We’ve long held the belief that good nail art is, indeed, art—and The Museum of Modern Art would agree. Celebrity nail artist Bernadette Thompson’s “money manicure” is now permanently on display at the museum, the first nail art ever to featured there.
In 1993, the Yonkers, New York-native created the look for Lil’ Kim on the set of the “Get Money” music video, kicking off a long career crafting nails for celebrities (Rihanna, Arianna Grande, Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé) and designer brands (Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs).
For the month of May, Thompson and her team will be working out of the Concept pop-up space in Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre. We caught up with Thompson, who shared some of her career highlights and how she made nail art shine in the fashion industry.
On Lil’ Kim’s money nails:
We were on a photo shoot for a music video back in 1993, and I noticed that everyone was talking about how fabulous the hair was and how beautiful the makeup was and no one said anything about the nails. At that time, in fashion, nails were never the forefront of anything. No one cared about nails at all. So I needed to do something to make the nails stand out. I looked around for things that were going to help me do that. I was looking all over the place, and I looked in my wallet and I saw money and was like, “Let me try using money and stick it on her nails.” And that’s what we did and she loved it.
On using actual money:
It became a big deal. I had been doing so much press on it; it was interviews galore. So one day when I got a call, I thought it was an interview and went on and on about using real money—and they were setting me up too, asking “So it was real dollars?” And I was like , “Yes, sometimes I use hundreds, sometimes I use fifties,” and they let me go through that whole thing. Then they said, “Bernadette Thompson this is U.S Treasury Department, defacing the American dollar is a felony”. I said, “Well I used to use real money, I don’t do that anymore.” And they just started laughing and told me to not use real money anymore. I kept using it of course.
On being featured in the MoMA:
In June of 2017, I got a call from the Museum of Modern Art and they said they were doing an exhibit on 111 businesses that influenced the 20th and 21st century. I said, “O.K what do you want us to do? Want me to get my team together and come do manicures at your event?” She said, “No, you’re one of the businesses that influenced the 20th and 21st centuries”. I said, “What!? Are you sure!?” She said, “We are very sure.” They wanted me to repaint the money nails. I did it, and my son and I brought it down to the museum. When we got there, they were in shock. They treat all the art the same: they have three different people that go pick the artwork up in a special vehicle, it’s insured, etc. They couldn’t believe me and my son just walked in there and handed over this little case. After the exhibit, the numbers were really high so they called me back and said they wanted to buy the nails from me. And they did. Now it’s a permanent piece, the first nail art ever.
On her first celebrity client, Mary J Blige:
She is my friend. We grew up together, went to school together, played together when we were five years old everyday in the projects. We’ve known each other forever. She was working on her first single when she had seen her sisters nails. I had quit my corporate job and opened a nail salon. It was in the hood, it was a mess, but the service was good and more than that, it was a party every single day. There were women lined up all day and all night to get their nails done. So her sister came in, got her nails done, went back to Mary and Mary said, “Who did your nails?” She said “Bern!” Mary sent a 16 passenger white limousine to the salon in the hood to come pick me up to do her nails. It was so embarrassing. Why would you do such a thing to me? Anyways, I stayed with her for five straight days. We did nails that took like two hours and then for the rest of the time we just put up, laughed and partied. We went out one night when Puff Daddy was there, and that’s how I met him. She introduced us and then I started doing all his female artists too.
On working with Louis Vuitton:
A photographer called me up and said, “We are doing a photo shoot with Louis Vuitton, can you do it?” I had never done fashion before that, ever. They said, “What’s your day rate?” I told them I would call them back and I called my Ma and asked what she thought I should charge them. She said $400, so I said $400 and they agreed. It was supposed to be for one day, but they called me after the shoot and said, “The photographers love you, the clients love you, people from Paris love you; can you do the next nine days?” I said yes, and they said the bill was $1500. I was thinking $1500 for ten days work with Louis Vuitton, I am good with that. I sent them an invoice and they said “No, we meant $1500 a day for ten days.” I said then I am never going back to a salon.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.