Fashion

What It's Really Like to Be a Celebrity Nail Artist

By Mei Kawajiri As Told To Claire Valentine

Nail trends may come and go, but the coveted role of celebrity nail artist has only grown in prestige, status and demand over time. Known for her inventive styles, originality and talent for creating trends, Mei Kawajiri is one of the most in demand nail artists working today. Her roster of clients reads like a who's who of fashion and entertainment. Born in Kyoto, Japan, Kawajiri's journey brought her from nail school in 2002 in Osaka, to grinding through 15 hour days in salons in Tokyo, to owning her own salon in Harajuku and finally moving to New York City in 2012 to become the self-made celebrity nail guru she is today.

After being spotted by fashion heavy hitters like Carine Rotfield and Demna Gvasalia, Kawajiri began creating looks for Balenciaga runway shows and magazine spreads. Now, in addition to her long list of regular clients, she also does the nails for TNT's Claws, a comedy set in a South Florida nail salon.

We sat down with Kawajiri, a petite, bleach blonde who walked into the PAPER office with a roller bag full of nail products trailing behind her, to hear the story of how she became one of the most in-demand members of her field:

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When I was little, I loved drawing and wanted to be a tattoo artist. My mom was a nurse and very worried about hurting people, and suggested I do something else. I went to the book store where I grew up in Kyoto, Japan and saw a nail magazine Nail Max and saw so many leopard and cheetah prints and I thought, "This was all they can do? I could do more fun stuff," and I started to go to nail school in Osaka. At school they taught me the basics, but I always had good ideas. I always was doing crazy stuff on my nails and then showing the clients and asking them if they wanted to try something out like that.

"Saving money was my hobby."

In Tokyo, everyone works around the clock. Saving money was my hobby. I used to do nails from 9AM to 12AM everyday, and I didn't want to burn out so after I would get off work I would go out. I was young, you know? I started from the bottom, helping soak off all the time and just doing manicures, but I think I was lucky because I first went to nail school and then three months after, this salon needed more people — the manager had quit and then everyone left too. So I kind of took over both roles, and I learned through my customers.

Before I moved to NY, I visited, and I made a book of my work. I would do my nails super long and with stones, and just walk up and down Fifth Avenue with the book open. So many people wanted to see. I asked them if they liked my styles, and if they thought New York would like them, and they all said yes.

In the beginning, I wasn't planning on coming to New York. One of my customer's friends in Tokyo was a photographer in New York, and he would come to the salon and I was just so impressed by him. He knew exactly where he wanted to go, he was go-go-go all the time, always on Google maps, going somewhere. I thought I was this tough woman from Japan, but everything he did was so fast, and I wanted to be like him. He told me as a nail artist, I had to go to NY. He took a really cool picture of my studio and said it looked like a doctor's office, and that I should open a nail hospital or something. That's when I first decided I wanted to leave Japan.

"When I finally moved here, I only knew one or two people."

Then I was shopping in the Lower East Side with my nail bag at a vintage store, and the owner came to me and said, "I love your nails, this is art!" She asked me if I wanted to move to NY, and I said, "Yeah, but I don't know how." She said, "You have to go talk to this nail salon manager, I know her."

She drew me a map and I went to the salon to talk to the manager and told her that I wanted to move to New York, but I needed a visa. She told me that she would think about it. I had my nail bag and asked her if I could do her nails, so I did and she liked it and said, "Wow that was so quick and beautiful." The next day, she messaged me and told me she would sponsor me, and that was the beginning.

When I finally moved here, I only knew one or two people. I couldn't speak English at the time, but I was so excited and I would meet people through doing nails. I tried to hire a tutor, but I felt guilty taking that time away from work. At work I would have to talk in English anyway, so I just learned that way. That way I got paid to learn!

The nail art culture here is very different from Japan. Here I think the trends change so fast — they change nails every two weeks. In Tokyo it's every three-four weeks. I had to change products, because if I used only Japanese products in NY, it would take too long to soak off. Now I use Gelish and OPI for the base because they're easy to take off. It depends on the person. On my nails, I only use acrylic.

I do my own nails all the time. I never have everyone else do them. I can use both hands, but only for nails. I can't eat with my left hand but I can do my nails. Every two weeks I change them. I take them off and do a new set. It takes me 3 hours. I do it in complete silence and just concentrate and smoke cigarettes. The last time I let someone else do my nails was maybe ten years ago. My assistant asked me if she could do them and I didn't like it. I'm just so picky about lines and if I don't like it, I'll want it off right away.

I get my inspiration from so many things. I always look at fashion Instagrams or art Instagrams or even people posting random pictures of garbage or food or costumes — random pictures always inspire me. Recently I love matching my nails with my outfits.

I built my name here on customer referrals, and I still see many of my old clients. The new ones, I get from my customer's friends. I don't do random people. You have to be referred. I do four, sometimes five appointments a day. If I have a photoshoot I'll just do that, but if i finish early, I'll do one or two other appointments after. I used to do seven people in a day and I was exhausted.

People like to talk to their nail techs. I think I'm used to it. I've been doing this since I was 19-years-old, and I'm always talking with the women, which is crazy up and down. They are always going through something different, where they break up with their boyfriends, and then they want this nail, and then they change their minds...I can't upset them so I just say, "Okay," and change it. I can change it up until I paint. After I paint, I can't change it. I think all nail artists are very patient. We are good at listening and it's sometimes good to forget.

"I think all nail artists are very patient."

It's so nice to be quiet with someone too, though. When I was in Tokyo, I had the customers face the TV so they would be distracted and a little quieter. I was crazy about work. It made me not want to talk too much. Now, I want to focus on each person, and I get so much inspiration from my customers so if they want to talk, I make sure to talk to them.

If you want to make your nail tech's life easier, there are a few things you can do. I don't want you to move when I'm painting details. Don't eat anything when I'm doing nails, because food has oil and gel is delicate. Also don't touch a pet when I'm doing nails. You can talk as much as you want though. Now that I know English well, it's a lot easier than it was for me in the beginning when I had to really think about the words I was going to use to answer questions back. At first, it was a big distraction for me.

I would never open a salon. I don't like the feeling of rushing in and doing someone's nails. I like going to their apartment, it's more personal. It's much more fun. I've always wanted to have a nail car and travel to different locations to do nails.

My trends have been copied many times. The biggest copy moment was the hoop nail — I didn't know that Janet Jackson did that in the 90's. But at the time, I had to go to Paris for a fashion show but didn't have the time to do something special. It was like ten minutes before I was leaving for the airport, and I just had acrylic. I had to do something, I couldn't go just like this! So I made a hole and put a hoop in and took a picture at the airport and everyone went crazy. I think Kim Kardashian's nail artist did that for her after, and then didn't credit me, but I wasn't offended. It was a compliment and flattering.

For a photoshoot or fashion show, 70 percent they have a plan for the nails. They plan it out with the makeup and the clothes. I try to have a bigger vision, but for each work I change my brain and try to be flexible.

I don't think I've ever said no to a client's request. I'm sure I have told them it's not my style, but as long as people like it for their lives, I don't think to say no. I don't want to push my style on everyone. I have a favorite customer and when I do her nails, I always think her hand is my hand, and I ask her, "What about this color?" I push my style for her, but otherwise I don't. But I do wish someday I could do everyone in my style!

I think the stones, the chunky crystal trend, needs to end. My favorite trend now is more the vintage looking, 90s, crazy, classic marble. I want to bring back more of an old school model. I think square is still cool, but I also really like super pointy. I'm done with coffin probably. I love a flat, square style.

I think I always see myself doing nails. I don't have a lot of hobbies. I like shopping, I like drinking and hanging out, but I'm not like, wanting to go to the gym everyday or go to the museum. To express myself, I just want to do nails.

See some of Mei's wildest designs below:


Photos via Instagram

Header photo by Susan Berry

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