Jenny Bui, the 'Queen of Bling' and Cardi B's nails

In a city with thousands of nail salons, Jenny Bui's has managed to carve out a niche: people come from all over to have their acrylic nails done by the "Queen of Bling," who has turned nail art into jewelry.


(Photo: AFP)

It's a far cry from the zen, trendy salons all over Manhattan: visitors pas through an unremarkable door in a Bronx shopping district, and then climb a steep staircase to reach "Jenny Spa."

Once inside, the reason for its popularity becomes instantly clear: poster-sized photos of Jenny Bui and Cardi B cover the walls. The rap star, known for her songs "Bodak Yellow" and "I Like It" and her extravagant nails -- nearly two inches (five centimeters) of glittering crystals that she waves around like a fan -- has helped skyrocket Jenny Bui, a 50-year-old mother of five, to social media stardom.

Cardi B was relatively unknown in 2012 when she "found" Bui. At the time, Bui, a Cambodian refugee, only had a small salon in Harlem.

"The first time (Cardi B) came, I didn't have time to do her nails," Bui said, who had been busy trying to feed her new Instagram account.

But the second time was the charm: Cardi B left delighted, and she has been back every month since to see Jenny. The rapper regularly shows off Jenny's creations to her 58 million Instagram followers.

Fans come from all over the United States, ready to pay hundreds of dollars for similarly flashy, glitter-covered nails that will last them four to six weeks.

Cardi B "helped me a lot for my business. She is loyal and humble. She never forgets who helped her from the beginning," said Bui.

- Indispensable influencers -

Cardi's praise drew the attention of other influencers, who have become incredibly valuable in the fashion and beauty world and contribute further to the success of Bui's salon.

One such influencer is Paula Galindo, a Los Angeles-based  blogger from Colombia with 8.5 million followers on Instagram. In January, she gave control of her nails to Jenny for the first time. Armed with a mini-tripod and a camera, the 25-year-old filmed every step of her nails' creation.

"It's really beautiful," Galindo exclaimed at the end of the two-hour process, before sharing photos of her new nails on Instagram.

In another sign of influencers' role in the beauty world, Bui now has a contract with the jeweller Swarovski, as well as a line of nail products named "Jenny Secret."

And her reputation has gone international: she has traveled to Paris and London to show off her nail techniques.

"I rather go around the world to teach," Bui said. "Before I die, I want everyone to know my skills."

- Rare promotion -

Jenny Bui's fame is rare in an industry that in 2018 employed 24,000 manicurists in New York alone -- mostly first-generation Asian immigrants.

While the industry had revenues of nearly $4.5 billion in 2015, multiple studies have shown that labor law violations -- whether in terms of wages or sanitary conditions, such as with acetone fumes -- are far too common.

But Bui has triumphed. Dogged determination and the support of her second husband have no doubt played a role in the success of the nail artist, who remembers having to escape the Khmer Rouge massacres as a child.

"When I start talking about this I want to cry," she said in accented English, choking back tears as she recalled famine and fields of bodies.

Her parents finally managed to bring her to Canada, before she moved to the US for her first marriage.

She tried hairstyling, without much success, before finding a job in a nail salon.

After a couple of years, she opened her first salon, where initially she was the only employee.

The idea to make "bling" nails came to her in the beginning of the 2000s, after looking at Japanese fashion.

In the beginning, no one was interested, she said.

But now, she manages two salons, 20 employees, and a clientele full of regulars.

She is striving, she said, for a better life for her kids and "a really good immigrant dream."