Four decades ago, sisters Tish and Snooky launched a successful business in a male-dominated industry, pioneered the rainbow hair market, and gave a figurative but notable middle finger to “The Man.” This year, Manic Panic celebrates its 40th anniversary—an impressive feat for any entrepreneur, but even more so for two young, punk-rock women in the 1970s. Their secrets to their staying power are particularly relevant in today’s climate of disrupting the status quo.
How did a boutique in NYC’s East Village grow into a cult beauty brand that counts Kim Kardashian among its fans? It started with genuine passion, which is what guides every brand decision. “Our brand is such a big part of us. We just do what we do,” the sisters explain. Long before lifestyle brands were ubiquitous, Tish and Snooky authentically lived their brand story. They were original members of Blondie’s lineup and regular fixtures among NYC’s rock music scene. Their brand attracted the likes of Rihanna, Cher, and Cindy Lauper—the kind of organic marketing a company would pay a pretty penny for today. Essentially, the sisters embodied their own target market, and that resonates with the consumer.
Sisterhood was another driving force behind the Manic Panic success story. Raised by a single mother in the Bronx, the sisters had a strong, independent female force as their North Star. “We got the determination and creative problem-solving gene from our mom,” Tish says. Their mother’s resourcefulness in providing for her girls even when money was tight inspired them when they confronted their own obstacles. “We figured things out logically, thinking out all possible scenarios ahead of time,” she explains. And when plans still went awry, the sisters “got really good at creative, fast problem-solving.”
It was that inherited gumption which motivated the young sisters during a time when female entrepreneurs were especially rare. “We weren’t taken seriously as young ‘freaky-looking’ women. I remember a man in the store saying ‘I need to speak to the owner,’ and he would not believe I was the owner. He said, ‘I want to speak to the man.’ We weren’t taken seriously by banks or vendors,” Snooky recalls. But despite being scoffed at by the men in the industry, Tish and Snooky prevailed. The sisters agree that “it’s easier to face adversities when you have a comrade. We can’t imagine going through it alone.” But although they benefited from a partnership, bouncing ideas off each other and having a shoulder to lean on during the rough times, they acknowledge it’s not necessary for a successful business: “Some may not need one. It’s different when it’s family.”
It seems almost fated that their 40th anniversary would coincide with the largest feminist movement of the 21st century, both in terms of diversity in beauty and empowerment in the workplace. Rebellion is ingrained in the DNA of the Manic Panic brand, and they’ve remained true to that mindset for the past 40 years. To this day, they’ve never taken on outside investors, and yet have managed to hold their own against billion-dollar beauty empires. “We wouldn’t even know how to rebrand,” Tish and Snooky agree. “It’s all organic, it just happens.” The pair hopes when girls learn their story, they walk away from it feeling emboldened. “People can learn it’s women’s time now,” they say. “If we can do it, they can do it.”
Photo by Manic Panic