Roxanne Nguyen grew up in her mama’s Smithville nail salon.
At 13, she would finish her school day, go to the shop and keep the clients company. She found her calling.
“I liked being social,” Roxanne says. “I got a chance to just hang out and be myself, and I liked the art aspect of it all. I would sit with nail tips (samples) and replicate the flowers my mom made.”
She’s come a long way since practicing floral designs. Her resume now includes doing the nails of Katy Perry and Ariana Grande when they were performing in Kansas City.
And this month, at the age of 24, she opened her own Northland nail salon, the Lacquer Room.
Roxanne is known for edgy designs: matte manicures with gothic but glamorous undertones that would fit in nicely on “American Horror Story.” A soft ombre stretching out several shades of one hue. Pinterest favorites like chevron and lace. And red-bottom manicures. Just as Christian Louboutin (who also has a polish collection) graces his high-dollar pumps with a red sole, Roxanne paints the backside of her clients’ nails red — when requested.
“It’s very visual and a way to make a statement,” Roxanne says of nail art.
But it’s not all pretty nails and pop star fairy tales. As a young Vietnamese-American woman, Roxanne faces bigotry. There’s a stigma attached to Asians and nail salons. In America, where nails are a billion-dollar business, half the nail techs are Vietnamese. People sometimes haggle them, talk to them dismissively and treat them like “the help.”
A recurring question always stings:
“Is this an American salon?” they ask Roxanne. “They assume I’m not American because I’m Vietnamese. But I was born here just like them. There is a lot of ignorance when it comes to that. And when people found out I was opening my own shop, it was like, of course you’re opening a nail salon. You’re Asian.”
If only people weren’t so quick to judge.
A fast start
Roxanne got her start at 16 as her mama’s apprentice. She was a licensed nail tech by the age of 18.
“I fell in love with the craft,” she says. “I promised my dad I would go to college, but when you know what it is you want to do, you just know it.”
Shortly after high school, Roxanne moved to Las Vegas. Her cousin, a beauty educator, started training her, and before long Roxanne was immersed in nail culture and cosmetology. Four years ago she packed her bags for Los Angeles, where her cousin introduced her to West Hollywood clients, like Steffiana de la Cruz, wife of actor Kevin James.
“Roxanne’s artistry rivals any top artist whose work you can see in magazine spreads and red carpet events,” Steffiana told me via email. “I have had the opportunity to work with many, and Roxanne’s touch is edgy yet classy, stylish yet fresh.”
Nails have become a major part of pop culture. Every major fashion blog and style magazine mentions the latest in nail polish and designs. Marc Jacobs and Kansas City’s own Kate Spade dabble in polish and nail decal collections. Movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have signature polishes. And red carpets have mani-cams to show how the stars are styling their hands.
But Roxanne decided she was done with the Hollywood glitz. She came back to Kansas City last year to be closer to family. And to take a step closer to her dream: opening her own nail salon.
She immediately went to work for another cousin, Holly Huynh, owner of the Nail Lounge, where Roxanne was manager.
When Holly got a call requesting someone to do nails for Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, both times she knew Roxanne was the manicurist for the job.
“She is very knowledgeable and very educated,” Holly says. “She goes above and beyond to advance her education, takes classes and learns about different products and techniques. She explains it to the clients and she shares what she learns with her co-workers, too. Roxanne is not just a nail tech that does the job and collects the money. She has a passion for what she does. It doesn’t matter how big or little the job is, she takes her time and she builds relationships. She’s always going above and beyond and reaching for the stars. That’s why we love her.”
Roots in the past
Roxanne also thinks beyond her craft to the entire culture of nail salons and Asian-Americans.
She wants people to understand the history.
“When Vietnamese refugees came here after the war, the women needed a specialty, something to help them survive.”
Enter Tippi Hedren of Hitchcock film fame. A human rights and animal activist, the actress worked with a California refugee camp after the Vietnam War. There, she helped women get skills in sewing and all kinds of trades. But her nails were a big deal. So she hired her manicurist to teach the women how to do nails. Those women would go on to change the nail game by offering affordable manicures and pedicures to everyday women.
“I love what I do,” Roxanne says. “Deal with it. A lot of people of all ethnicities own nail salons. Vietnamese nail techs are no different. They are making a living and helping their families. I really look up to the Asian community. They came over here with nothing and built something. They work hard to keep their clients happy and feed their families. And just because some of them might not speak English as well as you can, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.”
But overall, Roxanne says there is a culture of community in salons. She gets to know her clients. Her co-workers are like family. And she credits her mentors, bosses and teachers for her success.
“I feel that in order to open up a business or go into a specialty, you have to surround yourself with the best in that field — the people you hope to be like in the future. I always tell people, you are who you surround yourself with,” Roxanne says. “As a 24-year-old it’s been hard to be taken seriously. People don’t understand my experience. They think I don’t have the emotional maturity, but I’ve worked hard. Here, I have a support system. My dad told me it was time for me to open my own salon, and he really supported me and believed in me. My mom and brother anchored me.”
And in her salon, she is taking everything she has learned and putting her own twist to it. Right now, it’s manicures and pedicures. But soon she will offer waxing services and lash extensions. She wants to host private pedi parties and educational classes, too. Her long-term goal is to run her own cosmetology school.
“You can’t listen to negativity,” Roxanne says. “You can’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old or a woman or whatever the circumstance. If it is your passion, it’s yours to make happen.”
The Lacquer Room, 8602 N. Church Road, is open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call (816) 429-7695 to make an appointment. Manicures range from $17-$42. Pedicures range from $26-$65.
Follow the shop on Instagram: @thelacquerroomkc