Over the past two decades, Coca Michelle has painted the nails of hundreds of people. These days, however, she is focused on beautifying the claws of just a handful of A-list clients.
Michelle is a nail artist and “visual poet,” as she calls herself on social media, who first got her start in the beauty industry at the age of six. Her parents kept a small nail salon in East London where Michelle would spend after-school hours.
More from WWD
“I would go and talk to the clients, and then I got really comfortable,” she told Beauty Inc. “I started noticing how artistic nail art was. I saw something really beautiful about the process, instead of just looking at the finished outcome.”
By nine years old, Michelle was airbrushing patrons’ nails in true 1990s style: “French tips with the glitter line.”
“My parents would let me work on clients, and I would freestyle for them,” Michelle said. “The clients always liked my designs better.”
A natural-born artist, Michelle began painting around the same time as she first started doing nails. While her peers may have been learning to color inside the lines, Michelle was perfecting lines of her own, though ones she would draw on the nails of paying customers.
These days, her clientele includes Megan Thee Stallion, Summer Walker, Jhené Aiko and Christina Aguilera. Michelle picks up others here and there, but keeps her schedule fairly open since she started freelancing.
For inspiration, Michelle draws from her famous clients — what they’re wearing, their aesthetic — prior to painting their nails. Her designs are simultaneously inventive and nostalgic, fusing modern-day trends with her signature 1990s style of extra-long acrylic extensions.
For Sami Miro, the vintage-curator-turned-entrepreneur, Michelle once cut denim fabric and applied to it extensions along with gold knick-knacks. In an homage to Vivienne Westwood’s fashion, Michelle painted the designer’s iconic orbit logo on clear extensions, complete with pearls and metal embellishments.
“At the time I started, there was no social media, so you couldn’t compare [yourself to] what everybody else was doing,” Michelle said. “At that time, people were just getting nails done based on their outfit or their personality, which is what I do today. I don’t go online too much for inspiration. I like getting to know my client and her personality and seeing what she’s wearing.”
The intimate nature of painting intricate art, which can take hours, on nails leads to relationship building. Michelle describes the whole process as “sharing special energy” with a client.
“Nail art has evolved so much,” she said. “If you go back to print or icons that were fans of nail art, you can see how something so minute can create such a special moment. It’s an accessory you wear. With makeup, you wash it off at the end of the day, but your nails last for a couple of weeks. It’s a whole process. When you’re seeing how it’s all created, it makes you have a different level of respect for the craft.”
In the world of nail art, salons often serve as a place for aspiring nail artists to hone their artistry. They learn how to best cure acrylic and gel polishes, how to draw clean lines and how to apply embellishments, such as nail piercings, among other things, under the guidance of a salon owner. Then, when they’ve amassed a loyal following of their own — or, in Michelle’s case, famous clients with demanding schedules — technicians will inevitably go freelance, affording themselves the freedom to create their own schedules or perhaps start salons of their own.
Michelle credits Laqué Nail Bar in Los Angeles with helping her sharpen her painting skills.
“The clients [at Laqué Nail Bar] had a higher standard of expectations,” Michelle said. “They helped me perfect every minute detail.”
She joined the salon when she was 18. Now 24, she has since started freelancing.
In 2018, Teyana Taylor, who was Michelle’s first celebrity client, tapped her to open a nail salon called Junie Bee Nails in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Michelle left the business before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., which forced Junie Bee Nails to permanently close.
Michelle took off from work the first three months of the pandemic “just to be safe,” she said. She works with hard gel, though acrylic is her go-to. She uses Valentino products and Lacqué’s in-house line of gel polishes for her designs.
“This year, I actually spent a little bit of time working on a project that’s not nail-related, but still has something to do with my brand, Visual Poet, and my heritage,” Michelle said. “Visual Poet is an umbrella term I created because when people would ask me, ‘What do you do?’, I felt that question was so invasive and daunting. With my work, I try to create a product that looks good but also has a meaning behind it. I created that brand in order to summarize all of that.”
MORE FROM WWD BEAUTY: