A collage of black and white portrait of actress Tippi Hedren, with a black crow on her arm, and a hand painting nails in the Vietnamese flag.

442: The story behind Vietnamese nail salons

How one actress and 20 Vietnamese refugee women forever changed an entire industry

Tippi Hedren is known as the "Godmother of Vietnamese nail salons" for her role in introducing the industry to refugee women in the 1970s.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

There are some things in this world that just seem to go together—salt and pepper, peanut butter and jelly, movies and popcorn—it can be hard to imagine one without the other.

Nail salons and the Vietnamese community are another such pairing.

According to the National Museum of American History, more than half of all nail salons in this country are owned by Vietnamese Americans and more than half of the nail salon workforce is Vietnamese—the majority of which are women.

And while the industry—specifically Asian-owned nail salons—has faced scrutiny for underpaying and exploiting workers, the story behind how Vietnamese women were introduced to nail work is worth telling. Because their prominence in the industry has not been by accident.

It all began when Vietnamese refugees started arriving in the United States in 1975. Actress Tippi Hedren—best known for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds—was working as an international relief coordinator for the nonprofit Food for the Hungry at the time, and began working with Vietnamese women in the Hope Village refugee camp in northern California. Hedren’s long glossy nails caught the attention of these women and this gave the actress an idea.

“I thought, ‘You know, this might be a really good idea for them to learn how to do the manicure,’” Hedren says in an interview with VTV World, a subdivision of Vietnam’s national broadcaster, Vietnam Television.

Hedren started bringing her personal manicurist, Dusty Coots Butera, to the camp once a week to teach a group of 20 women a different procedure each visit.

In a 2016 interview, Butera tells Nails Magazine, “Tippi told me about these young women and their plight. And I thought, surely, if I could learn to do nails, they could, too. I was not trained to do anything, and I had a child to raise and I was a single mother ... so when I went to teach I knew what it was like. That’s why it appealed to me.”

The women would practice the new techniques they learned on each other, as well as on Hedren. Eventually, Hedren helped arrange for the women to go to school to become nail technicians and for them to get their licenses so they could work.

Democratizing an entire industry

A row of laughing and smiling Asian women sit in pedicure chairs while white women work on their feet.

In 2017, photographer Chris Buck shot a photo essay called "Let's Talk About Race," which examined stereotypical representations of white and non-white women, including nail salon workers.

Chris Buck for O Magazine

The U.S. nail salon industry has since grown to be worth $8.53 billion.

A big part of the industry’s growth has been the accessibility of manicures to more people. Before the 1970s, manicures were typically reserved for the wealthy. But once Vietnamese-owned nail salons began opening up, they offered the service at more affordable prices.

“They were able to speed up the process a bit more, so prices came down, which meant the average person could get their nails done,” Mai Nguyen, author of Sunshine Nails, and who grew up in her family’s nail salon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, tells JoySauce. “So it became a thing that became more democratized and that everybody could participate in.”

In addition, Nguyen says nail salons allowed Vietnamese refugees to build a livelihood for themselves and their families. They would tell others who came to the United States and encourage them to open their own nail salons. The industry grew from there, even expanding beyond this country’s borders as evidenced by Nguyen’s family in Canada.

Hedren and the original 20 women still hold reunions from time to time, none of them knowing then the impact their relationships would have on an entire industry.

“Back then, I just thought I should learn a craft to find a job that will help feed my family,” Thuan Le, one of the 20, says in the VTV World report. “I didn’t expect that the nail business would become a huge industry, not only in the U.S., but around the world. It was also thanks to Vietnamese people’s patience, hard work, and creativity that this industry has developed all around the world.”

Published on April 30, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.