At the competition to determine the World's Fastest Set of Acrylic Sculptured Nails, the air is thick with the smell of acetone and ambition. Eight contestants sit at long folding tables, heads bowed as if in prayer. Hosted by the Nailpro Trade Show, the contest is being held at the Pasadena Convention Center on a spring day so lovely and carefree it gives little indication of the tension inside.
Preparation has been intense. Contestant No. 112, Shannon McCown, for instance, sat in front of the TV all night every night for a month doing her 19-year-old daughter's nails, driving her family crazy with nail talk. She now fiddles anxiously with bottles of sanitizing solution and Tammy Taylor conditioning cuticle oil.
Two tables over, as if the pressure weren't bad enough, sits contestant No. 113: Tammy Taylor herself, holder of the unofficial record for fastest set of acrylic nails, author of the beauty school standard The Complete Guide to Manicuring and Advanced Nail Technology, inventor of the flattened brush ferrule and Dazzle Rocks White Twinkling Stars nail powder, and president of Tammy Taylor Nails Inc., "where nails are always fun, and never feel like work." Word is that Taylor has this thing in the bag.
Contestants will do natural-style "pink and white" nails. Good pink and whites are narrow, sleek and straight, with a crisp "smile line," or distinction between pink and white. Today, however, the nails don't have to be good. They just have to be filed smooth to the touch. The judges estimate that it will take 15 minutes to do all 10 nails — 90 seconds per finger. The winning time will be enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Cuticles soaked and trimmed, the competitors are ready. Eight tiny brushes hover above eight tiny pots of acrylic. The contest director starts the clock: "On your mark, get set. Go!"
The contestants dab and pat and swipe and stroke and buff. Contestant No. 112 fumbles with her buffing file. Drat! Precious seconds wasted. Contestant No. 102, Azumi Kanene, who flew in from Hawaii, is as stoic and silent as the grave. A look of intense concentration fills her peachy, pale face. She dips brush into liquid monomer, then into acrylic, picking up a small ball of wet powder. Her model holds her breath. Kanene's touch is light as a feather.
John Hauk, contestant No. 106, the competition's lone man, is doing things a little differently. He starts with pink acrylic instead of white. Perspiration beads on his forehead.
But it's Contestant No. 101, Amy Becker, from Milwaukee, who does things extremely differently. She is deploying tiny, plastic molds shaped like nails. She tamps the acrylic into the molds, then presses the molds onto the fingers. When the acrylic hardens, she pops off the molds. A quick blast with a tiny heater, and she's done. She rolls the model's fingers this way and that, inspecting them. Finished.
Up next: Things get ugly
"Time!" Becker yells. It's 7 minutes, 48 seconds — astonishingly fast.
"OK," says the judge, startled. "We have a winner."
Becker's eyes go wide. "Get out!" she says. "Yes! I can't tell you how many little high school and college girls' nails I did in my basement at night."
Doing it the traditional way, she got her time down to 11 minutes. But still she wasn't satisfied. In the mornings, she lay in bed, thinking that there had to be a faster way.
She made a jig out of Styrofoam to stick the molds onto, "so I wasn't fumbling with them." Using bulldog clips from an office supply store, she clamped the molds onto the finger. The clips, however, were flattening the nail. She tried trimming and bending them with needle-nose pliers — "so all I had to do when I was done was file the sides."
Becker practiced every night for weeks, refining each time. "This isn't how it's normally done," she admits. "Sculpting can happen in a lot of different ways. There is no rule book when it comes to sculpting."
"You think outside the box," someone says, admiringly.
"Thank you," says Becker, hands on hips. She brushes aside a lock of long, curly, burgundy-tinted hair as the judge takes a long, critical look at the nails. "These are finished," the judge concludes. "You are within the guidelines that we have set."
A small commotion, however, is brewing off to the side. "That's cheating," says a woman from the Tammy Taylor camp. The rest of the Taylor supporters are standing in a circle in their matching camouflage glitter T-shirts, looking glum and sullen and as if they want to claw someone's eyes out.
"I knew I was gonna get flack over this," Becker mutters.
"Tips aren't allowed. Those are tips," says a woman from Team Tammy.
"They're not tips," Becker says. "A tip is something you glue on and put acrylic over." These are not glued onto the nail, she explains. "They're out for blood," she says as an aside, nervously.
The outrage is starting to build.
"I don't think it was fair," Dawn Marchand, owner of EnChante Nails in Irvine, and a staunch Tammy supporter, says. "It's supposed to be a traditional sculpting competition. Turning the tip over and placing it on the nail doesn't take any creativity. Anybody can do that."
"With our craft being nail techs? It's being an artist," Yvette Cotton adds. "We're creating and forming that nail freestyle. That beautiful pink and white nail." Becker's method? That's like pouring plaster of paris into a mold, she says. It's faster, "but it's not where the talent is.
"For us, the artistry is in shaping," Cotton continues. It's in the unique way you file, in how much beveling you do — straight down or rounded, all the way across the edge of the nail or just the sides.
"In our profession, that —" she jerks her head in Becker's direction — "is not a sculptured nail." She frowns. "See, not a lot of nail techs can do a sculptured nail. It really takes honing in on your craft. It takes years to perfect your technique. So that is an insult to us," she says. "Right, girls?"
"A kindergartner can do that."
"She didn't even file the tops of the nails!"
"She popped the tip off and it was ready to go," Cotton says, voice dripping with disdain. "There are the girls who do tips," she decides, "and then there are the hard-cores who do acrylics."
By the end the consensus is that not only did Becker cheat — she didn't even belong in the competition to begin with.
But Becker didn't win the 2011 international Nail Pro Cup championship and the 2013 World's Longest Acrylic Nail competition for nothing. She's a fighter. She read and reread the rules. She made sure her technique was not expressly forbidden.
And so head judge Carla Collier's decision stands. "It went to the right person," Collier says.
Still, the judge admits that she's 90 percent sure the rules will change next year: "Amy's innovative, and she's clever. Amy pushes the envelope."
As for Tammy Taylor, she is a graceful and circumspect loser. Not once does her perfect smile falter. "What matters," she purrs, "is I had a great time."
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