She counts superstars Taylor Swift and Katy Perry as clients, and is heading to London as one of the judges for the world’s most prestigious nail art competition. But the amazing career of celebrity nail stylist Leah Light almost never happened.
The Auckland mum-of-two – who has a full complement of New Zealand celebrities on her books as well, including Kimberley Crossman and pop star Zowie – grew up wanting to be a hairdresser like her grandfather. But after developing dermatitis on her fingers from constantly having her hands in water, she needed a new direction.
“At the time, my dreams were crushed,” Leah remembers.
“My grandad is my idol and I was mortified I couldn’t follow in his footsteps. But little did I know it was the beginning of an incredible passion that has now turned into a wonderful job.”
Eighteen years later, the 36-year-old flies all over the world for her famous clients. Her first big break was Katy Perry, who saw the work Leah did for Zowie when the Kiwi singer was the opening act during her 2011 New Zealand tour. The star was so impressed, she also used Leah. Today, chatting with Katy or gossiping with Taylor Swift about men has become a part of everyday life, but Leah says the excitement of meeting her idols only hits her afterwards.
“With every one of those women, I’ll just get on and do their nails,” she says.
“I don’t get starstruck in the slightest, which is a good thing. But when I’m standing backstage after they’ve gone on, I’ll think, ‘Oh my God, what I did was not normal!’”
Although her autograph book is filling up thick and fast, the highlight of her career so far was receiving the call to judge at this year’s Nailympics in London – one of the biggest nail art competitions in the industry.
“I was completely blown away,” Leah says, with a smile.
“People fly from all over the world to compete in this. There are heaps of different categories and types of nail art involved – even fantasy. It’s crazy… people make buildings and figures out of the acrylic.”
Leah takes off for the UK in September, but has to return home earlier than planned, after a request from one of the most successful singers on the planet.
“Rihanna is coming for her tour, so I’ve got to be back to do her nails,” says Leah.
“I was asked the last time she was here, but it was my daughter Hannah’s 10th birthday. I knew Rihanna would come back though – and you only turn 10 once!”
Leah is quick to add she couldn’t do any of it without the support of her husband, Geoff, and son Taylor (13) and daughter Hannah (now 11).
“I’m about to open a new studio in West Auckland, and Hannah’s decided she wants to be the receptionist,” Leah says, laughing.
“I tried to let her down easy, but she’s convinced she’d be really good. My family, they’re incredible. Geoff’s really proud – he’s my biggest supporter. And I’m just like any other embarrassing mum to the kids.”
Leah’s work is internationally recognised by some of the best – she had a weekly video feature on US blogger Perez Hilton’s health and beauty website, CocoPerez, and designed nail art and products for big companies such as Manicare. But despite her success, Leah still struggles to see herself as one of the cream of the crop.
“I’m really critical of myself,” she says.
“I look at myself and think, ‘You’re terrible, you’re crap. You could have done that nail so much better.’ I am always looking for perfection and it terrifies me.“But the second you think you’re at the top of your game, you should quit. To be the best, you can’t think you’re the best.”
Leah relies on her 18,000 Instagram followers and nearly 10,000 Facebook fans to keep her going, and is inundated with messages from people around the world daily.
“Social media has been instrumental for me. When you work by yourself, and for yourself, you don’t get any praise, so all the comments and ‘Likes’ are amazing – they give me gratification. It helps to remind me I need to get over myself sometimes.”
Although she still has to stop and pinch herself, Leah hasn’t changed since becoming a celebrity go-to for great nails – for better, or for worse.
“I treat everyone the exact same way,” she says.“We’ll chat about the same things, they’ll get the same treatment – I don’t care if they’re selling a million CDs a day, or sweeping the streets.
“And I’m still the same – I’m the mum-of-two with the foul mouth, but I’m just incredibly lucky. “And if there are other women out there who have had to give up on a dream, remember: don’t let it be the end. Never give up chasing what you really want.”
Kelly Bertrand, Photos: michelle hyslop • hair & make-up: natalie clements • stylist: tamzyn Elliot • Leah’s aleida top and jacket from louche, jeans from just jeans, shoes from mi piaci, jewellery from zoe & morgan