Shellacking The Hands Of God: A Manicure With The Woman Who Turns Nails Into Beyoncé’s Nails
Have you ever googled Beyoncé's nails? Of course you have — unless you haven't, in which case no judgment, it's your life, but perhaps take a moment to google “Beyoncé's nails.”
You will quickly realize that Beyoncé wants you to google her nails. Beyoncé has taken hundreds of photographs with her majestically painted fingers conspicuously splayed before her or resting delicately against her face or cupping her pregnant belly. Like everything that orbits or decorates Beyoncé’s earthly iteration, Beyoncé’s Nails are not just nails; they are a microcosm of Beyoncé herself. They are meticulously plotted and consistently perfect. They do not falter, they do not take a day off, they do not break (...metaphorically). They are terrifying. They know more than you do, they've seen more than you'll ever imagine. They are matte and clipped. They are shiny and sharp. They are leopard-printed and talon-like. Beyoncé’s Nails are not dead skin cells coated with colorful polymers; nay, Beyoncé’s Nails are statements. I challenge you to find one photo of Beyoncé in which her nails do not complement her outfit without overshadowing it, in which her nails do not say, “I am Beyoncé and nothing gets past me. I am Beyoncé and I have made keratin my bitch.”
I, on the other hand, for the duration of my life, have been biting my nails down so low that, if my fingers were hills and my nails were suns, my palms would be shrouded in perpetual night. I have spent countless hours that I will never get back systematically destroying one part of my body with another part of my body. My nails are statements, too. They say: “Something is wrong with me. I am the Human Experiment, failed.”
But because the universe has a sense of humor almost as warped as the concept of chewing on oneself, I am on my way to an appointment with Lisa Logan, Beyoncé’s manicurist, the woman who turns Beyoncé’s nails into Beyoncé’s Nails. I arrive an hour early for this appointment, mostly because I have forgotten to stop (i.e., was unable to stop, as I am sick individual) biting my nails in the few weeks between making the appointment with Beyoncé’s manicurist and actually waking up and realizing, oh fuck, today is the day that I will actually present these shredded stub hands to Beyoncé’s manicurist. As such, I am lightly panicking, sitting in a bakery down the street from Beyoncé’s manicurist's salon, eating a stale cartoon-character cookie at 9 a.m., staring darkly at my hands like a basic-bitch Lady Macbeth.
It should be said here — both by way of explaining how I have gotten this appointment with Beyoncé's manicurist and also by way of giving her her proper due — that Beyoncé's manicurist has a sprawling, meaningful life outside of her role as Beyoncé's manicurist. When she is not touching the hands of Beyoncé (or Madonna, or Mary J. Blige, or Eve, or Queen Latifah, or Taraji P. Henson), Lisa runs her own nail salon in Harlem called The Nail Suite, where, alongside a slew of other manicurists, she paints and files and fixes the nails of normals. Lisa greets me outside of The Nail Suite exactly on time, her boyfriend and niece in tow, and apologizes for being late. At 44, she's the sort of low-maintenance beautiful that I assume comes from a life spent calmly breathing in the CO2 of the wildly famous: creamy, makeup-free skin; a wide, genuine smile; her curly hair a blonde-to-black gradient; and, of course, pristinely manicured, clear-coated natural nails that make me want to die.
Inside The Nail Suite, everything smells like fresh mint. Pedicure chairs line the back wall and face a giant flat-screen TV, and in front, a gleaming white bar wraps around shelves upon shelves of nail polish. They're vibrant and rich and I want to prostrate myself before them by way of apology for what they're about to witness. Lisa steps behind the bar and instructs me to sit on the other side, facing her. “To me, the bar is about camaraderie, about an exchange,” she explains. She asks to see my nails. I lay my hands on the bar, and we both stare at the plague I have wrought upon myself in stunned silence.
“Okay,” Lisa says warmly. “We can do some really cool press-ons. They last really nicely.”
My nails before (with a press-on decal sample from Lisa)
As Lisa readies the press-ons, finding the right sizes and shapes for my gnome hands, she tells me that the trail to Beyoncé begins, strangely enough, with DMX. After Lisa moved back to her native Harlem from Virginia at age 18, and after taking a few odd jobs, she started training with a nail artist in the neighborhood and working at a handful of Harlem salons, and, as she puts it, “taking to the craft really quickly.” Thanks to a referral from a mutual friend, Lisa started doing the rapper's nails — “before he was DMX, when he was just Earl,” she says. I tell her I cannot mentally picture DMX getting a spa manicure. “Oh my goodness, those hands were just rough,” she laughs. “Nails would be too long ... I don't even know how to describe them. I make them look good. It's all about grooming.” I begin to feel better about my own hand situation.
