusting. But then a year later they were opening up their own punk boutiques too.
Snooky > Yeah, they saw all the TV cameras coming into our store, and thought, Hmmm, I guess there is something to that. That looks like a good thing.
Tell me about your careers as singers.
Snooky > We’ve done it all. We were this wacky show at the Bowery Lane theatre called the Palm Casino Revue. That’s kind of where we got our start. Yeah, you know, we were doing stuff before that, but nothing you could call Palm Casino Revue professional, but that was like a different level for us. On a real stage and in an old vaudeville theatre show.
Tish > It was really cool, with all different wacky acts and lots of drag queens. They’d sing a little song, and do a little tap dance or something. So Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (of Blondie) saw us at the show, and asked us to come to one of their rehearsals, and then we were in their band. We were in Blondie for a little while and we’ve been in lots of other bands since then. Right now, we sing with this adorable band called Blue Coupe, which is the founding member of the Alice Cooper group, Dennis Dunnaway, the original bass player. And Albert and Joe Bouchard from Blue Öyster Cult.
Snooky > So we sing with them, and we also still sing with the Sic F*ucks, our old punk rock band that started back in ’77. The same year we started Manic Panic we also joined the S*c Fucks.
What was CBGB like?
Snooky > In the beginning, it was really pretty empty. When we were in the Palm Casino Revue we used to go across the street to CBGB with Eric Emerson, who was in the Magic Tramps; he was like a Warhol character. The place was basically dead, as a biker bar—the Hells Angels used to hang out there. Eventually there was a really small crowd of people in this very tiny bar. But it was this really cool underground club that nobody knew about, just a select few. It was like a secret society. I think everybody found out about it when Lisa Robinson came down to see the Ramones and wrote about it, and then everybody started coming and it became really popular. You could go on a Wednesday night and run into Lester Bangs, or Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith, and if you were in the scene you knew a million different people. And every night you went there, you knew everybody in the place. And it was all the big bands going to see other bands. It was the Dead Boys, Ramones, the Dictators, the Talking Heads, the Cramps. I mean it was just so much fun. You know, I think I used to go almost every night.
Tish > And the owner Hilly was like our father figure—we grew up without a dad.
How do you feel about Manic Panic’s popularity over the years, and the acceptance of “not normal” hair colours? Having your hair dyed a bright colour is something friends of mine used to get beat up for.
Snooky > It was something you got beat up for, it definitely was.
Tish > I did!
Snooky > Oh, we got made such fun of and tortured. And it’s great now they’re using models in all these magazines and on the runway, and you know we just feel like it’s about time the world caught up. It’s so great that young people dress just like we dress. And I love that, you know, I love seeing kids in bright red mohawks. It’s just the coolest thing.
How do you guys come up with the shades and the names for your hair colours?
Snooky > Coming up with oddball names was a fun thing that we did in the very beginning, and then lines like Urban Decay and Hard Candy started coming up with weird names for their products.
Tish > But we were the first!
Snooky > When we were younger we always loved cosmetics and we always thought that we’d have a cosmetic line and make really funny names. I mean I won’t even mention some of the names!
Tish > We might still use ‘em!
Snooky > Save them for other types of shops.
Tish > An X-rated line is coming soon.
Snooky > But we just loved colour and tried to do colours that other people aren’t doing.
Tish > It’s still all about what we like, colours we like, names we like. We like to do what we like!
Do you guys have a best-selling colour?
Tish > It varies throughout the years, I think for a really, really long time, Vampire Red was our biggest colour. Now I’m wondering if it’s still Vampire Red or if it’s Hot Hot Pink?
How did you guys move from importing cosmetics to developing your own formula? When did you move from being a small shop to an international brand?
Tish > We’re kind of, Snooky and I, I won’t say lazy because we work more than anybody on the planet, but we’re so easygoing in a way: ride with the tide and go with the flow. We had our little shop, and to tell you the truth, if we still had that little shop, maybe we wouldn’t have grown so much in the wholesale business. So circumstances have always brought us up to new levels, I feel. It seems to happen organically.
