Thursday 19 October 2017

Orange is the new Black - waging a terrible battle with fake tan

Just like Hughie Maughan, Donal Lynch waged a battle with the tan bottle, but he no longer dares to be brown
Heavily tanned dancer Hughie Maughan performs with Emily Barker during RTÉ's 'Dancing with the Stars'. Photo: kobpix
Heavily tanned dancer Hughie Maughan performs with Emily Barker during RTÉ's 'Dancing with the Stars'. Photo: kobpix
Donal Lynch

It's still very difficult, in 2017, to take male vanity seriously. Corporations that try to sell us stuff, they take it seriously, and Louis Walsh knows it's no sniggering matter, but, to the rest of us, it's a bit of a joke. You see it in the way we treat male and female vanity differently. If a woman loses her hair, it's all counselling and fun runs and ribbons of support, whereas if a man loses his hair, he just gets open derision from his mates and (creepily) targeted ads for plugs on Facebook. If a woman has to have a mastectomy, it may well be the subject of a photo essay about how brave she is to embrace her new body. Whereas if a guy develops moobs, he just gets gags about buying a bra.

I thought about all this a while ago as I watched what was dubbed Hughie Maughan's "fake tan disaster" on Dancing With The Stars. Underneath this headline, a pair of huge, hopeful eyes blinked, like those of the Dalmatian that falls in the soot in 101 Dalmatians. Hughie was a deep-mahogany, Donatella Versace-in-August kind of colour. It did look a bit alarming. Had he been a girl, the tan would, at most, been the subject of some Daily Mail sidebar tutting. He would be a subject of pity. But, because Hughie is a guy, and a Traveller, there was open mockery from all sides. Death threats came from Americans, who presumed he was in blackface, taking the piss. And the RTE make-up artist said something like she tried to wrestle the bronzer out of his not-brown-cos-he-forgot-to-do-it hand. As soon as Dancing With The Stars was over, Hughie got even browner. And everyone wondered, is Hughie going to be the Amy Winehouse of fake tan?

I took this all in with the weariness of a survivor who once waged my own brief, terrible battle with the tan bottle. I was 22 and going through the standard 1990s-southside-boy thing of wearing a solid head of Dax wax with Ben Sherman shirts and horrific boot-cut jeans. I had not yet made peace with my mousey grey Irishness. I didn't realise that most people worth listening to are translucently pale. I just wanted to be all golden-coloured, like a German exchange student or a porn star. So I went into this salon in town, and wore their paper underwear, and got sprayed by a girl who winkingly told me I was the third guy that day. Still, I did feel like this had to be the guy equivalent of the boat to England. The shame and secrecy, for one thing. The cash payment. The humiliation of being prodded by strangers. The new life awaiting. Yet, nobody was marching for my rights.

There is a moment when you emerge from these places and rejoin society, and you have a choice: do you 'fess up to your enhancement, or do you lie through your teeth and just pretend you got a colour? With jaw-dropping brazenness, I opted for the latter. "I'm just back from Spain," I told friends, who wondered where they'd seen me before. I was Bollywood brown. I was the colour of Hughie. Except, had I been a Traveller, a better name would have been Blackie.

It was, by today's high standards, a fairly tame moment of youthful experiment. It wasn't like I was getting someone's name tramp-stamped on me, or having permanent eyebrows tattooed on (those will always be the dream). But still, I had to be punished. I left a trail behind me, like a slug. Hotel sheets looked like they had the skid marks of a giant on them. Plus, the tanning liquid turned my beard red, so I looked like a sort of ginger Pakistani; not in danger of getting laid, but certainly a possibility for a flight watch list.

In the long, dark years since that disaster, I have managed to stay clean and dry. Not a single sponge or air gun has been aimed at me. I still appear as though I bathe in milk on a daily basis. And when I look back at the self who thought tan was a good idea, I realise it's really not that shameful to be so vain. It takes tremendous self-belief to be overly brown. It might help you charm everyone on Big Brother, or it might take you to the White House. Or it might, very simply, help you to brazen out the statement, "I've just been outside in the sun a lot lately".

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