If you’ve had a manicure, chances are good that the woman clipping, painting and polishing your nails is Vietnamese American. In fact, the trade publication Nails states that 51 percent of nail technicians in the United States are Vietnamese, and a whopping 80 percent of the technicians in Southern California are Vietnamese.
Many of these people are direct descendants of 20 specific women — women who were fortunate enough to meet Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren.
Hedren was known at the time for being the beautiful blond star in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, most notably The Birds. However, she was also involved in charitable causes, and acted as an international relief coordinator with the organization Food for the Hungry. According to a report from NPR:
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.
“We were trying to find vocations for them,” Hedren later told the BBC. “I brought in seamstresses and typists — any way for them to learn something. And they loved my fingernails.”
Those 20 women were mainly the wives of high-ranking military officers, and it’s said that at least one of the women worked in military intelligence. One student was Thuan Le, who remembers Hedren insisted that the women learn a new cutting-edge technique called silk nail wrapping.
“[Hedren] said, ‘I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just plain manicurist … because you make more money,’ ” Le told NPR.
Besides bringing in her personal manicurist, Hedren also recruited a local beauty school to help teach the women. When they graduated, she then helped the women get jobs all over Southern California. This changed the industry, because at that time in the 1970s a “mani-pedi” cost around $50, which the BBC noted was “fine for Hollywood starlets but out of reach for most American women.” The sudden influx of workers lowered that price, bringing it to approximately 30-50% less than other salons.
As often happens with immigrant communities, relatives would come to the U.S. and need work. There was now a constant demand for affordable manicures, so the industry grew thanks to these Vietnamese immigrants. It also expanded. According to NPR, “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.”
“I loved these women so much that I wanted something good to happen for them after losing literally everything,” Hedren told the BBC. The actress is currently building museum to house items from her life, including Hollywood memorabilia, a few photos of the women at Camp Hope, and awards she’s won from the nail care industry.
MAIN IMAGE: Tippi Hedren with the first Vietnamese manicure class receiving their cosmetology licenses in 1975. (Photo: Thuan Le)