NYC Manicurist Myrdith Leon-McCormack


The Producer: Hi Myrdith! How would you define your title? Are you an onset manicurist are you a nail rep?

Myrdith Leon - McCormack: I would call myself a manicurist, but the industry titles me more specifically as a celebrity manicurist. To me, everybody I touch is a celebrity, so it doesn’t matter if the person is on TV, or whatever.

TP: How did you get your start in this business?

I was terrible for years! But I practiced and practiced. She was patient with me, the clients were patient with me, and I eventually found a real niche for myself there.

MLM: I received informal training from another manicurist, a Russian woman, just after I got married. This was before you needed a license. I was driving back from getting my certificate and spotted a nail salon Red Creative Arts Salon. I went inside, asked the owner if she was looking for a manicurist, she said yes, and I started working for her that very next Monday. I was terrible for years! But I practiced and practiced. She was patient with me, the clients were patient with me, and I eventually found a real niche for myself there. I decided I was going to give the best simple manicures ever. One day an editor came in to get her hair done - it was a full-service salon - she wrote an article about the service she received from everyone in the salon and she mentioned my services. I asked her if I could advertise with her and she replied, “You can’t afford to advertise with us.” This is a magazine!

TP: Ha! I take it that this was a major magazine? 

MLM: It was one we all have heard of!  However then the editor said, “but I am looking for an on-set manicurist.” My first job was with a singing group that just signed a record label and they were shooting them for the magazine. From there, she took me to the West Indies to do four stories and that was the first time I traveled for work.

TP: Quite the start! And then your first travel jobs take you to the Caribbean - which is where you are from, right?

MLM: Yes, I’m from Haiti, which is maybe why she took me on the trip. That’s where I met celebrity makeup artist Peter Brown and he took me under his wing.  I’d say I interned with him because he really took care of me. He showed me the ropes of the industry. Five years later, he took me to a show with him for fashion week. But just as a guest sitting in the audience. He introduced me to my first agent, Bradley Curry Management.  He said, “Hey Bradley I want to introduce you to a manicurist who is with me, would you be interested in a manicurist?” And Bradley said, “Actually I am. Come in on Monday and we can talk.”  But before Monday even rolls around, he calls me and says, “Almay just called and they need a manicurist on set, it’s not paying much, it’s only $350 for an hour” and I was like, “Um, yeah!” [Laughs]. So I went to the shoot and by the time the hour was over, I said “Hey guys, the hour is almost over I don’t want to overstep the budget, do you need me to do anything else?” They said, “Oh we thought you left already, don’t worry about it, everything is good. You were great.” That was it. From there, I got in to meet Bradley at Silver Cup Studio and Bradley says, “I don’t know what you did, but they loved you - do you have a passport?” He signed me, I started doing Spanish Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo everything. The rest is history. It’s been amazing.  I’ve been represented by Ford- 

TP: So let me ask you about that, you’ve had how many agents?

MLM: Bradley Curry Management, Jump Management, Ford Artists AgencyUtopia, and then Factory Downtown.   I honestly have to say, with no disrespect to anybody else, Jump Agency was the career changer for me. They built me up to be the greatest and the contacts that they gave me - I simply would not be where I am without them.

TP: What do you see is the value of having agent? You now have your own agency right? When you first started your career, it certainly helped jump-start you to move away from the salon. What would you tell somebody who is starting off? Why did you change agents?

MLM: Absolutely have an agent. We think we can do it ourselves and ask why should they take a percentage? The percentage is worth it, it’s so worth it. The headaches they save you, the connections - it’s the best thing. I couldn’t have gotten to certain people without them. In this industry, it’s all about who you know -  the relationships and trust. If the client hasn’t met you or has never worked with you, it’s way less likely for them to hire you just on a whim because of an image they saw. Whereas an agent who has built your book - they can speak on your behalf, they can negotiate for you, they can protect you - they should protect you - and there are just some days the gigs are not worth it. Honestly, some are not worth your time, your energy, but then there are some gigs that are free that are the best, better than any paying gig could do for you.

TP: There’s more to work than earning money. Sometimes the pro bono projects are about creating beautiful images and working with great people.

MLM: Again it’s all about who you know. The relationships you form by having somebody groom you. I think a good agent is about branding you as an artist, beyond just the job for the day. Looking long term.

TP: So your agents have helped brand you. You used the word groom, they groom you for set- 

MM: Honestly I have to say that none of my agents did that for me specifically, I just witnessed it. I came from a corporate background. So that kind of helped too, you know, not to talk too much, not to say too much, know when to go back, how to be professional. Even though it’s a fun environment, at the end of the day, it’s still a job and that’s the priority. How you behave on set will determine the next job you get. People will often be polite to you on-set, but then your agent gets the news that they’ll never work with you again. 

If freelancers want to work, especially when gigs can be few and far between, you have to leave the baggage behind, show up and be professional.

