What’s Going On With Nail Salons. (And Why They Aren’t the New Massage Parlors.)


So, tonight, a Beauty U student brings in the newspaper because the front page story is “Local Madam Arrested for Terrorizing Sex Slaves.”

“I can’t believe I went into that place!” she says. “I didn’t know what it was!”

She thought it was a nail salon. Because that’s what it said on the sign.

Our teacher has already seen the newspaper and is more world-weary. “You have to know the signs,” she tells us. Front windows painted up? A back room for “massage?” And — this is the part nobody quite says but we all know it anyway — Asian-owned and operated? Check, check, and check.

Let’s back up for a second. There’s a long history of racial tension in the beauty industry, mostly centering around the nail salon market, where 60 percent of workers are women of color: 10 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African-American, 2 percent Korean, and a whopping 40 percent Vietnamese, according to the 2010 industry survey by Nails Magazine (that’s a PDF link, btw). Being a nail tech requires the least amount of education (250 hours in New York state versus my 600 and a cosmetologist’s 1000), so it seems like a pretty good gig if you don’t have much cash to invest in training, don’t speak much English, and need to start earning money sooner rather than later. White-owned nail salons have seen their market share shrinking in response to this influx and it creates a lot of animosity. “It’s like a cold war between us,” one Vietnamese nail tech told me, a few years ago.

Around Beauty U, I hear a lot of cracks that suggest the war might be even a little hotter than that. Our golden rule of waxing is that you never ever double-dip your stick in the wax once you’ve touched the client’s skin. “Not like at those Asian places, where God only knows what’s in the wax,” one student says. (Side note: One teacher confessed that she too double-dips if she’s just doing “like an eyebrow or a lip/chin.”)

Same thing when we learn massage techniques. “I like how much pressure you use,” another student told me. “I was at a nail salon last week and I thought the woman was going to break my neck.” (For those of you who don’t frequent nail salons: A post-pedicure neck and shoulder rub is often included while you’re waiting for your polish to dry. Oh and also, a lot of them offer waxing services in addition to nails, to explain the quip above.)

“It’s not like they really know what they’re doing there,” someone else said. “A lot of times, they aren’t even licensed.” This devolved into a conversation about how infrequently “those people” clean the pedicure baths and how you’ll probably get a staph infection from them.

There’s also a lot of disappointment that we can’t get free mani/pedis because Beauty U has yet to recruit enough students to fill a nails night class. “It’s because it’s mostly an Oriental thing now,” the admissions director told me when I asked about it during my Interview. “They have their own schools. We don’t get the interest.”

And as I’ve mentioned before, there’s the whole “what are they saying about me?!” anxiety.

So, that’s the (not very pretty) landscape. And it’s not just Beauty U — it’s everywhere. That’s why I’m keeping names out of this post; I’ve encountered this same stuff throughout my beauty industry travels, as a customer and a journalist, too.

Now here’s the thing: Even beyond the local tabloid crap, there have been a handful of media reports (like this four-part NPR series) about Vietnamese and Korean-owned nail salons being used as fronts for money laundering and human trafficking. Workers that paint nails by day (often for as little as $50 per day plus tips even in a totally legit business) are forced into the sex trade by night — or whenever a client goes into the back room for a massage and leaves his towel in place after, which one Beauty U student’s husband accidentally discovered to be the Happy Ending code. (He got dressed and left.)


To the degree that this is happening at all (and I’m sure it is, though perhaps not as much as the media suggests, since even NPR couldn’t seem to come up with any hard numbers), it is horrendous. Both in terms of what’s happening to these exploited workers, and because it fuels two ugly stereotypes: That you can’t trust Asian people, especially in nail salons. And that “beauty worker” is synonymous with “sex worker.”

The truth is, being a nail salon worker is no cake walk, even without the whole sex trafficking issue. You work incredibly long hours inhaling incredibly toxic fumes. (Please watch and share the video above, for more details about all of that.) Many of your customers are condescending at best, rude and suspicious at worst. And your beauty industry colleagues are downright hostile.

If prostitution is happening at nail salons, I want us to help those women and girls get out. But along the way, I want to talk about ways low-paying beauty jobs exploit the women (and some men) who perform them in far more subtle and insidious ways. And I want us to stop blaming the victims and to stop talking smack about Asian nail salons in general. Enough already.

Because I think my Beauty U girls are operating under the assumption that it’s a good idea to make jokes about what goes on in those “Happy Ending-type salons” to help underscore the differences between us and them. But at the end of the day, we’re all wearing the same kind of aprons and waxing the same kind of body parts. So it really feels like we need a little Tina Fey/Mean Girls kind of scene right about now. You know, like when she tells all of the girls: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

Like that. Only replace high school girls with beauty industry workers. And replace “guys” with “the whole world.”

