Talking to… Jenny Longworth |

7 mins

Talking to… Jenny Longworth

The editorial tech behind some of the decade’s most iconic nail looks tells Kezia Parkins about painting her way to the cover of the world’s biggest fashion magazines and catwalk shows

Harry Styles, Madonna and Rihanna; Gucci, Dior and Chanel – these are just a handful of famous names and fashion houses that session nail tech Jenny Longworth has worked with in her two-decade nail career.

Longworth became nail obsessed at 17 while studying performing arts in Birmingham where she grew up. Nail extensions were just becoming a thing and nail bars offering them had started to pop up in her home town. As a nail biter, Longworth was intrigued. “There was a salon inviting people to try one nail for free,” she recalls. “I asked the technician how long they would last and he said two weeks. I thought he was lying to me. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to change my life’, and from that moment on, I was hooked.”

Longworth was working part-time in her mum’s clothes shop but wasn’t loving it. “Standing up all day on a Saturday wasn’t for me. But watching the nail tech work, I thought, ‘I can do this. You get to be creative and you get to sit down,” she laughs. Unsure of the next steps to take for her future – she wanted to continue with performing arts but also had a passion for fashion – Longworth did a night course in nails and started working in a salon while she figured it out.

Behind the scenes at a British Vogue shoot

Stars align

Longworth remembers flicking through the pages of a copy of Professional Beauty magazine that the salon had on display and being inspired by stories of session nail pioneers of the moment like Marian Newman, Sophy Robson and Leighton Denny. That perhaps makes this interview a full-circle moment for somebody whose work has since graced the hands of A-listers on the covers of the biggest fashion magazines, inspiring a whole new generation of nail techs.

Landing a spot at London College of Fashion, Longworth gained knowledge of the world’s best designers, photographers and makeup artists and went on to do specialist makeup design. She started assisting other MUAs on projects and test shoots and there would hardly ever be a nail tech on set.

“At that point, it was really an emerging job role – you could pretty much count on one hand how many session nail techs there were,” she says. More often than not, the MUA would be asked to slap on a coat of polish and that would be it.

“I really loved makeup but I loved nails too, so I thought I could combine them and do both. Most MUAs I assisted on set hated doing nails so they loved it when I told them I could do it,” she adds.

One of the test shoots Longworth was on ended up being published in i-D magazine and it was on this shoot that she met a stylist who was also at the start of her career, showing the importance of making connections and building relationships in this line of work. “She’s huge now but she really helped me out a lot. My phone started ringing off the hook with people asking me to come and do nails on their shoots,” says Longworth. “The stars sort of aligned. I was a qualified nail tech and I had studied fashion. Plus, I was making contacts and I had a real niche.”

With Harry Styles
Longworth’s smiley face nails for Styles for The Guardian Weekend

Respect the tech

While being a session tech is no longer a niche, with many talented nail artists going into the trade or aspiring to, still the nail artist is often an afterthought when it comes to creating outstanding editorial – despite the value they add – meaning getting good rates can be tough. “That’s especially true if you don’t have a good agent to fight your battles,” says Longworth. “It is changing but we are still at the bottom of the totem pole and nails are still an afterthought so when I go out to work I feel like I have to be a bit of an advocate for industry, to make a point about being treated the same as everyone else because what we do isn’t worth any less.

“Sometimes, the nails aren’t as important on a shoot, but sometimes they really are, like on a perfume campaign where all you see is the hands – then, the nails are the thing that’s at the forefront.”

Runway ready! BTS at a Chanel fashion show

Longworth’s iconic editorial shot of Harry Styles covering his face with his hands, adorned with smiley face nails, springs to mind. And as a regular nail tech of his, there’s no denying Longworth is in part responsible for the rise in men’s nail art trends and even their interest in nails.

Even with pioneers like Longworth paving the way for the session techs of the future, obstacles like the lack of importance placed on nails and the expectation to often work for free to get credits to build a portfolio persist. “I feel like I’m fighting to get the day rate up and make us on a par with hair and makeup,” she says, “but then there are always people who will work for peanuts.

“Everyone in the industry starts out doing editorial for free and will still do stuff for free when they are really big – but maybe it’s time for that to change. Doing editorial is supposedly how you showcase your work so when you do it for free and then they put gloves on the model that can be annoying – at least get me a shot!”, she says.

“If you don’t have an agent, it can be hard to find the confidence to ask for more money but everybody has to start somewhere, and at the same time you can’t demand a certain price if you haven’t got that reputation.”

Getting in the magazines

“A good agent should ask you what you want to do… what’s your wishlist?”, adds Longworth, who is signed to Streeters, the same agency as industry veteran Marian Newman. “Write down your goals. If that is to do a cover, for example, the right agent will help you work towards that and have the contacts to get you there.”

Not every session nail tech has or wants an agent and it’s not a necessity, especially at the start of your career, Longworth explains. The best way to get into editorial at first, she says, is assisting, to observe and learn from those already seasoned on set. “When you assist somebody, and then later they can’t do a job, they will often pass it on to someone who has assisted them. I pass on jobs to my team all the time. That’s a really good way to get into it – get on a team,” she advises. “You can also reach out to agencies and ask if they any of their artists need assistance – you never know!”

Another tip Longworth has is to familiarise yourself with editorials in magazines and cult works of visual art – for this you don’t have to go to fashion school but for her she says it helped. “Know your references. Look at art and watch old films so when someone on set references something you will have that knowledge at hand,” she explains.

Rihanna and Jenny Longworth choosing nail sets
Rihanna at Fenty x Puma, wearing Glossify, shot by Rosanna Elettra

Cover girl

Growing up, Longworth would pore over British Vogue, so getting her nails on its cover was her top goal early on in her career, and one she has now achieved multiple times. “I still get the worst imposter syndrome and pinch myself sometimes,” she says. When it comes to celebrity, though, she is largely unbothered, which is probably an asset as you don’t want to have a shaky hand when painting the nails of Mary J Blige.

“I don’t really get starstruck, even with someone as amazing as Rihanna – we have been working together for years and we’ve built a great relationship,” she says.

Keeping her composure in the most otherworldly environments means she is able to collaborate with megastars and respected artists to create incredible looks. “I will ask her and her stylists what she’s wearing and how her makeup will be to direct how I will do her nails,” says Longworth. “She’s Rihanna – she’s at the forefront of everything so she’s always looking for something new and asking ‘what you got for me, girl?’”

For Rihanna’s recent appearance at a Fenty x Puma event, Longworth and the beauty mogul discussed her look and settled on red, pictured here shot by photographer and Professional Beauty content marketing exec Rosanna Elettra.

“Rihanna suggested a red to lift the outfit and make it pop and I said ‘exactly’. We pulled out some references and did some swatches and it all came together. She is always involved in that conversation,” adds Longworth.

This article appears in June 20024

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June 20024
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