My Great Fake Bake Experiment

If having a killer tan could turn Sarah Palin into a vice presidential candidate, what could it do for me?

Albany, N.Y., is an indoor tanning mecca, a hotbed of hot beds. There are more than 800 tanning salons in the greater capital region. Four-term Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings presides over ribbon-cuttings with a year-round bronze. At the historically Catholic college where I teach, students grow more preternaturally orange as winter progresses.

I have never fit in here. I was pasty-faced even for Brooklyn, and when I moved to this tanner’s Valhalla I became even more freakishly white. And so, half anxious to fit in, half curious to learn the appeal, I decided to embark on an experiment in which I would join the ranks of the fake-baked to see how a deep, midwinter tan could change my life.

If Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could see me now, he’d compliment me on my tan, just as he did our president-elect shortly after the election.

Day 1 When I arrive at Miami Sun Tanning on the outskirts of town, I tell John, the manager and owner, that I want to get as tan as possible before Christmas. He takes me under his wing. “We’ll get you on a special program,” he says, and points me toward my first bed: the Solaris X2 by TanAmerica.

With its glowing handle and purple mood lighting, the X2’s interior recalls a Chevy van I once owned. Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” blasts from its speakers. I put on my sun goggles. Memories of summer days at the Jersey Shore, my ancestral homeland, fill my head.

Day 2 I take the train to New York City for a poetry reading in the East Village and notice immediately how pale everyone is. Silently, I pity them. Is it the New York poets’ desire to retain a Keatsian tubercular countenance that holds them back from the joys of lampbeds on Christopher Street? Or is it the creative class’ aversion to the déclassé trucker tans of the manual laborer? My first-stage tan is subtle to the eye, but already I’m feeling superior.

After all, I’ve now joined the ranks of Real America. One in four teenage girls has tanned indoors, and men, who make up about a quarter of all tanners, represent the industry’s fastest growing demographic. Tanning is as American as a monster truck rally. Britney Spears’ acolytes tan. The Gotti boys tan. Sarah Palin tans, and she effectively coined the phrase Real America. As the newest member of the $5 billion tanning industry, I feel closer to my country. Patriotic, even.

My poet friends, ensconced in their elitist New York hipster bubble, are clueless about my new look. “You look good,” an old poet friend tells me after the reading. “Did you lose weight or something?”

Day 3 Last week of classes before winter break. Flurries swirl in the air. As I field final exam questions, a few of the browner students cast sidelong glances. One finally speaks up. “Did you go to a tanning salon?”

I smile, and cop to my new tan. Like a real-life version of Facebook, I have SuperPoked the students with the “Talk About Tanning” meme. We cross-chat about which salons they go to, compare monthly package prices, place arms side by side to compare hues.

If I were Malcolm Gladwell, I’d brand Day 3 the tanning tipping point. If I were Thomas Friedman, I’d devote a chapter to this new, flat world of tanning. Me, I’d just call it my first day as an official card-carrying member of the fake-tan club.

Day 5 I call Miami Sun to arrange my first spray tan session, and John the manager warns me to bring an umbrella. “You don’t want the rain to hit your skin,” he says. “There will be streaking, and it won’t be pretty.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Naked inside the Mystic Tan Spray Unit, I hold my forearms parallel to the ground. The cold mist makes me feel like a car at a brushless carwash. Brown drops line my hairy legs. The active ingredient in the spray tan is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the same as in over-the-counter bronzers. The chemical affixes itself to dead skin cells and produces a brownish tone.

That evening, my wife pushes me away as I put the moves on her. “You smell like a French fry,” she says.

Day 7 I do an eight-minute session at a salon near campus. I should note here that the tanning bed is quite a pleasurable experience—the ultraviolet rays release endorphins under the skin. One study found 27 percent of habitual tanners exhibited qualities of “ tanorexia.”

After the session, I spend the rest of the day meeting with students. They compliment my darkening tan. Later, while lunching at a nearby bar, I notice that every waitress and prepster’s skin glows from lamp-born UV radiation. I sing along to Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner,” a song I can usually only tolerate in the summer. Perhaps it’s because my face is emitting its own sultry heat.

If Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could see me now, he’d compliment me on my tan, just as he did our president-elect shortly after the election.

Day 8 “Looking good!” shouts Steve, an employee at my gym. “Keep bangin’ those reps out.”

Why the compliments? The only time Steve’s ever mentioned my appearance is to note my profuse sweating. It has to be the tan. Steve, like everyone else at this gym, is a fake-baker.

Day 9 As an inverse test of my level of bronzeness, I attend goth night at a local rock bar.

Normally I’d fit right in—my typical near-albino complexion is a road map of banister-bumps and ingrown whiskers. But now, thanks to my new life on the tanning salon circuit—Jamaicametan, Get Tanalized, Tansmania, Tanzibar, Sunbelievable 4—I’m a traitor at this bar, a glowing symbol of what goth rock fights against: the shiny, happy people who tan. The goths regard me blankly—not glaring so much as simply not seeing me, as if I don’t exist. It doesn’t matter that I know and enjoy this music. My new tan has marked me as “other.” I guess this is what they mean when they say you can’t go home again.

I return to my apartment, watch two episodes of the vampire drama True Blood, and go to bed.

Day 10 There is a photo I keep of my mother, sister, and me meeting my late Republican stepfather for the first time. Taken in 1987, after I spent the summer in Ocean City, N.J., working as a parking attendant behind Steel’s Fudge on the boardwalk, it is the only photographic record of my being darker than my sister, a self-avowed tanorexic.

“Try the tingle cream,” she texts me when I tell her about my experiment. “You haven’t suffered for color until you have.”

Day 12 In the 2006 horror flick Final Destination 3, Chelan Simmons and Crystal Lowe go to a tanning salon. Improbably, a couple of broomsticks fall through the tanning bed handles, locking them both inside. Their flesh sizzles. Flames encircle their blistered bodies.

This is how I feel today when I use the tingle cream.

I slather my body in Swedish Beauty Black Diamond cream with “Tingle Tanning Power.” The active ingredient is Benzyl Nicotinate (niacinamide), part of the drug group of vasodilators that widen blood vessels. Others vasodilators treat hypertension, help with boners, and plump up lips. Used in creams like Black Diamond, it oxygenates and flushes the skin’s capillaries, allowing more melanin to brown.

For 12 minutes in the Sunstorm 44/4 tanning bed, armed with 11,000 watts of “extreme tanning power,” my skin tingles, then toasts, then torches. Even the Feist CD I’ve brought with me can’t reassure me I will make my way out alive.

Day 13 My daughter does not recognize my face this morning when I lift her out of the crib.

Googling “dark suntan,” I come across a 2003 Cindy Sherman photo, “Untitled (Woman in Sundress),” in which the conceptual portraitist portrays herself as an orange-skinned lady who lunches. Looking at it, I fancy that I, too, have transformed myself for art. But this has become more than just a quirky experiment. I don’t want to leave Real America. I don’t want to lose my daily dose of tanning-induced endorphins. My wife looks at me in horror when I admit I’ve come to enjoy my tanning sessions.

“You’re going to keep doing it, aren’t you?” she asks, holding her breath. Don’t be silly, I tell her.

Maybe just once a month. As maintenance.

Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen I and II and is currently finishing How to Be Inappropriate , a book of essays. He lives in upstate New York and teaches at The College of Saint Rose.