Going for gold: Tan queen Marissa Carter doesn't care if you think she has a hard neck
Marissa Carter is not noticeably brown. Her palms definitely aren't stained. There is no tell-tale pooling around her hairline, or on her neck. She is, quite literally, an ad for her Cocoa Brown self-tan.
"I know it sounds like a cliche," says Marissa, laughing at herself, "but I would not go out the door without a tan. Not just since I have the business. Ever. I was about 16 when I started. I was one of the early adopters of St Tropez in Ireland. I would save up my pocket money for the big bottle. Oh, I knew tan from an early age.
"I go a little lighter on my face," she explains, "but I'm the Ultra-Dark shade all over. And I'm a Sunday-night tanner. Some people are a Thursday-night tanner, so they are fresh for the weekend, but I feel like my working week is when I need to look right. I need my tan Monday to Friday, and at the weekend, I'm off. At the weekend, I'm as make-up-free as I can be, unless I have something to go to. Weekends are flat shoes, hair up in a bun, no bra - if I can get away with it. I'm as off as I can possibly be.
"So I spend the weekend scrubbing it off, and then, on Sunday, my tan goes on again," says Marissa. "I'd have a [salon] spray-tan for an event, but I use the mousse at home. I had to bring out the man [tanning] mitt for my husband, because he has big hands and he was getting tanned on the inside of his wrists when he did my back. So we brought out the bigger mitt. I never thought it would sell, but it sold out in weeks."
She laughs at the success of that launch. A sell-out product based on a canny observation on Marissa's part. Not her first and not her last, I'll bet.
The week that I meet Marissa, her Carter Beauty cosmetics have been launched in Canada. A couple of weeks after we meet, before the publication of this interview, she's going on the QVC television shopping channel in the US, hoping to finally get a foothold there. Her products are sold across New York State in the pharmacy chain Ricky's NYC, but QVC could be one of those big breaks that takes a business to an entirely different level.
"I'm nervous and thrilled and excited," says Marissa, who sent over showreels of her appearances on Xpose to prove her performance ability. "I feel like this is make-or-break for us. I feel like it's now or never. I'm 100pc punching above my weight on QVC in the States, but maybe that's been my thing so far.
"In the early days, I'd hear stuff about myself, like, 'Oh, that one has a hard neck,' or, 'The neck on her'."
This didn't necessarily bother Marissa, who, in appearance, seems a delicate, dainty little thing, but, in how she presents, she is no-nonsense, matter-of-fact and able to roll with the punches.
"When things are tough, my inclination is to push harder. But I've learned lessons along the way," she says. "Now, I try to hold myself back more, talk less, listen more."
Years of beauty trade shows, Marissa says, have allowed her to observe and absorb how other successful business people go about things. She's been a magpie, she concedes, and it has stood to her, professionally and personally.
Marissa Carter's parents were both 17 years of age when she was born, the first of their eight children. She grew up in Whitechurch, Rathfarnham, and her dad was a waiter, while her mother worked in the home.
"Whitechurch was a council estate," says Marissa, "but my parents were from Cabinteely, so they kind of wanted me and my brothers and sisters to go to school around there. Then my nana had heard there was a really good school in Monkstown, Scoil Lorcain, so we all went there and my parents drove us down and collected us every day.
"Going up and down from Rathfarnham to Monkstown meant I had two different groups of friends," she says, "and when I look back now, I think that must have been something that helped me be able to build relationships with lots of different types of people. And I think in sales, that's important.
"I don't know if chameleon is the right word," Marissa says, "but I think living in Whitechurch made me street smart, and going to school in Monkstown gave me good manners, and then being the oldest of eight made me very bossy. And I think I definitely always wanted more. My mum says I always wanted more than what my parents were able to provide for me."
Marissa was 11 when she first felt the reality of this. She loved basketball - "all five feet of me" - and wanted to go to a basketball summer camp in Tralee. There wasn't the money, however, to pay for the camp, and her parents had to explain that. Marissa was briefly heartbroken, but then, inspired by a sponsored readathon, she turned a Frosties box into a sponsorship card and canvassed friends and relations for donations.
Marissa went to basketball camp. And learned that if you wanted something, you needed to go after it. Today, over tea and scones, with Chanel studs in her ears, she laughingly explains that she recently took a tenner from her seven-year-old son, Charlie, when he wanted a movie on Sky that they didn't have already. She's very aware that her children, Charlie and his little sister, Isabelle (four), will never want for anything the way she did, but she wants them to know the value of a few quid, too.
Charlie has become aware, recently, that people approach her in public because they know her as the very recognisable face of Cocoa Brown. He asked Marissa if she was famous, and though she said no, he pointed out that strangers know her and that her name is on every pink-and-white bottle of the self-tan.
"He said, 'If you're famous, how come we're not rich?'" Marissa says with a laugh. "It's all relative!"
