I knew going into this interview that my morning would be anything but boring. The session was set up with two male manicurists, a rare breed in this predominantly female business, and I had been told that Billy Lightfoot and Tom Freeman were beer drinkin’, good time carousers.
What I found didn’t disappoint me. In fact, the first thing that greeted me on arrival at the Nail saloon in Upland, California, was Billy, an “Indian dressed as a cowboy,” and Tom, sporting shoulder length, graying hair offset by an earring that hung from one of the three holes in his left ear (I later learned all three are for the earrings he loves to wear at shows). And there, behind them, hanging obviously on the wall, was Tom’s recently issued manicuring license signed by it was 10:30 a.m. and I was offered a color Bud.
Both Tom and Billy have been manicurists for a relatively short time. Tom about a year and Billy about 16 months. But both are convinced and very convincing about pursuing this vocation. In their early 40’s, both men have a jack-of-all trades history, and once they made the transition to manicuring, a transition easier than they expected, they grew to love the detail work and the interaction with their clients.
It was as students in the Marinaro School of Beauty that they met. Billy was the first male student to graduate as a manicurist. Tom the third (The second male graduate doesn’t really count, claims both Tom and Billy “cause he never really made it… you know he had problems dealing with people.”)
It didn’t take either very long to develop their own specialty: Tom works with feathers and Billy with nail painting.
Normally, as I came to see during the interview, keeping a conversation directed with the two of them around is not only tough, it’s near impossible. What with the one liners, side comments and raucous laughter, it can be tough to get a word in, unless you jump in with the appropriate volume. But this morning, they had a story to tell and politely waited until each was half way through before jumping in.
Tom was first: After commenting that he hoped the sound of popping beer cans wouldn’t be on the tape. He proceeded to explain what he was doing and why.
“Well basically,” he laughed, “I wasn’t doing anything at the time and my lady got tired of me sitting around the house all day. She was working with nails and talked me into watching her work. I was intrigued with the detail work and decided what the hell, it was worth a try.”
Prior to that decision, Tom had worked as a traveling salesman, medical photographer, instructor in a flight school and in construction building residential homes. The move into manicuring was not difficult: Most of his adult life he worked with people and although he admits to getting off to a rough start, he seems genuinely excited about his new found profession and specialty.
“Hell, the first set of nails I did as a professional where somebody was actually paying me to do work. I couldn’t finish. I got so nervous and shaky that I had to call one of the girls over to finish for me and I went down the street for a beer.
“It was that tough,” he laughed, “but I overcame that initial fear and now I love the work and the ladies.”
For Billy, the decision to enter the field was also influenced by a woman this one a friend, but also an established nail technician.
“Hell,” he says, with a deep, baritone voice that practically booms from under his cowboy hat. “I came out here in ‘70 and went to work as a heavy equipment operator until ’75 when construction took a big dive. So then I was running around and took a job as a ranch hand on a cattle ranch up in Oregon where I worked for about four-and-a-half years. But then I got laid off the ranch ‘cause the owner died so I came back down here headed to Colorado to work on a ranch.
“But I couldn’t head over until spring when it was round-up time so I got in touch with this lady friend of mine. And she said “You oughta become a manicurist.”
“And I said Well bull----. This guy become a manicurist, just left a ranch to go into the manicurist business… WRONG, I said ‘You’re crazy,’ and I laughed.”
His friend prevailed, after a few other such meetings, and shortly Billy found himself enrolled, graduated and enjoying his new profession. But when pressed about why he ultimately decided to pursue nails, he laughed and said:
“Well, I gotta thinkin’ one day after watchin’ this friend of mine… I gotta thinkin’ that you know I’ve been working hard all my life, been a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none, and I never really had an easy, pleasurable job to do. And I just started thinking.
“You know the best work in the world for a guy to do is sit behind a desk, hold a lady’s hand all day long and git paid for it. And,” he added with more of a guffaw than a laugh, “you’re sitting on your butt.”
The move into nails drew somewhat of a mixed but predictable response from their friends. And although they believed in their profession, they still received smirks and comments.
“Well,” reminisced Billy, with somewhat of a grin, “everybody was poking fun at it… you know, an injun doing fingernails and then dressed as a cowboy doin' woman's work. 'You're kinda mixed up aren't ya boy?'
Tom admits receiving a fair share of ribbing, but says his reaction generally cuts it short.
"All I say is that basically what I'm doing is that I'm sitting there for an hour-and-a half holdin' your ole lady's hand . . . and you’re paying for it."
Reaction from their clientele is hardly mixed. Both men claim that their "ladies" thoroughly enjoy their work and style.
"They don't seem that surprised," said Tom. "I get the same comments and gossip and I'm the same psychologist that the girls are, if not more . . ."
