16 Glamorous Facts About Glamour Shots

Go behind the lens to get the full picture of the classic ‘90s business. Lights, camera, sequins! 
The shots really were glamorous.
The shots really were glamorous. / Kate Erbland (Glamour Shot), Muharrem huner/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

Has any photo service delighted pop culture more than Glamour Shots? Merely mentioning the phrase conjures images of purple eyeshadow, satin gloves, feathered accessories and ‘dos—not to mention enough airbrushing to make a dolphin jean jacket jealous. Here’s what you need to know about the Oklahoma City-based company that haunts your ’90s backlit dreams.

Glamour Shots was founded by a frat party photographer.

Glamour Shots as we know it opened its first store in Dallas in 1988. But the company’s origins go back to the 1960s, when enterprising University of Oklahoma student Jack Counts, Jr. began snapping away at fraternity parties, selling shots he trademarked as Party Pics. Fast forward a couple of decades to a vacation in Hawaii, where the former marketing major spied a photo studio run by women that churned out glamorous and affordable portraits. He said aloha to a new idea: a studio that gave women makeovers and their very own fashion shoot—with on-the-spot proofs.

The business almost didn’t make it to the ’90s ...

A revolution can take time. Though Counts Jr. opened his second store in Houston in October 1988, Glamour Shots nearly folded months later. As he explained in 1991, “This was a new endeavor for us … The first six or eight months were difficult. We lost money and came close to closing.”

... But then, its popularity exploded.

Once out of the woods, Glamour Shots reached for the stars. In its first three years, according to a 1991 article in The Oklahoman, its revenue grew from less than $250,000 a year to almost $7 million. A slew of imitators soon followed, going by names like Hollywood Portrait Studios, Elegant Images, Inc., Incredibly You, Fantasy Photography, Pizzazz Photography, Passion Photography, Head Shots, Cover Shots, Your Best Shot, and Freeze Frame. 

The number of Glamour Shots stores peaked at 380 in 1995, including shops in Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Alaska was the only U.S. state to never see its own store.

Glamour Shots’ instant technique was a modern wonder.

Those insta proofs were everything. Counts Jr. designed a process that allowed customers to view their portraits on the spot, order them, and walk away with their 16 poses from the day on a black and white contact sheet. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained in 1990, “It typically takes a traditional studio several days to show customers proofs of their pictures. But in Glamour Shots, a video camera captures a ‘still image’ at the same moment the camera takes a picture. The image can be displayed instantly on a monitor in the store.” 

Tonya Harding was apparently a huge fan.

Tonya Harding. / Chris Cole/GettyImages

The manager of a Washington state shop dished to a reporter for The Columbian in 1995 that the ice skater was a frequent customer to the Glamour Shots located in Happy Valley, Oregon’s Clackamas Town Center—she apparently went there six or seven times. “Tonya usually goes for a pretty natural look,” the manager said. “And she looks very, very good.”

There were several styles of dress customers could choose from.

When sitting down for a session, women (or men, though at most, they made up approximately 5 percent of clients) could pick from six categories of dress, according to a 1995 consultant’s guide, as reported by the Hartford Courant: “1. Spontaneous; 2. ‘Can’t wait to be touched;’ 3. Tailored; 4. Elegant; 5. Bold; and 6. Other. Please describe.” 

The ensembles were fastened with Velcro.

Before sitting in front of the camera, clients kept their own duds on from the waist down and slipped into a black tube top. From there, they could change into their four different looks quickly and modestly—and wait to be clamped or Velcroed in. Most items of clothing were slit in the back to make them one-size-fits-all. As one Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star journalist noted in 1993, “The illusion is pretty apparent when you’re waiting for your turn to be photographed. Patrons wander about, glamorously attired from the waist up, and wearing jeans, hiking boots, sweats or whatever they came in in from the waist down.” And those black-tie looks? Compliments of a bolt of fabric or a shimmering scarf wrapped around clients’ torsos to give the illusion of evening gowns. 

Glamour Shots makeup artists were among the first to discover contouring.

Ahead of its time again! Makeup artists were instructed to “do what we call contouring,” one pro told the Houston Chronicle in 1993. Many others echoed the sentiment in article after article, using the same word to describe the technique in which they highlighted clients’ cheekbones, chins, noses, and brow bones while darkening the lower line of the jaw to create the illusion of an oval face.

There was “no such thing as too much hair.”

That’s what one stylist told a client who was shadowed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1993. And while one store manager claimed the chain allowed for geographical variations in ‘dos so that not everyone had to sport the higher-the-hair-the-closer-to-God look, another pro revealed she blasted through three or four industrial sized bottles of hairspray per week. 

The foundation was strong.

The thick, theatrical base that was slathered on customers from hairline to shoulders absorbed light and covered everything. As one makeup artist shared in 1993, “Everybody says, ‘Gosh, where can I buy some of that?’ ” But everyday use was not the best idea, she added: “This stuff just doesn't let your skin breathe, and you would crack. If you have any kind of heat, you will melt.” 

High school girls who tried to “scam” their local Glamour Shots into doing their prom makeup for the low price of a sitting sans prints—apparently a big concern in 1992—would live to pay the price. As the manager of a St. Louis-area store revealed to a newspaper reporter that year, “We are aware this happens once in awhile, but there's nothing we can do about it … We use theatrical makeup … It’s not meant to be worn on the street. It’s too heavy. It cakes and comes off big-time. If the girls get hot, their faces will look like Niagara Falls.”

People dropped serious cash on the Glamour Shots experience.

A manager of the store in Buffalo, New York’s Boulevard Mall estimated in 1994 that most customers spent “between $200 and $300.” With inflation, that’s the equivalent of about $428 to $643 today.

Real estate agents loved it.

While modern professional humans are hip to the craze of professional photography sittings, the very idea was relatively new in the 1990s. Among the first to adopt the practice were real estate agents. A 1993 Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about Glamour Shots proclaimed that “the biggest believers seem to be real estate agents, whose highly polished faces are popping up on lawn signs and house listings.” The piece went on to relay a tale in which three Century 21 agents ran into five employees from a rival real estate company at the same mall on the same day at the same Glamour Shots studio.

In 1996, the studio ran a national Baywatch modeling contest.

“One lucky winner… will appear in a Baywatch episode or montage,” the contest copy read. But according to one newspaper, 25 finalists were flown to LA to meet the cast and crew of Baywatch and appear in an episode.

Glamour Shots once sued Hannah Montana ...

In 2008, the case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Their complaint? Candies called “Disney Glamour Shots Candy” with a photo of Miley Cyrus’s Hannah Montana character on them violated their trademark.

... And got a mention in Napoleon Dynamite.

The Oklahoma-based company apparently didn’t mind, though, when the 2004 cult classic Napoleon Dynamite included a storyline about a character with a door-to-door business called Glamour Shots by Deb. The company also got a direct shoutout: In a scene from the 2004 flick, Napoleon hands a wallet-sized pic of his long-distance girlfriend to Pedro, saying, “You know, my old girlfriend from Oklahoma was gonna fly out here for the dance, but she couldn’t cuz she’s doing some modeling right now.” When Pedro says “wow,” Napoleon explains, “Yeah I took her to the mall to get some Glamour Shots for her birthday one year.” 

(Also, despite an online rumor, the photo George Costanza flashed to woo beautiful women in an episode of Seinfeld after his fiancee died—which you can see here—is not the same image from Napoleon Dynamite.)

There are still Glamour Shots locations in two states.

Eventually, the little Oklahoma City-based chain that could, well, couldn’t. In 1994, the chain hit about $100 million in sales—and remained at that mark through 1996, according to The Wall Street Journal. Tragically, greater Buffalo, New York, lost all three of its shops on the same day in August 1996. By 2001, the number of stores nationwide dropped to 93 by Entrepreneur magazine’s count. By 2019, that number had dwindled to five; it seems, based on Glamour Shots’ website, that only two locations currently exist, in New Jersey and Texas—two states that Marketing Director Alison Counts (yes, related to the company’s founder) told Mental Floss in 2016 did big business. “Any part of Texas is huge. All of the Texas stores do very well,” she said. “The stores in New Jersey do very, very well.”

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A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2024.