No surprise here: Zendaya keeps good people in her inner circle. Chaun Legend, the artist who does her nails for photoshoots and red carpet appearances, is no exception. Legend is a self-trained, Philly-born graffiti artist who, over the past few years living in L.A., translated his street-art talents to a new medium: tapered coffin-shaped acrylics.
Legend has more than 1.3 million Instagram followers, and more than a few celebrity clients, who, beyond Zendaya, include Dua Lipa, Lori Harvey, and Rihanna. Ahead, Legend breaks down the steps of his career, moving from Philly to Kentucky to L.A., and gives us a peek into what it's like to work as a celebrity nail artist. Read through, and you'll get why the celebs who can have any artist on their fingertips (literally) choose to have Chaun's trademark on their fingernails.
Refinery29: How did you get your start in nails?
Chaun Legend: Many, many years ago, in 2006, I was in Philly, where I'm originally from, and I knew nothing about nails. Literally nothing. But a good friend of mine convinced me to move to Kentucky because his sister had opened a huge nail [studio] in Lexington. He said he'd pay for my flights and my car and help me get licensed to help them out. At the time, I didn't have a lot gong on in Philly. I was like, 'Damn, free apartment, free car. Okay, yeah.' Once I got to Kentucky, I started working in the salon, which wasn't that bad because I have an art background, I already knew how to draw and paint. I was able to incorporate art into the nails. The love grew from there.
R29: Then you moved to L.A. — was that an adjustment?
Legend: I moved to L.A. in 2014. When I was in Kentucky I was only doing manis and pedis. There were no acrylics and gels weren't really around yet. So when I got to L.A., I was trying to get a job as a nail tech and I had to practice with acrylics. I had like three roommates at the time and I asked them if I could use [their nails] to practice. I remember it took at least twelve hours for a set of acrylics when I was starting out. Then I went in for a job as a nail tech in Beverly Hills and they asked me how long I'd been doing acrylics and I told them 'a few years.' I was making them believe that I'm actually skilled with acrylics. But they booked me with clients and I was sweating at first, but I was proud of myself for learning how to do it. I started getting booked with more clients and my speed got better.
R29: What a progression to where you are today. Now you're booking celebrity clients! What's your favourite part about doing nails? It's such a detailed art.
Legend: I love the reaction from the clients. Damn, she loves it. That makes me love it even more. I love taking pictures of my work, that's the artist in me, too. I'm able to paint and draw. I mean I love graffiti art. I sometimes can't believe I'm able to put that on such a small surface. I'm constantly surprising myself.
R29: At this point, how long does it take you to do a single set of acrylics?
Legend: A solid-colour fill-in usually takes me about an hour. If I'm doing a full set, that could take two hours. I sculpt everything, which is building the nail from scratch. If there's an intricate design, like every nail with a different design, that could take up to twelve hours.
R29: Do you get that a lot?
Legend: Every now and then. I can't do that back to back, I'd never get any sleep. I'll do something like that maybe twice a week. If I'm doing an intricate set of nails for a celebrity, like on a set, I'll map it out and plan the colours first.
Legend: That's if they don't have anything on the nail. But usually, whoever I'm working with already has an enhancement on their nails. They let us know prior. But yes, if it's a press-on, that's the easy part. But when someone already has extensions, we have to physically do the art on set that day. Usually, I'll show someone a few concepts, they'll pick the one they like, and I'll get to it.
Or, now there's Pinterest and Instagram — even TikTok. They'll show me the design that they like, and sometimes ask me to put a spin on it.
R29: Where do you get your creative inspiration?
Legend: I get some of my inspiration from other nail artists, but I throw my little twist on it. I don't like to copy anything directly. I love to get inspiration from handbags. Sometimes women will come in with these really cool bags and I can translate the pattern on the nail. Designers, Emilio Pucci has really intricate designs, colours, and patterns. Sometimes, I'll wake up and be like, 'I had a dream about this cool nail.' Yes, I dream in nails; they come to me in my sleep.
R29: A true artist! It's great that people will soon have accessibility to your art with these press-ons you created with Lottie London. Can you tell me about the designs.
Legend: I love my collaboration with Lottie because it gives people access to me. People who can't get to me, or people who don't have time to get to a salon.
I love graffiti art and I love street art. The Sunset Strip is orange and it reminds you of L.A. and how the sun sets on the strip. The French Swirls are my most popular, most recreated design — it's really for everyone. Emerald City is inspired by my very first experiences with nail art, taking it back to my roots, I love green, and lines are my thing.
R29: How do you describe this shape?
Legend: It's a tapered coffin. I think it looks flattering on every hand. It kind of tapers at the edges which makes the fingers look slender. This is a good length, too. It's not outrageously long, but you can still do that ASMR thing. I love that.
R29: How long do these wear?
Legend: They can last up to two weeks. I usually tell people to make sure the nails are clean, clean it with alcohol, push the cuticles back, add the adhesive, and just stick it on. To remove, you just soak the nails in water with a little bit of oil — and be patient — they'll lift up.
R29: Do you wear nail art yourself?
Legend: Not right now, but occasionally I will. Recently I did the graffiti on my nails and wore them for like a day.
I am happy to see anyone wearing pride and appreciation of nails. Men, women, dogs, cats — I'm here for all of it. I have a few male clients with long nails. One male client loves nail art. Another male client just like a little length because he says it makes his nails look a little more slender.
R29: I can't wait to try the pink graffiti press-ons. They're a little out of my comfort zone, but look so cool.
Legend: I can't wait to see you with those. You gotta do that pose, too (vogues hands over face).
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