Nail salon owner and self-proclaimed “Queen of Bling” Jenny Bui is known for her decked-out nail designs stacked with Swarovski crystals, gems, 3-D embellishments and even chains. She developed her technique after years of doing nails and has built a mini empire in NYC. At her shops, Jenny’s Spa in the Bronx’s Fordham neighborhood and Nails on 7th in Harlem, she caters to a clientele looking for something over the top.
One of those famous clients, Bronx rapper Cardi B, has been getting her nails done by Bui since 2013. Cardi’s nail-art statement at the 2018 Grammy Awards, where she sported long, stiletto, Swarovski-accented nails—courtesy of Bui—helped bring bling back into the mainstream. It marked the height of a trend whose aesthetic traces back to the ’90s hip-hop world and Japanese nail techniques, known for their vivid, bright colors accentuated by crazy, “kawaii” (basically, cute) embellishments.
Bui went to cosmetology school for hair but decided that nails were more her thing after watching a friend do salon manicures. She then went on to work for her sister-in-law; after reading a Japanese nail magazine that showcased blinged-out nails, she tried it out on her clients. She started on one or two fingers and eventually moved on to embellishing an entire set. Now an appointment with the self-taught manicurist can run up to $300 for one set of acrylic nails. The money goes a long way, though: Bui’s nails are meant to last up to four weeks (a normal manicure typically lasts up to a week; gel and acrylic two weeks), thanks in part to Jenny Secret, a polish formula that heavily adheres gems and crystals to nails.
During our visit to her second-floor Bronx space, Bui was sporting a mix of 3-D stones in circle and square shapes and Swarovski crystals (plus an image of the Little Mermaid on her ring finger). She specializes in creating long, multidimensional nails in stiletto, almond and coffin shapes. She then layers them with Swarovski crystals, chains and 3-D appliques that can take up to three hours to create and 30 minutes to soak off. Cardi’s signature nails are 4.5 inches long.
In New York, Bui says, nail culture is serious. “People here are very picky about their nails, and they like them to be perfect. A lot of people in NYC stay on top of nail trends like colored acrylic and bling. They also like to try a lot of different styles.”
By the end of our time with her, we were well-versed in all things nail art—even trying on a pair of nails Bui uses as a display for her clients.
Her American Dream
Cardi B is just one of Bui’s many celebrity clients, but life wasn’t always Swarovski diamonds and crystals for the salon owner. She fled the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s when she was just 8 years old, spending time in refugee camps and sheltering in the mountains between Thailand and Cambodia, where she and her family evaded land mines, disease and hunger. “My childhood was very tough,” she says. “But it made me stronger. It made me a hard worker and gave me the strength to chase after a better life in America. Now I’m still trying to reach my American dream.”
At 14, her older brother (who was already in Canada) sponsored her, and she moved to Montreal. She lived there until she got married and moved with her husband to the Bronx at age 22, eventually opening her first store in the borough—a quintessential New York story.
All in the Family
When we visited Bui in her salon she was getting her makeup done by Francis Star, who has also done makeup for Cardi B (ties run deep in the Bui clan). Bui, her daughter Branda and her goddaughter Jessica each donned their own set of blinged-out nails and helped Jenny with clients. By all appearances, the Queen of Bling will reign for many years to come.