We Are Sunshine

Eleanor Russell: The Original Sunburn Prevention Advocate

Monday, November 13th, 2023

By Matt Russell, Smart Tan CEO

In 1978 my parents ventured south for a sunny vacation in Nassau, Bahamas. This was an annual ritual – escaping Michigan’s dark winter for a week-long respite enjoying the sun. During this particular trip, my mom fell asleep on the beach and got a sunburn like she had never experienced before. The sunburn was so painful, my dad took her to the health clinic on the island where she received treatment for a day and was sent back to her hotel with pain medication and instructions for sunburn care. Needless to say, their spring vacation that year was ruined as they spent the rest of the week nursing mom’s sunburn and waiting to return home.

That very next year, Kellie my fiancé (now my wife) and I came across an unusual small business hidden in the side of a strip mall. The new “tanning salon” business had a home-made stand-up tanning unit and two tanning beds that were made of plywood and light fixtures. We learned that these devices used UV light very similar to sunlight and provided a suntan just like the sun. We also learned that the suntan these devices would provide worked just like a natural tan and would help prevent getting sunburned when we went south for a sunny vacation.

With a family vacation scheduled for later that spring, we suggested my parents give this a try, especially considering Mom’s sunburn experience the previous year. We all visited the tanning salon for several weeks prior to our trip and developed some impressive suntans. When we arrived at our sunny beach holiday, we didn’t look white and pasty, as was typical for northerners who headed south at the end of winter, thanks to our sunbed sessions. And, unlike past spring vacations in the south, we were able to spend considerably more time outdoors our first few days and we enjoyed a sunburn-free vacation.

Mom was so impressed with this new tanning salon concept that she encouraged my Dad and I to open a tanning salon so others could enjoy the benefits of getting a suntan prior to their vacations. And in 1980, the Bronze Villa Tanning Salon in Jackson, Michigan was born.

And so it began, this basic need for sunburn prevention, encouraged by my mother, has taken me on a 43-year journey in an industry where community members provide an important service designed to prevent sunburn and make us all look and feel better. My family’s journey has taken us from owners of a small chain of tanning salons, to the publishers of the first U.S. indoor tanning magazine, the creators of the International Smart Tan Network, the information and education provider for the North American indoor tanning industry, and the developers of the world’s largest indoor tanning industry trade show and educational conferences. As I look back at this long journey I’ve taken with this wonderful industry, I have to wonder where I would be if not for Mom’s encouragement to take that first step, and for my parent’s love and respect for sunlight.

My mom passed away on September 14, 2023 at 89 years old, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and other health issues. Her passing prompted a gathering of our family members who converged on her home to grieve and celebrate her wonderful life. In that process I came across some old photos of mom proudly displaying her suntan, bringing back memories of that particular time when people understood sunlight was beneficial and sunlight exposure just made us feel better. These photos take me back to the days before sunlight and UV were unfairly maligned and the world simply understood nature, in moderation, was good for us.

Click here to read the entire article in the latest issue of Smart Tan Magazine online.