Pro Talk: Deborah Lippmann
“I was a nail biter as a kid, to my mid to late teens. It was something I was always ashamed of and I remember this statement my doctor made to me when I was a kid, that not only was nail biting a dirty and unsanitary habit but that it really said a lot about me when I met somebody because your hands are your greeters. When you meet someone, you look them in the eye and then reach for a handshake. In doing so, their eyes will see your hands and nails and it really says a lot about you. I really struggled with it and tried to stop biting my nails and it was something I didn’t recover from for a really long time. When I was in college and pursuing a music degree, I landed a job with a group that did industrial shows and for our first dress rehearsal, I had this beautiful, glamorous Vegas costume with rhinestones and feathers and a head dress. They handed me a microphone and I had these nubbed nails. The director took me to get a manicure the next day, but a manicure wasn’t going to do the job on short notice, so instead, I had artificial nails put on. They were porcelain nails back in the day and later, I instantly felt different about myself. I felt so much more confident, I didn’t even realize how ashamed I’d been of my hands and how I was constantly hiding them by putting them in my pockets. Only then did I start using flowery gestures with my hands. I couldn’t believe how powerful something as small as a fingernail could be.
After I finished college, I was working as a singer and a lot of my jobs were mostly weddings and bat mitzvahs but I really wanted to do theater and jazz clubs. I decided I didn’t want to make my living doing weddings and bat mitzvahs and instead, I wanted a day job like all my friends who waited tables. I started waiting tables and literally, and physically, I dropped a plate of pasta on someone’s head. I thought, “Wow, I’m not talented at this at all and it’s borderline dangerous.” I had to think of something else. I went to my Mom and said, “I know I have a college degree and I know it killed you to get me through this but I want to go to cosmetology school. It’s my other love. I’ll keep singing but I need to find another love as a day job.” So I went to cosmetology school and at the beginning I was much better at hair and makeup than I was at nails. I’d done my makeup and hair my whole life but I’d never given myself a manicure because I had artificial nails. On that note, I had to really, really work at it and it’s been a great life lesson for me – things that you really want and that are important to you, no matter what it is in life, it takes hard work and perseverance to get good at anything.
I did nails locally in Arizona, which is where I grew up, and then I moved to Los Angeles to sing and study more music. I was there for a few years and I worked at the Elizabeth Arden Salon on Rodeo Drive and that was where I had my first taste of holding hands with celebrities. I was just remembering the other day that I did Betty White’s nails every now and then in that salon many, many years ago which was pretty cool. There were celebrities and fashion-forward, high-end ladies that came into the salon, who were very confident and knew what they wanted. It was then I realized that I needed to become really, really good at what I did, because these women knew the difference between a good manicure and a bad manicure. I always loved the holding-hands-with-someone part. Manicuring is such an intimate service. You’re sitting across from each other at a very small table and holding hands with strangers. When doing hair, you’re standing behind the chair and speaking with customers through the mirror, if you’re doing makeup, you’re often close to your customers but there’s a brush in between you. When you’re doing manicures, you’re physically touching somebody, a stranger. It’s a very delicate art form to make somebody feel comfortable, because you’re really in their space. Some of my best girlfriends have come out of my manicure chair, because you spend so much time sitting and talking to them. It was something I learned from one of my first employers, B’Anne. She owned a day spa in Scottsdale and she taught me that manicures are such an intimate experience and that I needed to treat it as such, and treat the customers in a special way because a stranger is coming to you, sitting in close proximity, and you’re going to hold hands with them. That’s something that has always been very important to me – making someone feel comfortable when they sit in my chair. I try to teach people that when I’m training manicurists now, I feel like it’s a really sad, lost art in many of the salons I visit; communicating with your client, that feeling of becoming girlfriends is an opportunity you have. Even if you’re not going to be friends outside of the salon, you should feel like they’re your girlfriends in the 30 minutes or hour that you’re with them.
When I moved to New York in the early 90s, I worked at Frederic Fekkai in Bergdorf Goodman and I had very fancy ladies sitting in my chair, women who worked at Fortune 500 companies who were very high profile and powerful people. What I learned at that time was no matter how famous, wealthy, fancy, or powerful these people were, they were all just girls who needed a little attention and calmness in their lives. Whether it was someone who needed just a manicure or someone to hold their hand and help them breathe a little slower and I know it sounds really deep but that’s why I still love it. It’s a really special career.