Must Read: The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work, in which women studies professor Miliann Kang studies the nail salon industry and finds that “while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigration.”

Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty Schooled, Career Opportunities, Government Watch

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  1. Denise
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    What really bothers me is that nail techs are not licensed to do waxing and they destroy peoples eyebrows and then come to me to try to repair the damage. They sometimes have a cosmotology license posted and they everyone does waxing and they are not trained or good at that skill.

  2. Troberts
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Very eye opening information. thx

  3. Posted July 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the tip on the book. I’ve always wondered why the closeness that sometimes occurs in the manicure experience doesn’t transcend the salon doors.

    But I stopped getting waxed at cheap nail salons after I became an esthy, too, for the same reasons Denise mentions. It’s hard to really know who holds the license.

    All in all, it’s the same issue we have in the US when it comes to food. We all want cheap manicures and cheap tomatoes, but what is the real cost for these services?

  4. Megan
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. So, not wanting to support human trafficking or prostitution in general, is the answer to not get a mani pedi from an Asian studio? That seems rash.

  5. Sam
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    I am currently at beauty school and our class has ‘discussions’ all the time about the same things you have talked about in your article….I am from New Zealand so this is an issue everywhere

  6. Posted July 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    What do you do if you think a salon may be trafficking humans and forcing young girls to be prostitutes? What if turning them in causes the girls to be shipped back to Viet Nam into a worse life of poverty and starvation?

  7. Mango
    Posted September 24, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Im a second generation vietnamese american and basically alot of nail salons
    Are vietnamese owned because it is very quick and easy to get a nail
    License and not much education involved with being a manicurist.
    Every society has good and bad people and most nail salons dont
    Offer a happy ending massage, those are normally given by unlicensed
    “Massage parlors”. It is unfair to say that all nail salons offer that, most
    Just offer clients an inexpensive nail treatment . Vietnamese are very family
    Oriented and hard workers, most nail techs work 10 hours a day 6 dAys a week
    For minimal a commission of what they do aprox 60%. Most of the time that
    Isnt good if the salon isnt to busy and they are not on salary i.e. guaranteed
    600-800 a week or 60% commission which ever
    Greater. Usually caucasians tend to stray away from
    Dirty jobs, in a restaurant , cleaning services
    Or dealing with stinky toes. I speak from experience
    Because my family has many family owned nails salons
    Considering how hard we work and the hours
    We put in a week its quite stressful. Yet something that after
    Working very hard for couple years and saving up money
    You can easily open your own nail shop hence there is
    Pretty much one shop in every strip corner. I am however
    Ranting right now because i am doing nails and today
    The whole shop had only 2 customers and no we were not on salary.
    The owner a husband and wife does not want to invest
    Money on advertising to expand the business, they are
    Content with making several grand a month profit and are just
    Happy that after paying the rent they arent losing money.
    Due to some family issues i have to work to put food on the tables
    But would rather be doing something else because i am fluent in english
    And am wasting my precious time and am not paid what i am worth, yet
    Everyone has to make sacrafices for there family and in
    My case i have a nephew diagnosed with leukemia and my wife is
    Doing manicures and pedicures because she is new to the united states and
    Is taking Esl courses and she had enough skill to do unlicensed
    Manicure and pedicures. There i told you our deepnand dark secret
    However that is not the darkest secret of the vietnamese nail industry. The owners
    Pay there employees 50% cash and 50% by check, and
    Everyone files 1099 instead of getting a w2. If u ask me
    The techs are ridding themselves of benefits
    That americans appreciate when they pay taxes
    And are not recieving health benefits which they most likely
    Will need sitting in all the heavy nail fumes 60-70 hours a week.
    But does everyone claim all there taxes if they didnt have to?
    Im sure waitreasses like to withhold how much they made in
    Tips from uncle sAm. The owners are punks for having there
    Employees have benefits and claiming they are merely sub contractors
    When clearly they are employees coming in from open to close
    And all money they make are collected by the owner, and the
    Owner establishes how much money is each service going to be charged.
    I want to speak up about this situation and think that many salon
    Should be prosecuted for this bs.

  8. Angela
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    This is hilarious. I am, myself, a Vietnamese-American woman. Although I can agree that yes, a lot of Vietnamese people own the nail salons, I can also say that 99% of them are genuinely nail salons. NOT some undercover human trafficking type of thing.
    It is easier for a woman who doesn’t speak English to get a license, because not much education is needed otherwise. Therefore, many who can’t speak fluent English are more turned towards the nail business.
    With my experience, I find it ridiculous that people would make such claims about Asians. I am so incredibly sorry that ‘white people’ are the ‘superior race’ here in America. I am ashamed to live here, and would rather go back to my country. At least there, we aren’t ignorant fools who only listen to what the media and government put into our heads.

  9. Christine
    Posted December 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a ridiculous article with no hard evidence about human trafficking other than hearsay. This makes the author seem ignorant. I am an Vietnamese American and have been in the nail industry for over 10 years. My mom has a salon and so does all of my relatives. It is because it does not require much education, communication and has a low start up cost to start the business. To make absurd allegations as to why Vietnamese salons are doing better than “white” salons is repulsive.

    For one thing, majority of the nail salons in the U.S. do not have a massage parlor in the back room because it takes longer schooling and is more expensive. So don’t confuse that with waxing and facials in the back, and other Asian businesses that assumably have “happy endings.” No we are not all the same.

    Another thing is we are all hard-working families trying to make a living to put food on the table. We are not here to cheat the government with money laundering or treat our workers bad by forcing them into human trafficking. No one is forced to work in a salon if they are unhappy. We are not some helpless, evil race that does what it takes to make money and take control over the industry. We are smart business people and are genuine about our work and it shows through OUR sales.

    This article is beyond ignorant and I’d wish you interview more Asian American workers before you make any type of claims. I also wish you would interview our customers to hear what they have to say. Interviewing only the other side and making assumptions about our people makes the author look like an imbecile. Please be more educated before writing an article about an entire ethnicity.

    • Cece
      Posted June 19, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      I’m just wondering, as an Asian owned and operated salon owner/worker, would you hire a white woman if she came in as a licensed nail tech? And if not, why? This is purely for educational purposes, I’m not trying to stir the pot one way or another, but I would really appreciate your feedback.

      • Posted April 21, 2015 at 1:14 am | Permalink

        I have been an esthetician and nail artist for 22 years. I am white! You would be really surprised that it is very hard for me to find a salon to work in. The Asian salons will not hire me even though I am a Creative Nail Master and have won several awards for nail art.. It does not matter! The market is flooded with cheap salons with bad service. Ihave a large clientele and now own my own salon suite. Unfortunately, the so called racism goes both ways.

  10. Taylor
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    What a dumb dumb dumb article with no real facts. The author is obviously bitter of Asians running beauty salons.

  11. Posted June 9, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I do not believe this journalist is being ignorant and trafficking in America is very real.
    The journalist isn’t saying that trafficking is happening in all Foreign Salons but making us aware that it is going on.
    My take on the article is one of genuine concern as I have been a licensed Nail Stylist over 22 years, I wouldn’t want to see anyone having to live in such a way.
    It may be more of the Foreign Massage parlors and we all know what they do in there, let’s keep it real.
    As an American in this industry my issue is that at one time I did have to lower my prices to compete, which I no longer do.
    Yes there are clients that no longer want to be pampered and done in a hurry but there are still clients who also appreciate a great, complete safe service who will pay for that extra attention.
    Americans in this industry can no longer complain about what has been taken from us and move forward to find the clientele you seek to be successful.
    Charge what you are worth and if someone cannot afford you then they should not sit in your chair, its as simple as that.
    Although this may be an easy industry for Foreigners to slide into, it still costs money to go to school, keep your license active, buy products, insurance and booth rent/commission.
    I went to school and became certified to make money not work for minimum wage, so with all due respect for the way Foreigners changed my industry, Thank You but I will keep doing my work the way it was meant to be done.
    Again, if you cannot afford me don’t sit in my chair.

  12. Paul
    Posted July 27, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I know that this is an old article, but I’ve gone to lots of these ‘Asian-owned’ places for back waxing and the occasional pedicure and have never been offered anything more than that. I tend to go to the Vietnamese or Chinese owned salons not because they perform sexual services, but because they are up to 75% cheaper than white owned salons and do just as good of a job.

    I go to them because they are BETTER overall. Their competitors need to deal with it, stop with the ridiculous labeling, and think twice about their business model because asking for $120 plus tips for a back wax that might take 15-20 minutes at the most is not going to work for me.

    What a fear-mongering, racist pile of drivel this is. I hope your post 2012 work is better.

  13. Posted February 9, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    $50 a day is a lot…look at American owned restaurants and delivery services like pizza…they for the drivers to use their own vehicles and pay them $2.00 an hour plus tips….the means an 8 hour day the company only pays $16.

  14. Posted January 11, 2018 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately people are arranged so that they want inexpensive services and do not think about quality.

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