Today, the first-ever The Essie’s Nail Art Awards has crowned its winner: Harli Hall. Over the past six months, nail artists have put brush to fingertip, submitting their designs to the Essie brand as well as finding their artwork judged by fans from near and far. They’ve jumped through creative hoops—four phases in total, ranging from Blank Canvas to Spring Trend challenges—all in the hopes of winning the grand prize: a $20,000 partnership with Essie, a Nail Art Ambassadorship and a mentorship with Essie Celebrity Manicurist Michelle Saunders backstage at New York Fashion Week.
With each challenge, the playing feel narrowed until the last phase where the final three—Rikki Dohmann, Harli Hall and Hannah Lee—found themselves on a plane headed for New York City to tape a video tutorial to be judged by a panel of experts that includes fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff and YouTube phenom Jenny Fox. When selecting the winner, “it’s important for us to find nail artists that embody the brand with their nail art—chic and simple yet modern and elegant,” says Montse Cortina, Essie Director of Marketing.
Dohmann, Hall and Lee all come from different nail art backgrounds, but they have the same goal: to spread nail artistry far and wide. And that’s what The Essie’s seeks to deliver to each of them. “We hope the three finalists feel proud of this huge accomplishment and use this opportunity to advance their goals as nail artists,” says Cortina. “Whether they want to be a salon owner or an editorial nail artist, we hope their experience with The Essie’s will help get them one step further toward achieving their dream.”
Nail It! visited the top three finalists on the set of their Phase 4 video shoot at YouTube Studios in NYC and asked them to bare all—their love of nail art, their dreams and their fave Essie color, of course! —Karie L. Frost
The Winner: Harli Hall, @nailsbyharlig
NI: Tell us what you do: Are you a nail artist or is this a passion project on the side?
It started out as a hobby in junior high and it kept growing. And, now I’m in [nail] school! I should be graduating in June.
NI: So what’s your hope upon graduating? Do you want to work in a salon or freelance?
I want to open up my own salon—ideally! That would be five years down the line, of course! My husband is already on board.
NI: It’s important to have that support. When you found out about The Essie’s, what was your first thought?
I found out about The Essie’s the day before the deadline for submissions. I was painting my nails and I saw on Instagram that the last day to submit was here, and I just decided to film the videos and upload them because I was already doing it anyway.
NI: What design did you choose to do for that video?
My design was a pattern—sort of like snakeskin with pops of color here and there.
NI: Why did you go with that design [for the Phase 1: Qualifying Challenge]?
I just thought it up. I wanted to try it.
NI: Do you find that that is your process when coming up with designs? Or are you inspired by anything in particular?
I am inspired by a lot of clothing and buildings too.
NI: So you submitted your snakeskin design—then what happened? Were you on pins and needles waiting?
Well, I kind of forgot that I submitted and then I got an email, and I was like, “No way!” [The email] said “congratulations” at the top. I immediately started crying because I forgot I entered! It’s awesome!
NI: What a great surprise! So from there, what was your process? Did you start thinking about your designs?
They sent us the Essie spring collection to do a spring design with it. For the last two rounds [Spring Trend Challenge and Dream Getaway Challenge], I ended up doing 10 different designs, practiced each one on fake nails, and then I just painted my favorite one. So it was kind of a time-consuming process.
NI: How many different designs did you go through before you were like, “Oh my gosh, this is the one.”
Probably 10 to 13, and even then, I wasn’t super-confident. I kept going back and forth.
NI: You were given Essie’s spring collection. Do you have a favorite color from it that you felt you kept gravitating toward for all of your designs? One that was the star?
(No hesitation.) Lounge Lover. It’s become one of my favorites of all time.
NI: So after you settled on your designs for Phases 2 and 3, what happened next?
People liked them!
NI: Did you promote them through Instagram?
I only started my Instagram a year ago, so I’m still kind of new to it.
NI: It truly is the best way to market oneself! So, as we’re talking right now, we’re on set for the final round, Phase 4: Blank Canvas Challenge, where you’re taping your look. You’ve been flown out to New York City—what has the experience been like so far?
