Beauty queens call her the "Golden Goddess."
Melissa Whatley points out a framed note on her wall from Candace Blanchard, Mrs. North Carolina America 2011. It reads, "Golden Goddess, Thank you for sponsoring me with your beautiful tans. I love it."
Whatley, 40, loves it, too. She started her business, Organic Spray Tanning by Melissa Whatley, in 2007 in her friend Kellie Martel's garage.
"People came," she said in disbelief. "They came. I sprayed them and they loved it. It's an art."
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Whatley is an airbrush tanning specialist. Her artist's brush is the airbrush, the instrument for spray tanning, a sunless method of achieving a healthy golden glow. The Artesian products that Whatley uses are organic.
The client stands in front of what looks like a decorative metal privacy screen, but serves as a filtration system that absorbs excess spray. Whatley chooses her solutions, based on a person's skin type, as an artist would choose a color palette.
Whatley spray tans contestants for a host of beauty pageants, including the Mrs. North Carolina America and Mrs. South Carolina America pageants held in February at the Charles Mack Citizen Center in Mooresville.
The Chameleon Studio on N.C. 150, just past Big Daddy's Restaurant, has been home to Whatley's business since April 2010. It is a creative blend of art gallery and salon. Here, Whatley discovered another calling.
Sherri Ball, owner of the salon/gallery, has a passion for art with a vision to support artists in the community. Whatley looks to Ball as her mentor.
Ball put her in charge of the salon's gallery a year ago, at the same time unleashing a love for another kind of brush, the paintbrush. "When I went into The Chameleon and was surrounded by all the art, my creativity just came out."
Now, Whatley's hands are a mix of sun-kissed brown and black. The brown from her tanning solutions and the black from her latest painting project.
Whatley's passions for painting and refurbishing found items and furniture have combined to create an art gallery in her home. She recently moved from Mooresville to the Highland Creek neighborhood in University City.
She peers out from under her rhinestone-studded baseball cap. She was up until 3 a.m. recently painting a side table found behind The Chameleon Studio.
"Tellie," her first creation, was just an idea. "I brought it to life. I sanded it, painted it, and decorated it."
The heavy, old black rotary phone now wears tiger stripes, green eyes with long lush eyelashes, and a straw hat tilted to one side.
The next stop is "Miss Piggy," sitting daintily on the edge of a frame. Whatley found Miss Piggy on eBay. The piece hangs in the living room.
Whatley wants nothing new in her home, so she can bring things back to life.
"I love imperfection," she said. "I'm not perfect myself, so I love things that aren't perfect either."
She loves things that have a story.
Just inside the entryway of her home, Whatley points out her "wall of fame." She began with a nutritional therapy diploma and a St. Mary's College diploma of non-medical nutritional advice. Her latest additions are magazine covers with glamorous photographs of beauty queens, all in her tans.
Whatley and The Chameleon Studio sponsored the 35th annual Mrs. America Pageant at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia March 31-April 14. The 51 contestants wore "tans by Melissa."