"This is my time to go for it. I'm coming back."

You wouldn't think that, at 23 years old, Tom Holcomb would be already talking about "coming back." Many people his age just getting started in the nail business would be elated to have received just one of the awards or a fraction of the recognition Holcomb has already racked up for his sculptured nail artistry.

Holcomb's desire to excel, to build the perfect set of nails, and then on up that and build a better set, is obvious from the minute you begin to talk to him about his trade.

Breezy and confident, Holcomb looks remarkably like a California blonde straight out of a surging magazine, but he reports he doesn't have time for sports or other pastimes. He's just too busy doing nails and hair at Le Mongeon, a 14-staff salon in Riverside, Calif., where he works 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. This leaves him barely enough time to see his family -- his wife Tami, their 2 1/2-year-old daughter Madison, and their 6-month-old daughter Spenser.

In spite of his heavy work schedule and family obligations, Holcomb finds the time to be a frequent competitor at nail and beauty industry trade shows, where he has acquired a reputation for always taking first place in sculptured nail competitions. A competitor since he was a student, he recently stepped out of the competition arena for almost a year, but be forewarned -- he's back in the winner's circle. Most recently he took top honors at the 1990 Long Beach Hairdressers' Guild Show competition in January 1990.

While it's been a short road to the top for Holcomb, it hasn't been an easy route. "The call me 'The Guy Who Does Nails,'" he says. "I was more or less the first guy to get out there and really do it. It was very negative until I proved myself. You should have seen the reaction when I started. I've never had so many strange looks from so many women -- until I did my first set of nails in front of them."

Now, Holcomb breezes through and wins so many competitions, people sometimes accuse him of cheating. Yet his confidence is unflappable. "One woman protested a show, saying I had cheated, or somebody else cheated for me. She said I have always won and I should never be allowed to compete again," he reports. "So I took my model's nails and her friend's model's nails and put them down by her model's nails and I said, 'Now you tell me which one should have won.' She walked off."

The healthy-looking father of two sighs. Just a flicker of sadness crosses his face, but it's immediately replaced by a high voltage smile that lights up the room.

"It's too hard -- you have to fight your way to the top, and if you don't they think you've cheated. But I didn't fight. The first show I entered, I won."


Holcomb likes working for himself, and much prefers to have a rental agreement with a salon owner over being an employee. He has some very definite ideas about being self-employed. "Sure, you can make money [as a salon owner employing nail technicians], but you will not find a person with a clientele that's worth anything on a commission basis."

Presently, Holcomb manages to stay enthusiastic about doing nails even while working his rigorous six-day schedule. "You can make more or less what you want to make in the nail business, depending upon how much you want to work," he reports. And he should know -- he has put quite a bit of work into perfecting his acrylic technique, and as his trophy collection and appointment book attest, his investment has paid off rather well.


How to succeed in the nail business wasn't part of his school curriculum, says Holcomb. "Every school is the same -- none of them teach you anything about business or psychology," he comments when asked about education standards for the industry. "As far as I am concerned, people need to take a class in psychology before they start in the business because you can go totally crazy with some clients. You've got to know how to handle them -- just go along with them and tell them they're right."

The responsibility falls to the nail technicians to educate themselves, says Holcomb. "The only other education you're going to get [besides a rudimentary one at school] is by going to shows, or competitions, seminars, whatever," he asserts. "There are a lot of people who think they're ready, willing, and wonderful from Day One when they get their license. And they're making us look bad because they're too lazy to get educated."

Holcomb attributes part of his own efficiency with acrylic to the fact that he painted in art classes throughout high school. After that, cosmetology school was a cinch.

"The first nail I did, my instructor said, 'You have to go out and do it [compete].'

"In nails, like in anything, you either have it or you don't. If you don't have the touch for it, you're going to get frustrated." He pauses. "You can tell, just from the way they [students] work with it whether they can do it or not."


Holcomb laughs lightly when asked what it takes to build a perfect set of nails. There is a whole list of things to look for, he says. But he finally asserts, “Consistency is the basic thing to do anything. We all have our own style, but the consistency is where you’re going to be [if you want the edge].

“A few companies do the type of nail I do. But people are afraid of it. The point is, we are here to do a perfect set of acrylic nails. We are not trying to do a perfect set of natural nails, because [acrylic] isn’t natural.

“Technically, you have to have a few things for a nail to hold up. You’ve got to have that look (the C shape). And make them narrower. You can mold the forms with your hands. You put your C shape into the nail; your strength is there.” He demonstrates by curving a business card into a C shape and hitting it on the table, then alternately hitting it flat on its edge, as if it were a flat nail. The card collapses. “See?” Like that. You’ve got to have the C,” he says, rounding the card again into a curve. That’s the strongest nail in the world. Get that shape down. Then you can go on to do more corrective work.”


Holcomb is particularly challenged by corrective work, and apparently the word is out that he is good at it. “I have a lot of women with bad toenails, hook fingernails, even club fingers. I end up correcting the nail so it looks natural.”

It has been said that practice makes perfect, and Holcomb supports that advice, with some Valley talk derivations: “I you have it, then you have to work on it and kill it. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time. Like every other thing, it’s just total practice.”

Ambition hasn’t spoiled his appreciation for a good joke. “I have thought about making false teeth,” he confides. “That’s the joke in the shop where I am. I have a client who has been missing a tooth for some time. She was going to a party, so I made a big tooth and she put it in her mouth. A dentist came in (another stylist’s client), and he never laughed so hard in his life. It looked good; I had to cut it down with a lot of different colors, but it matches her teeth.”

Holcomb sees himself doing more one-on-one shots for advertisers eventually. He has thought of teaching, but he doubts that he has the patience to teach beginners. “I don’t know how people do it. I could teach more advanced work, but not start from the bottom. It’s just finding the time to do it [teach], more or less.”


At Le Mongeon, Holcomb charges $50 for a set of sculptured nails, which is high for that area in Riverside. While cut-rate nail shops proliferate, he doesn’t consider them a threat. It still takes him an hour to an hour and 20 minutes to do a set of nails.

“My clients get what they pay for and I get the clientele I want,” he explains. “[This way] I don’t draw the teenagers, where it’s a one-time thing. I get a steady, loyal clientele.”

Holcomb sculpts with a light hand. “I never use a drill. Never. It’s a lazy man’s way. They [people who are using drills] are throwing it on and drilling it off to make it look good. If you know how to sculpt a nail, you only need to buff it. The only time you might use a drill is to clean out the line underneath, if there is one.”

Holcomb’s clients are used to a certain understated look. “Seventy five percent of my clients wear their nails clear,” he reports. “The other 25 percent usually wear red. I have a lot of attorneys, business people, and other professionals.”

Nail art isn’t one of his fortes, says Holcomb. “It was fun at first, but it’s gaudy after a while.”

One clue for sculpting great looking nails, says Holcomb is to imagine the nail on the nail bed before you create it. And, despite the ease with which he seems to have acquired his first-place trophies, he warns that to succeed in competition, a person should be prepared to fight.

“You have to fight your way to the top. You have to stay on it. You have to keep working. You go to the competitions, you pick up a little here, a little there, and you gradually get your own style, and you hope that those people like it.”

Apparently the Guy Who Does Nails has convinced the judges as well as his clientele of his prowess because they do seem to like his style. Sounding just a bit like an architect at an art showing and a bit like a marketing whiz, he enlarges, “My clients want a clean, clean look. Whether they are long or short – they are just clean.”


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