Marissa did primary and secondary school through Irish in Scoil Lorcain and then Colaiste Iosagain in Dublin's Mount Merrion. After that she studied marketing and management with French in DIT Aungier Street. She took "a year off" after first year, when she failed four of her seven exams.
"I blame booze," she says. "My parents were very strict and I didn't have a drink until I was 18, so I started college and did what every young person does - decided to have a hooley."
A friend told her that a beauty school on Grafton Street was looking for a receptionist and Marissa's "eyes lit up" at the idea. She went and met Lorraine and Careena Galligan who run the Galligan Hairdressing and Beauty College, and that was that. Marissa took a year off college and never went back or looked back.
Pushing for more
She asked if, as well as the job, she could take a place on their beauty course, which cost a couple of grand at the time. The course was full to its 12-person limit, but the sisters said yes and squeezed Marissa in.
So you were always pushing for more, looking a little further than just the job in hand?
"Being a cheeky bitch?" Marissa answers. "Yeah, I hadn't thought of it that way, but yeah."
After a year as receptionist, Marissa got a promotion and started to help out with teaching classes. A year after that, she was teaching classes on her own, and all the time training up, pushing further. Ultimately, as her employers must have always anticipated, she left to set up on her own.
"It was 2005," she recalls. "I had two grand saved and I got a loan for the same again. The salon was the laundry room in the house in Kilmacud that I was renting with four young fellas. Four months in, the landlord rang and asked if I was working out of the house. I said no, but I knew the gig was up. The neighbours were obviously complaining about the traffic and the women in and out for their nails and their facials."
She packed up her stuff and rented two rooms above a nearby hairdressers. "I hired my first girl and that was the start of Carter Beauty," Marissa says of her salon business, which later moved to Blackrock, and is not to be confused with her current Carter Beauty cosmetics line.
It's clear from how she recalls those times that these were exciting times for Marissa, always moving onwards, seemingly in a steady upward trajectory. And then the recession hit.
"The recession was brutal," she says. "It was really hard. And people stopped spending €60 on a facial, but they were still spending €15 on a spray tan. Tan and nails hung on in there."
It was that awareness of tan as an almost essential bit of grooming for Irish women - and some men - that sparked something in Marissa, though it was five more years until she launched Cocoa Brown.
"And 2012 was really bad," Marissa says of the low that came before founding her self-tan business. "I had just come through a Revenue audit where they told me I owed 50 grand that I didn't have. They set up a payment plan for me, and two weeks before that, I went on maternity leave with my first baby. We were renting because we had bought an apartment for more than 300 grand in Carrickmines and it was worth less than half that, and it only had one bedroom. We were in negative equity and owed so much money, and we were having the baby. I was thinking, 'Jesus, it can't get worse than this'. I was in a place where I thought, 'It can't sink any lower'."
While this must have felt like a professional low point for Marissa, she had personally been through hell in the previous years.
Before becoming pregnant with Charlie, Marissa had three miscarriages that almost shattered her belief that she could ever be a mother.
"The first time I was about six or seven weeks [pregnant]," Marissa explains. "Then I was eight or nine weeks the second time, and then the third time I was 13 weeks and thought I was out of the woods, so that was difficult."
With her last miscarriage, because she was beyond the 12-week point, Marissa and her husband, Ronan O'Flaherty, had told people she was pregnant, but the first two times, they had told no one. She told a few people what had happened, but told them rather than talked to them about it, and how she felt, and the grief and anxiety that came with it.
"Miscarriage isn't spoken about unless you've had one," Marissa says, "so I didn't have any friends who had them that I knew of, and it was before the 12 weeks, so you don't talk about it, and I felt very lonely and isolated.
Shrouded in secrecy
"And people don't know what to say to you," she adds. "They don't know whether to bring it up with you because they don't want to upset you. And it's hard." She also says that we minimise the significance of a miscarriage compared to say, suffering a stillbirth or losing a child.
"For me," she says, "I felt like a mother the minute I found out that I was pregnant. I was planning where to put the changing table and you start thinking about names, and wondering if it's a boy or a girl, and imagining what kind of mother you will be. And then that's taken away from you, and it feels taboo to speak about it with people, because there is an unspoken societal rule or norm that you don't tell anyone you're pregnant until after 12 weeks, and that shrouds miscarriage in secrecy.
"It means that no one knows why you're sad or why you're taking time off, and that secret is a lot to carry," Marissa explains. "Now, I think I'd tell people I was pregnant before the 12 weeks. You have to respect people who don't want to tell before that point, but equally I don't think we should make women feel that they shouldn't tell before the 12 weeks. Miscarriage happens, and it happens a lot, and it happens mostly in those 12 weeks, and there are so many people isolated, pretending to have the flu and pretending to be OK."
