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Her Nails in Lights

Many techs dream of a career in which their nail designs are published on magazine covers and adorn the fingers and toes of the hottest celebrities. One nail tech shares her story of uprooting her quiet Midwestern life for a chance to make it as a celebrity manicurist in New York City.

<p>The author, celebrity manicurist Julie Kandalec (left), works the Essie booth at New York Fashion Week in February 2011.</p>

One day about 10 years ago, I was watching a TV show that went behind the scenes of a new thriller movie when the documentary explained that, to better match the character’s creepy demeanor, a nail stylist was called in to extend the leading actor’s bitten nail beds with acrylic. I’d had my cosmetology license for about two years back then, as well as a good job at Jenniffer & Co. Salon in Mentor, Ohio, but the thought that popped into my head was, “How can I do that?”

I was born and raised in Ohio and I’d never lived anywhere else, so I started with what I knew, slowly doing hair and nails for photo shoots to build my portfolio. My first shoot was in 2001, when my boss hired beauty photographer Tom Carson to come to the salon to shoot new trends for magazine submissions and marketing materials. From that photo shoot, one of my step-by-steps, actually a men’s haircut and color, was published in international hair color magazine Men’s Passion International. It was a full page, and even though it was for hair, I’ll never forget how it felt when I saw my name in print next to that photo of my work.

I kept doing photo shoots, but in Ohio, there aren’t many fashion and beauty photographers and models, and the overall style of the photos just wasn’t what I needed to build a really strong portfolio. So I eventually started flying myself to Los Angeles to shoot with models and photographers there. I flew to L.A. about two to four times a year for the next two years, paying for the trips out of my pocket. I used a buddy pass once, but the other tickets were around $300 each. I traveled as cheaply as I could, staying with friends or renting sublets that I found on Craigslist (like a bedroom in someone’s house), instead of staying in hotels. It might sound crazy, but my boss, my clients, and my family all understood what I was doing.

<p>This shot, taken by beauty photographer Courtney Dailey, was in her portfolio when she met with the agency Artists by Timothy Priano.</p>

It was during one of these shoots in L.A. that a make-up artist recommended me to beauty photographer Courtney Dailey. Dailey, the make-up artist, and I set up a test shoot (meaning it wasn’t necessarily going to be published) and we decided that we wanted the nails and the lips to match. I chose turquoise simply because it’s my favorite color, and the make-up artist had the exact lip color. When I got the photos back, I took the initiative to send them to Scratch magazine. The editor loved it, and it became the August 2009 cover of the magazine and my first solo cover ever.

<p>Kandalec won NAILS&rsquo; Cover Tech Contest in 2010, which increased her visibility.</p>

In January 2010, it was announced that I won the NAILS Cover Tech Contest (Tom Carson shot those covers for me as well). Between winning that contest, keying five shows at New York Fashion Week, another successful trip to L.A., and an e-mail recommendation from my mentor and celebrity artist coach Crystal Wright, I got an interview in New York City with Timothy Priano, the president of agency Artists by Timothy Priano. He was straight to the point with me: “Why aren’t you living in New York?” I replied, “If you sign me, I’ll move.” I flew home and began packing my three bedroom condo that night.

I hated to leave my salon of nearly 10 years, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to get to New York and start working. Everyone there knew it was a long time coming that I would move! To take over my clientele of about 75 regulars, I hired and trained two new nail techs for the already busy nail department. I simultaneously decided on the perfect day to move: October 10, 2010, or 10/10/10, for good luck.

I’ve moved apartments a few times since that October. My first three weeks I rented a room in a gorgeous Upper West Side brownstone that wasn’t much larger than a queen-size bed for $1,000 a month. Then, I moved to adorable Hoboken, N.J., but the commute on the subway got to be too much with my 35 lb. nail kit! So I now live in Manhattan.

I got licensed in New York shortly after I moved (I still have my Ohio license). Luckily, I was over the five year mark at Jenniffer & Co., which in New York meant I didn’t have to take the test over. I did have to get a physical though, plus my former boss had to fill out some paperwork detailing how long I’d worked at her salon and spelling out my strengths.

<p>Some of Kandalec&rsquo;s favorite nails were these for <em>Russian Vogue</em>, which were gold foil and encrusted in Swarovski crystals.</p>

<p>These patriotic nails by Kandalec were featured in a spread in the August 2011 issue of Shape.</p>

Since my move, I work an average of three to five shoots a week, plus events like Fashion Week and seeing private clients. In the past year, I’ve worked with celebrities including Kim Cattrall, Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Andie MacDowell, Eve, and Mia Wasikowska. My nails have been published in Italian Vogue, Russian Vogue, Shape, Ladies’ Home Journal, Self, Marie Claire, BlackBook, and Esquire. I have done nails for shows at New York Fashion Week, including celeb favorite Tadashi Shoji, and others. I’ve worked with products from a huge array of nail manufacturers. An updated portfolio of my work can be seen on my website,

My job isn’t always easy though. I haven’t done a client at a real manicure station in over a year. I carry everything I need with me, which is 100+ bottles of polish, implements, treatments, towels, nail tips, nail art, and more. And since I don’t have a car, I take it all on the subway, through the heat, the rain, and the slush. I’ll get calls at 11 p.m. for an 8 a.m. call time the next day. But it’s a true pleasure to be called upon to pamper a model or celebrity before she gets in front of the camera or goes to a big event.

There are more than 8 million people in New York City, and the city is swimming with people in the business, so we have a lot in common. Anything is possible here. One of my favorite memories is from one of my first jobs after moving, a multi-day shoot in which I was able to become great friends with the beauty team and the photographer. The photographer in particular, Yu Tsai, was very entertaining, telling jokes and dancing between shots.

For those of you who have the same dream I did, I encourage you to go for it. Just remember, experience is priceless. I worked for years for free. I oversaw small events, college fashion shows, and less-than-glamorous jobs. To succeed, you have to have talent, but it’s even more important that you have the personality and the drive. It took a lot of time, sacrifice, and initiative, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.

If you want more on Julie Kandalec’s career path, follow her on Twitter: @julieKnailsNYC.

Related Articles:

Living the Dream: Becoming a Celebrity Nail Tech

Cover Tech Winner: Double the Fun

Spring 2011 Nail Trends from Fashion Week

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