Mar. 31, 2008
"Give me the gun!" blonde bombshell Janelle Perry commands me.
I feel like a criminal thwarted by one of Charlie's Angels, except that my gun is more like a blow-dryer. It fires a mist of dihydroxyacetone, a clear chemical that George-Hamiltons the top layer of your skin.
Today, I'm an airbrush technician at the newly opened Sunset Tan at Palms Place, which Perry manages.
"You're staying in one spot too long!" Perry continues.
The mist must always move. This is the first of the tan commandments. Apparently, I slowed perilously down over the abdomen of 18-year-old Las Vegas resident Jordan Giannoni.
"You were (expletive) her up," Perry insists.
This, I suspect, is an exaggerated reaction. Sunset Tan, a Los Angeles-based chain of six salons, is the subject of an E! reality TV series with the same name, which features arguments between Perry and her co-workers that are suspicious in their relation to reality. On the show, Perry won a fierce competition for the Palms Place position. ("There was no competition," Perry boasted earlier.)
Truth be told, there's not too much that can go wrong in the airbrush tanning arena. If you goof, you just darken everything else to cover it up -- like I did with my friend Dave Lieberman's head once, while Photoshopping it into a picture with Heidi Fleiss that I posted on the Internet.
That orangy cream that made an Oompa-Loompa appear above my name in my college yearbook is apparently a thing of the past.
"But there is a limit," Perry explains as she fixes Giannoni. "You can apply too much solution."
Perry, 28, grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., acquainted with tans of the sun-caused variety.
"I'm a total beach bum," she said. "I love playing beach volleyball, laying out -- all that stuff."
After taking drama classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the 5-foot-11 beauty moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling and acting. In 2004, she became the entertainment reporter for a show on Playboy TV.
"Then the show got canceled and I spent all my money," she said.
Perry approached two of her friends -- Devin Haman and Jeff Bozz -- whom she heard were opening a tanning salon.
"I was like, 'Can I have a job please?' " she remembered.
The pay for a beginning airbrusher is $8 an hour plus a commission ranging from 2 percent to 12 percent. (The more you earn relative to your co-workers, the more commission you receive. "It makes you push harder to get your numbers up," Perry said.)
My first real client has arrived. (Giannoni was only practice. She's the brave, and now very dark, sister of one of Sunset Tan's publicists.)
"I'm going to see a show tonight," reports Ashley Hoffart, a 21-year-old college student from Houston who has paid $75 for an airbrush. (Had she flashed a Nevada license, she would have received 25 percent off.)
I tell Hoffart to relax. The job of airbrush technician involves holding the spraygun vertically for the legs and trunk, and training it sideways -- gangsta style -- when misting the arms.
Besides keeping the gun moving with the trigger pulled, and avoiding the soles of the feet and palms, that's pretty much it.
"It's really not that difficult to do an airbrush," Perry admitted. "For the salespeople, I require experience. For the airbrush technicians, I don't."
In Los Angeles, Perry and her associates applied their tanning skills to Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, among others.
That means they've seen them naked -- or at least topless -- since celebs are allergic to tan lines.
Unfortunately, employees don't tan and tell. As consolation dish, Perry told me they're expecting to bronze Jessica Simpson at this store soon -- she owns a Palms Place condo -- although only Mario Lopez and Robin Leach can officially be confirmed as Vegas clients for the reality show's upcoming second season. (I told Perry to notify me if they line up a member of the Blue Man Group, so I can test my theory that involuntary overexposure in a tanning bed will turn him purple.)
While female customers have the option of tanning both without the sun and any clothes whatsoever, men must wear boxers or a bathing suit -- celeb or not.
"Guys always want to do the airbrush naked," Perry said. "Always. Every time. I tell them they have to wear boxers and they go back there and -- 'Oh, sorry!' -- they're naked."
Perry said she would only airbrush one man boxer-less, and it's not Robin Leach.
"If Brad Pitt wants to get naked in front of me," she said, "he can go ahead."
Speaking of Brad Pitt, Perry also tanned me. She insisted. A sunless tanner who looks like me is like a lung doctor who coughs. For the first time in years -- at least for the three to 10 days it will take my luxurious new hue to wear off -- I am not at risk of getting lost in a Mount Charleston snowdrift.
I'm almost finished with Hoffart's body -- the part I'm allowed to tan anyway. (In a minute, Perry will close the door to more completely prepare her for the strapless dress she will wear tonight.)
"You did a good job," Hoffart tells me. (Although the dihydroxyacetone takes four to eight hours to fully react, Sunset Tan pairs it with a temporary bronzer, so the client immediately sees how the tan will look.)
I never doubted myself. This is one gig I came to with previous experience. There was my extensive pressure-propelled fluid training as a Tao Beach pool mister. And I also engineered a tan once.
Not my own, of course, as anyone who views my photos on a regular basis can guess. During one spring break in Acapulco, I cut the outline of a highly unprintable body part out of cardboard and placed it on the chest of my friend Dave Lieberman as he slept on the beach.
Perry bursts out laughing.
"I'm sorry," she tells Hoffart while pointing at me. "You really thought he was an actual employee?"
As difficult as it may be to believe, this is not the first time a beautiful woman has pointed at me while laughing.
"Yeah," Hoffart replies. "He followed instructions well, and you were telling him he did good."
Dave Lieberman and I are no longer friends, by the way.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.