In February 2009, Michelle Mismas met nail polish namesake Essie Weingarten backstage at a fashion week show. Mismas, who runs the popular nail blog All Lacquered Up, casually mentioned how much she loved Dominica Green, a discontinued Essie polish with a cult following so devoted that bottles on eBay routinely fetched upwards of $100. Several months later, she received a bottle of the reissued polish, with a label handwritten by Essie herself.
"The fact that she had even heard of my blog made me feel special," Mismas said. "Like I had made an impression on the industry beyond the true fanatics who were following my blog."
It feels impossible nowadays to scroll through Pinterest or Instagram or Tumblr without seeing close-ups of people's nails, adorned with glitter and geometric patterns and pictures of fruit. Although nail art has been popular for years in African-American communities and avant-garde foreign fashion magazines, recently social media has helped jazzy nails go viral. And the people behind some of the most viral nail looks are not professional nail technicians — they're women who have leveraged doing their own nails as a hobby to a very influential place in the nail industry, with numerous sponsorship deals and their own polish lines. Their work has caused women previously unaware of nail art to clamor for intricate designs and new unconventional polish colors, while prompting rapid innovation in at-home nail care.
The nail polish industry is currently worth $1.1 billion, according to market research by IBISWorld Inc. A recent article in NAILS magazine reports that dollar sales of mass market nail care products grew by 26% in 2011, suggesting that the masses are increasingly testing new looks at home. Mainstream brands like Sally Hansen are selling products like nail art pens and gel polish kits so that experimenting with nail art from the comfort of your own bedroom is easier and more affordable than ever. And many thousands of consumers are introduced to new products and new looks by bloggers like Mismas.
"We're that best friend you've never met," said Melissa Osburn, who runs the blog The Daily Nail. Osburn became a known "lacquerista," as nail obsessives are called, after posting photos of her bacon manicure, which went viral in 2009 and netted her blog nearly 1,000 subscribers practically overnight.
Mismas, who refers to herself as a nail-focused beauty blogger, started blogging about nail polish in 2007, primarily for other members of MakeupAlley, the beauty review website and message board where she was active. The blog got attention from popular makeup blog Blogdorf Goodman and from Andrea Lustig, a beauty editor at Glamour, and now gets around 250,000 unique visitors each month. In 2009, she was making enough money from ads and sponsorships to leave her job as an accountant and blog full-time.
Some nail bloggers now enjoy the same perks that print-magazine beauty editors and famous personal-style bloggers like Tavi and Bryan Boy do. They're invited to gifting suites and fashion week shows and sent lots of free products from brands seeking their coverage. Mismas, who is based in Cleveland, has attended New York Fashion Week for seven seasons (fashion week runs twice a year). The company that sells ads for her blog pays for her plane ticket and a hotel for the week. Sally Hansen herself once invited her to sit front row at Tracy Reese's show. She's also developed her own polishes with Rescue Beauty Lounge and Barielle.
She shares success with other nail bloggers, like Maria Morrison, who runs Cult Nails, which she started in 2010 under the name R3daily, and now has her own successful polish line. This past New York Fashion Week, nail bloggers like Donne and Ginny Greer from Hey, Nice Nails! were invited backstage to report on the application of Ruffian's new gold filigree nail technique by MAC senior artist Keri Blair.
"We are a brand that was naturally positioned for social media and the access that we provide to bloggers, editors, and our fans on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter is key to driving the conversation," MAC spokesperson Guillame Jesel said in an e-mail. CND echoed the significance of bloggers' coverage at shows. "We are thrilled by the rise of outlets focused solely on nails," CND spokesperson Elyce DeBrown said. "Nail bloggers give an authentic, well-informed voice to the artistry and dynamic products in the nail category."
Brand sponsorships of and gifting to bloggers are relatively new and frequently debated in the fashion and beauty worlds. It's a new business model, and autonomous bloggers and brands are trying to work out the kinks. Katy Parsons, from Nailed It, considers her blog to be more of a hobby, yet she's regularly contacted by nail polish companies to review their products.
"The company will usually send a sample or two of their polishes, and I agree to provide an honest review of my experience with the product," Parsons said. "Your readers will know when you're not being honest, and that's frowned upon."
However, Mismas said, some bloggers aren't always so straightforward. "When [a sponsored post] comes off as a straight-up review and then at the bottom you see 'sponsored content,' you just sit there and you're like, sorry, but...I just find it hard to believe."
Mismas recalled recently working with a brand on a sponsored post but "because it didn't feel right to me, because of the amount of competing products they wanted me to eliminate from my post, I chose not to do. I didn't feel like it was authentic, and I felt like my readers would call me out on it."
Patty Yankee, a professional nail technician who manicures nail-art icons like Pink and Katy Perry, said that while "it's good for the industry as a whole" to get so much exposure and mainstream attention via blogs, untrained bloggers can cause problems when they're occasionally given the same responsibilities as nail techs who are trained and licensed. She recalled a time at fashion week when a blogger doing models' nails for the L.A.M.B. (Gwen Stefani's label) show glued on full nail covers upside down. "You never glue at fashion week," she said, adding that for the next show, "Stefani wanted white nails, and you couldn't get [the nail covers] off." She added, "I went to school for this" — unlike many nail bloggers.
However, nail blogs do provide a way for professionals like Yankee to "see what's out there, to see what people like." And they keep her from getting "complacent," she says. She's started a blog of her own, but with her schedule, it's hard to keep it up. (She travels constantly and will soon be launching a nail polish line of her own, Patricia by Pattie Yankee, which will be available on her website. The initial launch is in Kuwait.)
Nina Werman, who runs the salon Valley Nails in New York City with her sister Julia, sees nail art blogs as crucial in attracting attention to the industry. (Valley Nails was offering nail art to clients back in 2006, before nail art blogs exploded.) While she echoes Yankee's distinction between nail art bloggers and nail techs, she's ultimately "grateful for their interest, for the buzz."
For bloggers, many of whom post new manicures several times a week, if not more, inspiration comes from all kinds of places. “My boyfriend and I joined a bowling team, and I had to get a manicure that matched my ball!” Mismas said. (The ball was purple and green.) Candice Tussing, who runs Mr. Candiipants (and happens to be a college senior), said, “Recently, iPhone cases have been giving me a lot of ideas for designs,” along with “art, architecture, Kleenex boxes, [and] animals."
But does all that nail polishing ruin one's nails? Every blogger interviewed for this piece said no. "If anything, my nails are healthier now that I change my polish so often," said Jenn Karr from The PolishAholic. "Weird how that works!"
So paint away!