nailympia is a look into the emotions, skills and community of nail technicians

The two day event is a window into the emotional highs and lows of nail art.

by Jonno Revanche
01 September 2016, 3:30am

Photography by Jonno Revanche

To a novice, it may seem a stretch to compare a nail contest to the Olympic games. But after spending a day at this year's Nailympia in Sydney, one has to admit the ability to inhale paint and adhesive fumes for hours without passing out is a feat of human endurance. But jokes — and fresh air — aside, the immensity of the annual beauty exposition and competition can't be overstated. And neither can its role and influence on the lives and careers of those who take part.

The two day event began on a Saturday with the classics: think red lacquer with clean finishes, maybe some white patterns if the artist is feeling crazy. But on the Sunday it's a different game, and one that has developed it's own cult following. It's here we see model's hands transformed with nail ornaments that border on sculptures and dioramas. It doesn't stop at the hands either, they're specially styled in cosplay like outfits, all specially designed to set off the work beyond their cuticles.

If that sounds absurd to you, know it's not. Nailympia holds a very serious place in the hearts of technicians, and carries a certain professional cachet that helps experts in the industry stay ahead of other talent and build their reputations.

LA based Elaine Watson was one of the head judges of Nailympia this year. Speaking to i-D, she's enthusiastic and precise about the status of the competition and the real impact these festivities can have on the lives of technicians: "It gives technicians value in the industry essentially. So when you're sitting in your hometown doing nails, you've got these trophies behind you from going to these competitions." By picking up acclaim with these otherworldly creations they're able to raise their prices and build their businesses, things that can be tricky to do in the crowded nail art and service marketplace.

While in recent years Nailympia has become something of a spectacle for those outside of the industry, this glittering display of paint and lacquer is necessary to the survival of the industry. These displays and tables aren't just Instagram opportunities, they are setting national and international standards for a business and an art form. By holding this event annually, organisers are motivating people to strive for the top of their game while building the growing culture and interest in nail art.

Because the reality is, for all those Pinterest fan pages, nails can be a tough world. But Elaine points out that competitions can provide not only motivation but also support. "You've got to remember these people either work in single salon situations, or as home technicians," she points out. Nailympia allows people to network, make connections and see where they compare to other artists.

Walking between the displays and speaking to participants, it does strike you how much the technical mastery of this job is often overlooked. This field is dominated by technicians who have spent years studying, refining and working on their craft. But despite the hours dedicated, the public's sometimes problematic attitude and treatment of nail technicians is well documented. From the New York Times investigation into the exploitation of workers earlier this year, to the rude conversations overheard between clients at salons, it's clear we rarely deeply consider this world.

Like any other artistic community, beneath the veneer of the beauty lies the politics and pressures. And as a result competitors are willing to give anything to make an impression over this weekend. Tracy Boyle who runs the perfectly titled Fantasy Category explained to i-D, "What a lot of people don't understand is how these people put their life's work into these competitions. Some of them spend an excess of $3000 to travel here. Between the fees, the product, the flights, the accommodation, and the models, it's a lot of money. But it's the prestige that means a huge deal to them."

Continuing she reflects, "Nail technicians have always been perceived as 'you just paint nails' They think it's a cushy job. It's not so. It's tough. There's a lot of unrecognised labour. So for these boys and girls, the relief from those micro-aggressions, and misunderstandings is the competitions. And they do work seriously hard for that."

All that pressure does take a toll. One roped off section contains all the items that have been confiscated from competitors, and there is constant chatter over banned techniques. The desire to stand out is clearly all consuming for some participants. For them, more than their reputations are on the line.

But by the end of the day, as tools are packed away and ornate nail creations have to navigate car keys, it's clear that within the drama, colour and absurd talent this is a world of supreme skill, dedication, personal triumph — and for those whose belongings lie on the confiscation table — tragedy. A manicure will never look the same again.


Text and photography Jonno Revanche

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