TP: It’s hard in the freelance world to get that feedback.  It’s difficult to have an honest post-mortem conversation. It’s so much easier to simply never hire that person again without giving honest, constructive criticism. Because that can be uncomfortable. And I use the word “constructive” because the conversation and critique has to be positive, about building up. 

MLM: And it’s difficult because you’re often talking to an artist and they take their work personally. 

Then it’s about personality and you don’t know what might set a person off that day. It might be a bad day, or it might be an honest day. As a freelance artist, it’s even more difficult because if I’m having a bad day, I still have to come to work, regardless of what might be happening in my personal life and get the job done. If freelancers want to work, especially when gigs can be few and far between, you have to leave the baggage behind, show up and be professional. As a freelancer, there are no [traditional corporate] benefits and if you don’t work you don’t get a paycheck. It’s hard enough waiting the 30/60/90 days for payment as it is. 

TP: You have moved away from having representation and you now represent other manicurists. Can you tell me about that transition?

MLM: Through doing shows during fashion week and other events, I needed a team of manicurists to help me and work with me. Through this I started to build my own team and roster. 

TP: And at that point how many years of experience had you had?

MLM: I had a least 15 years under my belt.

TP: So this was a natural progression for you?

MLM: Absolutely. But again artists tend to be a little catty, a little, “I’m better than you,” it’s not about better -  it's about relationship. I invested 15 years into this before you have. You have been doing salon nails. Salon nails are completely different than doing manicures for on-set nails. That’s where people don’t often know the distinction. When you try to tell a manicurist who came from a salon why they can’t get paid the same thing I’m getting, it’s hard for them to comprehend because they think they are doing the same job. They’re not. They don’t have the relationships I do, they don’t have a portfolio like mine. 

TP: It’ s almost like a sculpture when you’re photographing the hands and the nails. Every detail have to be pristine and perfect - it’s not just about a polish change

MLM: It really isn’t and people don’t understand it, it’s hard for them to understand that. They look at you as an equal and it's not quite the same

TP: So what is the name of your agency?

MLM: My initials - MLM Represents.

TP: And how long have you had it now?

MLM: We’ve been representing manicurists for 4 years.  And I now also have assistant hair and makeup people, who I support. These are individuals who support the leads on the shoots, who are looking for experience and will eventually branch out on their own.  I’ll get somebody like you or another producer that says, “Hey listen do you have an extra person who can jump in to assist?”  Sort of the way [our mutual friend & manicurist] Maisie connected us, since you were looking for a recommendation.

TP: Well I really appreciate how you and I came into contact through Maisie and that you were able to be here with us here as a lead manicurist today!

MLM: Well I loved it! She told me I would love you. 

TP: We certainly find a way to have fun on shoots. What are some of the things you look for when you’re adding somebody to your roster as a lead or as an assistant?

I think that people assume models just get manicures themselves, but you honestly cannot rely on a salon manicure for a hand-model situation.

MLM: Humility. Because it’s not about you, it’s about the client. Don’t give your opinion unless your asked for it. You’re there to do a job, leave your ego, just do the job. When you’re asked, then go for it, but you don’t know what’s going to tick that person off. You’re there to do a job, that’s it. Unfortunately, I hate to say it, but nails are often the last thing people are considering and it’s not deliberate but they genuinely forget that part of it until they realize, “Oh my god, we need a good manicurist.” I used to get calls the same day.  

TP: I hear you!  On this job, we had to persuade the client that if we’re seeing hands and they’re touching the hero product that we are here to do an ad for, then we need to have a manicurist. Those hands & nails need to be perfect if they are framing the product!

MLM: Absolutely. I think that people assume models just get manicures themselves, but you honestly cannot rely on a salon manicure for a hand-model situation. 

TP: Let’s talk some more about the traits you look for in your team besides humility. 

MLM: Yes, besides humility, they obviously have to be capable & proficient in their craft.  Be able to assess the situation. Be smart. Use common sense, how about that? Common sense! Having the common sense to know that you are working as part of a team, alongside the other Vanities [hair, make up] & that you may not have a separate dedicate time for only nails.  Let’s get it done so we can get hired again. Let’s try that. 

TP: How do you scope out your new talent that you want to add to your roster?

MLM: I like people who are not already established because they don’t come with the ego. 

TP: Do you find individuals through recommendations or do they reach out to you? 

MLM: Some reach out to me and then I do my research and I get recommendations  - that’s pretty much it. Other than that, I’m not really looking for anybody. It’s easier for me to train a makeup artist or an aesthetician to do nails than it is for me to train a manicurist who is a bit jaded. It’ so difficult because you can’t take away their past experience. So they have to be fresh, but they have to be good. They have to love what they do because the hours are long - and sometimes getting paid can take even longer!

TP: As we know, it doesn’t feel like a job if you love what you’re doing. 

MLM: There you go. That’s what I tell people. If you do it for the money, don’t get into this business. Because this is not it. It’s just not it. 

TP: We’re fortunate to work in an industry that is so fun and ever-changing. 

MLM: I just posted that on my Facebook. The young interns that I have working for me remind me why I got into this industry. Because I love it. 

