Late on Thursday afternoons, I deliver my ink-stained hands to Annalisa von Klipstein, a manicurist, an occasional Sea World City Streets hostess, an honest-to-goodness baroness, a poet.
In the 6110 Hair Studio (6110 Friars Road), we sit, face to face, at Annalisa’s manicure table. “Give ’em to me,” she says, reaching for my fingers. “Just let me have ’em.” She lays out my blunt fingers on brown terry cloth, tut-tuts over chipped polish, a left pinkie’s ragged cuticle. From among her implements — nail brushes, orangewood sticks, emery boards, cuticle snippers — she takes a stiff brush and fixes me with a blue-eyed stare. “I’m going to try to take that ink off your fingers!"
Annalisa is one of some 90,000 manicurists nationwide, 3000 of them in California (one of 30 or so states that require manicurists be licensed). By year’s end, the nation’s manicurists will have polished 81 million sets of nails, nine percent more than in 1987.
Fixing nails has gone on for a long time. In 3000 B.C., Egyptians of both genders stained their fingernails with henna, but painting fingernails with lacquer began in China, where nail color noted social rank of men and women. In 1916, Cutex introduced colored nail polishes to the United States. Flappers' bobbed hair and lacquered nails shocked their elders. Until the end of World War II, painted fingernails marked a woman as “loose," “fast,” but by the '50s, polished fingernails became acceptable. Until recently, long red (or pink or coral) fingernails identified a woman as “nonworking” — she stayed home and likely had “help.” Today, statistics show a turnaround: the woman who works outside the home is more likely than her housewife sister to have long, bright nails.
Two percent of U.S. women have a professional manicure once a week. I entered those ranks to break my nail-biting habit. “You have to want it to happen” Annalisa warned me solemnly on the day we met. “But when your nails are cared for, you’ll say to yourself, ‘They look nice. Why destroy them?' "
The simple manicure I require — cuticle trim, nail shaping, polish — takes 45 minutes to an hour. Some women can do it themselves. I can’t. So Annalisa, for ten dollars plus tip, does it for me.
A lissome 20-year-old, her blonde curler-iron curls heaped above sizable eyes and a cupid-bow mouth, Annalisa reminds me — even wearing heels, trousers, and crisp shirt — of a Viennese opera heroine. She has, one client suggests, “an old-fashioned confectionary appearance."
She may seem like a delicately iced petit four, an old-fashioned gingerbread of a girl, but Annalisa three times a week lifts weights. She rolls up her shirt sleeve, raises an impressive bicep. “I have to be careful ” she blinks with bemused false modesty, “not to get great big ones.”
You learn a lot about someone while having your nails done. I know that she grew up in San Diego, next youngest of five children, that her parents divorced when she was six, that after the divorce the family had money troubles. I carry, reverberating in my mind, her words: “The older kids and my mom wouldn’t eat, so we younger kids could.”
And this: “The ironic thing is that I’m a baroness, but I grew up very poor.” Annalisa told me that she had been able to trace the von Klipstein name back to the 17th Century, that the family has a crest, imprinted on the gold ring she wears. The gold, she says, is gold that her grandfather mined from his own mine in Kern County and made into a gold bar and gave to her father. “My father had rings made for me and my brothers and sister." She holds out her long, pale fingers and shows her ring. “But,” she says, “no one has ever knocked at my door and said, ‘Your castle’s waiting.’ ”
I know that when Annalisa attended Coverly Elementary School, her classmates yelled out “Animalese” and “AnnaBanana." Which hurt her deeply. When she was a student at Taft Junior High and Kearny High (from which she graduated in 1986), kids called her a goody-goody. She says she didn’t smoke, never ditched school, never ran with the “in” crowd. She concludes, her tone in neutral, “I went to school, and I did what I was there to do — learn.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine Annalisa, two years ago, being that mirthless. One afternoon we’re talking about men. She says, “I like 'em tall, and I like muscles. There’s nothing so secure as walking with a man who can put out anyone who wants to bother you. I had three friends in high school. They were humongous, with 16-inch arms. We would go out, the four of us, and they’d form a triangle around me. I could go anywhere with them, and I’d be safe." The story relieves me. She did — at least sometimes — have fun.
