Photos by Lihi Brosh.

Meet the long nail goddesses who celebrate identity through nail art

The New Jersey sisterhood grow their vibrant nails up to 20 inches long, with swirling patterns and dangling gems.

by Eda Yu; photos by Lihi Brosh
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14 April 2020, 6:43pm

Photos by Lihi Brosh.

When New Jersey native Maria Ortiz came home to find her aunt -- a cosmetologist who’d just graduated from beauty school -- doing her sister’s nails as a teenager, she fell in love at first sight. From the smell of the acrylic to the box that held clippers and cuticle pushers, Ortiz felt like she was entering a completely different world -- a temporary escape from the hardships she experienced in reality.

The early 90s were a difficult time for Ortiz: She was transitioning from male to female and coming out in an era where gender fluidity wasn’t as accepted as it is now. And cosmetology school, as well as her practice as a nail technician, helped Ortiz refocus her energy and find respite.

“Coming out as transgender, I was rejected -- not from my family so much, but from society itself. They see this little boy bloom into a young man, and now this young man wants to be a female, that's not easy for everybody to accept. So, people were mean and I felt like an outcast,” Ortiz recounts.

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Now, 15 years into her career as a professional nail tech, Ortiz works to create spaces where people can celebrate who they are, no matter their differences. And the “Long Nail Goddesses,” a group of Ortiz’s clients who grow their nails anywhere from a few inches to 20 inches long, is a perfect example of that. Their nails feature swirling patterns, sometimes one solid color, sometimes many. Gems, pearls, and other dangling adornments overlay the base design, turning the canvas of nails into a complex visual world.

I was like, ‘Oh my god, there are people out there just like me.’”

Four or five times a year, these 40 or so women gather at Ortiz’s salon in Newark, New Jersey to celebrate birthdays, create photo books of their nails -- or just to share and enjoy each other’s company.

Over the course of the last decade, the group has gained recognition from many different platforms, but its beginnings were much more serendipitous. One day, a few years into working at her salon, a long-nailed client walked into Ortiz’s shop, hoping to get her nails done. All the technicians, including Ortiz, turned her away at first. But Ortiz identified so much with the client’s rejection that she offered her an appointment. The client was so happy with Ortiz’s intricate, hand-painted designs that Ortiz garnered a reputation as a long nail technician -- giving her the inspiration to bring the girls together in a club of Long Nail Goddesses.

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“For me, for my clients, being different -- I can identify one hundred percent with that feeling. So, when they sit on my chair, I make sure that I give them the encouragement that it's OK to be different,” she says. “I wish I had a mentor, when I was coming out and when I went through what I went through. I don't want my girls to go through the same thing.”

LaRue Drummond, who has the longest nails at nearly 19 inches in length, stopped cutting her nails at age 13. Growing up, she was a chronic nail-biter until she met an older woman with 18-inch nails who inspired her to grow her own. “When I first grew my nails, I thought I was really different. I used to keep my hands balled up to keep from drawing attention,” Drummond says. “One day, my daughter came home, she was like, ‘You think your nails are weird? Wait 'til you see these people on the Internet,’ [referencing the Long Nail Goddesses], and I was like, ‘Oh my god, there are people out there just like me.’”

Although the South Jersey native had gone to a local salon for seven years, she began feeling uneasy going there after her nails started getting even longer. Because of the amount of time it took to do nails of her length, she often felt rushed, and even sometimes left crying when techs were rude. For Drummond, switching to Ortiz’s salon was like night and day -- and she’s not alone in that experience.

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Genora Gosha, who goes by Gigi and lives in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has experienced more than her fair share of nail salons turning her away in the decades she’s spent growing out her nails. When she traveled to Alabama to visit her son, she recounted stories of technicians agreeing to take her over the phone only to change their mind after seeing her nails in person -- and that was when they were only four inches long.

She started letting them really grow after she retired -- she worked as a meter reader and kept them shorter to wear gloves -- but all of a sudden, her local nail tech stopped taking her as a client: “One day I called asking, ‘Can I get an appointment?’ And she said no. I thought I couldn't possibly have heard her right. I said, ‘No?! So you not gonna do my nails?’ She said ‘No.’ My heart literally dropped.”

Eventually Gigi found a supportive salon in Pittsburgh that would do long nails. And her new technician was the one who first showed her a photo of the Long Nail Goddesses -- spurring a long quest to find Ortiz and her salon. Once she did, she made her first five-hour drive from Johnstown to Newark, and she hasn’t left since.

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“While doing my nails, I told Maria I wanted to be a Long Nail Goddess. She said, ‘You are one now.’ She showed me a magazine that she had done with other goddesses and said, ‘We’re gonna do another one in September. Because you come so far, you could stay with me.’ And I'm thinking, this is a nail tech, and she's telling me I can stay at her house? I fell in love with Maria instantly,” Gigi says.

For many of Ortiz’s clients, her salon is one of the first places they’ve felt really and truly accepted when getting their nails done. Ana Otano, another Long Nail Goddess who’s based in New York, described how she overhears people talking about her in Spanish -- her first language -- all the time, making comments like, 'How does she wipe her butt? I bet she has shit under her nails.'

What people don’t realize is that the more someone is invested in their nails, the more they’ll clean and care for them. As a diabetic recovering from open heart surgery, Otano can’t afford the risk of fungus developing under her nails, so she soaks them in bleach. As for going to the bathroom? From getting gas to changing diapers, everyone has their own small tricks and gimmicks to go about their daily lives with ease.

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Yet when the going gets tough, Otano is grateful for the community Ortiz has fostered at her salon. The group was a solid support system when her brother died. They banded together when one of the original Long Nail Goddesses passed away from cancer. And in light of the COVID-19 shutdown, Otana has taught a couple girls how to do fill ins while they can’t get to the salon --nothing as complicated as Ortiz’s detailed designs and colors, but enough to keep up with their new growth.

“It’s good to have people who understand you and can relate -- a sisterhood. We have a certain state of mind -- Maria has the same: Why be like everyone else when you can stand out and be your own person?” Otano says. “She always tells us that we’re not meant to be in the background; we’re meant to shine. We’re happy with who we are. I’m grateful for the life I have, for my friends and family. I’m grateful for Maria.”

Drummond echoed that sentiment: “I call them my nail sisters. Anybody that grows their nails, whether they're long, short -- they’re my nail sisters.”

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new jersey
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Beauty
long nail goddesses
maria ortiz