When NAILS first contacted Phoenix-based nail technician Nilsene Privette to talk about her career, she had just returned from the emergency room and was hoping she still had a career.

“I was opening a can of cat food and I sliced my index finger,” she says. But despite eight stitches in her finger, Privette’s sense of humor and positive attitude prevailed: “While the doctor was stitching my finger, I noticed he was really cute,” she says. “Maybe I’ll call him back and ask if he wants a manicure!”

That attitude has taken Privette (whose finger is now fully healed) from her first nail business, located in a tiny corner of a Nogales, Ariz., drugstore, to a spot on some of the nail profession’s top advisory boards.

She developed her sense of humor and positive attitude early in her career. “I had to,” she says. In addition to local Nogales businesswomen, some of Privette’s first customers at her drugstore table were female impersonators from local nightclubs. They were called “she-hes,” she says with a laugh. “They were actually very pretty!”

Privette, who now has a somewhat more predictable clientele, works at Toca Loma Salon at Hilton Pointe, Tapatio Cliffs, in Phoenix. The days of the tiny table next to the pharmacist’s counter are over, she says happily. Owned by the Hilton Corporation, Toca Loma Salon employs four nail technicians, three hairstylists, two facialists, and three massage therapists.

While attending beauty school in Tucson, “I learned the textbook stuff—all about diseases, hair care, and nail care,” Privette says. “But shows were really my college education.” And her loyal clients were determined to help the young nail technician get that education and expand her business. Some paid her in advance for up to six months of manicures so she could raise money to attend nail shows. “I’d even do nails for travel agents in exchange for free airline tickets so I could go to shows and learn more about doing nails,”

It was a good investment. In 1989, Privette took first place in the National Cosmetology Association’s (NCA) Sculptured Nails Competition. And in 1991, she was named Nail Tech of the Year by American Salon magazine, where she went on to have her own question-and-answer column.

Soon recognized as a nail expert, Privette sat on the Arizona Board of Cosmetology for four years. “Sometimes we had to play Solomon,” she explains. “We heard lots of com­plaints—usually about sanitation violations or a customer wanting a service that’s against the technician’s better judgment.” But Privette feels that a technician’s professional training makes for good instincts.

But even more than working with advisory boards or at competitions, Privette enjoys teaching at shows, helping young nail technicians get the same hands-on education she travelled so far and worked so hard to get. As a member of the NCA, Privette enjoys the monthly meetings and networking. But her heart is in “giving something back” through teaching. “I joined the NCA’s educational team in 1988. We sponsor low-cost or free educational days, and the top designers are there. I teach for free. It’s a good chance for stu­dents to pick some brains, like I did when I was just starting out.”

Privette’s dedication to her profession has paid off in loyal clients who appreciate her positive approach to her work and to life. “I have one customer who’s 85 years old, and she’s a hoot!” Privette says. “She has cancer, and she says that- getting her nails done makes her feel better about herself.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not just a nail technician — I’m an armchair psychologist, too. After all, I am holding their hand for an hour! Sometimes they tell me their hus­bands won’t listen to them. Their doctors won’t listen to them. They just want someone to listen. That’s all it takes.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.

Read more about