The sound of melodramatic soap opera dialogue blares from a TV suspended from the ceiling, ricocheting off the pink tiles, as Sha-Sha shows off the designs in her display case. They look like miniature replicas of medieval and African shields, but what they are is fingernails.
"This is the ultimate war paint," Sha-Sha says. "There's a lot of people who sculpt nails, but I take it to another level to make it an art form." Sha-Sha, who's 20, went by the name Sharon Payton at Bogan High School.
Her clients are willing to dish out serious cash to keep their nails looking sharp. A complete nail job (ten designs) costs $40 and takes about 90 minutes. Then there's the $20 routine maintenance--the touch-up--every two weeks. We're talking Exotic Nails by Sha-Sha (pronounced Shay-Shay). She performs her craft in the front of the Mercedes Beauty Shop at 456 E. 75th St. in the south side neighborhood of Chatham.
"People are willing to pay to look good," Sha-Sha says. "Especially your nails. They can start a conversation. For me, they're advertising."
Sha-Sha got into exotic nail design a few years ago, after she started practicing in her basement. "Whenever I got a little depressed I broke out the file and the nail polish," she remembers. "Pretty soon I got creative and started to feel good. Practice made perfect."
After two months of studying at the John Amico School of Nail Design in Burbank, she was ready to hang out her shingle.
She works with colors ranging from traditional reds and pinks to neon yellow. But her secret ingredients are kept in a large tackle box filled with beads, rhinestones, not-too-precious metals, and bits of fabric. She maneuvers the materials onto nails with a small stick of wood.
"The latest trend," she says, "is girls wanting their boyfriend's name painted on their nails. It all starts in high school. I already have girls making appointments to get their nails ready for the prom."
Sha-Sha gets her share of male customers, but most of them just want their pinky done or a hot-oil manicure. Some want a pedicure, which Sha-Sha only performs if the client agrees to soak his feet in warm, soapy, peroxide-laced water for a good five minutes.
First up on a recent afternoon is LaShon Vance, 20, who is looking to better her burgundy-painted nails with rhinestones and tiny bits of silver foil. A stylish woman wearing a round black leather hat and an assortment of gold rings, bracelets, and necklaces, Vance says nice nails are essential.
"There's a lot of pressure on females to look nice," she says. "And besides, when I walk out of here I feel good about myself."
Most customers go for fake plastic nails from an inch to two inches in length. Sha-Sha affixes these nails with a ghastly adhesive.
"The chemical fumes are the toughest part of the job," she says. "If they don't kill me I could be at this a long time."
Vance says wearing a set of fake nails is nothing to be ashamed of. "They become a part of you," she says.
Sha-Sha can paint little snowmen and flamingos, but she prefers the abstract designs, those with glitter or perhaps a marbleized look. The latest fad is designer labels glued to the nails.
Vance is followed by Lou Withers, a tall, handsome man in his 20s, an off-duty policeman. Though he doesn't bite his nails, Withers thought they could use some upkeep.
Nothing exotic though. He turns down the chance to have the Police Department's blue-and-white emblem painted on his thumbnail.
"Just the basics," he says. "My nails look bad. They're an embarrassment."
Though the manicuring field is a crowded one--the yellow pages list more than 100 practitioners--Sha-Sha says she will make it. "This business," she says, "is about staying creative, setting trends, and keeping a steady hand."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.