The Tanning Expert Who's Seen Thousands of People Naked Talks Body Positivity

Updated 04/24/19
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Jules Von Hep has been spray-tanning people for years. He has seen thousands of people naked in his tanning booth save for a pair of paper pants. "I have been staring at naked bodies for a living for 10 years," he tells me. The thing is that I know that whenever I go for a spray tan, I'm very quick to make excuses for the things I feel insecure about. Something like "Oh, sorry, I forgot to shave, I've been so busy!" or "I'm a bit bloated—must have been the sandwich I had at lunch!" Well, apparently, I'm not alone. "I have spray-tanned skin, bronzed complexions and seen—as well as listened to—every single body hang-up out there. You name it, I've seen it. And I've heard it." His advice? Stop apologizing about your body and start celebrating it instead.

Von Hep is a celebrity tanner and founder of the tanning brand Isle of Paradise. He also has a podcast with Sarah Powell called the Jules and Sarah Podcast, which they describe as "fun, lighthearted and predominately nonsense-driven podcasts to uplift, soothe and, essentially, amuse one's ears." They also launched a spinoff podcast called Wobble to explore both our mental and physical wobbles. In short, Von Hep is an expert in helping people feel happier and more confident—both mentally and physically. It's time to read and reflect.

Byrdie: Do you find people get nervous before getting a tan?

Jules Von Hep: It's a real mix. It's not necessarily the actual tan they're nervous of, but more the removal of their clothes, makeup, and jewelry. For me, they bare all. It's my job, however, to make people feel extremely comfortable in seconds. I find they usually get themselves worked up on the journey to me—especially if they have never had a tan before. Those first-time spay tan clients don't know what to expect, and I can see it in their faces pretty quickly.

I once had a client who was so nervous about taking her clothes off that I offered to take mine off too so she would feel better and less self-conscious. She laughed nervously and said, "Okay!" So I did. I stood there with all my wobbly bits out and we laughed. I gave her a spray tan, and she cried after at how silly she'd been. It was a real moment for us both.

Byrdie: What are the common excuses or statements people make before a spray tan?

JVH: Apart from my husband, I haven't had someone see me naked in years.

I can't remember the last time I took my clothes off for someone.

So sorry about my belly.

I'm sorry about my feet.

I haven't shaved—please forgive me!

I'm on my period—is that okay?

I hate my cellulite.

Please make me look thinner!

I hate that tattoo.

I just look so tired.

Byrdie: Do you find a lot of women can see themselves clearly?

JVH: Sadly not. The majority of people I see are harsh on themselves and struggle with comparison issues. I wish I didn't have to say this, but most women desperately want to be the other woman they see in the campaigns or in the images they are smacked in the face with each day."

Byrdie: Roughly what percentage of your female clients are confident in their bodies?

JVH: I wish I could say 100%. I'm going to have to answer this question on how they are on their first few treatments, because in all honesty, you spend five minutes naked with me and you'll forget you're naked. I help build my clients' confidence in their own skin during each treatment. Fifteen percent of my clients are confident in their own bodies when they first take their clothes off for me.

Byrdie: Confidence and inadequacy must manifest themselves in different ways. Have you noticed this? Any examples?

JVH: Confidence is a learned behavior. We are born a blank canvas, and hang-ups, issues and emotions are triggered by what we are exposed to. It's not about what shape your body is—it's about who has said something to you or who you have compared yourself to along your journey. It could be your peers strutting around in underwear before a night out, a school sports teacher, a person on social media who you choose to follow. The more you allow it to sink into your soul, the more it corrupts your view of your own body.

I have stood with a celebrity client as a media story broke nationally about her breasts. The journalist had highlighted in pictures that her breasts didn't fit properly in her dress. I saw the mental bullet hit this client square in the jaw. That then manifested itself deep inside her, and she changed the way she dressed for some time.

I had another celebrity client who had Botox injected into her jawline to lift her skin to stop it from sagging, as another newspaper had commented on her face when she looked down at her notes whilst presenting.

On the flip side, I have seen true growth in body confidence. As a spray tanner, you really witness the journey that your client is on. New mums learning to accept their body post-childbirth; clients who've had a limb amputated and have had no choice but to just deal with it and carry on; burn victims; the elderly person who struggles to stand and has to accept their knees are not as tight as they once were… I have to go to certain lengths to ensure their tan is even. From what I've learned, acceptance is the biggest key to gaining more body confidence. Manifesting is powerful, so it's important we positively manifest and don't repeat our negative thoughts day in and day out.

Byrdie: Are your male clients different?