Snooky > What happened was our lease on St. Mark’s Place was up, after like 12 years, and the landlord was quadrupling the rent, and gave us two weeks to get out. So we thought it was the end of our lives, the end of the world. We didn’t know what to do. We had started wholesaling by then, so we just put all the merchandise into storage and just focused on the wholesale for a year, from my boyfriend’s studio apartment. It was like three flights up so we went and received the dye that we were importing and we would roll it up three flights of stair. The two of us would pack all the orders and be on the phone taking in customer calls. And then we’d roll the boxes back down the stairs, put ‘em in my car and race up to UPS every night. But we were focused on wholesale, and if we hadn’t lost our lease and been forced out of the retail business, we probably couldn’t have focused so much on the wholesale. So it was getting bigger and bigger, and the supplier in the UK couldn’t keep up with the demand, they were like three months behind on the shipping.
Tish > Plus they were cheating on us. You know, we had an exclusive deal with them and they were selling behind our backs to our customers. It was another worst time of our lives, ’cause our mother was dying at the same time.
Snooky > So it wasn’t like we could even spend our time fighting, ’cause our mother was dying, and we were at the hospital with her for months, so we ended up saying, “screw this, let’s just make it ourselves!”
Tish > We tracked down the guy who invented it originally, and had him make it to our specifications. And we came up with more colours that we really liked, and it was just an exciting transition, but everything kind of happened because somebody was mean to us, I guess!
Snooky > First the landlord raised our rent and then the supplier was cheating on us, and our mother was dying, but we just kept growing! And you know, that’s the way it’s always been.
Tish > And we always know when things are awful and people are being really mean to us, which some people have been lately, we know it’s just the start of another level for us. A higher level.
Do you guys have advice for young lady entrepreneurs?
Tish > Sure, we’ve got plenty of advice!
Snooky > You know, sometimes we speak to the Girl Scouts, or different organizations.
Tish > And we always tell everybody, if you do something that you love, and it’s your passion, you’re guaranteed to succeed. I mean, everything we do we loved. So, when we were singing, I can’t even tell you how many times I forgot to get paid because I just loved doing it. And it’s the same thing with this business. Well, it’s not like we forget to get paid because we have a bookkeeper.
Snooky > Thank god! You have to love what you do and do what you love. And you also have to never take no for an answer. That’s our other advice. Because we’ve been told so many times, oh no, that’s it, you can’t do that. And we’re like, but wait a minute. What about this way? What about that way? And we always seem to get it done. You know, there are times when you can’t, but in general, where there’s a will there’s a way. You just keep fighting for what you want. Young women are getting better at that. But the one thing that I do see, that I think we have that some younger people don’t have is that people need to have a real passion for something and not think that somebody else is going do it for them. I don’t know what they’re teaching in school nowadays, but some younger people have an attitude that the world owes them something, and I don’t think the world owes anybody anything. I think you have to make your own world. You have to carve it out yourself. And you really have to take the initiative and not sit back.
Tish > Yeah, and you just have to be ready to live and breathe it, 24-hours-a-day.
Snooky > It doesn’t leave you. You know, it’s not like a regular job where you can go home and forget about it. It haunts you in your waking and sleeping hours. And there’s a lot of heartache that goes along with it as well as incredible joy. It’s not really meant for everyone. A lot of people prefer to go home and forget about everything after your eight hours—if that’s you, don’t start your own business. We have a friend, Cleo Rose, who was a movie star in the ’50s. And she started out with nothing. She was like us. She started out dirt poor. She was an actress, and didn’t really like that too much. She got into real estate and dealing art, and all sorts of other endeavours. And now she has a castle in Italy, a townhouse in London, and a chapel in Tunbridge Wells in England, and all sorts of other places. You know, but when she was a little girl, she wanted a castle. And she got her castle! So anything’s possible. She’s our role model. She will just not take no for an answer. And our mother, too. Our mother wouldn’t take no for an answer either. When our father left, she had two little girls. And at that time, it was really difficult. It wasn’t like today where people get help, and it was a shameful thing to have children and no husband around. She went back to school when she was in her fifties. She started a whole new career; she was a greeting card artist, a commercial artist. And that paid so little that she went back to school and became an occupational therapist, one of the first occupational therapists in the country. And then she was asked by the head of visual arts at her school to start a program there and be the chairperson of the visual arts art therapy program. She worked until she passed away when she was in her late seventies.
Can you describe your sister in three words or less?
Snooky > Smart, practical and kind. Kind, she’s very kind.
Tish > I would say smart, determined, and also kind.
art // Katrina Cervoni