By the time she became pregnant with Charlie, Marissa had started to believe that she might never be a mother. She says she had "imposter syndrome" almost up until he was born, convinced it was not going to happen.
"When I was pregnant on Isabelle, I didn't feel worried," she says. "I should have, probably, but I wasn't anxious that anything would go wrong. It had left me. The sadness I felt at those miscarriages doesn't diminish, but the anxiety that I will never be a mum has gone. The two don't cancel each other out, and that's probably the misconception - you have a baby, so it's all grand now, but it's not.
"Some people get peace from keeping quiet," Marissa concludes, "but some people need to talk about it. I just want people to have the choice. You're not in the wrong if you want to share it."
The idea for Cocoa Brown self-tan had probably been in Marissa Carter's head for many years, but it was during the recession, when she saw her business struggle and through her struggle to have a baby, that she really found a determination to make it happen.
"I thought, 'We need brown tan in Ireland. We have all been orange for far too long'," Marissa says. "I have been through all the products and all the mistakes. I look at photos and see that I was positively orange at times."
She talks about how the name was born out of a conversation with a cosmetic pharmacist who was making samples for her. Everything was coming up far too orange, she told him, she needed something "cocoa brown". The initials were those she had used for years with Carter Beauty, they fit with her logo. It felt right, and the cosmetic pharmacist got the colour right, too.
Then she landed upon a cosmetic journal paper about an ingredient, DMI, that worked as a carrier of ingredients in acne products, but had also proven effective in making self-tan work faster. Thus, she had the know-how to create a non-orange one-hour tan, the first one-hour tan in the world, in fact.
"It caught on amazingly fast," she says. "We launched in November 2012, nine months after my first child - 25,000 bottles sold out within nine weeks. We increased the order to 50,000 bottles, and it sold out in five weeks. Now we do batches of 250,000 at a time."
From the start, Marissa was the face of Cocoa Brown. It was inextricably linked to her blonde, petite, California-glow image. She was then, as now, a good ad for it.
"I didn't think that it was crucial that I was the face of the brand," says Marissa. "I thought that it was free. Now we can afford to have our lovely Thalia Heffernan here, and our lovely Olivia Buckland in the UK, but in the early days, it was me. I instinctively knew we needed a face, but since then, you read people like Steve Jobs saying how important that is. It's a human face, and all the bigger brands are now trying to seem smaller and be real, but that was something I did, not with any marketing knowledge, I just did it because it was free."
She laughs now about hearing reports of comments on her "hard neck" in the beginning, but you can tell she has no regrets. She's worked hard and, Marissa concedes, she's had good luck, too.
Straight to spam folder
Before the 2014 Oscars, the people who run the awards ceremony's gifting suite contacted her and asked if Cocoa Brown would run spray tans for the stars and contribute to the famous celebrity goodie bags. Marissa laughs to recall that she sent many of the initial emails to her spam folder, imagining them to be nothing more than a nuisance. They hadn't sought out the Oscars, after all.
Instead, an American visitor to Ireland had picked up a bottle of her tan in the airport on their way home. They happened to be friends with the person who runs the gifting suite, who tried the tan and was impressed, and that was that.
"I think we had 11 Oscar nominees in a for a spray tan in the days beforehand," says Marissa. "That gave us a taste of the US, and we got some great coverage for it."
She then explains the circuitous route of contacts and collaborations that led her to spray-tanning Kylie Jenner, whose endorsement also worked wonders for Cocoa Brown. "We were spray-tanning Kylie for a long time before she had her own empire," Marissa says with a laugh.
Empire seems to be what Marissa Carter is after, too. Cocoa Brown is always innovative - with travel sizes, the larger mitts, the ultra-dark shade to meet modern demand for a deep tan and, now, a vegan tanning oil. Last year, she launched her Carter Beauty cosmetics line, and it's steadily growing in popularity, with a nice bump recently from Ariana Grande who wore one of the eyeliners in her latest video.
It's always about moving forward and, in recent years, Marissa's husband Ronan left his job in business banking to come into Cocoa Brown with her. He was one of the housemates in that house where she ran the first salon out of the utility room, Marissa explains with a laugh.
"My friends said, 'You can't score your housemate'. And I said, 'I can'. And I did, and I married him."
It's all come a long way, and while Marissa Carter appreciates that, she also sees a long way to go yet. She wants more, she always has, but it's more than that. Call it hard neck, call it self-belief, but she's not shy about pushing forward.
Does Ronan self-tan? I ask. "No," she answers with a laugh. "He has red hair and freckles."
"He travels to trade shows a lot, though, and he was demonstrating tan for people and his hands were covered in it," she adds. "I gave him a bottle of our Self-Tan Eraser and said, 'Wash your hands in that and it will come off'. He rang me and said, 'That's really good stuff, actually'.
"I said, 'I know, hun. I really know'."
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine