Shari Black Velvet: Manic Panic was originally formed in the 70s with your first store in St Mark’s Place, NYC opening on 07.07.77. Since then you’ve grown and grown. What would you say were the hardest times you’ve had with Manic Panic? Were there any times where you questioned whether it was all worth it?
Tish & Snooky Bellimo: We've had a lot of hard times throughout the years but many more good ones! Starting up was a bit hard, because we had no money and no idea what we were doing! Luckily we're resourceful, and we learned how to run a business just by doing it. Since we were living at home with our mother, our only real overhead at the time was the store. We just kept re-investing any money we made back into our business. We didn't take any money out - not even a salary for the first few years. Our business started growing so fast that our manufacturer was not able to supply us. We were having an incredible growth spurt and that was fantastic, but we didn't have the product to ship! We found out later that our manufacturer was selling the product behind our backs to some of our large customers, even though they had promised us that we'd be the only ones they'd sell it to. Our shelves were bare and at the very same time our hearts were breaking because our mother was dying of cancer. To make things even worse a competitor had knocked off our hair color. He even had the nerve to call it ‘Manic Color’ at first, until our lawyer made him stop! He would say anything to get our customers away from us - ANYTHING! He even told people we were prostitutes! Some of our customers switched over to his brand - they were so angry that we couldn't supply them, and they didn't want to hear our excuses. Some of them still haven't forgiven us. But most of our customers were loyal to us, and continue to be today. Another time we went to a ‘Private label’ cosmetics manufacturer to make us an exclusive line of glitter lipsticks. In hindsight we realize we were like little lambs walking into the wolf's den. We told them all our ideas, and they kept us waiting a year for our lipsticks. Right before they shipped them to us, they launched a "fabulous, new, never before seen line of glitter lipsticks" - just like the ones they developed ‘exclusively’ for us. It was then when we thought (for a minute) that it wasn't worth it - but we learned our lesson and it only made us stronger.
SBV: What would you say your biggest break or breakthrough was (and when)?
T&S: One of our biggest breaks was when we lost the lease on our store after 12 years. At the time we thought it was the worst thing that could have happened to us. It seemed like the end of the world, but it turned out to be such a blessing and a new beginning. We were able to totally focus on the wholesale business without the distraction of chasing shoplifters down St. Marks Place.
SBV: You originally sold clothing designs as well as hair colour and other items. Why did you later choose to focus on hair colour and cosmetics?
T&S: Yes, we sold clothing, shoes, accessories - whatever we liked. We'd go over to England and find great sources for stuff that no one else had in the USA at the time. Our competitors in the neighbourhood would send their spies into our store to find out what we were selling and where we got everything. When we'd go back to suppliers, they'd tell us they couldn't sell to us anymore, (even though we were the ones to introduce their products to the US market!) because our competitors told them not to sell to us anymore. Since the competitors had a lot more money than we did, they were able to buy more than we could, so the suppliers refused to sell to us anymore. The only thing our competitors couldn't take away from us was the hair colour and cosmetics. Because our competitors were all men, they didn't know the products - they didn't use beauty products like we did, so they didn't know what to buy, what products and colours women would like, and couldn't compete with us in that category. We knew our customers because we WERE our customers!
SBV: Your products, including your latest ‘Creatures Of The Night’ collection, are cruelty free and many are vegan. When did you first decide you didn’t want products or ingredients tested on animals?
T&S: It was always our dream to have cruelty-free and vegan products - right from the beginning it was what we wanted - we've been animal lovers ever since we were kids.
SBV: You’ve reformulated part of your range to make them vegan. Why did you decide to do this and how hard is it? Does it cost more using vegan ingredients? Are there more vegan ingredients available now?
T&S: Slowly but surely we've been reformulating it - it's getting easier to find vegan suppliers now that more people are asking for vegan products. As there is much more awareness lately, ingredient suppliers are much more accommodating to us than they used to be. Reformulating gets expensive and some vegan ingredients may cost more but it's worth it to us.
SBV: Over the years you’ve no doubt learned about the different ingredients that are made from animals – such as carmine in blusher that is made from crushing beetles and other scaled insects and lanolin in lipstick which is sheepswax. Do you think the general public need to know or care about which animal parts are used in some products? And how do you feel knowing that animals have been killed for cosmetics?
T&S: No blood should be shed in the name of beauty! Yes, the general public definitely needs to know! We're happy to see that people are becoming more and more aware of what goes into cosmetics. As long time animal lovers/animal rights advocates/animal rescuers, we're horrified at the thought of animals suffering in any way.
SBV: Can we expect to see a 100% vegan range from you in the future?
T&S: Yes. We're workin' on it!
SBV: Awesome. Was it ever hard to source ingredients that weren’t tested on animals?
T&S: Yes, years ago, but it's gotten much easier.
SBV: What do you think about how so many products are still tested on animals?
T&S: We think it's cruel and unnecessary.
SBV: You also sell cruelty free, non-feather boas. Tell me about coming up with them. What are your thoughts on boas made from real feathers?
