The Fascinating Story Behind Why So Many Nail Technicians Are Vietnamese

Many got their start in the field thanks to Hollywood star Tippi Hedren.

Tippi Hedren in 1966. (Photo: Getty Images)

May 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Celeste Hoang is the Film & TV Integration Editor for TakePart.

Most Americans recognize Tippi Hedren for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds—but among the Vietnamese American community, her reputation is for something a little more serious: being a cornerstone of the immigrant community's economy.

Forty years ago, the Hollywood actor traveled to Hope Village, a Vietnamese refugee camp near Sacramento, California, to meet with a group of women who had recently fled the takeover of South Vietnam by the armed forces of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Hedren was aware of the difficulties the refugees had faced and had been trying before her visit to think of a skill or trade she could help the women learn so they could support themselves in their adopted country. When she met with the group, she was surprised to find they were enamored with her manicure.

“We were trying to find vocations for them. I brought in seamstresses and typists—any way for them to learn something,” she told the BBC. “And they loved my fingernails.”

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Thuan Le was there for the lightbulb moment. “A group of us were standing close to her and saw that her nails were so beautiful,” she recalled to TakePart. “We talked to each other and said they looked so pretty. I looked in [Hedren’s] eyes and knew she was thinking something. She said, ‘Ah, maybe you can learn nails.’ And we looked at each other and she said, ‘Yes, manicures!’ ”

Hedren flew in her own beautician and enlisted a local beauty school to teach 20 of the women how to execute the perfect manicure. Many of these women later settled in Southern California, where they soon were offering manicure services at a lower price than the existing competition. This quickly and dramatically changed the face of the industry in the region. Manicures and pedicures that cost upwards of $50 in luxury salons can cost 30 to 50 percent less at a Vietnamese American–owned salon, according to trade publication Nails. Today, the nail industry is worth $8 billion, and 80 percent of nail technicians in Southern California are Vietnamese (51 percent across the U.S.). Many of them are direct descendants of the 20 women Hedren met with that fateful day in Sacramento, according to the BBC.

“I loved these women so much that I wanted something good to happen for them after losing literally everything,” Hedren told the news site. “Some of them lost their entire family and everything they had in Vietnam: their homes, their jobs, their friends. Everything was gone. They lost even their own country.”

Tippi Hedren with the first Vietnamese manicure class receiving their cosmetology licenses in 1975.
(Photo: Thuan Le)

While the trade has helped many secure a stable living in the States—manicurists earned about $645 per week in 2014, according to Nails—the industry also supports a vast network of technicians who send money to family members back in Vietnam. Le recalls that when she first started working, she tried to send about $50 to $100 home every month even though she was just barely getting by herself.

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Tam Nguyen—the founder and president of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, California, and whose mother is a close friend of Le's—says that based on what he’s seen, he estimates that nearly every Vietnamese American in the industry these days still sends a portion of earnings home to support relatives. Eight percent of Vietnam's economy—perhaps $14 billion this year, up from $12 billion in 2014—is attributable to overseas remittances, reports Reuters. Half the money comes from the U.S.

“That’s their motivation,” he told TakePart. “I’ve been in conversations where there are Vietnamese manicure graduates who are like, ‘I need to work immediately and get a great job so I can send money back to my mom, dad, and brother immediately.’ ”

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To Nguyen, the success of Vietnamese refugees in the beauty industry comes down to a number of factors—he cited their entrepreneurial spirit and attention to detail but especially their ability to view hard work from the perspective of a refugee.

“When you have nothing but the shirt on your back and you come from the circumstances you did, everything is rosy,” he says. “You’re willing to work your way up and earn it. To have grit and the determination to succeed and make a better living for yourself—that’s where the Vietnamese mentality is really descending from.”

It seems, then, that Vietnamese Americans would have found success whatever Hedren had shown the women she met with that day. But Southern Californian hands will be forever grateful that Thuan Le noticed the star's manicure.