Frisky Q&A: Essie Nail Polish Guru Essie Weingarten Talks ’80s Trends, Nail-Biting & Streaking

You have to be living under a rock to have never seen an Essie nail polish: they’re a staple of modern woman-dom, a nail paint that you can find in nearly every pharmacy and even J.Crew!. But did you know that there’s a real Essie behind the global brand?

Essie Weingarten is the founder and president of Essie Cosmetics, which she started back in 1981 while she worked at the famous department store, Henri Bendel. Weingarten debuted just 12 polishes in Las Vegas and they became an instant hit. Throughout the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, she grew her brand up to 900 polishes, even gaining the Queen of England as a fan. (In fact, Kate Middleton wore Essie polish on her wedding day!)  In 2010, she sold the company to L’Oreal and still reigns supreme as global creative director.

Weingarten’s newest project is joining AOL as a beauty expert where she’ll dole out advice on polish and nail care. Fans can submit any and all questionse via Twitter starting in May using the hashtag #AskEssie and tweet @AOL + @essie. I had the chance to call up Essie Weingarten and ask her some questions of my own (and was very glad to be on the other side of the phone where she couldn’t see my nails were bare and bitten — oops).

I knew that “Essie” behind the brand Essie was a real person, but I didn’t know that you started the line back in the 1980s. What was the market like back in the early ’80s for nail polish? How was it different from today?

It was 180 degrees different. In 1981 when I started, basically, there really weren’t any nail salons. If you went for a manicure, usually you were very affluent and you had your nails done in the beauty parlor. If you ask your grandmother or your mom, she’ll probably tell you that you sat under a helmet with rollers and clips and a hair net, and there would usually be one woman that would be the manicurist that would do your nails if you wanted them done. So it was a completely different environment. Now, it’s the affordable luxury. It makes everyone’s outfit finished to a T … We’ve come a long way.

You just started with 12 polish colors. Now Essie has over 900 colors. Were you ever aiming to be this huge?  

There was a niche that no one was paying attention to. When I started in ’81,our target market then were beauty salons only, and the only brands that were there were pretty limited. There was Revlon and L’Oréal, and basically those companies were busy doing eyes and lips and foundations and they were not paying attention to nails. I loved getting my nails done as a little girl. That was the ultimate treat. My mother would hold over my head that if I was a good girl, on Saturday I could go to the beauty parlor and have my nails done when she would be going to have her hair and nails done. So I tried to be good — even though I was a little bad girl —  so I could go have my nails done. And the colors that were in the beauty salon were quite boring in my humble opinion, and I really thought that there was a niche that no one was paying attention to.

That’s why I started with 12 colors, this incredible formula, because I went all over looking for a chemist that would listen to me. When I finally found the right one, he gave me a long-wearing, chip-resistant formula that looked like it was wet for at least a week to 10 days. Then I started giving him ribbons and fabrics and things I collected of colors that I loved, and I felt if I gave the colors a name, they’d become a woman’s best friend. So that’s where I saw the brand. Did I know it was going to be in 140 countries? No. But I knew that once you hook one woman, she’s going to talk about it. I always said it’s just a grassroots kind of thing because if you enjoy something, you’re going to tell your best friend about it and she’s going to tell another 10 people about it and that’s how it mushroomed. Originally there was no advertising, all I did were some trade shows, and people would wait. Salon owners would come back a year later with a list of everything they wanted because they didn’t know how to get in touch with me. It was really a beautiful story and that’s why I always say, “if I could do it in 1981, anyone can do it today.” With everything that’s available to them on the internet, it’s so easy. But you just have to have a good idea. You have to stay the course and be passionate about it.

What’s your take on popularity of nail art in the past couple of years?

Well, nail art was really big in about 1984 or 1985, so I always say history repeats itself. Of course it gets more sophisticated and better, but we have seen the most incredible nail art the last 20 years coming out of Japan. Because these women would express themselves on their nails, but I mean ornate, amazing. You could look at this nail art for hours and enjoy each individual finger which was so well-done. And then of course when it started to trickle down to the U.S., we have a lot of fun with it from color-blocking to polka dots to, you know, you can do anything! Of course there’s the whole big glitter and Luxe Effects and things of that nature, but what I see now is a full-circle again, coming back to a classic, beautiful manicure. .. Right now I see a big evolution back to classic manicures — great, beautiful feminine colors. And it’s very important to have the right shaped nail for your own hand.

Uh oh. How do I know what’s the right shape of nails for my hand?

You’re going to have to watch one of the videos on AOL! [laughs] You look at your own cuticles, and if you have a cuticle shape that’s oval then you would do an oval nail. If it’s squoval, you do squoval. You just mimic whatever God gave you, and that will give you the most feminine-looking hand.

I have some other questions from people on The Frisky’s staff. There’s a variety of nail issues that we all have! Somebody asked, “What’s a good color for large fingers?”

When you have large fingers, what you want to do is minimize, unless they’re really gorgeous. So you just wear a very sheer-looking color so it doesn’t bring attention to it. But if they’re really beautiful, then you can wear any color. Meaning, if you have large hands and large nails, there’s nothing wrong with it. but is she looking at her hands and saying her nails are much larger than the average and her hands are not?

Well, the phrase she used was “fat fingers.”  I don’t like the word fat, so I said “large fingers.”

Okay, well, you would go with the sheer kind of colors so you don’t bring any attention to your little chubby digits.

What’s a good color for somebody who bites or picks their nails? (That would be me.) 

Well, we’re going to try to get everyone to stop biting their nails, because think about all the germs that are under those nails that they’re putting in their mouth! Oh, how gross! So if they bite their nails, it’s really an issue, so we have to get them to stop biting. And it’s a terrible habit, but if you really get them to think “nails first” and every time they go to bite their nails, tell them to get a cuticle pen and use the cuticle pen instead of biting. [With a cuticle pen] they’re doing something and keeping themselves busy for that second when they want to bite, because if they bite their nails, no nail polish is going to go on it. We wouldn’t want them to put polish on their nails if they’re going to be biting. We have to get them to stop!

It’s hard! People have nervous tics!

Absolutely, that’s why they need the cuticle pen! Get a cuticle pen, every time they want to bite, they take the pen out and they massage it into their cuticles and they rub it with their other hand it keeps that oral fixation busy with their hands and the pen.

Well, okay. Somebody else wants to know, how can we stop polish streaking?

You should always use a base coat so you even out any of the imperfections on your own natural nail. When you use a very light shade, on the first coat, you will get streaking, but as soon as you apply the second coat, it fills it in. You always use less polish on the brush than you think you need. And there are a lot of colors that are translucent that really are meant to be translucent. And I hear all the time, “oh, I’m trying to get that color Mademoiselle to stay like it looks in the bottle.” Well, it’s not meant to be that! And then they say to me, “oh, I put on eight coats!” No, it’s a two-coat sheer polish. We have other colors that do go on cream, meaning opaque. But if you’re using a Ballet Slippers or Mademoiselle or Limousine, Allure, Vanity Fair, Sugar Daddy — those are all translucent and you’re not going to get them to [look the same as in the bottle]. It’s just a sheer tint.

So tell me about the collaboration you’re  doingwith AOL.

I’ll be the beauty expert and I’m very excited about it. When women all over the world meet me, they ask me a gazillion questions. And the questions can come from an issue that they have and they want me to advise them on — the right color or the length of their nails, or what they should wear to a teacher conference for their children — and the questions are non-stop. And they’re really valid, and they make a lot of sense and they’re important to the person that’s asking it. If I can give them the right answer, it’s a win-win.  … For sure it’s going to be weekly, but every now and then they could be another little tip that I’m offering.

[AOL: Essie Weingarten]

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[Image via Keith Morrison at StyleList]