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5 AAPI Nail Artists Who Are Shaping The Future Of Nails

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but nail art enthusiasts could argue it’s the nails. After all, the hands can tell us a lot about someone. Short, nude nails or sharp stiletto claws with a maximalist design might just be personality markers in the form of a manicure. On the other hand (pun intended), nails can help accessorize an outfit, send a political message, or become a global trend (glazed donut nails, anyone?). Over the years, celebrity manicurists, many of them Asian- American, like Queenie Nguyen, Mei Kawajiri, Thuy Nguyen, Yoko Sakakura, and Chaun Legend, have played a huge part in making nail art mainstream. However, historically, it was Vietnamese women who owned and worked in nail salons who radically transformed the now-$69 billion-dollar industry.
In the United States, nail salons are as ubiquitous as coffee shops, many of them owned by Asian-Americans. But the reason for this goes back to actress Tippi Hedren, who began working with a group of Vietnamese women in Hope Village, a refugee camp in Northern California, in 1975. Hedren’s long nails garnered attention from the women, so she asked her personal manicurist, Dusty Coots, to teach the women how to do nails. In the 2019 documentary Nailed It (you can watch it free on Tubi), filmmaker Adele Pham explores the history of these 20 women refugees and the influence they would have on the modern nail salon industry decades later. 
Pham, who is half Vietnamese and has struggled with her mixed-race ethnicity in the past, says that making the documentary helped her contextualize a place within the Vietnamese American community as a storyteller and historian. “Before making the film there was a sense of disconnect whenever I passed a nail salon, whereas now there’s an instant connection,” Pham tells R29. “I feel like I know the people inside, although they’re different in NYC where I live – it’s the only place in the country where Vietnamese don’t dominate the Asian nail industry, Chinese and Koreans do.”
Japanese nail artists, in particular, have made a huge impact on the US nail art craze, beginning in the 2000s with the opening of salons like Marie Nails, which is often credited with bringing gel nail art to the U.S. Pham points out how in Japan, nail artists prioritize education and innovation. "A lot of this ingenuity, craftsmanship, and artistic language has to do with the value put on nail art education there, and continuing skill-building and artistic progression throughout one's career. It's treated like a real art form, which it is.," she says. "In Japanese nail art and practice there is utmost value placed on learning from the very best teachers. These teachers are heralded, and people pay a lot of money to learn from them as part of their career growth. While that definitely happens in the US, and a lot of nail artist influencers book workshops that fill up quickly, in Japan, like a lot of things, nail art is on another level." Pham believes that the Asian nail salon industry in the US could be better if "more emphasis were put into continuing nail education and competition within the sphere of influence for social acclaim/clout."
It’s also important to acknowledge how the creative artistry of Black women played a big part in modern-day nail art. Specifically because of the friendship between Vietnamese manicurist Charlie Vo and Black hairstylist Olivett Robinson, who opened Mantrap nail salon in South Central LA in 1983. "There's a particular narrative about how nails got to Japan, and the Black women's nail art of the 80s and early 90s inspiring Kawaii nail art of the late 2000s Japan," says Pham. “As I set out to document the history of Vietnamese salons, I wondered — how did these nail salons get to Black neighborhoods and into the culture? And that‘s how I came to know the story of Mantrap, where much of the nail art we know and love today was born,” explains Pham, who calls Black women artists “the progenitors of the incredibly intricate, creative, and show-stopping nail looks“ that are worn by celebs and go viral online.
From the 20 Vietnamese women refugees who opened nail salons all over the country, to the Tokyo manicurists responsible for helping bring 3D gel nail art to the modern mainstream, it’s time to celebrate the contributions Asian Americans have made to the beauty industry. Ahead, we’re highlighting five AAPI celebrity manicurists who are changing the nail artistry game for the modern era.
Any time there’s a major red-carpet event, you can bet you’ll see Queenie Nguyen’s work on the hands of Hollywood’s finest. Stars like Greta Lee, Stephanie Hsu, Emma Roberts, Julianne Moore, and her first red-carpet celebrity client, Carey Mulligan, have all had their nails primed and polished by Nguyen, who has been working in the nail industry for over 15 years. Aside from an illustrious list of celebrity clientele, Nguyen has also brought her talents to beauty and fashion campaigns for brands like IPSY, Sephora, Briogeo, Nordstrom, Dior, Prada, and many more.
