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Honoring Unsung Nail Hero Dusty Coots Butera

Dusty Coots Butera, who helped teach the "Original 20" Vietnamese women how to do nails, emerges with new photos and her story.

Thuan Le reunites with her first nail instructor, Dusty Coots Butera and her daughter Robin for the first time in 40 years at an OPI/Bellacures event honoring Tippi Hedren. Le is standing behind Butera in both photos.
<p>Thuan Le reunites with her first nail instructor, Dusty Coots Butera and her daughter Robin for the first time in 40 years at an OPI/Bellacures event honoring Tippi Hedren. Le is standing behind Butera in both photos.</p>

Actress Tippi Hedren is credited with helping Vietnamese women find their way into the nail industry, by flying her manicurist, Dusty Coots, in to Hope Village, a Sacramento-area refugee camp set up during the Vietnam War, to teach the women how to do nails. But photos of Coots and her account of the story have been left out of the spotlight — until now.

Meet Dusty Coots Butera, the nail tech and first instructor of the “Original 20” Vietnamese women in the nail industry. Butera has been doing nails quietly ever since, over the last 45 years. She has been a booth renter in Montage Hair Salon in Sherman Oaks, Calif., for the last two decades.

In the 1970s, Hedren was one of Butera’s clients at The Nail Patch in Encino, Calif., one of the first nails-only salons. “That was just the beginning of nails then and that’s where I did nails,” Butera says. “Tippi told me about these young women and their plight. And I thought, surely, if I could learn to do nails, they could, too. I was not trained to do anything, and I had a child to raise and I was a single mother ... so when I went to teach I knew what it was like. That’s why it appealed to me.”

Hedren arranged for Butera to fly up weekly over a span of a few months to teach the women a few nail techniques. “We would fly up for the weekend and there they were, eager, shiny faces like children, and we got started on the things we did in those days. We were wrapping nails with paper,” Butera says. (The paper nail wrap technique she showed the women how to create was the Juliette Manicure, named after Juliette Marglen who popularized the technique in the 1950s.)

Tippi Hedren observes as Dusty Coots Butera instructs the "Original 20" Vietnamese women in the nail industry on how to create the Juliette wrap. They were eager to learn how to do nails. (Photos by Massimo Butera)
<p>Tippi Hedren observes as Dusty Coots Butera instructs the "Original 20" Vietnamese women in the nail industry on how to create the Juliette wrap. They were eager to learn how to do nails. (Photos by Massimo Butera)</p>

Butera’s husband, Massimo Butera, was an amateur photographer who accompanied her on her flights to visit the refugee camp. He took hundreds of photos of the refugee camp life and of Butera showing her new students how to do nails, a few of which we’ve shared here.

Now at 80 years young, Butera continues to work as a nail tech with a dedicated clientele, many for over 40 years. And she would have continued to quietly go about her nail business drawing no attention to herself had it not been for an event held last October, Bellacures and OPI honoring Tippi Hedren. Somehow word of the event reached Butera and organizers were quick to invite her to the ceremony where she reunited with Hedren and Thuan Le, one of the Original 20 women she taught.

“I didn’t know how this affected so many people, even though I know how much it affected me. Manicuring did so much for me,” Butera says.

See an interview with Dusty Coots Butera in Adele Pham’s upcoming documentary, #NailedIt: Vietnamese & the Nail Industry. A shortened version of #NailedIt is screening at Viet Film Fest on Sunday, Apr. 17, 2016.

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