On Thursday, the first installment of “Unvarnished,” the nail salon labor exposĂ© series from the New York Times, laid out many of the cultural and economic strictures that determine the workings of an industry that for many women remains relatively invisible outside of its visible results (“Cute nails, omg”). And, underneath the slew of demeaning human rights violations (followed up today by a piece on nail salon health hazards), there was one fascinating quirk: the New York City nail salon industry is controlled by Korean-Americans, which—as Sara Mayeux pointed out on Twitter—is anomalous, compared to the rest of the States, where Vietnamese immigrants typically dominate salons. In California, for example, three-quarters of nail salons are Vietnamese-owned; in Houston, where I grew up, I don’t think I ever went to a nail salon that wasn’t the same way.

An NPR piece from 2012 explains the direct connection between the lasting ethnic hold on an $8+ billion-per-year industry and the actress Tippi Hedren, who made her debut in The Birds:

When she wasn’t onscreen, Hedren was an international relief coordinator with the organization Food for the Hungry. After Saigon fell, she was working with Vietnamese women in a refugee camp near Sacramento when several admired her long, glossy nails.

Hedren had a manicurist named Dusty at the time and asked her if she would come to the camp to meet with the women. Dusty agreed, and Hedren flew her up to Camp Hope every weekend to teach nail technology to 20 eager women.

Thuan Le, one of the women who learned from Hedren’s manicurist Dusty, still does nails at a fancy salon in Brentwood, California:

Le remembers Hedren insisting the new students learn the then-cutting-edge technique of silk nail wrapping, which created long, natural-looking artificial nails.

“[Hedren] said, ‘I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just plain manicurist ... because you make more money,’ “ Le recalls.

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Le has reaped the benefits of Hedren’s favor, supporting her family and pioneering an industry that has now essentially standardized ethnic difference between salon worker and customer; this ethnic difference, reading the NYT piece, struck me as an essential obscuring factor in terms of the customer’s unfair but frequent perception of their manicurist as fundamentally other, operating on fundamentally other rules and conditions. The uncomfortable transactional ease of getting your nails done seems essential to the dramatic expansion of the industry, which has now circled back to Vietnam:

Le says the constant demand for affordable manicures has given a steady stream of Vietnamese nail technicians work across the country — and the globe.

Even, ironically, back in Vietnam. “If you look around, you see they go everywhere — and they start from California!” Le says, laughing.

And it’s not just manicuring: Vietnamese merchants now supply a significant amount of materials and equipment for the industry. For instance, the largest global manufacturer of cuticle nippers is — you guessed it — Vietnamese.

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More about Tippi and nails at NPR.

Photos via AP, Getty.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.