T&S: Feathers are for birds to wear - not us! We always loved the glamourous, Hollywood movie star image of boas, but hated the idea of boas made of real feathers, so we thought that since we were making synthetic wigs and hair pieces, we could make cruelty-free boas made of the same synthetic hair as our wigs and hair pieces are made of. Guilt free glamour!
SBV: Mineral make-up is currently in fashion. Do you have any plans to make any Manic Panic mineral make-up and what are your thoughts on mineral make-up? Could you recreate your bright, punky colours using minerals?
T&S: Mineral makeup is nice and some of our products are based on minerals....there are just not enough hours in the day to do all the products we want to do... maybe one of these days we will....
SBV: You’re both vegetarian. When and why did you become vegetarian?
T&S: Because we love animals. Ever since we were kids we never really liked the taste of meat, so it was easy to become vegetarian early on. The best part of the hamburger is the ketchup, pickles, relish etc anyway, so why not just eat them on a bun?
SBV: You had a dog called Daisy that you rescued and have rescued other dogs over the years. Have you always cared about animals? Do you have any favourite animal memories?
T&S: Our wonderful Daisy May passed away years ago but we always think of her and all the other critters we've lost and feel lucky that they shared their lives with us. Daisy was a pitbull dalmatian mix, who was the sweetest girl in the world. When we'd walk her in the East Village, which wasn't nearly as safe back then as it is now, no one would ever think of messing with us! She'd growl at drug dealers, and anyone else with 'bad vibes' and they'd cross the street. But when we'd take her to the vet, she'd climb up onto our laps and tremble. We've always LOVED animals - ever since we can remember we were practically obsessed with them. When we were kids, our neighbour's cat had kittens, and that was our first real introduction to animals. They made a little 'house' for them out of a cardboard box, with windows and doors cut out, and we'd watch them all day long. Eventually we convinced our mother to let us keep one of the kittens. His name was Felix. That was the beginning of our life-long love of all critters.
SBV: You have a ‘pet of the month’ on your website and promote Pets Alive, a no-kill sanctuary near New York City. What inspired that?
T&S: We had adopted a dog from there - a sweet boy named Keebler who had been rescued in Taiwan, where he had been brutally beaten. His skull had been fractured and he had lost an eye from the beating. He was sent to Pets Alive, a wonderful shelter upstate, and someone sent us his picture. Since we have a one-eyed cat (also a rescue) they thought it would be a good match. They got along great.
SBV: What are your views on no-kill sanctuaries compared to sanctuaries that do kill some of the animals?
T&S: We hope there will come a day when all shelters are no-kill.
SBV: You also have a ‘Good Deeds' page on your website which shows letters from charities and organisations that you’ve donated supplies to, including PETA, the Fund For Animals, ASPCA and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. How did you first get involved in helping charities?
T&S: Ever since we started our business (and even before) we've always been happy to help worthy causes. And the more successful our company becomes, the more we'll be able to help. One of our lifelong goals is to someday open a no-kill shelter of our own.
SBV: You opened a store in Japan, you’ve got a Ukraine retailer, your products have been worn by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga. What particular moments of your career have made you think ‘wow’?
T&S: All of those, plus being asked to speak at various industry events and at different seminars for groups that help empower young women. We're thrilled to be thought of as role models to young girls especially since we're not your average role models! We always encourage them to be themselves, and we tell them that if we could do it, so can they. And that goes for boys too!
SBV: You’ve now opened a store in Venice Beach, California as well as a retail store in Long Island. How much work went into opening the California store considering you’re based on the East Coast, and how do you look after it?
T&S: Opening the Venice, California store was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. It brought us right back to when we opened our original store on St. Marks Place. It was so much work, but so rewarding. And Venice Beach reminds us of our old East Village 'hood. We're lucky to have a great manager out there, Trina, who looks after 'our baby' as if it were her own. Occasionally we're able to go out there ourselves. We just opened a retail store in our headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. It's the worst location (on the 4th floor of an industrial building out in the middle of nowhere) and has the worst retail hours ever (9-5 Mon- Fri) but we love it!
SBV: Do you feel like you’ve achieved everything you have wanted to achieve?
T&S: If that were the case we might as well be dead! We're always dreaming up new ideas and planning out what's next. There's more to come, folks! Life's a gas!
SBV: As mentioned, your first store was at St. Mark’s Place in New York City. St Mark’s Place seems to have gone downhill lately. Where should rockers and punks go if they visit New York and what is the punk/rock scene like in New York now?
T&S: Nothing will ever take the place of CBGB and some of the long gone clubs but some areas of Brooklyn, like Williamsburg, have the underground edge that the Bowery used to have.
SBV: What advice would you give to young people that don’t fit in with society or look different and feel they’re not a part of a group?
T&S: Groups are always starting trouble, just look at this world! It's better to be true to yourself. Who cares if you don't fit in? Being a good person is more important. The right people will always find you! We never fit it, we STILL don't!
SBV: Finally, what was the last thing that made you (manic) panic?
T&S: Going to the dentist!
Visit www.manicpanic.com for more info.