A Day in the Life of a Nail Competitor

NAILS follows a new nail compettior from contest registration to the awards ceremony. 

In the salon, a nail technician wants to create strong, durable, and beautiful nails, but there is a place for technicians whose artistic and competitive instincts are not completely satisfied by happy clients and consistent and attractive nails. For these ambitious technicians, there’s competition.

As any competitor will tell you, doing nails for competition is not nearly as easy as it may look. To get a true understanding of competing from the competitor’s perspective, NAILS followed a nail technician from set-up to awards ceremony. Stephanie Takahara, co-owner and nail technician at Tips Salon (Foster City, Calif.), shows what it takes: Not only do you need precision under pressure, but also the guts to keep going even when you’re nervous and doubtful.


It’s October 27, 1991, and Takahara is competing in the Division II Sculptured Nails competition at the NAILS Magazine Show in Las Vegas, Nev. Having arrived a day early to get settled and play a few slot machines, Takahara is registered and set up by 9 a.m. on competition day.

Competitors are required to bring a model, lighting, extension cords, towels, water, wet sterilizer, powder, liquid, primer, and other materials needed for competition. Once her station is set up, Takahara does some preliminary work on her model’s nails. The judges permit nail dipping and cuticle cleaning before the start of the competition. Still ahead of the game, Takahara chats with her model, Brigette Birdi.

“I was a nervous wreck,” remembers Takahara, “I felt fine until I got to the floor — then I got nervous.”

Competition director Jewell Cunningham completes a nail check to ensure that no work has been done on the models’ nails prior to the competition. A table check ensures that competitors did not bring any “illegal” equipment such as drills or buffing oil. A few latecomers hold up the start of competition, but before 11 a.m., Cunningham signals the 16 competitors to begin.

Why did she compete? “It was kind of a challenge,” Takahara says. “I love nails. I’ve spent eight years doing nails. This year I decided to compete because I thought I could do competition nails eventually. There’s only so much you can do with shop nails. It’s a challenge to do a different type of nail. And if I start, hopefully the nail technicians at Tips will also start competing.”


Takahara finds that metal forms work best for her — except on one nail. “The form didn’t fit one pinkie correctly, so the nail broke off,” says Takahara. She borrows a paper form from a fellow competitor.

During the competition, Takahara keeps switching brushes. “I felt more comfortable with a thinner brush, but I was trying to use a larger one for competition. I’ll use the thinner one next time, but I wanted to try different things to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Takahara also wants to improve her timing. When she starts to buff and polish the nails, she has only 15 minutes left. “My timing was not good,” she says. “I used up the entire two and a half hours. It would be better if I had had a plan, if I had spent the first hour applying the nails, the second hour filing, and the last half hour buffing and polishing.” She says she will have her model help her keep time at future competitions.

Models can also be helpful simply by being patient, says Takahara. “You should tell your model beforehand that she’ll have to sit for about five hours. She can’t leave the area, she can’t go to the bathroom, and you don’t want to hear about it. You want someone who won’t be a baby.”


Once Takahara completes buffing and polishing, Birdi raises her hand and waits for Cunningham to note her number and the time it took Takahara to complete the set. (In the event of a tie, time decides the winner.) While Takahara and Birdi can now relax, they talk and move about very little out of respect for competitors who are not yet finished. Only a few are buffing and polishing when Cunningham calls time.

Birdi remains in the line of models for nearly two hours, waiting to be judged. The competition over, observers and competitors look at models’ nails, exchange technical hints, and get acquainted. Veteran competitor Kym Lee is on hand, and several participants ask her to critique their work. Lee tells Takahara that she might have an easier time sculpting if she uses paper forms on top of metal forms.

Once the judging is completed, competitors and models leave the competition area to enjoy the exhibit booths and classes.


The main stage is packed with people, including a still-nervous Takahara, during the Division I and II Sculptured Nails awards ceremony. All competitors are given a participation certificate before the winners are announced, giving the audience of technicians, students, and observers the chance to recognize each competitor.

The audience becomes still, the music goes soft, and the competitors barely move in their seats when Cunningham, winners list in hand, prepares to announce the Division II winners. Takahara’s nervous grimaces quickly change to smiles when Cunningham announces that she captured the fourth place honorable mention.

“I wanted to win a trophy and put it in the salon for the other technicians,” says Takahara. “I felt good about fourth place — all those people competed, and brought back something. I think I have what it takes if I don’t give up.”

Brenda Desmarais, first place winner of the Division I Sculptured Nails competition, is given the opportunity to say a few words and tells competitors, “Don’t give up. It took me six years to perfect my technique. You can do it if you don’t give up.”

Even more inspiring to Takahara are the judges’ comments on her score sheets. “One of the judges said I had great potential. That was really nice,” she says. “The score sheets helped a lot — they were very consistent. The judges looked for the littlest things.

“For example, I missed a spot on the polish. It was a barely noticeable spot. And I didn’t go down far enough toward the cuticle. But I was polishing five minutes before time. If I plan better, the polish will be perfect,” she says. “I also had flat edges and needed a better smile line. Brigette’s nails showed through the acrylic. You have to clip the nails so there’s almost no free edge.”

A Little R & R

The awards ceremony over, Takahara can really relax and enjoy the show and Las Vegas. As it turns out, the two days are full of wins for her — in addition to fourth place, she hits a $180 jackpot at a dollar slot machine and is invited to assist David Copperfield with a magic trick during his show.

Takahara’s future competition plans include a January competition at the Long Beach Hairdressers’ Guild Show in Long Beach, Calif. “Before this competition, I practiced on everyone who broke a nail,” Takahara says. “From now until January, I’m going to work on using metal and paper forms together.”

Her advice to would-be competitors? “Go for it,” she smiles, “and bring a camera.”

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