All this, and more, she's turned to meter and rhyme — poems, some of which are three and four pages long, written into a blank, hard-bound book. She recites, one day: “Freedom is achieved only through discipline,/and discipline learned only if you’re pushed./However, that push must come from within.”
After high school, Annalisa worked days at Sea World and for six months, for four hours each weekday evening, attended manicure classes at De Loux School of Cosmetology on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. People often think it peculiar that anyone would have to attend school to learn to fix nails, she says. “You know, you look at your nail and you think, ‘Oh well, great, a nail, yeah, I see it.’ What’s so complicated?” Plenty, Annalisa says. Plenty.
As she talks, she’s discreetly chewing blue gum, far back in her mouth. “Extra," she says it’s called.
She studied biology, chemistry, anatomy. While she dries my hands and rubs in cuticle oil, she delivers a lecture on keratin, the protein substance whose molecule is a rigid, cylinder-shaped helix. Keratin, she explains, is the major structural element of skin, hair, nails, claws, feathers, hooves, scales, and horns of animals. It is keratin that makes “waterproof" the outermost layer of mammals’ skin.
Hair and nails are almost totally keratin. “People with curly hair, their nails tend, like their hair, to be very strong, and when curly-haired people’s nails grow long, they tend to turn down. People with hair like mine — naturally board straight — tend to grow nails that are also very straight. And if your hair is weak and thin, your nails may be weak and thin.”
To get a license in California, the manicurist must have 360 hours of classwork and pass written and practical exams. In the latter, the would-be manicurist is required to put on one artificial nail tip with glue and cause that tip to adhere invisibly onto the original nail. She must apply two manmade nails — one acrylic and one linen. “And,” says Annalisa, “you have to do all this and get all ten nails fully manicured and polished in one hour." Annalisa graduated, top of her class.
Her initial attempts to establish herself “weren’t wonderful.” She took a spot in a new hair salon. “I was on a rental. I paid the owner X amount of dollars per week for space. I had my own phone, made my appointments. Fortunately, I was still at Sea World full time, because I went into this shop one evening, my client with me, and they were carrying everything out. I said, ‘What’s happening?’ and the owner’s husband said, ‘We’re moving.’ ”
Five days a week, Annalisa sees eight to ten clients. At 6110 Hair Studio for over a year, she has built a standing clientele of some 30 “regulars" who visit every week or every two weeks. Her regular clients are businesswomen, saleswomen, doctors and nurses, housewives, students. “Plus,” she says, “I have people coming in all the time to have one nail mended.”
Several men regularly get manicures from Annalisa. For men, she does all she'd do to a woman's nails, excepting polish. Men’s nails get a thorough buffing, giving nails a deep luster.
While we wait for my cuticle to soften (it’s “the final little hinge that holds onto your nail,” she says), Annalisa takes off my rings and puts them in soapy water to clean them. She claims she often can't remember client's names, but the minute she looks down at their rings, the name rolls off her tongue. And she always remembers what color polish each of us wears. She giggles. “The diamond solitaire is Carol, and Carol is 'Jelly Apple.' "
As she works, I urge stories from her. One afternoon, she tells me she’d recently done a manicure on a man who'd told her he was from New York and was “in the fashion industry.” She’s sure what he is is a pimp. “Very, very tall. Probably six seven. Wearing black silk pin-stripe suit, a hat and a briefcase and four rings, diamonds and rubies, two on the pinkie exactly alike and two on the ring finger exactly alike.
“Kind of out of blatant curiosity, I said, ’Those are awfully big rings. Are those real?’ Of course, he said, ‘Yes.’
“He made me nervous. He kept calling me ‘Baby.’ ”
“Baby,” I say to Annalisa. “He called you ‘Baby’?”
She grins. “As in, ‘Baby, can you get this piece of skin off my finger?’ ”
I’m one of Annalisa’s messiest clients but by no means the most time-consuming. Many clients request technically demanding “French manicures.” Annalisa explains: “You paint the tip, or free edge, of the nail in an off-white or stark-white. Then you cover the entire nail with a natural pink. It’s meant to look very clean, very natural.” And why “French" manicure? “It was in France that women first wore these."