It’s very different from where I’m from (Ogden, Utah). It’s big and crowded. But it’s been good. I got in a little late yesterday, I just relaxed yesterday. But tonight we’re going to go walk around.
NI: And how do you think you’re video shoot has gone so far?
It’s kind of nerve-wracking!
NI: Your nail design is gorgeous. What is it inspired by?
I just like painting florals a lot, but I didn’t want to do the basic, typical floral. It’s a modern take.
NI: What does this experience mean to you? What are you hoping to take away from The Essie’s?
It means a lot. Where I’m from, it’s a small town. They don’t necessarily understand nails there. It’s been a creative release for me for a long time [to do nail art], but people still hadn’t gotten it there. But now they’re finally like, “Oh, she’s in this contest; it’s actually a thing.” That’s the best.
NI: Is that your goal: To make nail art a known and respected service in your community?
Yeah, technically, ideally! At my nail school, I have people constantly coming in now to get their nails done. Even now, this experience is helping me build a clientele. People recognize the brand, and that has helped too!
NI: Now that you’ve won, what does winning The Essie’s mean to you?
The Essie’s nail competition has really pushed me to take my nail art to a new level. I never imagined competing with so many talented nail artists, let alone actually becoming Essie’s first Nail Art Ambassador. I am so excited for what this year holds and my head has been spinning since I found out! It’s going to be so rewarding to share all of the mani ideas I have with so many people!
The Finalist: Rikki Dohmann, @rikkis_nails_
NI: Tell us what you do: Do you do nails as a hobby or a profession?
It’s a passion of mine. I’m a stay-at-home mom!
NI: So how did you get into nails?
I’ve always loved painting my nails. And then I got into nail art, I guess about four years ago.
NI: Do you remember what sparked your interest in nail art?
Yes: @jennyclairefox. I saw a nail art tutorial link of hers, and it brought me to YouTube and I’ve just been hooked ever since.
NI: After you watched that first tutorial, how long did it take you to feel like you were nailing your nail art? Because people often practice, practice, practice before they share.
Hmmm… on which hand? (Laughs.) It took me a while—probably about two years before I showed anyone—or shared it on social media.
NI: So during those two years, how often were you painting your nails?
Probably weekly. But now I am every day.
NI: Every day!
Pretty much. I’ll change it daily. Unless it’s really cute nail art, I’ll leave it on a little longer because I love it.
NI: Do you possibly see yourself taking this further, becoming a professional nail artist?
Yeah! I’ve certainly thought about it!
NI: As a stay-at-home mom, do you do your kids’ nails?
NI: Do you do nail art on them?
Uh-huh! My baby girl, she comes and climbs in my lap and picks what colors she wants.
NI: That’s how you get your real detail painting practice in—on tiny little fingernails! So do you have a favorite Essie color that stood out during this process? The one that is your muse?
Topless & Barefoot! It’s a perfect nude.
NI: Tell us about the design you created for today [Phase 4: Blank Canvas Challenge].
It has a dry brush technique for the background, and the roses are kind of abstract—like pop art—but I wanted it to look fairly real.
NI: How many designs did you go through before deciding on this one?
Actually, I didn’t receive the polish to do the design, so last minute I went out to get the polishes and then, for this look, I did six or seven different variations of the same idea quickly.
NI: What are you inspired by for your designs typically?
I do find myself going toward nature.
NI: How do you use Instagram to your advantage?
My nail Instagram is just for nail pictures only. Sometimes I’ll post quick tutorials for Instagram.
NI: How did you find out about The Essie’s?
NI: Well, there you go!
I saw @essiepolish post it, and clicked off of that and immediately started thinking, “What am I going to create?”
NI: What was the first design you entered?
(Holds up hand.)
NI: This is the one that you’re wearing right now? You stuck with your original throughout?
It was similar. It was roses, too, and I used Essie Topless & Barefoot in that one. I kind of related [the two designs]. It got me to the top 10! For the next two phases, [those designs] were also floral, but I worked with different patterns in the background and various colors.
NI: Now that you’ve flown out to New York City to tape the final challenge, how has the experience been so far?
Incredible. It’s beautiful here.
NI: How has taping been?
I’m comfortable being behind the camera. In my tutorials, I generally just film my nails. So that part—very comfortable. Being in front of the camera…that’s new to me.
NI: We totally get that! What does it mean for you to have advanced to the Final Three in The Essie’s?
This means the world. Actually, it’s all I’ve thought about since I entered. It would mean so much to me to be able to share my artwork with others, using the Essie collections, and inspire people who may want to get into nail art as well—like me being inspired by @jennyclairefox.
The Finalist: Hannah Lee, @hannahroxit
NI: Tell us about your background; when did you get into nail art?
I started about five or six years ago. I decided to enroll in nail tech school. I just love doing nails in general; it’s one of my passions. Halfway though [school], our teacher showed us this technique to paint flowers and I just thought it was really, really cool, so I started expanding from there and experimenting with my own tutorials. (Ed’s note: She posted her first video in November 2010.)
NI: What sparked your interest in nails?
Ever since I was little, I would go into my mom’s bathroom and be grabbing the nail polish and wanting to paint my nails. It’s just something that you hear little girls do with makeup, but I did it with nails.
NI: When you’re creating nail art, what are you mostly inspired by?
Definitely fashion. I love to look at designers’ work and be inspired by their prints. But also nature, too—it has so many inspirations: the ocean, flowers, plants.
NI: Do you have any favorite fashion designers?
I love Jeremy Scott for his crazy prints. And Rag & Bone has some cool prints that I love that I can see on nails.
NI: It’s cool to look at the runway and you can see how a piece of clothing could translate to nails. It’s interesting that you can give one look to five different nail artists and they’d all interpret it differently.
NI: Before we move on, we have to ask: What’s your favorite Essie color?
How can I decide? That’s so hard! I’ve always gravitated toward Perennial Chic. It looks really good on my skin tone; it’s the perfect nude for me. It’s super chic and classy and goes with everything!
NI: How did you hear about The Essie’s?
I follow @essiepolish on Instagram, of course! I didn’t see it immediately, so when I discovered it I was like, “OK, this is a really good opportunity and Essie is my favorite brand so that would be a big deal for me [if I were to win].”
NI: For your entry design [Phase 1], how many different designs did you cycle through before you submitted?
Interestingly, I have a YouTube channel (@hannahroxnails), so I already have a bunch of designs that I’ve done, so I submitted all of those in a two-minute video! I really wanted to qualify! This is too amazing to pass up! What was chosen as the submission for the top 10 that was put up was a color block, braided fishnet design.
NI: So you have YouTube as a tool: How are you using social media to your advantage?
I just passed 220,000 subscribers on YouTube …
NI: That’s amazing!
Yeah; Instagram really took off too because people start sharing your work.
NI: Yes; social media is a boon for nail artists. So do you work in a salon?
When I first graduated, my mom has a spa with massage training, and that’s kind of where I first realized I needed to get my license. So, at first I worked a little doing some clients until my YouTube really grew. And Atlanta has work for editorial and freelance, so I reached out to an agency and got signed.
NI: Since you have such a large following on YouTube and Instagram, do you feel pressure to come up with designs daily or weekly?
I like to post at least once a week. I give myself time because I edit everything, I take photos, I put the music in [the videos]. Just to keep everyone interested. I just love creating [the tutorials]. It takes a while, the whole process. I don’t feel too much pressure because I love doing it. It doesn’t really feel like work, you know?
NI: That’s refreshing to hear! Tell us about your Phase 4 design entry, which you’re wearing now. You have a geometric ombre design. Would you call this your calling card—the type of design you’re known for?
Yeah. I wanted to mesh two trends together—the ombre with geometric. I love doing designs that are simple to execute but really cool-looking. It’s not too intricate; people can still do it, but it looks complicated.
NI: What does making it to the final three of The Essie’s mean to you?
It means so much. Being recognized for what you do is a big deal. I take a lot of pride in my work and I have such a passion for it. It’s amazing to be recognized by Essie and to make it to the top three for something I love.