It’s hard to talk with Alfonso Segovia for any length of time and not feel just a wee bit inadequate. Besides being an award winning nail artist, the man is a songwriter, poet, playwright, martial artist, cartoonist, jewelry designer, photographer, inventor of three board games, and he holds a degree in communications.

Just how he makes time for all his interests can be partially explained by the fact that he says he only needs a few hours sleep a night and that some of his best designs come to him while dreaming. (We should all be so productive in our sleep.)

If Segovia looks familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen him at a nail show, where he was most likely competing (and winning) in the Fantasy Nail Art category. So distinctive is his style that he has become known on the circuit as “The Jungle Man.”

Things were not always so rosy for this Columbian immigrant who came to the United States seven years ago. He did not intend to stay in the United States when he stopped here on his way to Spain, where he planned to work on his master’s in television communication. His visa was good for only six months, but he took a job in a men’s suit factory. He also worked part time doing janitorial work at a beauty salon. Those times were especially trying for Segovia, who had greater aspirations for himself and thought that his degree would translate into a better job for him in the United States.

One evening while sweeping the salon, Segovia answered an after-hours telephone call from a prospective customer asking if the salon did acrylic extensions. Segovia said they did not but vowed that night that he was going to learn how to do them. He saw a chance for an outlet for his creativity.

After a short time Segovia left the factory and went to work for a woman he met at a party, Luz, who would also later become his wife. Luz, the owner of Chicago Hair Design, saw during her trips to beauty shows the tremendous development and artistic expression being done with nail art. She brought products and ideas home to Segovia, who had demonstrated a flair for painting on the seasonal displays on the salon’s front window.

Segovia’s first experience competing in nail art was so disappointing that he took a hiatus from competing for four years. Only recently has he been back on the circuit, but he’s back with a vengeance. Although his current competition theme is variations on the jungle, his early works drew from traditional Spanish inspirations: matadors, ballerinas, the Spanish painters.

“If I complete, it’s strictly for the fantasy,” he says. At each competition Segovia says he competes with himself as well as with the other entrants. Every new entry of his is an evolution of his previous designs. He adds new pieces, gives greater detail to costumes, challenging himself one better.

He says that everything he puts on a nail for competition is created only out of nail-extending products, usually acrylic. A recent design required 24 ounces of powder and 12 ounces of liquid for its construction. He has been working on his current design for seven months, continually adding elements after every show. He incorporates feathers, flowers, camel hair, and human hair. His last design had an Indian smoking a pipe that billowed real smoke. He doesn’t use electrical implements in his designs, creating movement by the use of such things as springs or nylon twine.

Segovia dresses the part of the Jungle Man for competition. His costume was realistic enough to get him into hot water at a nail show last year. A hotel guest spotted Segovia walking through the hall of the hotel in full safari regalia, phony shotgun and all, and alerted hotel security. When Segovia left the hotel he was greeted by a couple of anxious security guards. It’s a funny anecdote as Luz Segovia relates it today, but she admits it was pretty tense then.

Segovia’s work is so far beyond mere nail art the he’s even been offered to sell his pieces to an art gallery owner in Chicago. He refused, but displays his handiwork in his salon.

When asked if he ever longs for a larger canvas on which to express himself, he says no, the challenge is in the size of the nail. He will be competing in a total look contest though, that incorporates nails, hair, and clothing. He will be doing body painting (matching a model’s bikini fabric all over her body) and styling her hair to look like a peacock.

And his art goes toward more than self-satisfaction: He does nail art on the children at a Chicago children’s hospital free of charge.

Although all the competing does keep Alfonso and Luz (she is his exclusive model) on the road a great deal, they manage to run a successful salon in Chicago. While they’re away they leave a manager in charge.

When Segovia started working in this industry he encountered some resistance because he was a man. Other men were especially taken aback by having a man do their manicures. He laughs now at the sort of excuses they came up with when they found out he would be doing their nails.

“They’d say things like ‘I forgot my checkbook, I’ll have to come back later,” says Segovia. Besides just being uncomfortable with a man, some customers also worried whether a man was capable of doing nails. He overcame their resistance with typical non-chalance and creativity. To the men who were nervous about the perceived threat to their machismo by holding hands with a man, Alfonso would begin the manicure by telling clients that his wife was busy to dispel their uneasiness. He almost lost his cool with one client, though, who was insulting says Segovia, “I wanted to say I know how to touch a women because I’ve touched more women than he ever will.” Women do not have the same aversion to having a man do their nails, says Segovia. In fact, he gets hit on more than he cares to mention. Asked how she feels about that, Luz just rolls her eyes. Theirs is a solid partnership, both professional and personal.

Chicago Hair Design has seven hair stations and two nail stations. The salon has grown quite a bit since Segovia first started, from a staff of four to today’s nine. Segovia’s frequent competing brings the salon great publicity and thus new business. Luz handles the couple’s public relations campaign, ensuring that all the local papers and television stations receive a press release when Segovia wins. They have even compiled a videotaped press release that features spots on Segovia on local newscasts. They also have a display at the salon dedicated to Segovia’s creations, as well as a photo album that clients can browse through for nail art inspiration.

All the publicity has helped the salon’s hair business as well. Clients coming in for a hair appointment see the nail work available. Although they don’t currently retail nail products, Luz is at work planning how to implement a nail product retail program. They would like to translate their success retailing hair products and clothing to nails as well.

Eventually, Segovia says he would like to teach other nail technicians the fine art of fantasy nail art. He says he is disappointed in the lack of creativity shown in some competitions. “You see the same thing over and over again,” he says. Although he doesn’t have any answers as to why the nail industry lacks originality, he thinks there has been too much emphasis on hair. He also worries about the mindset of cosmetology school graduates. “They develop an attitude,” says Segovia, “that once they finish school they are done learning. They are not in tune with the fact that they have to work their way to the top in this business.”

Segovia plans to continue competing as long as the inspiration moves him. He hopes someday to produce a video on creating fantasy nail art. And next time we hear from him you can be assured he will have added several new career pursuits to his resume. Let’s see, what’s left? Mountain climber, film producer, romance novelist…

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