TP: I hear you also have a bridal magazine?

MLM: Yes ma’am.

TP: And what is the name of that?

MLM: World Bride Magazine

TP: How long have you been publishing?

MLM: Since 2006. It just came about. In the industry, I worked for Vera Wang for 15 years, doing nails during her shows. I was looking for ways to supplement my income because I’m waiting for that check. I had a bridal salon and again I was spending a fortune on advertisements in magazines to promote the bridal salon and I just said, “Hey if I can just invest in a little newsletter to send out to my brides, maybe that can help.” So I turned around and did that and got 40,000 requests for subscriptions for a magazine that was not really designed to be a magazine but more of a newsletter to the brides or to attract brides. 

TP: That’s incredible, congratulations. You obviously tapped into a real need and niche there.

The one thing that really changed my whole life in view of the magazine was when I stopped treating it as a hobby.

MLM: Thank you! It was just an amazing experience. Since I knew all these people in the industry, we were always testing. I would say, “Can we run this story in the magazine?” Every time I would have friends visit from various part of the world,  I would ask them, “Can you take five copies with you? Just drop them off wherever you see fit.” Then bookstores started calling me. I got it into Barnes and Nobles. That was all I did. Again, I used the relationships that I had, people were good to me and I had the content. It’s still growing, it’s still evolving.

TP: Everything good is always still evolving. 

MLM: Always and on World Bride Magazine, I work with the photographers that I worked with when I was doing nails, so it was an easy transition. They were very supportive and encouraging.  The one thing that really changed my whole life in view of the magazine was when I stopped treating it as a hobby. My parents would always say, “It’s an expensive hobby, because it costs a lot to print and produce it.” I started taking it seriously and things changed when I read “Harpers Bazaar Glenda’s Letter of how she started - I forgot which magazine - with 10,000 pounds.” She went over to somebody and said, “This is what I want to do.” They gave her the money and she did it.  To me, that was my cue. You always get the money you want, but Glenda got the money, the support, the encouragement and look where she is now. That was my motivation and I said, “I’m going to do it.” And these were the people I worked with doing nails. I have eight Harpers Bazaar covers, Vogue- the last job I had before I called myself “retired” was with Annie Leibowitz for the September issue of Vogue. At that point I said, “I’ve arrived. After 25 years I’ve arrived.” 

TP: Thank you, World!

MLM: Yes, 10 years of working with Annie Leibowitz and all of my celebrities - Susan Sarandon, Harpers Bazaar, Elle, Vogue, Glamour- I did everything. I worked with Mario Sorrenti, Steven Meisel, Wayne Maser - I worked with the best of the best, Peter Lindbergh, Jenny Capitain, you know Adam Glassman from Oprah Magazine. If I died today, I’ve done everything. 

TP: You’re a happy lady.

Berlin Fashion Week! I’m looking forward to exploring the fashion scene over there. That’s one of the luxuries of having a little magazine.

MLM: Over the moon, over the moon.

TP: And you can see that in your presence too. 

MLM: This industry, I have nothing negative to say about it. The new people that come in and expect to be stars without paying their dues - well, that’s my only complaint. 

TP: So what’s next for you? I hear perhaps a trip to Berlin?

MLM: Yeah! Berlin Fashion Week! I’m looking forward to exploring the fashion scene over there. That’s one of the luxuries of having a little magazine. I’m invited to go as press and explore that way. I do have to credit Huffington Post. I started blogging for them, which gave me the courage to finally go back to my magazine. Because I blogged for Huff Post for four years. Talking about my trips, my journeys, beauty behind-the-scenes, interviewing celebrities. It made me comfortable and gave me confidence. Again, it was an editor I worked with at Real Simple, who moved her position to the Huff Post and invited me to be a writer. Same thing with the nail magazine. This woman was living in Qatar and asked me if I could be a contributing writer for a nail magazine, Scratch Magazine. It was a global magazine, but only for the industry - [snaps fingers] built my confidence. So the other editor said she’s been following my writing in Scratch Magazine, and can I do it for Huff Post? And I was like, “Oh my god.” This is what builds relationships. It’s people. I say this every day. I’m not great myself, I’m great because of the great people around me. 

TP: I feel the same way. I feel that’s part of who I am and what I’m trying to do with The Producer - promote wonderful individuals who I enjoy working with who have the same values of community and supporting, building each other up.

MLM: When I did my first issue in my magazine, Maisie was the first manicurist I hired. We had never met each other and she didn’t care about the budget or anything, she just said, “I”ll do it.”  I loved that attitude and commitment. And we’ve been friends ever since. Amazing woman. We often refer each other for projects if one of use is already booked. What goes around comes around!

TP: Well I am so excited to see what happens next for you, Myrdith! Can’t wait to hear about your adventures in Berlin!

Thank you, Myrdith, for sharing your story!

Check out Myrdith's work here.

Interview of Myrdith Leon-McCormack by Annika Howe, Photos by Adrian Alston