An affinity for crazy-long nails brought these New Jersey women together. But their salon’s sisterhood is what keeps them coming back.
Maria Ortiz exclaims, and at once, she and the dozen or so women around her hold their hands up and smile for the cameras. It’s a Sunday afternoon in Newark, NJ, and a group of friends have gathered in a tiny salon that smells of both chemicals and catered Spanish food. In a flurry of flash photography, the friends pose, showing off what they all have in common: their brightly painted and blinged-out fingernails, grown so long that they curve into wide arcs. Forget the acrylic sets you’ve seen at your local salon—at around 12 inches (some even longer), these all-natural talons are a sight to behold.
These women have all sought Ortiz out because she is the best at growing, maintaining, and decorating extreme nails. It’s a look that requires serious dedication: some embark on an hour-plus trek from Brooklyn or beyond every week to spend half the day at her salon. Many have overcome other obstacles—restrictive workplace dress codes, disapproving families, and cancer diagnoses—in order to express themselves this way.
So what makes these ladies go to such literal great lengths? For most of them, it’s simply a labor of self-love. “I feel like my body is a canvas, and I want to decorate it,” says Shadiquah “Mahoghany” Lacey, a beautician. “I like to be different!” Her sentiments are echoed throughout the room, as each woman shares a story about how growing her nails has helped grow her sense of self-esteem as well. It’s a challenge, and to them, the rewards are easy to see. Having such a unique characteristic, one that strangers consistently stop you on the street to ask about, can be a real confidence-booster, despite the few detractors.
Nails like these are a conversation piece, and it takes a self-realized woman to deal with the attention. “I can’t go anywhere without people taking pictures,”says Kathy Jordan, 53. “I get a lot of comments, but they’re almost all good ones.” Jordan was raised in a small town in Mississippi, but says that moving to New Jersey and growing her nails for the past 20 years has made her more open-minded about everything. “It’s a big change, a totally different lifestyle,” she says. “I love it, and I’m not planning on cutting my nails any time soon.”
For 50-year-old Ana Otano-Farghaly, it was a matter of authenticity: “I wore Lee Press-On nails in 1986,” she says. “I was [out to eat] with my boyfriend at the time, and we were talking, and my nail flew off onto somebody else’s table. After he finished crying from laughing so hard, he said, ‘Don’t ever wear fake shit again. Just grow them long!’ And I did.”
Every woman I talk with is as unique as her manicure, but they all field the same queries and comments from strangers every day. And while much of the attention is positive, it’s not without its drawbacks. “Sometimes I get upset at some of the questions,” admits Tammy “First Lady” Dunmore, a 44-year-old minister’s wife. “The conversation is not always pleasant. Not everybody understands our world, so we just try to educate people. And by the way, I go to the bathroom the same way as anybody else. There’s not anything that I can’t do with my nails.” She pauses then adds, “Except braid hair. I cannot braid hair.” She breaks into a smile. “But I could never braid hair!”
After just a few minutes with these ladies, their sense of community stands out more than their most obvious shared physical feature. “This is my support group,” says Trinette Williams, aka “Queen.” Williams has been coming to Ortiz for 12 years now. She often orders special trinkets for the manicurist to incorporate—today, a faux-gold crown dangles from the nail of her ring finger. “I’m a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “When I got diagnosed, they told me I couldn’t work. I ride a motorcycle, and they told me I couldn’t ride my bike. I asked, ‘What about my nails?’ They told me that they might fall off or break. Thank God they never did. I didn’t care so much about my hair, and it fell out. I was bald, but I could wear a wig. As long as my nails were alright, I was good.”
Every woman I speak to refers to the positive effect that a session with Ortiz has on her. “Coming to Maria is absolutely my outlet,” says Tammy Dunmore. Dunmore gets her nails done every Saturday; she lets Ortiz know what colors she plans on wearing to church the next day, and Ortiz takes it from there. “If I think I’m going to miss an appointment, I get frantic. It’s really crazy, but it’s really real. I come prepared to get my nails done, but I don’t give her any time frame; we laugh, we talk. She’ll say, ‘Did you eat today?’ and because I’m always so busy, usually I haven’t eaten yet. And we’ll stop and eat together. It’s quality time.”
When I share these sentiments with Ortiz, she tears up. At 40, she’s been doing nails for more than half her life, and her passion is obvious. “I worked so hard for what I have right now. Hopefully it stays like this, but like I always say, the sky’s the limit. I’m ready for the world. And sometimes it can feel like we’re against the world,” she admits. “We’ve been interviewed before and got so much negativity, but I don’t read it, because what other people think of me is not my business.” Ortiz says that “of course” people have misconceptions about her job and her clients, but when it comes to “haters,” her response is firm: “For you to know what that word means, you have to have it in your heart; I don’t have that in my heart, so I don’t know what it means. This is what makes me stronger. [My clients] are my sisters, my girlfriends, my everything; and now I’m like a therapist, a mother, and everything to them.”
By Bridgette Miller
Photos by Lauren Silberman
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUST
7 Feminist Nail Designs We Need On Our Fingers Immediately