Nail techs, nail artists, and students from all over the world made their way to the halls of the Kim Koo Museum in Seoul on February 18 and 19 for the 6th Global Nail Cup. Trang Nguyen, founder of Odyssey Nail Systems, created the Global Nail Cup six years ago so competitors of all levels could test their skills against others and to, most importantly, better one’s self. “It’s not about winning, it’s about improving your skills and abilities for yourself,” he said.
There were more than 1,000 registered competitors from 20 countries in nine competition categories. Having only seen U.S. competitions, I was almost overwhelmed by the number of artists in one room.
I felt like a little fish in a big pond. Competitions in the United States don’t attract nearly as many people as they do in Korea and Japan. U.S.-based competitions are often attached to trade shows where the main focus is on product sales rather than competing. The Global Nail Cup exists purely for competition. There were the usual nail categories, including Design Sculpture, Tip Overlay, UV Gel, Nail Care, and Acrylic Sculpture, which boasted the most competitors at one time filling up 245 tables in two rooms. Then there was the Team Relay.
In the Team Relay, groups of three completed one set of tips with acrylic overlay on one hand. Each member of the team completed their tasks individually as the other teammates waited on the sidelines. Similar to other relay races, once the first person was done with their section (prepping the nails, applying tips, etc.), they handed the flag to the next teammate. That teammate would then set up their station and continue where the first left off. All of this happened with the roaring sound of cheering fans.
Schools, teams, and competitors were encouraged to wear costumes and cheer on their teams. The entire room yelled and screamed as eager contestants let out roars of encouragement to help shatter their own nerves. The larger groups coordinated spirit-rally chants and dance moves and the excitement and laughter continued throughout the 90-minute competition.
My second favorite event was the Top Artist Competition. All 15 competitors were high-ranking nail competitors, and this is where I started seeing familiar faces. Each competitor was enclosed in a roped-off section on the floor — allowed to create any style competition nail (many chose to do traditional acrylic pink-and-white nails). Students were encouraged to walk around each of the competitors’ tables and ask questions as they worked, giving students the rare opportunity to pick the brains of top pros during a competition.
Nguyen, a veteran competitor in the U.S. and international arena and who was ranked #1 in NAILS from 2005 to 2007, created this unique competition both for the top competitors as well as for students to help them become better competitors. As a world champion nail competitor, one of Nguyen’s biggest difficulties was breaking into the competition circuit.
The judging system was just as intense as the competition and designed to prevent bias within the scoring system. There were 10 to 13 international judges for each competition. Each judge was given only one specific area to judge (smile lines, side walls, cuticle, buff and shine, C-curve, creativity, product control, cleanliness underneath the nail, etc.), which is similar to the way competitions are judged in Japan. In the Nail Care competition, red polish and French polish were given to two judges, so points for polish weighed more heavily. Hand models were given new numbers in line and points were entered into a computer that connected to a main computer to tally the scores.
“We try so hard to give competitors the fairest competition in the world. As a result, we get a lot of support from all over the world,” Odyssey CEO Van Luu said. “We still have things to improve and our goal is to make each year better than the last.”
The judging process reminded me of an assembly line. As a judge, you only had 10 seconds to look at each hand before the model moved on to the next judge. Luckily, the ability to focus on one aspect of the nail made it possible for the judges to score each entry quickly. Entries were scored on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the highest score.
I was lucky to be the photographer at the end of the assembly line. After each hand was judged, I shot a photo of the final nails. This gave me a chance to see the judges in action, working quickly and meticulously. It also allowed me a closer look at top-quality competition hands. Many models had long, slender fingers with deep oval nail beds that I’d imagine any nail tech would love to have as a client. By the end, I can confidently say I touched nearly every hand in the competition.
After seeing this global competition and the many Korea-based winners first hand, it’s clear to me that the Korean nail industry is thriving. Stand-alone nail salons focus on natural nail care and nail art, attracting the younger client and working women. Nail associations control the industry, the largest being the Korea Nail Association (KNA), and all nail academies belong to an association. Although licensing is not currently required, certification issued by these associations are highly sought after to set standards within one’s salon. However, the South Korean nail industry may soon see a change if the government decides to step in to require licensing.
Apparent in every competitor was a drive and focus that went beyond competing. In Korea this is known as the fighting spirit, a dedication to persevere and to gain the strength necessary to overcome your obstacles. As intense as it sounds, it’s also a fun way to cheer on your fellow teammates. With fists held tightly, you yell “hwaiting!” with determination. When it is said quickly, it resembles “fighting,” the English word from which it was derived. The fighting spirit crosses boundaries, as I heard in many languages during the competition, but the will and motivation are the same.
The Global Nail Cup was an exciting and eye-opening experience and I’m so glad I was able to see this international level of competition. It is so inspirational to see so many talented nail artists and students from all over the world work so hard in striving for the same goal — to be the best they can be.
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