Tish + Snooky on Manic Panic, Blondie and the heyday of downtown
The boldly-haired duo, Tish and Snooky Bellomo, might just be the coolest sisters around. You may recognize their names from the labels of their iconic hair color brand, Manic Panic, or perhaps you’ve seen their faces in photos alongside Debbie Harry from their stint as backup singers for Blondie— nevertheless, their ubiquity in the New York City scene is far from a recent feat. Driven by the vivid subculture of the city’s golden years, Tish and Snooky’s life together has been far from dull.
Native to Manhattan, Tish and Snooky are true products of their environment, embodying the energy and eclecticism the city so proudly facilitates. As most New Yorkers do, they spent their childhood migrating throughout the state— to different boroughs, upstate to Mahopac, and back again— taking a piece of each location with them to the next. “As little kids our favorite place to live was upstate in the country,” Tish says. “There were so many kids in the building and we could run around free all day [and] into the night.” Tish and Snooky spent their early days upstate exploring their innate performance skills, putting on puppet shows out of their ground-floor bedroom window. “We were always singing and harmonizing together ever since we were little kids,” Snooky says— “always entertaining.” Charm and curiosity are two things these sisters have evidently never lacked.
Eventually, Tish and Snooky grew into their teens and the Bellomos moved to the Bronx, which they came to appreciate for a paralleling reason. “When we were growing up in the Bronx, we could take the train into the city and go out all night,” Snooky states. The music venues and shops downtown quickly became their teenage playground, welcoming them in with open arms and sparking a cultural intrigue the countryside simply didn’t have to offer. The world was a different place in the 70’s and 80’s, where Tish and Snooky felt innocently limitless.
The New York City from Tish and Snooky’s youth is something twenty-something-year-old’s today can only read about— hopping from CBGB’s to Max’s Kansas City, attending crowdless Ramones shows, paying affordable rent. They were drawn into the music, the clothes, the danger— “the neighborhoods were shit,” Tish says. “But artists could be artists without having to worry about a huge rent.” Tish and Snooky ran casually about the city with some of the most pivotal shapeshifters and legendary artists we iconize today, and served as a central force within the punk movement of the 80’s. Yet just as these sisters paved the way for the city’s punk scene, their relationship to their surroundings was symbiotic— they thrived off of the energy that radiated from the people and culture around them.
“We’d run across the street from Bowery Lane Theater to CBGB and perform there with Eric Emerson, who was an Andy Warhol superstar. Punk hadn’t really developed quite yet— it was just starting. Our friend Gorilla took us over to CBGB one night and told us we had to see this band called the Ramones. So we went and there was no one in the audience. It was us and Gorilla and the Ramones. We used to laugh because we were their only female fans. After we joined Blondie we’d often be on the same bill— they’d be opening for us, or we’d be opening for them— it really was a small underground secret society.”
If there’s one thing about the city that hasn’t changed, it’s the fact that— as Tish and Snooky prove— life is all about connections. “We were on the scene going out, going to shows,” Snooky explains. “I remember being in the dressing room of some band that was playing, and we overheard someone talking about [how] he needed two backup singers.Tish tugged on the tails of his clear plastic tuxedo and said, ‘We’re backup singers!’ and then we were his backup singers.”
Another fact that remains true of the city is that finding your footing is a slow but steady ride. After their initial debut, another fortuitous opportunity revealed itself. “Chris Stein came to one of those shows and saw us, and asked if we wanted to come to their rehearsal and sing back up. We did, and we were in the band,” Snooky says. “It was very organic back then, it was such a small scene and it was a in a transition period. We were with underground people and it was way more interesting than being in one tiny scene.”
The transition Snooky refers to is that of glam-rock to punk, and it happened to coincide with their new exploration into the world of business. Soon after joining Blondie’s crew, Tish and Snooky decided to open a shop on Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village. They named it Manic Panic, and it was immediately deemed the first punk store in America. This venture only seemed natural, as Tish and Snooky had, by this point, established a killer sense of style.
“We’d go thrift shopping with Debbie Harry— she’d take us to her favorite places and we’d take her to ours— and that’s where we got our stage wear. Everyone always liked what we were wearing when we were out at clubs or performing and asked us where they could get it. We decided we’d open a store as a sideline from our singing career selling what we love.”
Tish and Snooky kept Manic Panic stocked with a combination of refurbished vintage, unused vintage, and a variety of hair dyes. They sewed and knit their own creations, and brought back things to sell from their travels abroad. “We’d go on buying trips to England and bring things back that no one had here, and we’d bring things to England that no one had there,” Tish says. “We were kind of international traders.”
Manic Panic became a one-stop shop for all things punk, and hair dye was essential to their offering. After a falling out with the company they were importing dye from, Tish and Snooky hit the books, researching until they found the man who invented their favorite hair dye formula in the 50’s. He agreed to make their product, and Manic Panic became the hair dye brand it’s best known as today. The brick and mortar store saw many homes throughout the years— from Saint Mark’s Place, to Tish’s boyfriend’s studio apartment, to a once-crash-pad of Jimi Hendrix, to a TriBeCa loft, to their warehouse now based in Long Island City— but 40 years later, Manic Panic dyes rank high on the lists of beauty editors and punk-revivalists alike.
Tish and Snooky admit that, at the time, they considered that Manic Panic might have broader subcultural implications. “We were Manic Panic by day and CBGB by night,” Snooky says. “We strengthened the movement and drew a lot of attention to the scene. After we opened, other punk stores started opening and trying to sell the same things.” But what differentiated Tish and Snooky from their competitors was that they were real— they had an intimate connection with the underground scene, and lived it out in every aspect of their subversive sisterly world.
The connections Tish and Snooky created in the 80’s— to friends, music, and a liberating subcultural scene— played a major role in their lives and ultimately shaped them into the women they’ve become. “It was a music revolution,” Snooky says, “and it was so much fun to be apart of.” The underground scene brought to Tish and Snooky a life of passion filled with music and good company, but today, the sisters have a hard time connecting with the downtown scene that’s replaced their beloved subculture— the main issue being it’s lack of conduciveness to new artists and overly-homogenous crowds. A location like Max’s, where artists and creatives of all ages and niches came together as one, is relatively absent in New York City today. Despite what’s now gone from Manhattan, Tish and Snooky are contented by the crowd still lacing up their Doc Martens and coloring their mohawks with Manic Panic colors, but above all, they recognize the sheer beauty and enduring nature of their unbreakable sisterly bond.