I moved to New York to pursue music. To work with better jazz musicians and to get better at my craft. I was singing at night and working at Frederic Fekkai during the day and every week I would be wandering Bergdorf spending my paycheck and when I went to the cosmetics department and if you were really into nails, there wasn’t anywhere to go to get everything you wanted. You couldn’t get cuticle treatments, there were no polish removers, there were no files, or comprehensive nail care lines at all. So these women that came to our salon – we were using Chanel nail polish at the time which was rare – weren’t able to purchase any nail care or polish from the salon, but instead had to go to the cosmetics department and find out then that they couldn’t buy everything they wanted. I thought, “If I was this woman who was totally stressed out, really busy, and wanted a really high quality product all in one place, I couldn’t get it.” As a customer, it wasn’t possible. That was when my idea for the brand came.
Bobbi Brown was one of my clients at Bergdorf’s and her makeup line was also fairly new at the time and she loved the manicure I gave her. She ended up calling Allure magazine to tell them of a new manicurist and that they should come in and check me out. I didn’t know she did this and so they came in undercover and liked what they saw. Next thing I knew, they put me in their beauty directory; I’d only been in New York for a year so it was all so crazy. I had moved to New York with a purpose and that was to sing but after this Allure shoot, celebrity assistants would read about me and people that were traveling would start calling for me and pretty soon, I had a celebrity following. That Allure mention was the beginning of my New York chapter.
I was still singing at the time and even now, Martha Stewart hires me to sing at her parties. I would do her nails and then later, we would go to a party with my band to perform. There are periods where I don’t get to sing as often as I would like but just last week I sang at a Beauty.com event and recently at a big fundraising luncheon, and for the Home Shopping Network, a big black tie gala. Singing is still very much a part of who I am and what I do.
After being recognized by celebrities, an agent called me and I thought he had heard me sing somewhere. He told me he was an agent and that he’d like to represent me. I thought to myself, this is amazing and asked him where he heard me sing. He was confused and said, “Hear you sing?” I just assumed he heard me sing and wanted to represent me as a singer. Instead, he wanted to represent me as a manicurist. I didn’t even know that existed.
Everyone that I work with today – hair, makeup, the stylists and the talent – are famous. I understand the level of detail for what I do is important but I also understand now, that I need to be in and out and not linger when I’m not needed but being there immediately when I am. It’s a lot more than polishing a pretty nail.
When these photo shoots became more frequent in the 90s, I decided to leave the salon and go freelance. It was during this time that I was working with Bobbi, Laura Mercier, that I was being written about in magazines and everybody said to me, “You need to have your own product line.” On sets, I sometimes I had to make shades. I remember working with Polly Mellen, legendary editor at Allure magazine, and I was told to bring yellow polish to the set. I brought 10 bottles of yellow that day and she looked at all of them and none of them were the right shade. She asked me to fix it. I didn’t know how to fix it but under pressure and duress, you do what you have to do. I listened carefully to what she wanted and I started to play with the polish I had, mixing some white, mixing some clear until I came up with a color she liked. I never aspired to make colors, but after that, I thought it was really cool.
Soon after, one of my clients was to attend an award show and I wanted her to have something special so I mixed a color for her. She really loved it and everyone else really liked the colors I would mix. The market for caring for your nails, hands, and feet started to grow, along with all of these salons that started to pop up. One day, a friend of mine, Loretta, and I were at the pharmacy shopping for makeup and I kept saying, “If I were to do a nail polish, I would do..” Loretta looked at me and said, “Stop saying if you would ever. Either do it or stop talking to me about it.” Sometimes you need a girlfriend to look you in the eye and call your bluff. I’ve been thinking about all sorts of ideas for years and and I wanted women to have a full line of nail care products and not just the convenience of the $8 polish change. I also wanted high fashion colors with good ingredients, such as aucoumea which deters ridges from growing in your nails, biotin, and green tea are all infused in all of my color. So a lot of brands put beauty treatments in their base coat or their top coat and I don’t know if any other brands do what we do, so your nails are going to be stronger and the polish is going wear longer.
I told my brother about it when I first started to think more seriously and he agreed to help with my logo and we were looking at different fonts. I was planning my wedding at the time and my husband told me, “You’re going to do this over my dead body.” He’s now the President of the company. It’s a family affair, the 3 of us and now we have an office with 2 floors, 13 years later and a bunch of employees who say they’re Lippmann for life, which we love. Last night was a really exciting for us when we launched our first lip color called Bite Me, in collaboration with HBO inspired by the TV show True Blood. It’s a lip and nail set with great treatments.
When I was in cosmetology school a friend told me, “I know you love hair and makeup but you’re a singer. You stand up all night to perform, do you really want to stand up 8-10 hours a day and then go to a gig? Don’t you want to just sit down?” That was what really guided me towards doing nails and I couldn’t be happier. It’s funny how life works.” – Celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippmann