When I say that celebrity tanner James Harknett has seen and done it all when it comes to spray tanning, it’s no exaggeration. Harknett has experienced every scenario possible in his 21-plus years in the industry, making a real name for himself. He has tanned supermodels at London Fashion Week, worked on TV shows The X Factor and Dancing on Ice, and spray-tanned celebrities including model David Gandy and actress Juli Stiles. Not to mention he has a popular spray tanning residency at hotel W London and is global creative consultant for Fake Bake.
But, what’s the secret to his success? “Anyone could become a spray tanner but to become a successful one you’ve really got to embrace it. If it is something that’s just an add-on in your salon, then stop it and concentrate on the things you do enjoy,” advises Harknett. “Tanning is a very social job. It’s about meeting people and making them feel good – that person is getting naked with you and could feel very vulnerable, so you have to have the confidence to put yourself out there and calm their nerves.” Of course, Harknett didn’t just land this acclaim, he earned it through years of hard work.
“I started off in 2000 selling bottles of St. Tropez on the shop floor in Harvey Nichols, London. In 2003, I had this idea of bringing in compressors, the first form of spray-tan equipment, to the shop floor and it proved to be really big business. St. Tropez noticed something in me and made me their promotions manager, sending me around the country to promote their product to salons and stores using spray-tan technology,” he says.
“I also knew how to move around people’s bodies with ease and how much product to disperse on someone’s skin tone, as well as at what speed and for how long. My career just grew from there.” His passion for the job took him to new heights, landing important consultative roles at big tanning brands – in 2012 he joined Sienna X as its brand ambassador and in 2016 landed the role of global creative consultant at Fake Bake, which he still does today.
But to be big in the sector it’s not enough to simply “just tan someone”; to stand out, you have to be one-of-a-kind, as Harknett explains enthusiastically.
Tricks of the trade
“You have to create an experience for your client – you are not hosing them down like they’re a car,” he jokes. “I look at somebody like they are a blank canvas and I want them to look in the mirror post-treatment and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was going to look this good’. If you make the experience personalised and enjoyable, then ‘bang’, they’ll be your customer for life.”
The key is making people look good in the guide colour of the product so they can go out and not feel self-conscious, explains Harknett, but this is actually harder to achieve than it sounds, which is why he is launching a new course this year. “I’ve been writing the James Harknett Tanning Masters during lockdown with my friend Sophie Tate, who is a top spray-tanning trainer. Before coronavirus, I used to tan between 50 and 70 people per week, so I’ve had feedback from thousands of clients with different skin tones about how the tan has affected them,” Harknett says.
“That’s how I’ve come up with a different set of preparation and spray-tanning techniques. People will come on my course and almost become a make-up artist in the tanning world. I’ll teach them how to look at the client’s skin and the solutions they have in stock and trust themselves to pick the right one to give that person the most perfect tan.
“It’s about understanding that every single skin tone is different and that not every product suits every skin type.” The course will launch later this year and the hope is that it will give tanners’ businesses a much-needed boost post-lockdown.
“Getting a tan now is part of people’s beauty regime – like getting their nails or hair done – and we need to maximise on that now more than ever,” he says. “I mean, I’m worried about the future, of course. What if no one books when I reopen? What if people have other priorities? Then, I remember that spray tanning is an affordable treat and a real pick-me-up during these tough times. Plus, with all the staycations that are going to be happening in the UK this summer, people will want to look good for those and that will be a big market for tanners.”
When it comes to making the career jump from local to national-known tanner, Harknett admits that landing TV work can really help, but there’s no set way to achieve this. “Say yes to every job. You have to have that fire in your belly and make yourself available.
“It was when I was working at a Terrence Higgins Trust charity evening event that I met Brian Friedman, a choreographer who was working on The X Factor TV show. I gave him a face tan that made him look airbrushed and he loved it, and that’s what got me through the door at the show,” says Harknett.
Words of wisdom
However, if you don’t live near a TV studio, Harknett advises using other media to get your name out there when you reopen. “The main way I built my business is via recommendations, so reach out to your local influencer, gazette or magazine and offer them a free tan. I think I’ve done more free treatments in the past 21 years than anyone else and the thing is, I don’t look at it as a freebie. I look at it as selling myself, my skill set and the spray tan experience,” he says.
“If they write just one line about you in the paper, or do a Tweet or Instagram Story about you, then it’ll boost your business. The first article about me was in Essex Magazine and they did two lines about my spray tanning service. I got four clients out of it, which was a big start.” Also, if you’re a mobile tanner, Harknett advises reaching out to other local businesses in the area, such as gyms and spas, to team up. For example, setting up a deal where you do one day per week spray tanning in their establishment.
But, when it comes to using social media to raise your profile, Harknett says tanners need to take a more bespoke approach. “If someone is looking for a spray tanner, they don’t necessarily go on Instagram and put in #besttanner. Instead, use your social media as your shop window, with good-quality images showing off your body of work,” he says.
“Then, once you’ve got a rapport with your clients, you can ask them to tag you and mention that they had a professional finish by you. This is showing off your skill set in a much more organic, word-of-mouth way.”