Jewell Cunningham is a world champion nail artist, a title she earned by recently competing against more than 150 other professional nail artists during the World International Nail and Beauty Association’s competition and show in June.

It’s the one accomplishment in a string of victories that she is especially proud of as it marks the culmination of over a year of series competition work.

For Jewell, the title and the dramatic, gleaming, five- foot trophy that heralds her achievement still excites her when she talks about that afternoon and what the accomplishment means to her.

“It is very exciting to win that title,” she explained, “but it is also a big responsibility to carry, knowing that you have this title and that everyone knows it and that have to uphold it for your own pride” she said, obviously thinking just a moment on how the competition will heat up, and that her own pride will be the main motivator for her next competition. But shortly a hint of a smile emerges and she begins to relate just what competing has meant for her.

“I was never very nervous in the competitions until I started winning,” revealed Jewell. “And then once I won my first competition I got the fever and had to keep competing to keep up the momentum.

“Competitions are very important. You need to do it. It gives you a better outlook on the business and actually rejuvenates your belief in it. Competing and winning gets the adrenalin flowing again and is a real emotional high.”

Although admitting to a certain competitive drive, Jewell began competing in a round-about manner several years ago, first entering competitions as “moral support” for a friend that was seriously competing.

“I made the transition from just moral support to serious competition when my clients and friends asked me why it was that I was spending my time in these events without really trying to win. I thought about it and decided that I had to win to prove to myself that I could do it.”

Once she began winning, she found that her clients were proud of her achievements but not particularly surprised.

“These girls I work with and especially Candi, the woman I work for, were very supportive and even my clients were supportive and proud. But I found that they were not surprised by my winning and actually kept pushing me to compete. My ladies would come in for their appointments and ask, ‘What, no more trophies?’”

This support and extra push helped Jewell pick up several top honors within this past year. Her first important award was her second place finish at the Long Beach Hairdressers Guild show in January. From that show she picked up a first place award at the California Cosmetology Association show and then her title of World Champion from WINBA.

“When I first started competing several years ago, my nails were square squares. And I used to think that they were the best nails around. But then I started really watching the competitions and learned what the judges were looking for, and I closely examined the nails that won. Then as I progressed, I found that my entire style had changed. I picked up different techniques, although I don’t know exactly when or where, but I’ve definitely changed as I’ve competed.”

Jewell’s belief in competitions and the effect it has on the nail artist is bolstered by the awards she has accumulated yet she feels that she was still able get something out of competing even when she didn’t win. But she does have some suggestions for other nail artists interested in competitions: “Just do it.”

“It is nothing to get nervous over because in the end, it is yourself that you are competing against, trying to do the best work you can and to continue to improve” she explained.

“The important thing to understand is not to get discouraged if you don’t win, but take a close look at the nails that did to better understand what the judges look for,”

Her own approach, without giving way any trade secrets, is quite simple: continuity.

“It is very important that you have continuity from one finger to the next as far as the thinness and shape is concerned. You can have some minor flaws, the kind that only you would see, but if you are consistent from nail to nail, you will score higher.”

The rest, according to Jewell, is patience and practice. But the effort is clearly worth it. That alone is obvious by just walking through the doors of Candi’s Nails, the salon Jewell works in. The first thing noticable is that dramatic and imposing trophy glinting in the sunlight, gold medallions hanging from its sides crowned with the silver and rhinestone-encrusted tiara of the champion. Positioned directly in front of the entrance, the trophy acts like a beacon, drawing attention, conversation and people to Jewell and her accomplishment. The notoriety has added an element of excitement in the salon, if not a bit of competition, but it has not been detrimental.

“I like my job a lot,” explained Jewell, when asked if the awards had improved her attitude about her work. “This is a good business to be in. You get a lot of support from your customers and the people you work with, and I love the place I’m working at and the person I work for.

“So winning the awards hasn’t improved a bad situation, it’s improved an already great environ­ment. I’ve been working with Candi for over three years now and would not even think of working for anyone else. She is the best person I could find and in fact have learned a great deal from her. I’ve always thought of her as the best in the field and I still think so.”

Candi Valencia has worked as a nail artist and salon owner for over 10 years, and currently works in her salon, The Candi Nail, in Downey, California.

Jewell’s background in nails began over six years ago when she was taught the basics of acrylic nails before attending and graduating from the American Beauty College in Southern California. Following a short stint with several nail salons, Jewell was hired by Candi because as Jewell admits, she billed herself as “the best in tips.” It did not take long, however, before she began to learn what quality was all about.

“It was attitude I learned from Candi...that although time is money, it is still important to do the best, to do quality work. She told me to slow down and file more and to spend more time with my finish work, with my detail work. And when I started to slow down, my work improved dramatically and I stated to really take pride in my work.”

Over the years, as her work has improved, so has her clientele and their appreciation of good work.

“We have a largely uneducated public out there,” mused Jewell, “who often do not know what a good nail looks like. But my clientele knows full well, and if I give them anything less than perfect, I get a major complaint,” she said, chuckling at the situation she created.

“I love my customers, and in fact most of them are as close as friends...some of my best friends started as customers. I am honest with them and they are honest with me. If something is not right because of my job, then they come back and harass me, but if they break the nail, they tell as well. They are very supportive and have always told me that no matter what my mood or attitude, it never affects my work.”

This attitude is reflected in her work, says Jewell, because her clients take care of their nails and pride in the way they look, which in turn she appreciates.

‘When my ladies show off their nails, really flash them around and take care of them, I take pride in them as well. And my best work is often on those that enjoy them ... that flash them as jewels instead of using them as tools.”

Jewell’s pride in her work, combined with her desire to continue competing should make life around the salon interesting in the coming months, as she attempts to maintain her momentum and her “show quality’ work. But what should keep Jewell on her toes is that she will competing with and against the lady that does her nails ... a nail artist and friend that has taken second and third place just below Jewell in recent competitions.

“It’s funny but I have never known anybody that I directly competed against or liked and knew as a person, or cheered them on or worried for them during the awards presentations. But I became friends with Rhoda Newsham after seeing her and competing with her in several different competitions.

“After a while, we became friends, good friends, and now we do each others nails. Our techniques are totally different but the finished product is the same. So it should be interesting in the coming competitions. I honestly want her to do well ... and I will be cheering for her.”

The added pressure of competition so close doesn’t seem to bother Jewell, and she laughingly adds that they hope to be able to tie up the top awards between the two of them “She hasn’t minded being second to me, and if I have to come in second, I would rather lose to Rhonda. But it should be interesting as we compete together.”

Jewell will continue competing this year at the different shows until the 1984 WINBA show where she will act as judge instead of entrant. But until then, she competes to fulfill a promise.

“When I first started competing seriously for the top honors, I made a promise to myself that if I won a contest, I would continue to compete all year long to maintain the commitment I made to myself. Well now I’ve won and it’s important for me to continue, to fulfill that promise.”

In the meantime her clients continue to support her, the five foot trophy stands gleaming in her salon and the excitement of being a world champion nail artist continues to enthuse and motivate. For instead of remaining stable, instead of sitting back and enjoying her accomplishments, that enthusiasm and excitement pushes her to continually improve and to excell.

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