For almost 40 years Tish and Snooky—the sisters behind bold, beloved hair-dye brand Manic Panic—have been inspiring generations of nonconformists to express themselves with decidedly unnatural hair colors: pastel pink, grungy green, bright blue. And if anyone could convince people of all ages that neon hair is cool, it’s these two. The sisters not only started their careers as singers in the original Blondie lineup but were the proprietors of America’s first punk shop on St. Mark’s Place in New York City in 1977 where they sold clothes, accessories, and hair dye brought back from the UK.
Tish and Snooky recognized early that hair dye needed to become their primary domain, and—working from their apartments—they created the now-iconic Manic Panic brand. At the time, their customers were mainly friends and members of New York’s punk scene, including Cyndi Lauper, which made sense given the sisters’ rock and roll background.
“We were women and we were performers,” says Tish. “We knew what we liked and what people like us would like. We knew what punk rockers would like, so we started to focus on music. And hair cosmetics were part of that.”
Nearly four decades later, they’re still inspired by music and its storied subcultures. Their most recent product launch—a selection of pastel dyes dubbed Creamtones—shares a name with another musical act the two were once a part of.
As someone who cycles through multiple hair colors (sometimes in the span of a few weeks), I knew long before talking to Tish and Snooky that Manic Panic offers some of the most unique colors out there. Plus, with colored hair all over the runways and on celebrities these days, there’s never been a better time to try it yourself. Because of that, I caught up with the original punks of dye to talk about their iconic brand, the best way to get optimal color at home, and things you should know before painting on your Manic Panic.
StyleCaster: Since the Manic Panic brand is so heavily rooted in DIY culture, what advice do you have for choosing a color?
Tish: Usually people pick colors that they might wear as clothing, complement their skin tone, or make them feel good. It’s not always the same color. It can change. We always feel that change is good, and a lot of people, especially here who work for us change their hair all the time to all different colors. If someone works in an office, they might want to do a color that is more conservative or just do highlights. Someone who works in a club might want to use one of our really bright colors that glows under black light. It all depends on lifestyle, mood, and skin tone.
Is there one color that flatters all?
Snooky: Yes and no. I think purple. If I had to choose—that light lilac. It looks good on so many people. It fades out really pretty. I had my hair purple, and I’m going back to it actually very soon. No matter what stage it was at, no matter how light it got, it still looked nice.
What’s better: throwing caution to the wind or carefully doing strand tests?
Tish: We always recommend a strand test. Just because of the texture of the hair. Your friend could do the same color and get amazing results, and you could do the same and get terrible results if your hair isn’t porous enough or if there’s too much brassy tone in the background. We always tell people, if you can, you’ll be much happier. You’ll know what it will look like.
Snooky: If you haven’t bleached your hair, or even if you do at a salon, they don’t get even results. It could take way brighter on the roots and darker towards the tips. It’s always good to know—you can lighten it if it looks too dark after doing the strand test. One color might come about pastel on another person and very dark on another.
A lot of people want the exact color in the jar, and get disappointed if they don’t get that result. What are some of your must-do tips?
Snooky: If you want the exact color in the jar, it’s best to bleach your hair as much as possible to get the true color. Do a test strip with the bleach to see what your hair can tolerate. Some people can bleach their hair over and over again, and they’re fine. People with very fine hair may experience breakage. They should always wash the hair many times after they bleach. If there’s any residue when they put the hair color on, it could process and lighten it.
Tish: We can’t stress that enough. If you do lighten your hair, you have to get the bleach out totally before you go to the next step. I wash my hair at least three times. At salons, I insist that they wash my hair three times, sometimes more if there’s a lot of residue. Some stylists like to pile on the bleach really thick. I’ve had my hair done once, sat in the chair, and watched the color disappearing in front of my eyes because the bleach hadn’t been removed. I could feel the residue in my hair. From then on, I said I’m not going to be polite anymore. My hair gets washed three times with shampoo.
What about for the actual process of applying Manic Panic?
Tish: It’s always important to protect the hands and skin around your face and ears, especially if you’re using a darker color. Put Vaseline around your hairline and wear rubber gloves. It will stain your hands.
Snooky: You have to start on really clean, unconditioned hair. Between the dye and your hair, even if you’re not bleaching your hair, you have to wash it and make sure it’s really clean. Then you dry it and apply it. We always suggest that first you use a clarifying shampoo or some type or shampoo that will open up the cuticle so that the color will soak in better.
So, how do you ultimately know if a color will work on your hair?
Tish: If you’ve got a black shirt, you can’t dye it yellow. It all depends on the base. You have to remove the color and then dye it yellow. Whatever the base is, the color is going to go on top of that.
Snooky: If you put a blue over yellow hair, it will come out more green. Yellow and blue make green. You need to know the color wheel if you’re starting out fresh or doing a new color. You can find that online. If you’ve done your hair Electric Sunshine and then you put purple on top, you’re probably going to get something that looks kind of brown. Yellow and purple make brown. We always suggest that people look at the color wheel.
What advice do you have for achieving multiple colors?
Snooky: We would definitely say that you should get a color-safe shampoo and wash and rinse your hair in cool water. Hot water tends to blend colors more than cool water. That always helps.
Tish: Then at the end, I always end it with cold water to seal it in and close up the cuticle. Most over-the-counter hair colors, especially semipermanent, say to do a final rinse in really cold. It does close the cuticle and makes it stay in better.
Snooky: You’re brave.
Do you think unnatural hair colors are more mainstream now than they were during the years of punk rock?
Snooky: Oh, they weren’t mainstream at all in the olden days. It was a badge of courage if you colored your hair. We would be tortured for it, laughed at for it, and just made such fun of. Especially when we went out of Manhattan. Now it’s just so mainstream. It’s in the magazines, on the runways, now all the big brands are copying it and doing it. We never dreamed that one of our dye-hards, Fernanda Ly, would be Louis Vuitton’s model and a Manic Panic–er. We love it.
Tish: Even Justin Bieber. It’s everyone. People want to look like them. It’s on models on the runway. I think it’s a manic, manic, manic, manic world. Everyone’s turning manic right now. Straight-looking people—if you don’t have it—you’ll be the odd ones soon.