When she was just 12 years old, Nguyen emigrated from Vietnam to the United States. Her career as a nail artist is closely linked to her family, especially her mother, who opened a nail salon after moving to the States. “Growing up, I’ve always admired the entrepreneurial spirit that runs deep within my family as I watched my mother partner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins to open up their own nail salons in Los Angeles and even other states,” she tells R29. Nguyen’s mother is also her biggest inspiration. “Looking back, I have so much appreciation for her and her ability to raise a child as an immigrant and single mom,” she says. “My mother has always been a dreamer; I watched her achieve her dreams of learning English, opening a nail salon, learning to drive, and getting a car. Her list can go on and on!”
Nguyen gets emotional when talking about Hedren and the Vietnamese women refugees she helped. “I’m grateful not only for the impact of the humanitarian work that Tippi Hedren did to provide employment for Vietnamese refugee women but the legacy of this work and the continuous opportunities it has provided the Vietnamese community in the nail industry,” she says. As for her own impact, Nguyen hopes to inspire other Asian nail artists to expand their careers beyond the nail salons, if that’s something they hope to do.
 “I wish that Asian nail artists, and nail artists in general, were celebrated and recognized more for our craft at larger beauty award events,” she says. “In general, the nail space is an underrepresented part of the beauty industry. My hope is to see more press coverage on the beautiful work that is done by nail artists in Hollywood, and the creativity that many Asian nail artists bring to the industry.”
One look at Mei Kawajiri’s Instagram and you’ll wonder whether she’s a nail artist or a wizardess, the way she conjures up tiny fantasy worlds on people’s fingers. From miniature matchsticks, tooth-shaped talons, or a manicured set that resembles little black loafers and scrunched-up socks, Kawajiri’s playful, surrealist take on nail art is one of a kind. It’s no surprise that her clients have included Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa, Seth Rogen, Troye Sivan, and Rosalía. “Having relationships with clients where we have grown together has been so special to me,” Kawajiri tells R29.
Growing up in the traditional surroundings of Kyoto, Japan, Kawajiri spent her days daydreaming and doodling in her notebook. When she was 18, she became a nail artist and then decided to open up her own nail salon in Tokyo’s Harajuku district just a few years later. In 2012, Kawajiri moved to New York City, where she soon began working with some of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses, like Miu Miu, Balenciaga, and Vivienne Westwood, on campaigns and runway shows. “When I entered the world of high fashion, nails were not meant to be seen. It’s so special to me that I helped nail art become recognized as an elevated form of beauty and art that is meant to be appreciated.”
After welcoming her baby last year, Kawajiri says she looks at everything from the perspective of being a mom. “I have so much respect for mothers who can balance a career, especially those with changing work schedules,” she says, recalling the challenges of being pregnant during the 2023 Met Gala and working with multiple clients. Throughout her career, Kawajiri has always advocated for nail artists to be treated with as much respect as other members of creative teams, and she recognizes the extra set of challenges that come with being an Asian woman in the industry. “There is this idea that an Asian woman is always quiet, polite, and respectful. To get this far, I have had to be respectful but have also had to be strong for myself and listen to my gut feelings,” she says. “I want other Asian women to feel empowered and see more of us represented in these amazing opportunities.”  
Celebrity manicurist Thuy Nguyen has painted the nails of dozens of Hollywood beauties, including Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Ortega, Ali Wong, Gabrielle Union, Oprah Winfrey, and Elizabeth Olsen. Her work is a mix of elegance, avant-garde, and humor, as showcased by the neutral nails on Nicole Kidman for the 2024 Met Gala, the laced-up, Gaultier-inspired talons on Emma Chamberlain, and a cheeky sardine design she did for Joey King. “Most often, I find my inspiration through the attire my clients will dress in,” the celebrity manicurist tells R29. “Sometimes when we get to play and have fun, I let my clients pull from their favorite characters, emojis, or whatever they’ve been wanting to do but can’t because of work constraints.” 
Growing up Vietnamese-American was complicated for Nguyen. As the first American born in her family, she constantly had to navigate both worlds with her parents and older siblings. “My parents always made sure to instill our culture, traditions, and language, all while trying to assimilate into the new world they would call home,” Nguyen says. Sometimes she felt that she and her family weren’t Vietnamese enough, or American enough, a “between two worlds” sentiment that is common among immigrants. But as an adult, Nguyen reflects upon how her parents always made sure she and her siblings were well taken care of, which helped lessen some of the difficulties they experienced growing up.