Lisa started following DMX to film sets and video shoots in Canada and California, and soon thereafter, Ruff Ryders brought a new artist named Eve into her salon. Once Eve was a regular, Lisa started paying visits to Def Jam, where she'd pop into the offices of high-powered music execs for quick manis and pedis. One of those offices held the oft-photographed hands of Jay Z. Lisa did Jay's nails for a year or two before he hired her for a very special event: Beyoncé's birthday party. (Lisa doesn't remember exactly which birthday, but thinks this all went down around 2005.) “He was giving her a ‘day of beauty,’ or whatever,” says Lisa. “He brought in me, a hair stylist, and a stylist.” Nail-artist-wise, Beyoncé hasn't looked back since.
Over the years, Bey has hired Lisa for dozens of video shoots, performances, appearances, and photo shoots. The most memorable, according to Lisa, have been the presidential inauguration (“She looked beautiful, it was outside, it was this color ‘I'm with the Band’ that was freaking amazing”) and the “Single Ladies” video, in which Lisa wrapped Bey's nails in chrome Minx decals and singlehandedly changed the entire nail game. Lisa knew about the Minx before many fellow manicurists because she considers it her responsibility to stay on top of nail trends, especially for her higher-profile clients. “You gotta be able to pull a rabbit out of your hat,” she laughs. “You're only as good as your last job.”
Lisa asks me what color I'd like for my own nails, and I suggest green or gold, then wonder internally why the fuck I am weighing in when I can barely keep my fingers intact. We decide together to do a shade by Nails Inc. called Hyde Park Place, with a white houndstooth stamp on my ring fingers. While we talk, Lisa's next customer walks in, and Lisa apologizes for being a couple minutes behind schedule, offering both of us mimosas in plastic cups. We both readily accept, and soon realize we both work in media, are both from Chicago, and both have drinking problems. (Just kidding, only me on that last one.) “I'll be right with you, my love,” Lisa tells my new best drinking friend.
Lisa's regulars know to leave a little bit of what she calls “wiggle room” around their appointments; she's in the salon every day but has to be ready to drop everything should she get a call from Beyoncé or Taraji or Queen Latifah. When Beyoncé performed at the 2013 Super Bowl, for example, Lisa got a call from her management at 4 p.m. on a Saturday asking her to hop on a 6 p.m. flight. “I'm like, ‘Wait, wait!’” Lisa laughs. “You feel like you've just been snatched into the Witness Protection Program or something.” That night, Lisa stayed up till dawn sharpening 15 sets of press-ons into pointed, six-inch talons for Beyoncé's dancers, and she was flown out again before the game started. (This past year, though, she coated Bey's nails in a simple black matte and stayed for the whole thing.)
Lisa opened The Nail Suite in 2012, after one particular good year with Beyoncé. “Before Bey publicly announced she was pregnant with Blue, we did a ton of work. Like, we worked that entire year. And this woman is known for working hard,” says Lisa. “We worked so much that I saved up, which allowed me to get this place, and my boyfriend and my cousin do contracting, so they could build it out.” She explains how important it was to her to have total financial and creative control of the business from day one. “I was like, ‘Listen, I don't wanna take out a loan. I'm working with my hands every day, and if you think in 30 days, I want to give the bank a thousand dollars... no.’ So I saved it up. I did it all straight out of my pocket.”
“Why open a salon when you're chasing Beyoncé around the country? Why keep your prices so reasonable when you could charge $500 per hand?” I ask Lisa, the unspoken truth being that I myself would not be this humble or gracious in the same situation. (Basic manicures start at $12; my manicure and fake nail combination turns out to be $45.) “Because,” she tells me, “I truly look at it in this way: I'm a woman who's from this community. I have the opportunity of working with some of the biggest names on the face of the Earth, but that's not my everyday reality. I don't plan on stopping, and it's great, and it's done plenty for me — it helped put my daughter through college, helped me open the salon — but I wanna know that I'm gonna be in this community for a long time. And there are people that are from the community who I know love to get their nails done, and how are they gonna get them done if I have these astronomical prices? I'd make a lot of money, but it'd be all one-timers. I don't want one-timers. That's not what my passion is. I want a family of people who can trust that this is a place they can come.”