JVH: My male clients are more discreet about how they feel. Women tend to apologize quicker than men. Men have different hang-ups and tend to joke about theirs as a way of brushing off their insecurities—the "lad banter" is a way of masking over their issues. Things like baldness, love handles, gut and skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis are the main hang-ups I see with my male clients.

Shows like Love Island aren't made to make others feel down or to hate their bodies—they're meant to be a world of entertainment and escapism. This is not a depiction of how the masses! I'm not defending Love Island—I'm just telling the truth here: How you react to seeing a hoard of athletically fit individuals parading around in their swimwear is your reaction. It's your choice to keep watching or to change the channel. Same applies to social media. Just click unfollow, babe!

When we launched Isle of Paradise with our campaign—it wasn't even about using a curve model—it was about using a scale of bodies that represented the women I see week after week in my tanning booth. I was overjoyed and also surprised with how much this resonated across the media and with our audience. I've spray-tanned bodies for huge high-fashion and beauty campaigns, magazine cover shoots and fashion weeks, yes, but I've also stood with thousands of people each month who aren't in that world. I wanted to truly represent the shapes I've seen over the course of my career. Tanning is about giving your skin that cloak of confidence and going out there and owning that body—whatever shape it is!

Byrdie: Can you personally relate to people with body issues?

JVH: Absolutely. It's why I'm so passionate about body confidence. I struggled through my teenage years with who I was. I was severely bullied at school, which took me years to overcome. I was that pudgy overweight teenager who was always picked last. It really has a knock-on effect into your life. I'd skip exercise lessons so people wouldn't have to see me in my gym clothes.

At university, I completely flipped the other way. I finally found a squad—a team! This made my desire to impress and to fit in manifest, but I tackled my body issues by not eating. Consequently, I ended up developing anorexia. For lack of a better phrase, I was a mess.

But then I found beauty and spray tanning. Working each week with naked bodies and listening to every single hang-up on the planet about how a client's viewed themselves (even when I thought they were one of the most beautiful people in the world) made me realize it's all my own stuff. It's my own hang-up. Everyone has issues, famous or non-famous. We all have that bit we hate. And that's cool! So I know 100% how it feels to hate your body, but life is too short to focus on the negative.

Byrdie: What would you say to women who don't feel confident or always apologize for themselves?

JVH: I, Jules Von Hep, have made a whole career out of staring at naked bodies—love handles, fat rolls, wobbly bottoms, naked vaginas, etc. I have seen the lot. And what you have is no different from what an A-lister or an influencer on Instagram has. We all have our hang-ups. Do whatever you need to do to feel better about yourself, whether it's applying self-tanner, getting your nails done, doing a face mask, going hiking, singing in the shower… whatever it takes to make that moment where you look in the mirror that little bit better, do it.

True beauty lies within. Your soul is your true beauty, and that you can see through a person's eyes. Your body is your vessel—whatever it looks like, whatever bit wobbles or you deem ugly. Get over it. It's your body. In my mind, what matters in life is being kind, being you and enjoying however many years on this planet you have.

Byrdie: It's difficult to change the way we think—it takes time since often our internal dialogue has been hardwired in our brains for years. But what steps would you recommend?

JVH: Spend time alone in your home naked. It seems simple, but so many of us cover up and hide our bodies. Feel how your bottom might wobble while you walk, or how it feels to stand in your kitchen—just you and your coffee in the morning.

Stand in front of the mirror and look at your body. Really look at it. Run your hands over your skin from top to toe. This is your shape. This is your greatest tool in life! Even if you hate it, it's important to accept what reality is through touch.

Focus on the positive. Honestly, I'm not the biggest fan of my love handles, but I focus on the parts of my body I like. I love my eyes, I like my lips, I like how I have knock knees. Ask your friends what bits of your body they like—and don't be afraid to do so! You can help each other on this journey.

Listen to our body confidence and happiness podcast, Wobble. My cohost, Sarah Powell, said to me after we finished series one, "Wobble has helped me learn to love my body and embrace my life." Series two will be out on 1 August.

Of course, I am going to say this: Try using self-tanner! Whatever your skin tone (yes, it works on all skin tones), whatever your shape. For me, there is no better feeling than looking in the mirror after a good coat of Isle of Paradise. My skin tone is more even, I don't look as tired and I love myself more. Fact.

Also, follow some inspiring Instagram accounts. On @theisleofparadise, we only talk positive talk. I love @cohlsworld (his confidence is so inspiring), @the_clams is my favorite feminist synchronized swim team from Melbourne and @karenbettsofficial is a makeup artist who specializes in medical tattooing and makeup.

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