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Picture Perfect: How to Break Into Doing Nails for Print and TV

Follow the steps outlined by agent Crystal Wright and you may join out industry’s most elite group by becoming one of the tech who makes celebrities and models look perfect before they step in front of the camera.

Editor’s note: There is no more glamorous career path available to nail technicians than working behind the senses in entertainment and publishing. As president of the Crystal Agency, Crystal Wright knows all the ins and outs of the business-both how to break in and what to expect when you get there. We’ve asked her to share her secrets with you.

About two years ago, I got a call from a young woman by the name of Julia Palmer. A friend of mine who was staying at the Four Season Hotel in Beverly Hills had experienced a Julia Palmer manicure and suggested that she call me about representation. Until then, I admit that I hadn’t given a thought to representing a manicurist (I was representing hair, makeup, and fashion stylists at the time), but because a close friend recommended her I agreed to meet with her.

Well I was in for quite a surprise as Julia whipped out an impressive array of published work, known in the business as tearsheets. Included was Fergie, the Duchess of York, on a book cover, Sophia Loren on the pages of InStyle Magazine, and Jenny McCarthy on the cover of Newsweek. A light bulb went on in my head. If these celebrities wanted Julia on the set to do their nails, wouldn’t magazine editors and art directors want to ensure that the hands of all supermodels, celebrities, and recording artists are exquisitely coiffed for magazine covers and movie posters? We decided to find out and took Julia on as a client.

Since then she has worked on advertisements for The Gap, Pierce Brosnan, Sela Ward for Good Housekeeping, Helen Hunt of the cover of InStyle, and numerous Essence magazine covers (both through my agency and her current agency Celestine). In the two years since Julia opened my eyes to the importance of having a manicurist on the roster, I have seen the demand for manicurists on the set (versus makeup artists with a little fingernail polish in their kit) grow steadily. A plethora of magazines now want a manicurist on the job as do photographers and directors for those big print advertising jobs and TV commercials. At The Grystal Agency, we now represent two manicurists and keep them pretty busy.

So, how can you take advantage of this exciting market? Like every artist who wants to work behind the scenes, a portfolio is required. You many think, “That’s easy, I’ve got lots of pictures of my work from competitions, client who came into the salon, etc.” But those aren’t exactly the kinds of pictures that are needed for this business. Art directors, fashion editors, and agency owners are looking for a well laid-out collection of tearsheets and tests (non-paid collaborative photo shots that include a hair and makeup artist, fashion stylist, photographer, and nail tech) professionally presented in a portfolio book. The book is your calling card. It is used by you and your agent to get you work.

Building a Portfolio

The first step to building a portfolio is finding good and creative photographers who are producing interesting pictures that are portfolio-worthy. We’re not talking about the average head shot guy who is taking black-and-white photos of aspiring models. We’re talking about a person with vision and story-telling ability, the photographer who wants to create the kinds of layouts you see in the back third of a fashion magazine or ads for BMW, Coca-Cola, Paul Mitchell, and Donna Karan.

Finding these photographers isn’t as hard as you might think—knowing how to recognize them is the trick. In my portfolio workshops, “How can I tell good photography from bad photography?,” I offer this quick and easy way: Only look at good photography. Really! I’ll tell you a secret; there is no bad photography in Harper’s Bazaar. Too fashion and entertainment magazines like Vogue, Jane, Elle, InStyle, Essence, and Rolling Stone hire the best shooters in the world. Use these magazines to train your eye and you can’t go wrong. Remember that photography is art. If you’ve ever been inside an art gallery and saw a painting that moved you, you know that liking the painting was something you felt from the inside out. Photography is the same.

Educate yourself. Begin to look at photography for different reasons. A photographer’s lighting is part of his or her signature. It’s one of the reasons they get hired. Good lighting makes a model’s red lips look kissable—as if they are summoning you. At the same time, bad lighting and poorly placed shadows can make the knuckles on a hand model look like boulders and the nails like claws instead of the invitation to “Have a Coke and a smile.” That said and learned, you are ready to seek out photographers to work with.

Some of the best places to look for photographers are schools, community colleges, vocational/technical schools, and universities. Many Schools have message boards where you can post an index card with your contact information. Better yet, call the local schools in your area and ask for a class schedule. Once you know the schedule you can make it your business to get over to the school and introduce your-self to the photographers who are exiting the classroom when the hell rings. Make it a point to introduce yourself to the professor and let her know that you are looking for people photographers who can use an excellent manicurist on their shoots.

Another great place to look for photographers and jobs is through makeup artists and hairstylists you already know who may be working on their portfolios or accepting freelance gigs outside of the salon. Just put the word out that you, too, are building your book.

There is also something said for being in the right place at the right time. Julia Palmer never tested. She built her book with tearsheets from clients she met at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. “One of my ‘in-room’ celebrity clients at the Four Seasons was Natasha Richardson. She was preparing to go to the Golden Globe awards. Several weeks later a picture of her appeared in InStyle magazine and I pulled it out and put it in my portfolio,” explains Palmer.

The Internet is a must when it comes to looking for photographers and the rest of your team. Some of the popular photography sites where you can search and become familiar with the work of photographers are,, and These sites make it possible to search by city, specialty, and title. By the same token, if you are searching for hair and makeup artists to connect with, I suggest checking out some of the professional makeup artist boards online. Website message boards at,, and outs, of course, at, all offer a steady stream of artists who are testing to build their portfolios.

Appealing to the Creative Decision-Maker

While wildly painted artistic nails may appeal to some of your salon clients, most consumer-driven entertainment (People, InStyle, Premiere), fashion (Vogue, Jane, Bazaar), and lifestyle (McCall’s, Woman’s Day, Essence) publications are looking for neat, clean, short nails painted with a single color or no color at all.

“Mikki Garth-Taylor is my boss when I work for Essence. She’s the beauty and cover editor. She doesn’t want anything flashy on the cover of Essence,” says nail technician Von Christmas, “It’s not their image. I bring lots of colors with me to the shoot, just so I’m prepared, but I know what they want.” To date Von has done more than five covers for Essence magazine. Her first was Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta. Her most recent was Vanessa Williams and her new husband, Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox.

“I try to help my client by doing my homework,” says Von. “I get on the Internet and search for articles on the celebrities I’m working with, knowing something about them or their interests can give you some common ground throughout the shoot. When I’m working for a new magazine, I go to their website and look at the covers and try to figure out what they’ll want from me.

“Most of the time I’m working with celebrities and photo shoots aren’t easy for anyone,” Von continues. “Glamorous, yes, especially to those of us who are working on them. But to the celebrities, they’re just work. The creative people are doing the best job they can at hiring hair, makeup, and manicurist talent. They look for people they believe will work seamlessly with the celebrities or models. We’re in their faces all day. If we work well with the stars and the stars get comfortable, then the art directors know they’re going to get a good shot. Then you know you’ll get called back the next time when they need someone.”

On the flip side, I once hired my manicurist (who was a friend) to do the cover of Essence. Her behavior that day almost cost my agency a ten-year client. She called me the day before the shoot and asked if she could take her daughter along. I said, “Absolutely not, this is work.” The shoot was for the cover of Essence with Halle Berry. The manicurist took her 15-year-old daughter anyway.

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