The Interview — Jessica Tong, Celebrity Manicurist and Smith & Cult Brand Ambassador
Welcome to Talking Top 10, a recurring series in which we feature the founders, CEOs, creators, and leaders who are shaking up their industries. Ahead, read our Q&A with celebrity manicurist and Smith & Cult Brand Ambassador Jessica Tong, and keep scrolling to shop her Top 10 must-haves.
With a unique background in art and fashion design, Jessica Tong has quickly established herself as one of the most sought-after nail artists in the industry. Hailing from California but based in Brooklyn, her formal arts education initially led her to a career in designing for luxe beauty and fashion brands. With beauty and design guiding as her main muses, Jessica eventually found the perfect platform to express herself through nail art.
Along the way, Jessica has established relationships with trendsetting celebrities like Zendaya, Vanessa Hudgens, Gigi Hadid, and Kesha, who trust her for her vision and exquisite execution. Jessica's signature nail designs are some of the most photographed on the red carpet as well as New York Fashion Week. Her work has graced the pages of publications like Nylon, Marie Claire, and Vogue Russia. Between her position as resident nail artist at the renowned Hello Beautiful Salon in Williamsburg and being an accessories and bag designer, Jessica is a true artist with her finger on the pulse—if not a step ahead.
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How did you get your “big break” as a manicurist?
I don’t really know how to answer this question because I don’t think I associate my success with any one moment. I think it’s been years of persistent and consistent hard work that have led me to where I am today. In my own eyes, I’ve failed a lot, but I never gave up.
The moment that stands out to me the most in my decision to become a nail artist is with The Mother, Naomi Yasuda. She is such a kind person and an amazing artist. She was doing my nails at her studio, and I said, "I wish I knew how to do nails," and she told me I should just do it. Once I started, she invited me to assist her, and that led me to the beginning of the path.
What does a day in the life of Jess look like?
Like many moms without daycare during this pandemic, I’m home with my two young children, two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years old, while my husband and I play the magical juggle of caring for our kids and also getting all of our work done! An average day like today can look like this:
6:00 a.m. Wake up with my daughter and watch Peppa Pig until my son wakes up. Check my email because the workday has already started. I'm in New York.
6:30 a.m. My son wakes up. We all have breakfast together then read some stories.
8:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. My husband takes over so I can check my email, make a to-do list, and do whatever studio work I need to do, like shoot content that requires daylight.
11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. We sit down for lunch together.
1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. Naptime for the kids, back to the studio for me.
3:30 p.m. Snacks and a movie with my babies until dinner.
5:30 p.m. We all sit down for dinner together.
7:00 p.m. The kids go to bed, and I can put in two to three more hours in the studio. I'll pack all my outgoing orders, send tracking confirmations, and topcoat outgoing sets for the next day. Run to the mailbox, and then goodnight.
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Tell us about some all-time favorite shows or editorial shoots you’ve worked on.
My favorite show of all time was assisting Naomi Yasuda at Opening Ceremony. It was always the most fun you could ever have at the most beautiful show you’ve ever seen. Those were magical times. Carol and Humberto are visionaries.
Some of my other favorite shows that I've led myself include KYE, Pyer Moss, Ulla Johnson, and Nicholas K. My favorite campaigns are always with Chris Habana—the man is a genius! Also, Zana Bayne for Marc Jacobs Valentine’s Day campaign was a dream to work on.
Print editorials were still a thing when I got started many moons ago. I used to work with Nylon a lot—those shoots were amazing! Always fun and beautiful. Amazing editors like Dani Stahl, J. Errico, Jade Taylor, and Beth Garrabrant produced some really beautiful shoots that, to this day, I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to be part of. I have every single print issue I ever did with them as cherished memories.
Today, things are much more digital, of course, and I’ve had the opportunity recently to do some amazing covers for D’scene, Modeliste, Numero Russia, and Glamour Mexico with creative director Saulú Santana and photographer Sarah Krick. Every shoot has been breathtaking.
I could go on and on—seriously! Fashion is my religion, and editorial is my blood type. Period!
What are your top tips for mastering nail art at home?
Start with something relatively simple, and build your skills from there. It’s harder to master with the non-dominant hand, so be patient. It can take time.
What nail trend do you think will make it big this year?
Wavy swirls are currently the "It" nail. From very simple and one color over nude to psychedelic looks with multiple colors, it's huge right now, and I can totally see it going through the seasons in so many different styles and colors. The natural stone look is also lowkey having a moment. So I hope to see more of that as well.
Whose nails are you dying to do?
Ali Wong and Jamie Chung are my hometown heroes. Awkwafina because she’s hilarious, and I love her. Katie Leung and Claudia Kim because the Wizarding World is my thing. Olivia Cheng because I love her in Warrior. Kim Lee, Anna Shay, Christine Chiu, Kelly Li, Kane Lim, and Jaime Xie because I love Bling Empire!
What nail shades would make it in your ultimate hall of fame?
Floss Gloss: Playa del Pink, Cherry Ice, Con Limone, Bikini Coral, Perf, Lavish, Bobby Bobby, Hella Highlight, Mauve Wives, Pulp, Biscuit, Donatello, Gangsta Boo, and International Hot Girl
Smith & Cult: Ghost Edit, Kundalini Hustle, Bite Your Kiss, Peaceful Paranoia, 1972, Hollywood Heist, and Doe My Dear
Chanel Le Vernis: Pirate
NARS: Jungle Red and Dovima
How do you decompress?
I don’t do anything in particular. It sounds crazy to most people, but I find the most calm and relaxation while painting in my studio. The work itself helps me relax at the end of the day. The motion of painting is so meditative to me that it’s a calm release in itself.
Looking back at 2020, what are you most proud of career-wise?
Connecting with creative director Saulú Santana and photographer Sarah Krick and having the opportunity to participate in the shoots they produce. During every single one, we are whisked away to another world. It’s been a really magical experience.
California was shut down for nine months in 2020, and I was able to pivot to making press ons and mailing them to people so they could still look fresh while salons were closed. I’m so grateful for all my clients and amazing followers that supported me in that time and to this day. Thank you!
I also reconnected with Smith & Cult and became a Brand Ambassador and Content Creator for them, and we have some really fun and amazing things to show you guys soon. So please follow us at @smithandcult!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on some really fun stuff with Smith & Cult for all kinds of different magazines, editorials, and Instagram takeovers! I also have a fun press-on project with Bephie’s Beauty Supply in LA (@bephiesbeautysupply) dropping in a few days. So make sure you follow me at @jesthemess and @smithandcult so you don’t miss a thing!