Manicure salons have become a boom industry in US cities, where they have brought succour to urban American women and created jobs for tens of thousands of Asian women.
Women like Lee Dao, 32, who file and polish 10 fingernails for 14 dollars.
With summer looming and school term finishing soon, many women go every week to ‘nail spas’ like the one where Lee works on Connecticut Avenue in a trendy neighborhood of the US capital.
“Summer is good for business,” said Lee, who has been a manicurist for 11 years and like 40 percent of the manicurists in the United States, is of Vietnamese origin.
Manicure salons have invaded US cities over the past 10 years.
The phenomenon took off in southern California, where there is a big Vietnamese population. The link with the Asian community is so strong that in California, exams to join the profession can now be taken in Vietnamese.
According to the US Labor Department, there were 44,390 licensed manicurists in the country in November 2004, earning an average of 9.56 dollars an hour, just above the supermarket checkout clerk at 8.27 dollars but less than a hairdresser at 11.41 dollars.
A specialty magazine called Nails estimated there were really 380,000 manicurists working in 2005, with the official figures inflated by the black market.
In many ways, manicure salons have taken over from the hairdressers’ salon as a centre of feminine social activity. Increased competition has brought prices down, though owners are worried that high gasoline prices could hit their business.
Alongside a boom in plastic surgery, the manicure salon has become an essential of urban life.
“This is a bit like going to the gynaecologist, it is often just us women,” said Susan Bodiker, a Washington advertising executive.
Bodiker admitted she often has trouble keeping to her monthly budget but insisted she would not give up her twice-a-month manicure. “A little luxury is good for you.”
For Franziska Reed-Huxley, who lives in a rural part of Pennsylvania, surrounded by stern Amish farms, the manicure helps her “feel lady-like”. She comes to Washington once a month and always goes to the salon where Lee works.
“It’s my great indulgence,” she said.
Manicures have also been a therapy. “Last June, my husband had died and we had a gathering, a sort of celebration of his life with friends. We did all this cooking and we were tired. At one o’clock in the morning, we decided to come together to have a manicure. That was great fun.”
Behind her, another woman held a portable phone in one hand while the manicurist worked on the nails of the other.
In New York, manicure salons are often next door to each other and have proliferated despite regular reports of poor hygiene and clients who develop finger or foot infections.
The array of services offered in the salon is growing. In addition to a classic “French manicure”, there are also speedy back massages, leg-hair removal and “nail art”. The choice of nail colours appears never ending.
Americans—93.6 percent women and 6.4 percent men—spend more than six billion dollars a year on their nails in the salons, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.