Tamar Vezirian contours and sculpts her clients’ bodies with a spray gun. Photo: Yvonne Lynch
“No showering until tomorrow morning,” Tamar Vezirian instructs. “And no bikram yoga. The tan comes off more quickly if you sweat through your pores.” The woman nods obediently, handing over her credit card.
Half an hour later, another trim, blond woman opens the door, more warily than the previous customer. It’s her first time at an airbrush tanning salon. “If you don’t want tan lines, take off your underwear,” Vezirian says matter-of-factly.
Last year, Vezirian, a self-described “tanning drill sergeant,” opened Gotham Glow, an airbrush tanning salon in the heart of New York City’s Flatiron District. After nine years in the industry, she realized she couldn’t maintain a client base of 10,000 from her cramped one-bedroom apartment. To her neighbors’ annoyance, clients were lining up outside her door or inadvertently ringing their doorbells. Vezirian was repeatedly telling her subletter not to come in because naked women were drying their tans.
Now, with a roster of some 30,000, including names like Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul, Vezirian is trying to reverse the bad rap often assigned to the airbrush tanning industry.
Click here for the chance to win one in-studio tanning session at Gotham Glow through No Joe Schmo.
In the business for: 9 years
Graduated from: I only went to high school, and then acting school in San Francisco. So I went to the school of hard knocks.
Previous jobs: Makeup artist for 17 years; standup comedian; waitress
Your “in” to the tanning industry: I found a job on Craigslist working for an airbrush tanning salon, which, at the time, was the first airbrush tanning salon in New York City. I came from a makeup background, so I was good with the spray gun and making people feel comfortable naked. Making people comfortable is 90 percent of the job.
What instigated you to start your own business? I started taking on clients as a side hustle while doing comedy shows. But it got big; for the last six years, I’ve had 115-hour workweeks. I finally opened my own salon about a year ago, but before then, I tanned out of my apartment, which I subletted from the guy who played Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. It was pretty ghetto.
I’ve never gotten a spray tan. Can you walk me through the process? Exfoliate beforehand, and make sure you don’t have any moisturizer on when you come in. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, including drying time. You stand naked, and I go through poses like an aerobics workout. I’m like a drill sergeant: Start with your back toward me, arms all the way up, bend all the way down! Let me have your hands! Suck your cheeks in, turn to the side, bend all the way down! People start laughing in the middle of [my instructions], but I’m just in the zone. Then you dry under a fan for a few minutes.
Post-tanning rules: As the day progresses, you get darker and darker. You can shower after eight hours, and then all the surface stuff comes of. You’re left with a nice, even tan for five to 10 days.
Above: the waiting area at Gotham Glow. Vezirian still makes house calls to special clients, to which she totes a pop-up tanning tent. Photo: C. Bay Milin
How do you put people at ease about stripping down? I’m very gifted that way. I guess I have an I don’t really give a sh*t attitude. Women with breast cancer who have had mastectomies, who haven’t even shown their husbands, get naked in front of me. Even Catholic girls who have a lot of guilt feel totally comfortable. My whole life has been filled with naked women, actually; I was once a makeup artist at a strip club.
Do most go fully nude? Yeah, or just underwear. Women wear thongs, men wear boxers or briefs. I tell women who are breastfeeding to wear strapless bras.
You tan some very wealthy, powerful women. That’s an interesting juxtaposition: they stand vulnerable while you’re in control. People can get very bitchy and demanding when they feel vulnerable. After many years, I have learned to put them in their place and say, “I’m not going to bother tanning you if this is how you’re going to talk to me.” Usually, that does the trick.
Do male clients ask for spray-on abs? I do some light contouring underneath the belly or on triceps, but I won’t just put two strips down your abs. That’s ridiculous. You have to come in with a little definition; I can’t make a severely overweight person have a six-pack.
Best part of your job: I love running my own business. I have ADHD and need to keep going all the time, and this is the perfect fast-paced environment.
Most challenging part of your job: Other people working for me and making sure they’re up to par. I have three girls who work for me, but I’m looking for more. To me, a great personality and honesty are more important than tanning experience.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Very fit women with amazing bodies are more shy of getting naked than overweight women. Overweight women are much more confident and have no shame.
Your celebrity clients: I recently tanned Mariah [Carey] before she went to sing for princes somewhere. I’ve done Paula Abdul, Courtney Love, and a lot of reality show people.
Do you get starstruck? No. I care more about seeing Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm than Madonna.
Most memorable tanning stories: One client threw me her stiletto Christian Louboutin shoe and a $100 bill to chase a cockroach around her apartment and kill it. I was like, Eh, I’ll do it for 100 bucks. Gotta pay the rent. Another time, a prominent New York doctor started dancing in my tanning tent, but there wasn’t any music playing. I had to kind of follow her body with the tanning gun.
Ingredients in your tanning solution: It’s all-natural and homemade using sugar cane, beets, aloe, vitamins A and E, hemp, and grape seed extract. Airbrush tanning has a stigma of being tacky and orange, but I specialize in light, natural, sun-kissed looks.
Do you self-tan? Yes. I have it on right now. But it’s like working at a restaurant; you’re always in it. So the last thing I want to do is spray-tan before going home.
The tanning mom story got a ton of media attention. What was your reaction? The media always focuses on stories like the tanning mom and puts a negative spin on the tanning industry. But I tan so many people who can’t go in the sun: people with melanoma, with lupus, who went through chemotherapy. Instead, they come to me, and that’s a good thing.
Cost per session: $75 for an in-studio tan; $50 for half-body tan. House call are $150 to $200, depending on location; I service Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. I also do parties and on-site photo shoots.
Guilty pleasure: Pork belly and duck. I’m a meat-and-potatoes kind of girl.
The wall above the front desk at Gotham Glow. A large part of Vezirian’s growing client base comes from Yelp, she says, where people find others with similar tanning fears. Photo: C. Bay Milin
Your required reading: Business books, like The Tipping Point and The E-Myth. I love reading about other business owners and how they succeeded.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Work for a tanning salon as a receptionist or booking coordinator. You’ll learn how to talk to clients and the do’s and don’ts of the business.
2. Spray all different types of people: really skinny, really overweight, darker and lighter skin tones. The more people you tan, the better you’ll get at it.
3. Learn to feel comfortable in front of naked people. Clients will be able to tell if you’re nervous, and then they will get nervous. Confidence can take years of experience. Above all else, give great customer service.
Enter below for the chance to win one in-studio tanning session at Gotham Glow. Entry period closes on Sunday, August 19 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
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