Tan lines: The Ulster woman taking us beyond the pale

Alyson Hogg
Alyson Hogg

Fake tanning has become a national pastime, as growing numbers of us seek to achieve the sort of olive-skinned glow that bespeaks lengthy summer holidays in Martinque. Pasty is out, the quintessential complexion du jour is honey-hued.

And here in Northern Ireland, where spotting a ray of tan-worthy sunshine is almost as rare as hen’s teeth, fake tan is increasingly spreading itself across the nation’s epidermis, with users claiming it makes them feel younger, covers flaws and imperfections, and even makes them look slimmer.

There is a staggering array of lotions and potions on offer: anti-ageing tans, moisturising tans or tans that promise almost everything apart from getting up in the morning and driving the kids to school. But one product which is gaining cult status has been developed right here in Northern Ireland, and that is Vita Liberata.

Stars such as Harry Potter actress Emma Watson and Hollywood A lister Leonardo Di Caprio both love the brand. Singer Alicia Keyes and actress Sofia Vergara and have also given the products glowing reviews.

But the tan’s creator, Alyson Hogg, 54, who is probably the best advertisement for the products, standing 6ft tall and looking beautifully sun-kissed, yet natural and healthy, says she loves it just as much when the products are endorsed by anyone, not just celebs.

‘‘It is really lovely to have it so well recognised, but for me, and I’m not been cheesy when I say this, anyone that I meet who loves the product is as important as a Hollywood star.’’

Vita Liberata - the name means ‘free life’ - was borne 14 years ago as a frenetically busy Alyson tried to juggle academia and raising her young family.

She explains: I was trying to do a PhD (in Philosophy and Psychology) whilst I had five small children to look after, two stepdaughters and three of my own, and I just couldn’t get the PhD done.

‘‘At one point I was standing trying to read Carol Gilligan, who is a very famous feminist author, whilst stirring a pot of spaghetti Bolognese, while trying to help my youngest do her homework and I wasn’t doing any of them right, so I just thought something’s got to give.’’

So Alyson, who describes herself as ‘‘flexible, tenacious and determined’’, decided to forego the PhD and set up in business.

‘‘I thought that going into business would be easier than a PhD, and as I come from a business family I didn’t really have a fear of doing that.’’

However, she admits that she soon discovered business is ‘‘way harder than a PhD, way harder.’’

Alyson always had an interest in skin, borne out of concern for her mother’s painful psoriasis, and she thought she could build a business around multi-function skin care.

But it was a suggestion by her pale-skinned assistant Cherith (who still works for her), which made Alyson decide to enter the bronze age and apply her golden touch.

‘‘Cherith was only about 18 at the time and she would come in every day either bright white or a pale shade of orange. She asked me would I make tanning, but make it better.

‘‘That was the impetus that got me into the lab and got me sorting out what was wrong with tanning and making it right.’’

And so, with the help of three pharmacists, two formulators and 30 different attempts - Vita Liberata was formed in 2003.

‘‘We took it to market and it was a success straight away. We stopped selling skin care so much and started selling tan,’’ said Alyson.

As popular as fake tanning is, users do often cite issues such as the chemically enhanced biscuity smell, strange tea stain patches around the knees and elbows and clothing necklines that look they have been worn by hordes of unwashed schoolboys.

It was these issues, said Alyson, which Vita Liberata sought to address, when it was formed,

‘‘The majority of tanning solutions on the market were not without their downfalls, often the formulas smelled bad, left streaks, dried out the skin and left users looking orange. We wanted to create a tanning experience that was actually pleasant and for once gave natural looking results that were kind to the skin.

‘‘I ultimately believe there were two essential elements involved in achieving this: revolutionary skin chemistry and a woman’s touch. It took the combination of a great chemist and someone who uses and cares passionately about the end product.’’

Vita Liberata subsequently stormed the market and revolutionised sunless tanning and is still basking in the glow of its success.

But, in a super-saturated sunless tanning market, what sets Vita Liberata apart from it’s competitors?

‘‘One, it’s organic, that’s very important. Two, it is also technologically so far ahead of anything else. This is a skin care beauty product that gives you a glow and that is the difference, so it is coming at it from a different place and approaching the problem from a different angle.

‘‘That challenge from Cherith to make it better, that has really spurred us on to elevate the category, so people now don’t necessarily think that tan is a joke,’’ said Alyson.