Growth Industry : Nail Care: Old Trade, New Polish

Times Staff Writer

As Douglas Brashear sees it, he has nailed down the perfect job--one that will make him happy and rich.

Having survived 25 years as a truck driver, two heart attacks and a divorce, the hefty 53-year-old Diamond Bar man is now a manicurist--indeed, "Diamond Bar's New Nail King," according to his co-workers at The Nailery salon. What's more, he said, "you get to meet nice people and hold a lot of hands."

Although Brashear may be far removed from the sterotype of what one industry observer called "the bubble-gum-chewing, empty-headed, gossipy blonde...with a nail file," he is in fact typical of thousands of people--predominantly women--who hope to cash in on Southern California's new growth industry.

Booming Specialty

Once a minor service relegated to the back of the beauty parlor for women passing time under helmet-like hair dryers, the manicure business today is a booming specialty with storefronts appearing sometimes two to a block.

"We expected it to be a flash in the pan just like so many things in the beauty industry," said Gene Christoffersen, supervising examiner for the California Board of Cosmetology. "I've stopped trying to guess when it's going to end. It took off like a rocket about four years ago and hasn't stopped."

Added Peter Grimes, publisher of Nails, a glitzy trade magazine based in Huntington Beach: "It's growing faster than we ever anticipated. We have just scratched the surface."

Surge in Enrollment

In fact, beauty colleges in California are reporting a surge in manicure student enrollment. Graduates have almost a three-month wait to take their state licensing exams. And manufacturers say they are six weeks behind in orders for salon equipment.

In addition, the number of California manicurists has shot up to 22,704 in 1984 compared to 5,482 a decade ago, according to records compiled by the cosmetology board, a division of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

What's going on?

For one thing, it's relatively inexpensive to go into business. The average investment for a beginning manicurist may be as low as $2,500 for the basics: a table, chair, simple tools, chemicals and an ad in the Yellow Pages.

There is also tremendous demand for the service. In 1984, retail revenue totaled $664 million for the 48 million manicures and 20 million pedicures done on American men and women, according to John Willcox, spokesman for the New York-based trade publication American Salon.

Thomas Cash, a professor at Old Dominion University who is writing a book on the psychology of physical appearance, attributes the nail boom to the general push among today's men and women to look good.

"More and more people ar striving for a certain perfection in their appearance," Cash said. "They're saying, 'If my own nails aren't right, I'll just go out and buy some that are."'

What they're often buying are "acrylic" or "sculptured" nails, the long, sturdy extensions once known as false nails. With new products saturating the market, there is something for everyone: plastic tips for the chronic nail biter, "silk" or "juliette" wraps to strengthen nails that chip easily and acrylic nails shaped or sculpted, often to daggerlike proportions, on top of the natural fingernail.

And for the truly bold, there are 14-karat gold nails and diamond charms that can be drilled through the tip of the fingernail; they sell for as much as $150 each.

Whether their nails are painted, jeweled or just well-groomed, professional women and housewives are paying more attention to--and putting more money into--their hands.

"I always have to get my nails done. It's that finishing touch," said Kate Morris, a 36-year-old secretary who gets a manicure every Tuesday, no matter what. "Otherwise, I just start looking ratty. It's almost like not having a shower."

'Kind of Therapeutic'

Deftly pinching the tip of the key to her Volkswagen convertible so as not to smudge the five layers of fresh polish after a recent 8 a.m. manicure, Kate Boyle, a 30-year-old lawyer, said, "It's kind of therapeutic to look at my hands at work and see them looking so nice."

"Nobody caters to the woman--she's the chauffeur, the cook and now a breadwinner," said Dana Malpass, a former manicurist and the publisher of Mainly Manicuring, an Oakland-based monthly salon newspaper with about 35,000 subscribers, "Now for an hour she's pampered," she said.

Requirements to get a manicurist's license in California are twofold: 350 hours of training in a beauty school and a passing grade on a state-administered exam. Virtually no one fails.

"We examine for minimum standards of ability and customer safety so people could go out and make a living," said Christoffersen, adding that during the last six months of 1984, only 36 of the 2,919 who took the test failed. In some states outside California where the manicuring boom has taken off--such as Illinois, Florida and New York--it is even easier to enter the market because licenses are not required.

A would-be manicurist in California must demonstrate a minimum ability to apply a nail wrap, a tip and a sculptured nail. Some industry experts argue that the beauty schools and state examiners should impose higher standards when it comes to awareness of natural nail hygiene and the potential dangers of sculptured nails.

Fungus infections and tissue damage are not uncommon if a false nail is improperly attached or loosens from the natural nail and allows moisture and fungus to set in. If the fungus is not treated, inflammation can lead to an infection and, ultimately, loss of the natural nail.

"It's not the artificial nails that ruin the nails; it's the operator's lack of education," said Larry Gaertner, president of No Lift Nails in Costa Mesa.

Although there have been few complaints to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about nail products and to the state Board of Cosmetology about manicurists, officials suspect that many consumers are not aware of where to complain.

