Nail artistry wasn't a lifelong passion for Maria Salandra, who has been Rihanna's go-to manicurist for the last five years. Her story can't be written as one of those "I knew from a young age" narratives, and she wasn't collecting nail polishes as a teenager or doing nail art on her middle school friends. Salandra actually wanted a career in music and only started to do nails as a side hustle. "When I started to pursue my recording career, I didn't want to wait tables until I made it like everybody else," she tells Refinery29, so she learned the basics in her uncle's hair salon that had nail service and eventually went to beauty school. Then in 1990, she opened up her own salon in New Jersey.
The aspiring singer was living a parallel life. She would go from managing the salon during the day to singing gigs at night, which included working the club circuit and going into the studio to record background vocals. But eventually, one of her two career paths started to take off faster than the other.
With help from a few friends in the film industry, she landed her first Hollywood film: Mixed Nuts, starring Steven Martin, Adam Sandler, and Rita Wilson. And then, her big break came along. The Italian nail artist found herself on set for the iconic series The Sopranos, where she was in charge of the nails for all the principles. These Hollywood jobs with clientele like Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and the Kardashian-Jenner clan led to a circle of industry friends, and it was one friend in particular who changed her life forever.
"My friend had been doing nails for Rihanna, and there was one day where she couldn't make it to do her manicure," she shares. "I really didn't take it as a forever thing. I just thought it was going to be a one-time opportunity." That was the night of the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, and Salandra had no idea what was in store for her as she made her way to do Rihanna's nails at 1 a.m. "She posted her nails on Instagram, and I went from having four followers to 8,000 in minutes. I was overwhelmed by what it meant to me and my career. I never expected to see her past that night."
From there, Salandra would go on to do four jobs in just one month with Rihanna, and that was only the beginning. Over the last five years, the nail artist has ridden on the Rihanna rollercoaster. A ride that includes performances on some of the biggest stages in the world, fashion collaborations with PUMA and Savage x Fenty, and the launch of her groundbreaking makeup brand Fenty Beauty.
Salandra never knows what type of project will come her way. It could be making nail designs for 50 models in one of Rihanna's fashion shows or flying to London for a last-minute event. But to stay one step ahead, she always has a prepared kit of all of RiRi's favourite colours from over the years, which she says is mostly nudes or reds. But that's not to say Rihanna won't venture out. "Just when you think she's going to pick nude, she picks something completely out of the box," she says.
One of her most iconic nail creations for Rihanna is actually one of her most recent: the super embellished manicure from the 2018 Met Gala that featured Swarovski crystals. The extravagant nails took two hours and two days to create. The first day, she applied the stiletto full set. Then, on the day of the red carpet, Salandra added the Catholic-themed embellishments to fit with the Heavenly Bodies prompt.
In addition to gaining frequent flyer miles as she zips from country to country, the nail artist says that she continues to learn from Rihanna as she sits front row watching the success of her client unfold. "She is the hardest working person in show business. I've never seen a work ethic like that in anyone. There is no limit for her," she says. "For that, she's made me a better technician. She has honed my craft and made me look at things differently. When she's looking at the big picture, it always includes nails. It's a very big part of who she is."
That outlook has inspired Salandra to follow in Rihanna's footsteps and make a positive impact on the beauty industry. The same way that the Fenty Beauty founder shook up the industry by releasing 40 diverse shades for her foundation, Salandra hopes to release nude nail polishes for darker skin tones at some point in the future. "Nude polishes for that market do not exist," she says. "What looks good on lighter skin tones may not look good on darker ones, and everybody is always looking for the perfect nude. She's taught me to have a new outlook on color when it comes to darker skin tones." Just making it even more evident that Rihanna is a powerful influence on inclusivity from beauty to the runways, and even nails.