He’s the UK’s first and foremost tanning expert; James Read has taken us from ghostly to glamorous ever since he was first armed with a tanning gun. We asked him how he rose to Golden Boy status and what’s next in the world of bronzing.
When did you decide that tanning was your calling? Was there a defining moment when you realised ‘I’m really good at this’?
I started using tanning wipes when I was 16 years old and really liked the results it gave me. I went to drama school, catering college and trained to be a counsellor, then I worked in retail for years before I got a job with St Tropez.
One day a therapist rang in sick and they had a celebrity coming in, so I decided to go for it and the rest is history. When I started out in tanning there was no such thing as a “tanning expert”, my goal was for it to be seen in the same light as a makeup artist or hairdresser and now I think it is. Who would have thought 14 years ago that tanning would be backstage at Fashion Week?
What was your big break in the industry?
I was the UK's first tanning expert and my dream was to change people’s perception of tanning, from the overly dark tans of the past to real-looking tanned skin. My big break came from all of the amazing support in the industry; beauty editors and experts all played a role in helping and supporting me. I owe everything to Anna-Marie Solowij who believed in me and helped make my dreams a reality. If you believe in yourself you can achieve anything.
Why did you decide to create your own product range? Obviously they are all your babies, but what’s your favourite product from the line-up?
I always dreamt of having my own product range and did all I could to make that dream a reality. I wanted my products to be totally different and innovative; I wanted to step outside the box. To me it's important to be a leader not a follower. I wanted it to be not just about a tan, but also about skincare. It was important that it was fragrance-free, easy to use and a lifestyle product. I wanted the customer to think ‘wow that's cool!’ - a reaction you would never think would be associated with self-tanning.
I use all of my products as they are all different. The Sleep Mask Tan , £25, has taken the tanning world by storm and I think it’s changed how tanning is perceived. It's sold out seven times worldwide, which I am so happy about!
The packaging is so chic - how did you come up with that?
There are many inspirations behind my brand, not least the allure and glamour of tanned-looking skin and how good it makes you feel. But perhaps my main inspiration is the 1970s. 1976 was the hottest summer on record in the UK and coincidentally it was the year I was born. I don’t know whether that determined my career but certainly the decade of disco, decadence and deep, dark tans all came together for me to influence my brand.
One of the images that is imprinted on my memory from that era is of Farrah Fawcett in a red swimsuit with her Californian honey-gold tan. I wanted to create a range of products that would safely deliver this look, and many others besides. Working with the skin’s natural colour tones, this comprehensive range of products will give a natural, healthy-looking colour without sun. The range has been formulated with skin conditioning ingredients to ensure that skin not only looks great, but feels great too.
It has taken me several years to achieve these formulas but I’m so proud of them. I put as much effort into the packaging, too - I believe that any product that you put on your skin should be packaged stylishly so that the whole experience of a brand is the best that it can be. Inspired by the 1970s and referencing an Art Deco bronze palette from the 1920s, the result is minimal but modern and will look good in any bathroom.
Who would you say is your tanning ‘icon’? What is your favourite tanning trend or look?
Deep breath… Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra, 70s icons Farrah Fawcett in THAT red swimsuit, Jerry Hall from the 1975 Vogue shoot, Lauren Hutton, Brigitte Bardot and the supermodels of the 80s and 90s. Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Christine, Claudia Schiffer… and the modern day models such as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
What would be your ultimate tanning tip?
Use a tanning mitt, it’s really the best way to achieve a perfect tan. Also don't over-apply your tan - if you want to layer, then do it on the same day.
Any tanning bugbears?
People who over-apply tan give tanning a bad name!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Meeting people and travelling the world! I also enjoy thinking of new and interesting products that people are going to adore. I really do love my job and I am so grateful for what I have.
Are there any aspects of your job that you find tough?
No I love it all - good or bad it's all part and parcel of the job I signed up for. I always like to stay positive and it's about never giving up.
You see some of the world’s biggest stars naked - how do you keep your cool?
I’ve been doing it for such a long time now it's become part of the norm (my norm anyway!). I always like to have a laugh and I am always the same with everyone. Cheeky is my middle name so it suits me.
You’re the go-to skin finisher for incredible editorial shoots, fashion shows and prestigious events such as The Academy Awards - do you have a favourite brief?
For me it's about real-looking skin, the skin needs to act as a background colour so that it complements the rest of your look - your hair, nails and most importantly your dress. The trick is for your tan not to overpower your look, you don't want it to be the first thing someone comments on.
Do you think that tanning has become a more unisex market? Do you tan many men?
I have seen a massive rise over the last two to three years - the man tan has taken off! More men are buying their own products rather than using their girlfriend’s or partner’s. Tanning is so advanced now that there is no need to be scared of it (or compare it to that famous scene in Friends when Ross has a bad tan). That image of tanning took a long time to go away.
My Sleep Mask Tan seems to be very popular with men as it does not tan the beard, smell or transfer onto the bedding. It’s essentially skincare that has the added bonus of making you look healthy. Men don't want anyone to know, that's the trick. More men prioritise looking good and care about what they put on their skin. The number of men getting spray tans goes up each year, and I get a lot of male clients at The Studio In Harvey Nichols and at the Josh Wood Atelier.
Who are your top people in beauty, health and fitness?
Do you have a specific grooming regime? Is a tan a year-round essential for you?
I love beauty products, I can't get enough of them. I have facials all year round as I like to look after my skin. I use products by Chanel, Tom Ford, Sisley and G0 24·7 Body Wash . I tan all year round; to me going out without a tan on is like being naked.
What do you think is the future of self-tanning? Do you have any more innovative tanning products in the pipeline?
I see tanning becoming even more advanced. The market is changing; new and interesting products come out all the time. I’m launching a new Express Mask Tan which hydrates and tans you in 30-60 mins - there’s a formulation for both body and face. I’m also launching a version of the Sleep Mask Tan for body.
I’ve already started working on next year’s products which are totally different and have never been done before. It's important to me to step outside my comfort zone and bring something innovative to the market.