INSIDE THE TECHNICOLOR PUNK PARADISE OF MANIC PANIC
Most people wouldn’t know what punk culture was if it slapped them in the face. I don’t say this because I do—there is nostalgia and rebellion still very present—but at this point, punk is a bygone era of glamorous debauchery played out with mohawks, leather, bad attitudes, and hair dye.
Tish and Eileen “Snooky” Bellomo, founders of Manic Panic and former members of Blondie, might be two of the small handful of people left embodying the genre and keeping it alive. Manic Panic was formerly a punk rock store on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village of New York City, and is now an iconic line of hair dye and other vegan beauty products. They boast that the boutique was the first of its kind in a time where streets were as gritty as they were inspiring. In 1989, the shop fell the way of other relics on the famous block when they eventually moved their operation to Queens, closing the doors of the boutique. Today, their Long Island City warehouse is massive and charmingly disheveled with dozens of vibrant colored heads hustling around to keep this now multinational company at the top of its game.
“This is it,” Tish says as she sits down at a vanity mirror to apply makeup in a leopard-clad meeting room. There are pictures covering the wall from floor to ceiling with ripped-out images from magazine editorials and covers using Manic Panic hair dye. Faces of some of the most famous people the last two generations have ever seen are stuck up with tape to create a wallpaper that reveals just how iconic their brand is. The name itself, named by Tish and Snooky’s mother, has been synonymous with fashion-forward outsiders for decades, from the dyed mohawks of the 80s to the Instagram-friendly pastels we see today. It wasn’t an overnight success of course; many unexpected chips had to land in the right place to get to where they are today. “It was beginning to be the end of glam and the beginning of punk and we were in a show called the Punk Casino Review at the Bowery Lane Theater. I think it was ’73. Chris and Debbie [Harry] had seen us in that show and asked if we wanted to come to rehearsal.” Soon after that the sisters went from hanging out at CBGB and other punk rock haunts to on stage singing with Blondie.
“We pioneered the east village. We pioneered anti-fashion. I mean, Madonna opened for us, she got her fashion ideas from us. She even shopped in our store. Cyndi Lauper used to get her hair dyes from us, too. No one used to shop in the East Village in those days; it was burnt out, very druggy. The rent was $250 a month and we could barely afford it.” When the store eventually closed, it was to their advantage. With celebrities already wearing their products and singing their praises they moved the operation to a warehouse that would allow them to grow and expand. “We’ve had some really big milestones. The first one was getting a Coke machine in the lobby. We thought, wow, this makes us a real business now. I mean, the soda was really shitty but it meant something.’” Vending machines aside, as the business grew so did the celebrity of the pair. “They’ve made a cartoons of us. We’ve gotten PETA awards, NYLON awards, we’ve been flown to France to speak. We’ve gone on tours with bands. It’s still exciting to think about.”
Going commercial may not be what you would think is traditionally in line with the punk lifestyle, but as far as Tish and Snooky are concerned it may be the most punk thing they’ve ever done. “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever betrayed myself by doing or saying something,” Tish muses. “Corporate things scare the hell out of me. Maybe some of those things weren’t so punk but we’re always being who we are.” To this day they maintain a lifestyle that rivals any 18-year-old trying to find themselves. Dressed in head-to-toe in black, with thigh high leather platforms and ripped leggings, they play shows regularly with their band. “So what if I’m twice, three times your age? If you don’t like it then fuck you, don’t look.”
Finding success in a culture outside of music has allowed them to explore their love for performing. There’s no record label to answer to, no schedules to adhere to, just two women who love to play rock music on stage. Sure, as backup singers they never made the cover of Rolling Stone, but with countless publications splashing their cultural legacy all over the pages for the last 25 years, they’re right where they’re supposed to be. “We’re not rock stars but we still sing. Being in Blondie was an incredible thing,” Tish says of their legacy. “We’ve had the opportunity to be a part of so many incredible parts of culture and that’s really amazing.”
Snooky continues, “Our goal is world domination. We want more than just our beauty to be a household name. We want a whole rebellion—fuck you, a lifestyle brand. We don’t just sell things, we live it. We’re iconic. We’re the American Dream. Life is good, we just need to enjoy it now.”
It would be unfortunate to think that they are not reveling in what they’ve built for themselves but as hard-working bad-asses, the fun only stops when you don’t get out of bed. Their ambitions are as lively as the purple vegan feather boa they send me home with, and I think the Manic Panic brand has a lot more to offer our rebellious sides in the years to come. And yes, you should dye your hair that color you’ve been thinking about since you were sixteen. As Tish and Snooky would say—why the fuck not?