Lynda Baker might have been "the darkest person in the Super Bowl."
She's the Coppertone-tan manager of "The Sun Club," a tanning spa appropriately nigh to P Street Beach. The club and a sister salon in Alexandria use UV-A radiation, which is "different from the sunlamp rooms," safer, she says, though dermatologists say there's still no such thing as a risk-free tan. One doctor points out that rear ends, seldom turned sunny side up, rarely wrinkle or freckle.
But if you're set on sunning, tuck yourself into a Solana sun bed -- a clean, well-lighted affair that looks something like a high-tech waffle iron. Get onto the well-scrubbed glass-bottomed bed in your birthday suit if you're bold, or in a swimsuit "if you prefer tan lines." Over the top is a glass lid, which, like the bottom, is loaded with tubes that look like fluorescent fixtures. The lid adjusts, to just a few inches above your nose if you're not claustrophobic, to several feet overhead if you are.
Like a pig in a blanket or a bun in a microwave, you bake for 30 minutes if you're fair, longer if you're dark; there's a timer on the bed. Each room, with locked door for privacy, has a photo-wall beach scene -- Bali-Hai, Bimini, Bermuda, Barbados or the Bahamas. There are sunglasses, contact-lens cases and solutions, towels, robes and radios in the rooms. Hair sprays, shampoos, showers, curling irons, blow dryers, moisturizers and fresh orange juice are just outside.
Regular baskers include "doctors, lawyers, TV people, all of Panache's models," says Baker, lounging in her white wicker rocker in the Florida room, papered with a giant fern mural. "And we have all the hairdressers. Robin hangs out here." Robin? "Nancy Reagan's stylist. We have ABC News people. And waiters and maitre d's from all over. For them, a tan means tip money." (Like Aristotle Onassis said in "Ten Secrets for Success": "Sun is money. Keep a tan even if you have to use a lamp.")
Models come in regularly. "Three times to get cameraready," says Baker rapid-fire, in Valley Girl glib. Three visits, half an hour each, give you a little color, so you need less makeup. "People are supposed to work better with a little color." Six to seven visits will turn you a perfect tan. Weekly visits maintain the glow. The first visit is complimentary; the cost is $12 thereafter or $100 for 10 visits and another complimentary. Three visits ready the pale for Caribbean sun. "Loads of honeymooners come so they won't get sick in the islands."
It's not as hot as Cancun or a sauna; it's like sunning at 11 on a white sand beach in Martinique, with a trade wind blowing. There are big propeller fans overhead and strategic breezes blowing into the sun-fed cocoon.
You do sweat. At least several ounces. "Women tend to sweat more," says Baker. "Men don't retain as much water. Women can lose up to two pounds in water weight." And, she adds, it's great for muscle aches and menstrual cramps.
Baker claims that psychiatrists send depressed patients for winter pick-me-ups; dermatologists send patients with acne or psoriasis; and one gynecologist sends himself. "He's so cute. Black as a berry."
The Sun Club staff are professionals -- "I'm a sun worshipper and Roger [Mies, her assistant] is from Florida." They give their all in emergencies. One business man had an uneven, peeling tan from sitting on a boat in Rio. "It looked gross. And you can't go to a business meeting looking like hell," explains Baker, Nightingale to the sunburnt. "Now his skin is soft, smooth and even all over."
"This is the up-and-coming business," she confides. Owner Sandra Sullivan made more in her first six months than her husband's dental practice of 30 years grossed that year. Sullivan's original partner, Helen Menard, later started a separate, similar business, The Sun Room in Georgetown. And Sullivan is just opening a second Sun Club in Virginia. It's decorated in crystal, brass and antiques and "offers the elegance and design of a southern plantation," according to its brochure.
The Alexandria locale also has a passive exercise machine. Richard Simmons would be mortified. "Your body becomes beautiful while you lie there," says Meis. "Little pads attached to your skin send electrical impulses into the muscle to keep it developed. It's cosmetic to an extent and was developed for paraplegics."
"You looked peaked," says a client to Meis, who admits he should get some artificial rays. "That's our business -- to keep tan."