Almost half of Annalisa’s clients have artificial (acrylic, silk, or linen) nails or nail tips affixed. Called “wraps" and “extensions,” the manmade nails or nail tips add strength and length to the original nail. A new set of artificial nails takes easily two and one-half hours to attach. Annalisa “doesn’t blink" at sometimes charging $75 to do a set — all ten nails. “I don’t like for them to look ‘fake.’ So precision is very important. Precision takes time."
On her own nails, Annalisa wears silk. She does her nails once a week, and she admits it’s difficult to make herself do it after a day of doing other people’s hands. She sighs. “But I can wear jeans and a slobbed-out shirt, and if my nails are painted, I feel glamorous." She lifts her glance from my fingers to my eyes. “You know what I mean?”
I nod. Yes. And wriggle my own fingers.
The silk on Annalisa’s nails is literally that, she says, “a piece of silk fabric." The silk is cut to shape and is glued onto the nail. Annalisa likes silk because, unlike linen, silk is invisible on the “real” nail, even when nails aren’t polished. And polished, silk holds polish so well that it rarely chips.
Longer nails, Annalisa feels, allow women to feel more feminine. "Doesn’t it take a while?" I frown. “Getting used to such long nails?”
“If I were to put an inch-long nail on you now, if you blew your nose” — she speaks with mock ferocity, as if she’s telling a child a fairy tale in which a monstrous bear has just appeared — "you’d poke your eye.” Then she laughs. “But yes, you’d get used to them.”
Some of Annalisa’s clients have charms — initials, hearts, flowers — affixed to their nails. To do this, Annalisa drills a hole into the nail’s free edge (the edge growing beyond the fingertip) and screws the charm into that hole. Others want pictures. Annalisa will paint balloons, roses, clowns. “But that’s all. I’m no Michelangelo.”
Twenty percent of Annalisa's appointments are for pedicures — for which her fee is $25. (Nationwide, last year, 19 million sets of toes were given pedicures, three percent more than a year earlier.) Noting that some manicurists refuse to do pedicures, Annalisa explains, “People can’t see their feet, so they forget they’re there. Feet can get pretty awful. But it’s a rare person whose feet scare me.”
One set of feet did do just that. "A lady came for a pedicure. She took off her shoes and walked across the tile floor. Her toenails looked like dog claws. I swear to you. They were yellow. They curled down over her toes. They clicked. I looked at her and thought, ‘Oh God, you poor soul, I can’t let you walk around like that.’ Her toenails were incredibly thick. And her cuticle had grown over her nails. It took me over two hours to file it off."
“People who walk on the beach a lot, they’re difficult to put pedicures on. Heat from sand dries skin, and the skin cracks and dirt gets crammed into the cracks. Eccchh! Sometimes the cracks are an eighth of an inch deep."
“It’s simple to keep calluses down. You don’t have to get razor blades and hack at your feet. Get a pumice stone and put it in the shower and rub it over your feet every day for five minutes. That’s all it takes. Do it!”
Asked if she follows this regimen, Annalisa regards me with open-mouthed horror. “Of course!"
“Annalisa,” I ask, “do clients tell you their troubles?”
"Yes,” she says, looking up at me as she snips at my cuticle. “Having your nails manicured is relaxing to most people, and when they start relaxing, it’s like when people go drink at bars. It’s hard for some people to open up. Others open right up. ‘Oh, you won’t guess what happened to my daughter!’ "
“There must be a sign on top of my head that says, ‘Tell me all about your private life.' One girl came in and told me how romantic a dinner she had was. She said, ‘We got all dressed up and didn’t wear anything. We did our hair and makeup and wore nothing but socks and shoes and jewels.’ ”
How does she respond to tales such as that? “Usually, you squeal with excitement, ‘Oh, that sounds like so much fun.’ "
“But people that bother me most are ones you can't talk to. I feel like saying, ‘Just tell me, tell me.’ Because I’d rather have someone babble on the whole time.”
She sharpens an orangewood stick, begins to push back cuticle from my nail.
“Do people ask you for advice?”
"At 20 years old, I don’t think I have much advice to offer.”
She takes out the emery board, starts to shape the nails. She speaks, murmurously, above swish-swish back-and-forth filing. “I have one woman who has a terrific family — in the eye of the public. Her family has recently fallen apart. Her husband has started up a drinking problem and a girlfriend problem and is now being rehabilitated for drug use and alcoholism. In the past, she had been bubbly. But the last times she came in, she was a lump of nothing."
"Finally, I said, ‘I’m a great listener, tell me what’s wrong.’ She just bawled instantly, crying, crying, crying more. I felt so sorry for her because I have been through that and it’s so awful.” Annalisa pauses in her filing and whispers. “It's so awful, to have someone hurt you like that — someone that you love.”
She has resumed filing. “I think she’ll be okay.”
Listening, I believe that what so moves Annalisa, telling this story, may go as far back as her own father’s leaving the family, may be as recent as her own breakup with the young man whom she has described as her first really serious romance. We do not talk as she picks up a second instrument — called a “block buffer,” it has foam in the middle and soft sandpaper on the outside — and whooshes energetically across my bare nails, smoothing nail so it will take polish well.
I remember that she described that romance, over by the time she told me of it, in an ironhanded past tense. In her only concession to a present-tense statement, she’d said, “It’s a sad story.” He was too young, she supposed, for the commitment of a relationship. “I liked him very much.”
“Never Thought" by Dan Hill had been “their" song. "We heard it one day," she had said, “when we were coming back from a restaurant. It was or the radio. I was half asleep. He turned it up. I pretended to be asleep and lay there, and I watched him. He loved it. I went out and bought the album, brought it home one day.”
Another afternoon, she told me about a man with whom she went out several times. One day he telephoned her and said. “Since you’re so good at helping people out with problems, Annalisa, I have a problem I need you to help me with.” She asked what the problem was. “I’m married,” he told her, “and I have a kid. But I still want to see you.”
“No,” Annalisa told him, “absolutely no.”
He pleaded. “But I want to see you. Please? One night a week?"
Annalisa let him have it. “You’re disgusting. You’re the kind of man I despise. You know where you belong? At home with your wife and kid!” She had concluded that story by saying to me, her voice vibrating passionately, “That is the cruelest thing you can do to someone, cheat on them.”
My nails are ready for the base coat, a substance that causes polish to adhere better to the nail. “They are looking better,” she says about my nails.
“It’s impossible to bite them,” I say, “when you keep them looking so wonderful.”
I’m not the first person Annalisa cured of nail biting. “For some people who just love to pick, pick, pick at their cuticle, I suggest they get Elmer’s glue, stick some in their palm like they did when they were in grade school, let the glue dry, and then pick that. You'll have plenty to pick then!”
Her most challenging nail-biting case? “A man. He had scabs instead of fingernails. He bit skin on his fingers from the first knuckle down. I put pink acrylic over what was left of his nails. When I was finished, they looked like normal nails. But a week later, he'd chewed that acrylic off. Do you know how hard acrylic is?"
“Then I had a girl who had picked at one finger so constantly that she picked the finger away. It quit growing. Half of her finger from one knuckle down, it curved from being chewed on.”
There’s her friend whom she helped break the habit by giving him manicures and who developed a quirky aid of his own. “Every time he had a desire to bite his nails, he would get out old nails he’d bitten off and chew on them.”
People think, says Annalisa, that nail, cuticle, and finger biting have no harmful effect apart from the aesthetic. “But you do have to be careful about it. Try not to pick at the skin. I’m serious. The skin around your nail can eventually just kind of quit growing.”
She caps the bottle of base coat. She looks at me across the manicure table. She says, her voice dark, “That skin begins to feel as if you don’t want it there.”
Annalisa has clients who request nail polish in black, stark white, yellow, blue, green. The majority, as I do, prefer pink shades. She puts polish on just as she was taught to do in her manicure classes – in three strokes per nail. As she polishes, giving each nail one coat, then coming back, giving a second coat, we talk again about an event she’s often told me about: the Long Beach Hairdressers’ Guild hair and nail show.
In late September, the guild hosts a three-day hair and nail show at the San Diego Convention and Performing Arts Center. “It's like a giant swap meet, with booths where they show new airbrushing techniques, where they sell snakeskin to put on nails, gold foil, everything.”
“Mmmm” I say, and ask, “What else?”
