The Extremely Large Life of a Suntan-Lotion Mogul

If it weren’t for Ron Rice (1940-2022), there might not be a Tiffany Trump. Confused? Let’s begin at the beginning: Rice grows up poor in the mountains of North Carolina. At some point, the family scrapes together enough money for a vacation in Florida. Rice sees the ocean, is smitten, and vows to return someday. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he lands in the Daytona Beach area, and cobbles together a four-figure-a-year income coaching high-school football, teaching chemistry, and working as a lifeguard. This does not satisfy him. Also, what doesn’t satisfy him—especially during his lifeguard stints—is the limited choice of suntan lotion available at the time. Like Walter White—that other enterprising chemistry teacher—Rice decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets a garbage can and a broom handle and stirs up a concoction of mineral oil and aloe, and, for good measure, tosses in coconut oil.

Let it be noted that, while it is impossible now to think of suntan lotion without immediately recalling the scent of coconut, back in 1969, as Rice was tinkering in his garage, this pairing of fragrance and product was not yet heard of. Rice launched his suntan lotion, which he called Tropic Tan. Whatever he had mixed together worked; it was an instant hit. A small glitch arose when Rice discovered that someone already owned the name Tropic Tan, so he renamed his product Hawaiian Tropic and relaunched it, the same day that Apollo 11 took off from nearby Cape Canaveral. If anything, it seemed to sell even better with the new name. He was bottling it as fast as he could, hiring other assistant football coaches to help him push it at the beach and, eventually, in stores.

A curious side note: Ron Rice was not a tan man. Tall, strawberry blond, freckle-faced, he never bronzed; at most, his cheeks would redden and flush. But, in short order, he became the king of tan. In time, he had thirteen factories making Hawaiian Tropic, and he would sell more than four billion dollars’ worth of the lotion over the next thirty-eight years. Arguably, it was pretty good suntan lotion, but what really goosed sales was Rice’s instinct for guerrilla marketing. “He just knew what appealed to people,” Jeff Snook, who collaborated with Rice on his memoir, “Great Times and Tan Lines: How I Created Hawaiian Tropic, Turned It Into a Billion Dollar Company . . . and Had a Blast Doing It,” said. “He went by the seat of his pants, but he was a marketing genius.” Rice’s foundational philosophy was to put the Hawaiian Tropic name everywhere. He plastered it on billboards, on sailboats, on Nascar vehicles (among the drivers he sponsored was Donnie Allison), on élite racing cars (he once sponsored Paul Newman at 24 Hours of Le Mans), at the Daytona 500, on catamarans, on his three jets (one of which he named the Rice Rocket), and as the sponsor of every event possible across the country—rock concerts, comedy showcases, ski races, whatever. In 1983, he launched the Miss Hawaiian Tropic beauty pageant—here comes the Tiffany Trump angle—with celebrity judges onboard. At a regional pageant in Panama City, Florida, Donald Trump served as a celebrity judge, and Marla Maples was one of the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contestants. They married in 1993. (Tiffany was born shortly before their wedding.)

Lubricated by all his suntan-lotion money, Rice lived extremely large. He had, among other fun things, a twelve-thousand-square-foot house with a disco and two swimming pools, in Florida, and a huge sailing yacht. He knew everyone. He was friends with the Beach Boys (he sponsored their concerts on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for years). He became close with Buzz Aldrin, who had ridden into space the day Hawaiian Tropic rode onto store shelves. Julio Iglesias and Hugh Hefner were his good pals. He was close with countless comedians and actors and musicians and athletes. Jerry Lee Lewis played piano at his Christmas parties. He was devoted to his friends and was famously generous (he mentions close to a thousand people in the acknowledgments in his book). His family life, though, was a bit bumpier. Not long after marrying his second wife, Darcy LaPier, a former Hawaiian Tropic beauty contestant, in a reported more-than-a-million-dollar ceremony (“The Daytona event of all time,” Snook said), Rice learned that she was leaving him for the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. They separated. (As it happens, LaPier hadn’t divorced her first husband, so the marriage to Rice was voided, but they remained friendly. She then married Van Damme; divorced him; then married Mark Hughes, the founder of Herbalife, who died a year later. She is now an award-winning professional rodeo barrel racer.)

In 2007, Rice sold Hawaiian Tropic to Playtex Products for eighty-three million dollars, plus he got to keep a lot of goodies that the company had paid for (including a Lamborghini that his friend Burt Reynolds had used in the movie “The Cannonball Run”). After the sale, he had to sit on his hands for five years, waiting out a noncompete clause, but he filled his time merrily—according to Snook, he never missed a Super Bowl, or a game of the Final Four, or a Mardi Gras, or a Cannes Film Festival, or any occasion to throw a party. Once he could get back into business, he developed a new line of “reef-friendly” sun-care products he named Habana Brisa—he hoped to market the product in Cuba to take advantage of the Obama-era warming of relations there. “He lived his life the way he wanted,” Snook said. “He was in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops his whole life.” ♦

Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. If you’d like to propose a subject for an Afterword piece, write to us at

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