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Why was Elvis so tanned?


Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, was known for his deep tan and bronzed complexion. Throughout his career, Elvis’ skin tone was noticeably darker than most white performers of the era. This led many fans and critics to wonder – why was Elvis so tan compared to others?

There are a few possible explanations for Elvis’ perpetual tan:

He was naturally olive-skinned

Some sources suggest Elvis had an olive complexion that tanned easily. He was born in Mississippi and was of mixed Scots-Irish, Scottish, German, French Norman, and Cherokee Native American ancestry. His natural skin tone may have been darker than the average white performer. Genetics likely played a role in his tanned appearance.

Time outdoors in Memphis weather

Elvis grew up and lived most of his life in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis has hot, humid summers and mild winters. As a child and teenager, Elvis spent a lot of time outdoors riding bikes and playing sports. Later, his time off was often spent relaxing by the pool. The Memphis climate provided plenty of sun exposure to tan Elvis’ skin.

Influence of African American music and culture

Elvis was heavily influenced by African American music genres like blues, gospel, and R&B. He grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and was one of the first white artists to publicly perform rock-and-roll. At a time when segregation was still common, Elvis’ tan may have been interpreted as an embracing of black culture. His skin color was a physical representation of his musical influences.

When Did Elvis’ Tanning Begin?

Elvis Presley was not always the bronzed performer he became later in life. So when did his pronounced tanning start?

Early childhood

There are no accounts that Elvis tanned excessively in his early childhood. Photos of Elvis as a baby and toddler show his skin tone was fair and typical for the era. Any tan acquired as a young child was likely just part of everyday play.

Teenage years

During his teen years, Elvis started developing a noticeable tan. Memphis provided plenty of sun, and long days swimming, boating, and playing football were common activities. Photos from the mid-late 1940s show Elvis’ skin tone darkening compared to earlier years.

Early music career

When Elvis’ music career took off in the 1950s, his tan became an iconic part of his look. His first TV appearances and early films showed him with brown, sun-kissed skin. Biographers note Elvis seemed to get a kick out of showing up to recording sessions with a deep tan from time by the pool. His tanned complexion was a radical departure from most white male performers at the time.

Tanning Habits

Once he was famous, Elvis had the time and means to devote himself to intentional tanning. What were some of his tanning methods and habits?

Sunbathing by the pool

Whenever he was home in Memphis, Elvis spent hours lounging poolside to soak up the sun’s rays. At Graceland, he had a large pool built so he could tan in privacy away from fans. Friends report he loved slathering on baby oil or cocoa butter and tanning for hours behind his sunglasses.

Tanning salons

Elvis was an early adopter of artificial tanning methods. He visited tanning salons as early as the 1950s to maintain his tan. Salons used early tanning lamps that emitted UV rays allowing customers to build up melanin and color without direct sun exposure.

On-set tanning

While filming movies in Hollywood, Elvis had limited time outdoors. Studio employees were assigned the task of setting up sun lamps on set and in his dressing room to keep his tan going. Elvis was able to maintain his signature bronze look under the hot glare of movie lights this way.

Impact on Fashion and Culture

Elvis Presley’s distinctive tan broke cultural norms and influenced male beauty standards in the 1950s and 60s.

Challenged assumptions

Deeply tanned skin was associated with outdoor, blue collar laborers before Elvis’ popularity. His tan and style challenged assumptions that tanned skin was lower class. Elvis helped pioneer the association of tanned skin with leisure and luxury.

Inspired new male beauty ideal

Pale complexions were the male beauty standard in the early 20th century. Elvis’ popularity established tanned skin as an attractive, sexy trait in men. His influence led to the spread of tanning among American males.

Increased business for tanning

Elvis helped drive a huge boom in the tanning industry. The opening of tanning salons, sales of tanning oils, and popularity of men’s swimwear all increased after Elvis debuted his tan. He demonstrated the profitable market for bronzed skin.

Health Effects

While Elvis’ tan was iconic, some have speculated whether the extent of his tanning was healthy. Heavy tanning, especially at a young age, is now known to increase skin cancer risk.

Sunburn risk

With the limited knowledge of sun protection in Elvis’ day, his hours of unprotected tanning likely led to repeated sunburns. Sunburn causes permanent skin damage and increases melanoma risk. Elvis was fortunate to avoid any serious sunburn complications.

Premature aging

Tanning accelerates aging of the skin by degrading collagen and elastin over time. Elvis’ tanned appearance likely contributed to his increasingly gaunt, wrinkled look later in life. Artificial tanning further ages skin due to intense UV light.

Skin cancer concerns

Prolonged tanning greatly increases the risk of all skin cancers, especially melanoma. While Elvis did not develop skin cancer, medical experts agree his lifestyle was very high risk. His complexion shows the cosmetic damage of unprotected UV exposure.

Later Years

In his final years, Elvis was less focused on maintaining his tan and turned to prescription drugs and overeating for fulfillment.

Declining health

As Elvis’ health deteriorated due to prescription drug abuse, his time tanning poolside declined. Painkillers and sedatives suppressed his energy and motivation to follow his prior rigorous tanning routine.

Weight gain changed appearance

Elvis became bloated from prescription steroid use, thyroid issues, and overeating. His naturally thin frame grew heavy, making him look pale even with tanned skin. The contrast between his face and body was less pronounced.

Avoidance of public appearances

Elvis spent his last years as a recluse at Graceland. He avoided concerts, interviews, and filming due to mental and physical health issues. With limited public appearances, maintaining his famous tan was no longer a priority.


Elvis Presley’s bronze complexion was an integral part of his public image and groundbreaking sex appeal. His natural olive skin tone and extensive time tanning in Memphis sun contributed to his radical look. Driven by genetics, identity, and vanity, Elvis’ tan broke barriers and remained an obsession throughout his career. While glamorized in its day, his dangerous tanning habits also serve as a period warning against excessive UV exposure. Just as Elvis left behind a legacy of hit songs, his iconic tan continues to inspire images of The King decades after his death.