Nail art contests, she says, with four- and five-inch-long fingernails being painted, “freehand” or with airbrush and stencils. There are scenes from nature, copies from old masters, pop art subjects. There will be fingernails onto which three-dimensional designs — sculptures fashioned from acrylics — are affixed and glued. “You’ll see things,” she says, “things you won’t believe.”
She caps the polish bottle, checks my shining fingernails. “Once, in the three-dimensional contest, I saw on the end of a fingernail a windmill. You blew on it and it moved.”
“I’d like to see this,” I say.
Picking up an aerosol can, Annalisa sprays my polished nails with a quick-drying formula. “No more sitting for hours with your hands in the air.” She leans across the table, her face close to mine. “The only thing you get blowing on your nails is hyperventilation!”
Annalisa, then and there, promises me a guided tour.
So it is the one Sunday morning in September, Annalisa and I squeeze through the packed convention center lobby. We elbow past the Long Beach Guild members (in tuxedos with shining lapels), past pallid men sporting high false-blond spikey crewcuts and elaborate pompadours, past flush-faced mini-skirted jack-booted women whose prodigal curls are glitter-sprayed.
As we near the area where booths have been erected, Annalisa cups her hand and speaks into my ear. “Incredibly noisy, huh?" She’s correct. Like a vastly over-populated aviary.
We pitch ourselves into the crush. We push against other bodies, press shoulder against other shoulders, hipbone against other hips, force through the aisle between booths. “You lead.” I shout at Annalisa. anxious that I can’t be heard. We’re inundated by the high-pitched chatter of the visitors and the pitches of the booths’ hosts, acting as barkers: "Heyah! Charms, charms!” “Drawing for manicure table! Sign up here!”
Mopping her brow, Annalisa stops before a glass case on whose shelves are displayed gold nail charms — Rolls-Royces, oil wells, snowflakes, initials, music notes, roses, hearts. The vendor, gold necklaces glimmering from a V of curling white hair protruding from his open-necked shirt, flashes his index finger. Affixed to his nail he wears a long, gold, diamond-studded fingernail. “This’d retail,” he tells us, "for $37.50 for the entire gold nail, without the diamonds.”
For how long, I ask, have nail jewels been sold? He’s been in business, he says, for eight years. "And I’m not the first one to sell this stuff. Nail jewelry’s been around for 14, 15 years.”
What does he think the appeal is? "Just another place to put it, lady. Just another place.”
With a French-manicured fingernail, Annalisa points out gold toenails. The vendor, assessing Annalisa's bosom, purrs. “We’ve sold five or six hundred of those gold toenails. And rubies, diamonds, emeralds. For the toe.”
Farther on. Booth #141 offers glitter polish, minuscule gems that will adhere to nail polish, decals, cameos, gold hoops for hanging off a nail’s edge, metallic nail-striping tapes, snakeskin squares. “This is a hot spot,” says Annalisa. “There’s a ton of people here. You just have to shove yourself in.”
Snakeskin to apply to nails is what Annalisa wants. “These are actual snakeskins, from snakes,” she grins, noting that green is her favorite. “How much?” she asks a woman behind the counter, and as she’s told “skins” are sold in packets of 12 for $10, she’s pulling from her purse a $10 bill. “I’ve never done skins,” she tells the saleswoman.
“It’s applied exactly like your silks,” the woman says.
Leaving the booths behind, we edge into the basketball-gym-size room, across which stretch lines of long tables. Competing manicurists and their models face one another across the tables. Above each duo light from a gooseneck lamp shines down on their bent heads. “This," Annalisa explains, voice low, tone respectful, “is a sculptured nail competition. Winners get money as well as a trophy. The manicurists build with acrylic to make ten complete nails. The nails will be judged on smoothness, on shaping, thickness, polish."
Drawing me with her, close to the tables, Annalisa indicates a manicurist whose nails have been airbrushed into a paisley pattern. “Mmmm,” she says, “see how very detailed her nails are.”
Past the perhaps 50 sculptured nail contestants (noise level dropping as we walk), we reach the “nail art" contest. Here, contestants’ models wear costumes that reflect a theme. Among the competition rules is that each nail must have on it a different picture or portion of a picture, a different scene.