Adverse reactions to acrylic products have not, however, been limited to the consumer.

Manicurists who work long hours breathing fumes that come from the mixture of acrylic powders and liquids that yield the artifical nails have reported feeling sick.

"When I worked in a large shop that wasn't well ventilated, I felt tired, I had headaches and was nauseous," said Lynn Warn, 22, of Cerritos. "It was almost like I was pregnant, but I wasn't. My doctor came to the conclusion that it was the acrylics. So I started wearing a mask."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not set exposure limits for acrylics when used in a cosmetic setting, but some of them, such as ethyl methacrylate, have been labeled moderately toxic, and the agency has laid down limited exposure levels in industrial environments.

Despite potential side effects from nail products, the industry shows no signs of leveling off.

On the wall of the Precious Nails Salon on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles hands the "10 Commandments of Nail Care," which forbid, among other activities, using a fingertip to dial a push-button phone or to open pull-tab beverage cans.

As one customer at a Sunset Boulevard salon suggested, "Have the man around the house put his hands in dishwater"

Things weren't always this complicated.

"There wasn't any kind of industry 10 or 15 years ago," said Victor Vartoughian, president of Jessica's Nails Inc. of Los Angeles, a nail salon and manufacturer of manicure products that is named after his wife.

A 44-year-old Romanian immigrant, Jessica Vartoughian worked her way up from a $3.50-an-hour department store manicuring job in 1962 to her current status as "manicurist to the stars," catering to the likes of Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Vartoughian, who eschews the acrylic nail fad, employs 32 nail "technicians," is publishing a textbook and conducts seminars around the United States and Canada on natural nail care.

She is so preoccupied with her multimillion-dollar business these days that the only nails she has time for are the "First Nails" belonging to longstanding client Nancy Reagan.

The filing and polishing that once cost $2.50 now range from about $5 in neighborhood shops to as high as $18 at Jessica's. For a set of 10 sculptured nails, the price can range from $20 to $75. And "fills" the once- or twice-a-month maintenance to keep the natural nails healthy and sculptured nails looking perfectly groomed, cost from $11 to $30 a visit.

"People may not be able to afford to eat, but once you get those (acrylic) nails on, you can't live without them," said Linda Pyle, 37, of Temple City.

As word spreads of the money that can be made in caring for nails, the poorly paid, beauty parlor-bound manicurist is being replaced by independent, business-minded women, many of whom eventually branch out on their own.

Shirley Reynolds, for example, earned $25,000 last year in her rented space in an Anaheim Hills salon. "I absolutely love it. I hated working in an office," said Reynolds.

Diamond Bar's Brashear, one of the few men in the business, charges $35 for a set of sculptured nails and $18 for fills at his daughter's salon. He estimates that by year's end, he will match the $30,000 salary he made driving a truck.

Like Reynolds and Brashear, many people have decided to abandon stressful or unfulfilling jobs for the relaxed chit-chat with friendly customers and the freedom to set their own hours and prices. Others are entering the work force for the first time--either straight out of high school or after an unsuccessful marriage. In addition, the nail business is drawing newly arrived immigrants who can enter the profession with only three months' training and a minimum of English.

Consider Kim Nguyen. The 27-year-old Vietnamese woman came to Los Angeles in 1974 speaking no English and with few job skills. Bored with waitressing, she became a manicurist and found a job in a Fairfax Avenue salon where she was allowed to keep half the $4 manicure fee.

Within 12 months, she opened Nails by Kim less than a mile away, taking her loyal following with her. That was four years ago.

Today she employs almost a dozen Vietnamese women who cater to a steady stream of customers six days a week. Although Nguyen is pleased with her success, she admits that her former employer, like other beauty salon owners who find themselves increasingly left behind by ambitious nail technicians, was miffed by her departure.

"They are opening up on every corner. It hurts everybody's business," said Lydia Lipkin, a Soviet emigre and owner of another Fairfax Avenue beauty parlor. She described in the recent exodus of a popular manicurist as "a knife in the back." Down the street from Lipkin's shop, no fewer than four nail salons have opened. "What can you do?," she asks. "Free country, free competition."

Orders Pour In

Although the range for nails seems centered in Southern California (more than 50% of the nation's licensed manicurists are in California, according to Malpass of Mainly Manicuring), manufacturers and jewelers are finding a growing response from nail buffs across the nation.

Joyce Bogen, the 31-year-old president of a Long Island jewelry store, said orders for gold and diamond nail charms have been pouring in, from places she had never heard of, since she placed a two-page ad in the 10,000-circulation Nails magazine. "Okeechobee, Florida?" she marveled. "I'm getting real good at geography."

Gaertner of No Lift Nails in Costa Mesa has booked his "California Nail Training Team" for $100-a-day workshops for manicurists in several cities from Denver to Pittsburgh.

"Day by day it's growing," said Aydin Ozcan, owner of Van Nuys-based Karen's Nail Designs. "I guess all the crazy items come from Southern California. People (here) like new things. They like to jazz up."

Or as Brashear observed after a month on the job, "Nothing looks nastier than chewed-up fingernails."

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