("I agree," yelled Billy, "Hell, we oughta be licensed psychologists charge for that and give the nails free!!") ". . . I always feel they are on the verge of saying more but they are a little nervous because the girls are arouns . . . they tell us stuff they tell their hairdressers."
"The first coupla times that I do a new lady," added Billy, "they are still on the leery side a little bit but after she see the work and see that it's done decently, they settle right down."
If anything, the reaction has had a positive effect on their style and outlook. Although they work in different salons (Billy works in the Curling Iron, about two-and-a-half miles away from the Nail Saloon), both recognize the potential bias and deal effectively with it.
"Tom and I believe that we are pretty particular people," remarked Billy, with a seriousness that seemed out of character. "We just don't like to bring somebody in the shop and let them go with just ordinary looking set of nails. We are more or less perfectionists. We have to be to overcome that bias."
Tom quickly agreed, adding a comment that had them both laughing and yelling.
"You have to keep your quality up and you also have to keep your salesmanship going," said Tom. "You just can't grab 'em like your grabbing a horse or a 32-ounce framing hammer."
That, they are quick to add, is all part of the challenge. They relish the ability to maintain good work and develop a rapport with their "ladies." In addition, their own chosen specialty adds a degree of excitement and challenge.
"I greatly enjoy the work," explained Tom. "And the fact that we are men and have this profession going for us and each one of us has our specialty makes us rarities."
(That may be an understatement. Tom and Billy represent a very small minority with the industry. Educated guesses put male manicurists within less than one percent of the entire profession.)
Their respective specialty, Billy's nail painting and Tom's work with feathers, provide a creative outlet that positively affects their work with nails, claim both men.
"Yes, my interest in feathers helps my standard practice of putting on nails," agreed Tom. "It's something unique, a lot of fun and yet takes a great deal of patience and effort that spills over into my regular nail work.
"Feathers," warming up to a subject that obviously intrigues him, "well, every one of them is an original, not identical to another, almost like a separate work of art. I love them and the way they look on the nail."
Their use is complicated in the application process, but the final effect is both dramatic and startling.
"If you are interest in applying feathers to the nail, restrict your use to the neck and breast feathers only, because the others are so thick and coarse that you can't get them to lay down on the nail or to direct them where you want them to go."
One of the tricks, explained Tom, is to trim off the "fluff and fuzz" and to trim the feather back and into the best shape for the nail.
"Put it in a wet base coat. After the color is on. Use a clear coat and wait until its tacky, which you do by feel. The timing is important, because at this stage you can get it to lay down without it wrinkling.
"Once the feather is on the nail, you have one chance to put a top coat over it. It has to go on real straight, otherwise the feather will move around."
The feather lasts as long as the polish: once the color is changed the feather comes off with it.
Tom has worked with a variety of feathers and even has clients that bring them in for him.
"They are so fascinated with it that many bring in parrot, parakeet and other feathers to me," grinned Tom.
"Hell," jumps in Billy, "there are times when it looks like somebody strangled a chicken in here," as he laughs and yells about feathers here, there and everywhere.
At this point, we move the discussion toward nail painting and the work that Billy's involved with. As if on cue, he pulls out a nail tip with a beautifully intricate and detailed unicorn painting on it.
"Would you believe that unicorn has five eyelashes on it?" he asks, proudly displaying his work. "And I didn't start doin’ the artwork until half way through school, when I got me a bunch of those decals and a bunch of tips and started practicing, and just started painting."
Over the past year-and-a-half, the practice has paid off, considering the string of awards Billy has won at competitions.
"My first attempt was a first place at the CCA show, which was not too shabby for only 72 hours of schooling. I've since entered seven competitions and won four first places,"
(According to Billy, he has honed his style to the point where he can do a complete set of acrylics plus the artwork on all 1 0 nails in a little over two hours.)
"The amount of time that Tom and I's been in it, I think that we have done extremely well compared to other people that have been in the racket four or five years," remarked Billy.
In the immediate future, Tom and Billy hope to set up clinics where they can teach their respective specialty, and will in fact be offering demonstrations at the upcoming WINBA show in June. But they are careful not to let it interfere with the growing success of their nail business. They are having far too much fun for that.
"Tom and I came up with a pretty good advertising gimmick, or actually I did and he agreed to it," laughs Billy. "Ready'? It's 'We'll do you 10 time each time.' "
"There's not many slogans around for male manicurists to wear on their shirts," adds Tom, over Billy's raucous laughter. And I'm sure not going to wear a shirt that says 'Manicurists make them long and hard' . . . I'm not going to wear that."
"And," yelled Billy right back, "I'm not going to wear on that says 'Manicurists buff and puff better,' either."
As I left, Tom and Billy were wrapped up in a conversation about the need for more male manicurists and their role in the beauty industry. Their comments were positive but phrased in their own inimitable style:
"I'd like to encourage men to get into this racket, because how else can they sit on their ass all day long, holding a gorgeous lady's hand and get paid for it?"
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.