Once upon a time, the closest you'd get to seeing fun nail art on TV was during awards season when celebs would strut their manicured fingers down a mini red carpet for close-ups of their digits. (RIP, Mani Cam!) Fast-forward to earlier this year, when Taraji P. Henson made her debut as Ms. Cookie Lyon, the finger-wagging, stiletto-shaped-nail-rocking matriarch on Fox's hit show Empire. To match her "I will cut you" attitude, Cookie is known for her talon-like tips that are often embellished with intricate designs and blinding bling — courtesy of celeb manicurist and owner of Shine Nails Chicago Ericka Johnson. Johnson painted her way into the Empire glam squad, a star-studded group in its own right (the iconic Ashunta Sheriff's on makeup and Emmy Award-winning stylist Paolo Nieddu's on costume design), bringing nail brand Kiara Sky with her. If the name doesn't ring a bell, Kiara Sky Gel Polish has become a staple among professional nail techs since its inception in 2014, so there's a good chance you've seen its signature white bottles at your own manicurist's work station. Launched by husband-and-wife duo Michael Duong and Ana Katrina Tan, Kiara Sky features a range of polishes with "Cookie" appeal — vibrant hues in glitzy, matte, and even color-changing finishes, all practically made to be swirled and bedazzled. Johnson used Heartfelt (a coral pink) for Cookie's very first look in season 2, one of Henson's faves. "Taraji loved my first creation for her, which was a graphic blend of pinks and black," says Johnson. "She said she'd love to do that one again." Renowned nail tech Kimmie Kyees also used the shade on Kylie Jenner earlier this year, and often uses Kiara Sky polishes on clients like Katy Perry and LeAnn Rimes. Though she loves all the shades, it's the quality of the products that really won over Johnson. "I need polish that I know works," she says. "Gels that cure correctly and polishes that are true to color." Kiara Sky's five-free formulas do the trick. "I love the consistency and how the polish goes on smooth and easy. Also, you don't need a basecoat when applying their gel polish to artificial nails, which saves time."
So what's Kiara Sky's special sauce? We consulted the founders. "The secret stays with me!" says Duong. (Worth a try.) "Our polishes are highly pigmented and designed to give full coverage in just one to two coats," Tan elaborates. "We do tons of testing for every shade that we manufacture to ensure that it does just that. Our formula doesn't shrink or wrinkle when applied, nor does it separate over time. We take quality control very seriously in our business." For Duong and Tan, the nail biz extends beyond Kiara Sky. Nearly 10 years ago, the couple founded Glam and Glits Nail Design, another company that offers acrylic powders, nail extensions, and other nail accessories for professional use. Next week, Glam and Glits will release its Mood Effects Acrylic Collection, the first color-changing acrylic powder in the world. "One of the reasons why I like the pros behind Kiara Sky is because they are so innovative and constantly creating new products," says Johnson. "I want to be the first to play with the color-changing acrylic!" Glam and Glits products and Kiara Sky gel polishes are sold exclusively for professionals. However, Kiara Sky's traditional lacquers are available to anyone looking to try a DIY mani at home. Johnson's other go-to shades are The Simple Life (a pale pink) and Goal Digger (a yellow gold). As for other brands, Johnson's favorite red at the moment is OPI Nail Lacquer in Big Apple Red and Ginger + Liz Colour Collection Nail Lacquer in Menswear is her go-to black. She also recommends using CND SolarOil Nail & Cuticle Conditioner to keep your nails healthy and strong.