Before she became an in-demand nail artist, Nguyen worked as a receptionist at her aunt’s salon to help her with the language barrier she was experiencing with her clients. Her father had passed away early in life, so Nguyen and her siblings found ways to lessen the burden on their mom. Eventually, Nguyen went to cosmetology school to earn her license and became a manicurist, working at a salon in Brentwood, L.A., which led to doing nails for Hollywood A-listers.  
“When other Vietnamese individuals directly message me and we find connection and admiration for each other through this art, it fulfills me in a way that makes me so happy,” says Nguyen. “What I create is not only for the joy of my clients but also to satiate the constant fun I have doing it. I know the admiration and recognition that stands behind working with celebrities in Hollywood is highly regarded and sought after, so I genuinely appreciate it and am intensely grateful.” 
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Yoko Sakakura’s work can be seen on countless celebrities, whether they’re posing on the Met Gala red carpet, on magazine covers, in music videos, or in beauty and fashion campaigns. The celebrity nail artist has collaborated with photographers such as David LaChapelle, Ellen von Unwerth, and Nadia Lee Cohen, and stars like Olivia Rodrigo, Lily Gladstone, and Halle Bailey (and countless more) have all had Sakakura decorate their nails. She’s come a long way since her first-ever DIY manicure — when she painted her nails with a red marker as a little girl. 
Sakakura has always had a love for nails. As a teenager growing up in Tokyo, Japan, she liked to flip through fashion magazines, admiring the nails of models and artists who used nail art as a way to accessorize their outfits. “Before I started my career, I really enjoyed getting my nails done, and the first set I had was a long, square acrylic set with pink airbrush designs,” she tells R29. After moving to the U.S. when she was 18, Sakakura began training at Marie Nails in LA, later opening her own nail bar. Eventually, her talent for nails established her as the go-to manicurist for many A-list stars. 
When it comes to her career highlights, Sakakura has had quite a few, naming Moschino fashion shows by Jeremy Scott as some of “the most fun and biggest moments” that left her feeling “so creatively stimulated.” Sakakura has also had opportunities to create nails for Swarovski, and says she’s grateful to work with designers and stylists who carefully choose details of nail color, designs, length, and shapes to unify their looks. “All I can do is continue and be my best as a nail artist to do my job as a part of the creative team,” she says, “and hopefully, it opens up opportunities to lead our profession to be seen more, even though they are the smallest body parts of the glam.” 
If you’ve ever found yourself in awe at the intricate nail art worn by Khloé Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, or H.E.R., there’s a good chance that Chaun Legend (real name: Chaun Peth), was behind it. A master of bold, head-turning nail designs, Legend has matched Cardi B’s claws to her colorful Louis Vuitton bag, decorated Jessica Simpson’s nails with cross-shaped charms, and given La La Anthony a pink Chrome Hearts-inspired manicure. His work has also been featured on covers for Harper’s Bazaar, Essence, and Elle, as well as campaigns for Valentino, Skims, and Kylie Cosmetics. 
Legend was born in a Cambodian refugee camp and came to the United States with his siblings when he was just three years old. Though Legend’s aunts and uncles owned nail salons, he wasn’t interested in pursuing a career as a manicurist when he was younger. Still, the artistic aspect of nails spoke to him. “Art has always been a passion of mine since childhood; I did everything from painting to graffiti to creating murals,” he tells R29. “I knew I wanted a career in the creative field. Once I merged my passion for art with nails, the rest became history.”
After moving to L.A. in 2014, Legend faced several challenges. He didn’t have any family or friends around and struggled to establish a client base. But he began getting booked with clients and improving his skills. In 2016, Kylie Jenner “liked” one of Legend’s Instagram posts, leading him to become a go-to nail artist for her famous family. “One of my most proud gigs involved sculpting a pair of Adidas sneakers on nails using acrylic for their campaign. I never thought it was possible for me,” he says. Other standout moments in his career have included a commercial for a tequila brand where he offered advice on preventing nail breakage, and a "Candy Crush All Stars" commercial in which he appeared alongside Khloé Kardashian.
Not only does Legend find his clients’ reactions to his work very rewarding, reinforcing the love he has for nails, but he’s also thankful and proud to be able to represent Asian creatives in Hollywood. “With few of us in the industry, I hope to inspire others to break barriers and emphasize the importance of representation,” he says.

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