Welcome to Big Break, where some of the most influential figures in the beauty industry reflect on the moments that made them — from the good to the bad and everything in between. Here, celebrity manicurist Michelle Humphrey shares some of her best days working in London, her most memorable celebrity clients, and why being let go from your job isn’t always a bad thing.
If it wasn’t for getting painful acrylics back when she was a teenager, Michelle Humphrey might have never been the successful celebrity nail artist she is today. “Everything was painful, from start to end,” Humphrey told POPSUGAR. But she was determined it didn’t have to be that way. That’s when Humphrey started doing her own acrylics at home, and unlike today, where there’s a wealth of information at our fingertips thanks to YouTube, Humphrey got to work teaching herself.
Beauty school is where she got to really hone her craft as a nail technician. “The [college therapists] would say, ‘Oh, you’re a natural,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve kind of been doing this by myself for five years now,'” she said. Once she passed all of her college exams, Humphrey worked in nail salons in West Sussex and London for about seven years through the 2000s. “I was constantly getting trained and skill-building,” Humphrey said, adding that she had a blast working in salons. “I was such a London girl. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night I’d be out in town — it felt like my calling to be in London.”
Back then, though, a salon job could be quite mundane compared to now. “Back in the 2000s, it would just be 10 clients who all wanted acrylic french nails,” she said. “After a while, it was just killing my brain.” That was around the time that nail art just started to take off. But whilst the average consumer was just discovering the new trend, nail art was something that Humphrey had always been doing.
Humphrey felt that she’d hit her ceiling of potential at the salon. “I went from being the newbie at the bottom — where everyone’s overseeing you — to being at the top of the salon, and I thought, ‘Where do I go from here?'” From the get-go, she knew it wasn’t going to be owning her own place. At her first salon job, Humphrey remembered someone telling her “whatever you do in life, don’t get a salon.” That piece of advice stuck.
With owning a salon out of the question, Humphrey considered going into training and teaching but realized quickly that to do that she’d need more training to become a qualified educator. Her other option was to work on photo shoots and at fashion shows, which is exactly what she did. “I was working in London and met my agent [Luke] through a mutual friend, and that’s been it for 10 years now,” she said.
Unlike most people who enter the editorial world, Humphrey never really assisted anyone. She’d worked a couple of fashion shows while working at the salon, so she already knew a few people on that side of the business. But aside from contacts, a natural talent, and a love for the job, Humphrey credits some of her success to breaking into the industry at the right time.
“Nail polish was outselling lipstick, and there was this massive boom, so I got in before that, and it wasn’t a very saturated industry,” she said. “In the industry, the big names in the UK were Michelle Class, Marian Newman, Jenny Longworth, Lorraine Griffin, and Jenni Draper — but there weren’t many of us at that point. There are a lot more people now.” At the time, social media wasn’t a recognized platform for promotion like it is now. “I just used to post photos of pizza.”
“Nail technology has also really evolved in the last five years,” she said. “I started 16 years ago professionally, and the products back then versus the products now are completely different.” And the industry continues to evolve. “Every now and then I’ll see a new product on a Korean nail Instagram page, and I’m like, ‘What is this wizardry?'”
Humphrey solidified her work as a celebrity manicurist with her first high-profile client: Lily Allen. It was about seven years ago that Allen sent her a DM on Instagram asking her to do her nails, and she went to the singer’s house and worked her nail-art magic. It wasn’t long before Humphrey’s work got featured in the Metro with a story all about Allen’s Glastonbury music festival manicure. “I thought, ‘This is actually getting a whole feature in the paper? Whatever I’m doing, it’s working.'”
“I’ve got a lot to thank [Lily] for — I got other clients’ bookings off the back of her,” Humphrey said. “She’s always been so out there with her nails. Everyone was getting nude or plain nails and she’d have something extra — like [a] light-green ombré manicure encrusted in Swarovski crystals and nail piercings.”
Her first really big break came when she got the opportunity to work with photographer Miles Aldridge. “When I started getting booked with him, it was a great feeling because you know you’re going to get a great beauty moment from it — it was always epic working with him,” she said. Doing Katy Perry’s nails was another great career highlight for Humphrey. “The first time I met her, I flew up to Glasgow and I did her nails for Radio 1’s Big Weekend and I flew back with her in her private jet,” she said. “Then, I got flown out to Ibiza to work with her again; it was the best day ever.”
Humphrey has also loved collaborating with Dua Lipa and growing with her. “I’m so proud of where she is now; she’s doing so well, and it’s really nice to be part of that journey.” Working at events like the BRITs is always special to Humphrey: “The atmosphere is buzzing, everyone’s always excited, and it’s nice to be a part of something that I feel the whole nation wants to be involved in.” Humphrey also worked on the Spice Girls reunion tour, which was a major moment. “I’m from that era, which meant it felt so nostalgic.”
Humphrey doesn’t have any big career regrets — not even when she was let go from two salon jobs. “I was so gutted about losing my job in a salon,” she said. “At the time, it was the end of the world — I remember crying. Then, I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, one door closes so that another door can open.’ If I’d never been fired, then I wouldn’t be doing what I am now; I’d probably still be in that salon.”
With incredible designs like Katy Perry’s rainbow nails, Dua Lipa’s crystal-embellished design, and Lily Allen’s golden chrome french, Humphrey’s nail art is sure to go down in the beauty history books.
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