Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino cut the ribbon on his tanning salon in Middletown, New Jersey on March 1 of this year. He made it 103 days before being accused of bouncing checks and 111—to this past Tuesday—before being arrested there for fighting his brother. Yesterday, I took a drive down to the most heated tanning salon in America.
Though Boca Tanning Club has 26 locations in Florida, New York and Texas, The Situation and his family were the first to open a franchise in New Jersey—the state on whose shore Sorrentino found fame and enough fortune to fund a relatively low-risk business venture. The partnership is particularly harmonious because it was Sorrentino who coined The Jersey Shore's most memorable catchphrase: "GTL," which stands for "gym, tan, laundry." Could there be a tidier finale to this season of The Situation's life than his being arrested for assault in his own tanning salon? You can take the guido out of the reality show, but you can't take the reality show out of the guido.
You can tick two boxes off the GTL checklist at Middletown Plaza, an immense but dreary strip mall as close to Route 35 as a pimple is to a chin. The plaza's main attraction is a sprawling ShopRite whose employees all either looked eligible for their parents' health insurance or Medicare. The Situation's Boca Tanning Club is sandwiched between a UPS Store and a yogurt shop. A few storefronts down is an 11,000 square foot Retro Fitness.
The salon's storefront is drab and unassuming except for red neon lights lining the windows and a small poster of three tan women huddled together, grinning widely.
Inside, Boca Tanning Club tries to transport customers' minds to another place. But not to Boca! The company's website touts each store's "rainforest décor," which seems so obviously incongruous with the Boca theme that one figures the Tanning Club is going for "somewhere, anywhere where you currently are not." The Situation's Boca Tanning Club expands on the knock-off Rainforest Cafe motif by weaving in scenes from the African plains. A mural depicting an elephant wading in a lake under the watchful gaze of couple meerkats covers the wall outside the main tanning rooms. My room was decorated with an oil painting of a zebra. It didn't make me feel like I was on a safari. It did make me wonder if The Situation is a secret painter.
Given that it was 2 p.m. on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, Middletown's Boca Tanning Club was empty except for two people and the insistent thump of house music. One was Melissa, an extremely nice and helpful employee whose skin color was the shade of a gold Sharpie; the other was a male friend of hers whose arms bulged out of his black tank top. I walked in as he was explaining to Melissa that he had nothing to do today except go to the gym and come back to the tanning salon. His clothes must have recently been washed.
I asked Melissa to walk me around the salon, and she obliged, showing me all of Boca Tanning Club's equipment, which, to someone who has never been to a tanning salon before, looked very nice and high-tech. At the end of the hallway was a makeshift spa area, which was mostly just a sink, some lotions and a stack of rolled-up towels.
This post-tan relaxation spot is possibly where The Situation and his brother Frank pummeled each other in the face; a 911 call placed during the fight identified the location of the brawl as "in the back" of the salon.
After the tour, it was time for my tan, the first of which is free for all customers. All that Boca Tanning Club asks for is standard contact information, a brief medical history, and four versions of your right index fingerprint, so that you never forget that tanning is an extremely serious business and fraud will not be tolerated. Melissa also suggested I purchase an $11 packet of Australian Gold Dark D Light bronzer, so I did.
My tanning bed was what she called a "Blueberry"; with its blue glow, it resembled a medical capsule from a sci-fi movie. Melissa took a few minutes to explain to me how to use the tanning bed. Because it looked slightly terrifying I tried hard to remember exactly what she was saying, and thus forgot everything. After stripping down to my underwear I laid down on the bed, which began speaking to me with the voice of a robotic woman.
The experience of lying in this extremely nice tanning bed was, frankly, amazing. The surface is made completely about of hard, clear plastic, but it is contoured so well that it is actually comfortable. The heat was noticeable but not oppressive, and it produced the same faint burning sensation you feel from the sun's actual rays on a hot day. Directly over your face are an array of panels that allow you to control the temperature and airflow throughout the bed, as well as the volume of the music, which can be your own if you plug your phone into a cord just above your head. I chose to let the salon's music—Sirius XM's electro station, which stretches the definition of electro—play, partly because it felt more authentic, but also because I was enjoying it.
Boca Tanning Club strives to help patrons imagine that they are not in a strip mall off a New Jersey highway, but somewhere that is both peaceful and exotic. The kind of place where flamingos graze near tide pools of clownfish; where zebras lumber across a coconut-strewn beach. I didn't feel that, but as I laid inside this gadget, staring up at an array of red symbols, I really did feel like I was in a rocketship.When it shut off I was legitimately sad, despite the fact that I was no longer being literally burned. I doubt that Elon Musk could design an appreciably better tanning bed. If I had suddenly been hurtled through the roof of Boca Tanning Club I would have happily ridden this tanning bed to space.
Before I left I asked Melissa if The Situation comes around often and she said that he "surprises us." She stressed that he is a nice guy, and though she wouldn't talk to me about his fight with his brother, I could tell that she thought it was no big deal. As a satisfied customer of his tanning salon, all of this seemed plausible to me.
I walked out of the empty store feeling happy for The Situation. He owns a pretty solid business, at least for those of us not on the receiving end of his bad checks. As I stepped into the rain, I realized I would never again judge a strip mall tanning salon by its violent owners and public legal troubles.
[images via Jordan Sargent, Getty]