Annalisa whispers. “This takes hours of preparation. The models arrive with the acrylic nails already attached. What the manicurist has done, to make the nails so long, is to add on tip after tip after tip, one after another.”
Along the nail art tables, concentration is even more keen than that among sculptured nail contestants. Like museum visitors, awed by great classic paintings, we tiptoe from table to table, studying first a model costumed as a native American whose three-inch-long nails are painted with Indian totems. Next, in a child’s party frock, Mary Janes, and anklets, a model is having dolls, balloons, and teddy bears painted onto her pastel pink nails. One seat over from the “child” sits a woman in top hat and tails. Onto her four-inch-long fingernails a male manicurist glues feathers and rhinestones. Annalisa peers with interest at this and says to me, “See, red feathers on one hand and black feathers on the other.”
At the next table, the model wears a white, filmy gown. Fastened on her shoulder blades are wide wings, translucent fabric stretched over wire. Each time the model shifts in her chair, even slightly, her wings flutter, like a butterfly’s. Onto the model’s three-inch-long nails the manicurist has airbrushed abstract designs in dark to light blues. As we watch, she takes feathers and tiny crystals from a stack at her elbow and attaches them, one by one, to the blue nails.
“The model’s probably going to be a fairy godmother,” suggests Annalisa.
“We’re doing Swiss Family Robinson on my nails,” offers model Bonnie Williams (who wears a beige knit cloche, striped shirt, tie, white pants, and black jacket). “I’m the girl,” says Bonnie wearily, "who they found on the island.” She shows a thumbnail on which a tree house nestles atop a tree. “This is real heavy; my thumb is exhausted. It’s made of clay."
“How did you ever come up with this idea?” I ask.
“We watched the movie a couple times," says Bonnie.
“The idea," says Annalisa, leading us on to the next duo — a red-hooded, red- caped model and manicurist down whose nose slip granny glasses — “is to be creative."
The red-dressed model holds out across the manicure table hands on which fingernails are four inches long. The manicurist herself has fingernails at least two and one-half, even three inches in length. “And she’s handling such tiny things, those little pieces of moss, holly berries,” Annalisa murmurs, clearly entranced.
The model, telling us that she’s Little Red Riding Hood, says that her manicurist has been working on the figurines — the wolf figures, the woodsman, the various grandmothers. Riding Hoods, cottage — for weeks. Each figure is fashioned, she says, from acrylic.
While the manicurist, using hot glue, fixes Granma’s house (complete with curtained windows and door) onto the left thumbnail, Annalisa and I survey the story unfolding across the fingernails. “The scene begins here," says Annalisa, her eyes widening with wonder, “on the right thumb, when Riding Hood leaves her home. And look, look at the cotton sticking out of the chimney, for smoke. Here’s where Riding Hood starts out on the path into the forest. Next, the wolf sees her. Then Riding Hood gets to grandmother’s house. There is the wolf in bed, dressed in Granma’s clothes."
The model nods with her hooded head toward a wolf figure, its sharp teeth bared, tongue hanging out. The figure rests on the table, atop the sharp point of a memo saver. “See the wolf's full tummy?” says the model. “He’s all full of grandma."
“Once the judging’s over,” I ask the model, “will you take all this off?”
“Oh, yes. I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself. They have to take me, and once we’re there, they have to do everything."
And what would happen to the figurines? What would they do with them? “We’re going to put them in the manicure shop window and display them.”
We move to a manicurist working on a model garbed in a leopardskin off-the-shoulder jump suit. The model’s nails are six inches long and painted green. Annalisa directs my attention to a miniature zoo — giraffes, elephants, macaws. “See, the manicurist will put those little plastic toys onto the nail with hot glue.”
The leopardskin-clad model tells us that her nails normally are three inches long, that the manicurist used three nail tips to create this length. Miniature fig-leaf-covered figures, male and female, have been made to stand on the right thumbnail. On another fingernail is a tree bearing apples no bigger than pinheads.
Intent upon fitting a fanged, uncoiling serpent onto her model’s pinkie nail, the manicurist does not answer when I ask, “What’s your theme?”
The model gazes up at us over her bared shoulder. “Look at my hands and tell me what you think our theme is.”
Annalisa and I shrug. “I can't guess," I say.
“Adam and Eve! The Creation!”