Twelve questions: Leah Light

Leah Light is New Zealand's best known nail stylist and has created nail fashions for visiting celebrities including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Eva Longoria. She left school aged 14.
Leah Light says having stylish nails is about taking time for yourself. Photo / Dean Purcell
Leah Light says having stylish nails is about taking time for yourself. Photo / Dean Purcell

1.How did you get the "celebrity" in your Celebrity Nail Stylist title?

By accident really. Katy Perry was the catalyst for everything. I'd been in the industry for 20 years but was just doing my own little thing, working in my garage. (Singer) Zowie was one of my clients and she was asked to open for the Australasian leg of Katy Perry's tour. The first night of the Aussie shows I got an email at 3am saying that Katy and all the girls loved Zowie's nails and were keen for me to do theirs too. When she came to New Zealand I did her back-up dancers and singers and then Katy's. We were backstage and my 9-year-old daughter, Hannah, was my assistant. I tweeted about it and then it all went a bit ballistic. I didn't understand the magnitude of it.

2.Lots of people will think nail art is all a bit shallow and unnecessary. Is it?

People take the importance of nails for granted. I know it comes across as completely irrelevant when you compare it to world famine or the Middle East but this stuff makes all the difference to lots of people.

It's about taking the time for yourself. It's about self-love really. It changes the way you use your hands when you speak, it catches your eye when your hands are on the steering wheel. It changes how you feel about yourself. It's a confidence thing.

3.Where did you grow up?

We were Easties - Howick - though whenever anyone says to me "didn't I go to school with you" I don't want them to remember me. I never fitted in at school. Never had many friends. I tried so hard to fit in that it worked against me. It was horrible. I didn't fit the school mould. I was terrible at maths and couldn't sit in a classroom and learn. In my mind it was easier to rebel and be the naughty girl than be the stupid or dumb girl. It was really lonely. I was smoking when I was 11 because I was so desperate to be cool. A teacher told me that I'd be dead or pregnant by the time I was 16. That was really great feedback.

4. So they let you leave?

I wasn't supposed to because I was 14 but the school said they would write a letter saying I was mentally unfit to be at school so I could leave. I can remember one teacher at intermediate who was nice to me and could see through the facade but that was about it. I know now that I learn with my hands. Show me something once and I'll get it straight away by doing it. That's why I love my industry.

5. Who gave you your first job?

My grandfather. I worship him. His name's Bernard Barbalet and he's hairdressed all over the world, had salons on Hollywood Boulevard and everything. He's 85 now but can still talk a perfect haircut! My mum and uncles are both hairdressers too. I've grown up with it really. I had my first perm at 8. My grandfather had a salon in Howick called Hair Time and gave me an apprenticeship though I was pretty much working on the floor from the start.

6. Why did you move into nails?

Dermatitis. I'd get really bad skin and have to have cortisone injections into my hands from having them in water all the time. I was a nail-biter so would always stick nails on my hands and my grandfather said, "Why don't you retrain in that?" And so I did and saw clients in his salon before I started educating other nail stylists.

7. What do you think when you see bitten nails?

I think that's what my nails used to look like. I bit them for 15 years when I was a nail stylist. I totally think it comes down to nerves and nervous energy. It's anxiety. If you are completely calm you don't feel the need to pick or bite. But you can fix them. You just need nail rehab, going to see a really good stylist weekly for the first four or five weeks, then fortnightly, then monthly.

8. Are you an anxious person?

Oh yeah. I suffer from anxiety and depression and stuff. I think it's part of our family history and being a creative person, you're up, up, up or down. I don't take medication now but I have in the past. My husband, Geoff, is the one who picks me up really, or tells me to pull my head in. We've been together for 20 years. People ask me if my name is made up, but it's real - he's the Light to my Leah. He built me my own salon at our house, which is where I was working before the Katy Perry job.

9. Did she pay you with a big tip?

No, just my normal hourly rate. I was really green when I did her nails and I've always hated asking for money. But I know a bit more about celebrity stuff now so I think it would be a really different experience.

10. What did your parents teach you?

That I can do whatever I put my mind to, and that nothing can get in my way other than me. Also my mother taught me love and compassion. I get my massive and easily broken heart from her.

11. Who, in your opinion, is New Zealand's most stylish woman?

That is such a hard question because I'm like the most unstylish person. I just wear black all the time and if I've got a big event on or something, and no time, then Geoff will go out and buy me an entire outfit from head to toe and it will be perfect. I've got a friend who is a stylist and she tells me I shouldn't be allowed to get dressed on my own.

12. What do women talk about when they're having their nails done?

Generally women talk about the thing they know the best ... themselves. This is why being a nail stylist is on par with being a psychologist, or a priest. Clients can get down and dirty with their personal lives and they know their secrets stay secret.

- NZ Herald

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