As we talk, no fewer than 10 people walk past The Nail Suite's giant picture window, stop, and wave hello to Lisa, grinning wildly. Lisa pauses to wave back every single time. I realize that the most interesting thing about Lisa is not her work with Beyoncé — the most interesting thing about Lisa is that her work with Beyoncé is not the most interesting thing about Lisa, even to Lisa herself. What motivates Lisa is contributing to and being an integral part of Harlem, catering to her non-celebrity clientele. “If you look around the room, there's nothing about [my work with celebrities]. Not that I'm not proud of it, but there's days that that's not what I'm doing. So I don't want it to be in your face,” she says. “I want people to be able to have regular conversations, to feel good.” Lisa works just as hard to make her employees feel good, too. “I love being able to pull a team of women who didn't have a chance into jobs,” she tells me. “Beauty school doesn't teach you how to do nails. It teaches you how to pass the state boards. Women come in here and I have to reprogram them to be able to physically work on clients. Eventually I want to be able to build a school where I can train more women to empower themselves to work.”
Lisa asks me if it's all right if she adds a cluster of sparkly gemstones to my ring finger. “It won't be over the top, it'll really just make the houndstooth pop,” she promises. Seeing as I trust Lisa so completely that I would let her place a burning meteorite on my finger, I accept. She then places my hands and their now-accompanying nails, which have been rendered so unrecognizably beautiful and long and chic that I am no longer certain I am inside my own body and have a brief existential crisis, beneath a drying lamp. I stare at them, dissociating quietly, as she proceeds to tell me about Ms. Marilyn, one of her regular clients, an 81-year-old woman who's been coming to the salon weekly since it opened. “Ms. Marilyn gets up on Thursdays, goes to her pilates downtown, gets her hair done, gets her nail done, and at 2 p.m., she gets a slice of cake. It'll take her three days to eat that, because she believes in portion control,” Lisa says. “Some of these older women that come in here are some of wisest people I've ever met. I call 'em my Golden Girls.” I ask her why she thinks Ms. Marilyn has taken to her, and what sort of advice she's bestowed upon Lisa. “Because they think I'm a nice person,” says Lisa matter-of-factly. “And these women encourage me because I have the opportunity to be a woman of color who owns a business in Harlem.”
My manicure is done now. For the first time in my life, my nails extend past the horizons of my fingertips, and I am forever changed.
“These aren't my hands,” I say.
“They are now!” says Lisa brightly. She moisturizes my cuticles and tells me that I'll be back sooner than I realize. “Once you see how your nails have grown underneath these, you're gonna want me to help you grow them,” she informs me. I am certain she is correct.
My nails, after
In an effort to preserve my newfound glamour for at least one hour, I wield my temporarily gorgeous hands awkwardly, picking up my purse with my teeth like a dead animal, taking 15 minutes to zip my pants after I pee, curving my hands into claws and seeing if they are scary, but, like, in a sexy way. I hug Lisa goodbye and fuck up one of my nails instantaneously. She patiently fixes it. I walk out of the salon, arms akimbo, fingers splayed like I have just handled nuclear waste.
On the way back to my apartment, fumbling with my phone, accidentally texting gobbledygook to my friends, I stumble upon a new piece in Hazlitt called "The Snarling Girl," about ambition and recognition and hubris. Near the end is a series of sentences that I think explain why Lisa is equally as beloved by an 81-year-old cake-hoarder as she is by Beyoncé, why her gravitational pull is as powerful in Harlem as it is in Hollywood. “The work is the endeavor. The work is the process,” writes Elisa Albert. “Recognition can really fuck you up. Remember the famous koan? The day before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; the day after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Substitute recognition for enlightenment, putting aside how ironic that is, and there you have it.”
It reminds me, too, of something Lisa said about Beyoncé, about what sticks with her every time the two collaborate. “This woman works like no other,” Lisa told me, eyes wide, still incredulous after more than a decade. “During the ‘Single Ladies’ shoot, she was in that damn leotard for about 20 hours. Taped in. Which means she couldn't pee! Singing and dancing over and over and over again, nonstop. It's unreal. Your average person would not be built for this. At all. But I don't even have to say that. It's not my place to be like, ‘You need to understand!’ It is what it is. That's why she's so successful. It's self-explanatory.”
When I get home, I quickly recognize that not only can I not unzip my purse to find my keys with these nails, but I cannot type, either. As a woman who has exclusively typed with the raw, exposed pads of her fingers for 29 years, I am literally unable to do my actual job. I am briefly concerned. But then I remember Beyoncé, holding in 20 hours worth of pee in her bodysuit, dancing and singing through what I imagine must have been searing bladder pain. And I decide, instead of removing the nails, I will simply relearn how to type. It's what Beyoncé would do. It's what Lisa would do. Also, I can't figure out how to get them off.