“When I was in college, I got my first job at Bullock’s, which was like the Bergdorf’s of the South. I worked in costume jewelry because I was too shy to apply in the cosmetics department. That’s how highly I thought of it. Beauty has always been my second love, after music. I went to cosmetology school about a year after college. At that time, I had really been working as a singer. My first big paid performing music gig was in Arizona at this thing called Razzle Dazzle. We did Vegas-style shows in Arizona, and we wore these huge costumes. Oh my god, the big headdresses and rhinestones and sequins. I was a nail biter, and I got to the dress rehearsal and picked up the microphone and I had these bitten nails. The director took me to a salon the next day for a set of porcelain nails. The early fake nails were made of dental porcelain. It literally changed how I held myself and how I used my hands. I realized how much shame I had attached to my hands.
As a kid, I had a doctor say to me ‘your hands are the second thing people see. First it’s your eyes and then they shake your hand, so it’s a reflection of you.’ It just took me a long time to realize it. It took me wearing artificial nails and then taking them off to break the biting habit. Now I’m not a nail biter, although when I get super stressed my hands still want to go in my mouth.
I’d dreamt of living in New York since I was a kid, so I moved here to sing. I ended up working at Elizabeth Arden as a manicurist. It was really tough. We used to carry little carts to each client and one of the other manicurists was late, so I was sent to do her client. She came in and literally knocked me over with her cart to get to the client. That’s really what they mean when they say ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.’
I had a few clients who knew Frederic Fekkai and they said, ‘You need to work there. He’s the hot guy.’ That was 22 years ago. So, I put in an application and they called me in to give a manicure and it worked out. I had a lot of people sit in my chair at Fekkai in the early days. Linda Wells was an early client. I had all the fanciest women in New York and I realized that fancy women didn’t really understand nail care. There was a big hole in the marketplace, so that’s how my company kind of started. It was not my goal ever.
Cher was my first panic-attack celebrity. She actually helped me to choose my nail polish bottle. I sat on a bed with her for hours with all of my packaging and she helped me put it all together. Now, she introduces me to friends and it’s an out of body experience. She’s like, ‘This is my friend Deb Lippmann, I picked her bottle.” She played such a big part because I love my bottle.
When I started the brand, it was very sophisticated and narrow—my claim to fame is a perfect natural manicure. But during the recession I started noticing people weren’t getting manicures anymore. I thought, ‘Why is nail polish so serious?’ I created a polish called Happy Birthday that became probably our most iconic shade. It’s a super sheer polish with different sizes of glitter in it, so if you were doing your own nails and you weren’t super adept, it took the pressure off. People used to be very safe with their nail color, especially in New York. But now, people have opened up. They’re willing to go a little crazy.
I could change my own nail polish three or four times in a day. I could also go days with just a base coat on. I always feel like I have to have some protection on my nails. I love all forms of red and nude. I did work on Gaga for many years and did all kinds of crazy stuff for her. I was always challenged by her amazing creativity. And I do like nail art. Back in the ’80s, I went to Hawaii with my performing group and while I was there I had a nail artist on the street paint a Hawaiian sunset on my big, long square nails. That was my first experience with nail art. And I can’t do a Hawaiian sunset to this day, but I’m extremely in awe of it. I love it.
Nails are really personal. You’re sitting really closely with somebody, which is actually a part of the business that I would like to see reinvigorated. I understand that we like express service, but to me it’s really important and now so many of us are going into places where there is no relationship. One of my first bosses in Arizona said to me, ‘Of all of the services that we do, manicures are the most intimate.’ She taught me how important it is to make somebody feel better and to sense their energy. When I’m giving someone a massage, I won’t stop until I see their breathing change, until I see that I’ve made a difference in their day-to-day on top of just doing a good manicure.
It’s the same when I’m working with people during awards season. It’s like being invited into somebody’s wedding. It’s a very precious, secret space. It’s such a big deal and it’s so important. Even choosing a nude nail color can take forever, because the red carpet has a certain light and then you’re sitting in your seat where they’ll get certain shots of you and then you win and you’re holding the guy and you don’t want to distract. It’s crazy. Reese Witherspoon, Marion Cotillard, Lupita [Nyong’o]…I did so many Golden Globe winners. You can learn so much from those experiences—and from fashion shows and photoshoots too. My first show was Calvin Klein. I did Kate Moss for my very first show, and she was like, ‘I’m not here forever.’ A year later I was doing a Cavalli shoot with her at like, three in the morning, she was like, ‘I want to do your hair and makeup, make you look like me.’ So Daria and Kate did my makeup that day. I have pictures of that but I don’t have high-res. It was hilarious and amazing.
I use my Clarisonic Brush every day. I wear Clé de Peau Sheer Fluid Veil. I like a smoky eye and a nude or fuchsia lip. For eyes, I use Tarte EmphasEYES High-Definition Eye Pencil in Black. It’s a really good black that goes on easily and doesn’t bleed. But sometimes if I don’t have a lot of time I’ll just do an eyelash. I love Troy Surratt’s Pointilliste Mascara. I love Diorshow Mascara. I also like good old L’Oréal Voluminous. For my brows, there is Tom Ford Brow Sculptor. That’s fantastic. For lips, I use NARS lipsticks. I’m a junkie. I love to try new things. I love experimenting. I also use my own Lipstick & Nail Duet called Sexyback.
I also love Troy’s build-your-own blush and eye shadow palettes. I have one that I put together for evening and one for daytime. And I use Charlotte Tilbury Magic Cream. I’m not very good at contouring but I like her Filmstar Bronze & Glow if I have time to do it. All of us behind-the-scenes people don’t really do our own hair or makeup much. But I always have C.O. Bigelow Lip Shine in my purse—the tinted ones. I like their Mentha Lip Balm Stick too—that minty feeling.
I took my extensions out, but they changed my life. I loved having long, full hair. I’m pretty sure that sitting with hair and makeup people all these years I’ve picked up lots of things. For example, I’ve learnt to go over my roots directly with the blow dryer to get volume. I love Oribe, their Dry Texturizing Spray. I also like the Philip B Maui Wowie Volumizing & Thickening Beach Mist. It gives my hair a really good curl. I’m a big fan of Dry Bar too. I do love an express service.”
—as told to ITG
Deborah Lippmann photographed by Tom Newton on Friday, June 5th in New York City .