Eight years ago, Madam Shigeyama Ai was a housewife frustrated with her weak, brittle nails and her nail-biting habit.
Today, she is the personal nail artist to top celebrities in the South Korean entertainment world. Her A-list clientele includes singeractress Boa Kwon and members of pop groups Girls' Generation, T-ara and Sistar.
"I think it is important for women to look beautiful, right down to their nails," says the 53-year-old South Korean nail artist who moved to Tokyo to study and is now based there.
She was speaking in Korean through a translator at an interview held in Singapore.
Madam Ai's career was kick-started when she wanted more than what the nail technicians could offer her in the salons.
"Their designs were not detailed enough and I felt that their techniques could be improved on."
So she signed up for a series of courses at a nail academy in Tokyo's hip Shibuya district and opened her first salon, Bub, in 2007.
First, the models started turning up after hearing about her intricate nail art by word of mouth. Then, the celebrities started to appear at the salon.
They all want the same thing: Madam Ai's detailed watercolour-like floral designs that she paints with tiny brushes, customised with the help of a painter. She can also make tiny nail beds resemble the sleek surface of a marble slab or an iridescent mother- of-pearl shell.
The celebrities are also hooked on herover-the-top signature embellishment techniques. She is known for her skills in covering the entire nail bed in sparkly crystals and gleaming pearlescent drops that stay on for more than a month. The mother of two first gained attention in South Korea a few years ago when pop star Tiffany of Girls' Generation appeared on a talk show and the audience was asked to guess the price of her pearl-laden nail art.
"Everyone was shocked when Tiffany revealed that her nail art cost 300,000 won (S$362) after a celebrity discount," says Madam Ai with a chuckle. She charges anywhere between $120 for a manicure with simple patterns and $600 for more complicated designs.
On the type of designs the celebrities prefer on their digits, Madam Ai says it always depends on the theme of their upcoming album or concert. The nail art is the finishing touch to complete their look.
Although her celebrity clients have given her plenty of exposure - she now owns a second Bub salon in the swanky Apgujeong area in Seoul and has a month-long waiting list at both salons - Madam Ai says her celebrity customers still have to stick to by-appointment bookings.
"I do not do house calls, so they have to come to the salon like everyone else," she says. So, yes, you might spot a K-pop starlet getting her nails done in the chair next to you at the salon.
"And even if the stars call me personally for an appointment, I have to check with my salon for available slots. I treat all my customers the same."
The celebrity nail artist has trained Ms Foo Yee Sin, co-founder of local salon chain Glamourous Factory (www.facebook.com/theglamourousfactory), in her methods.
Glamourous Factory will also be offering nail art done with Madam Ai's exclusive line of Bub Ai Nail metallic gel polish range, which has a beautiful molten metal finish. The stardust and twinkle polish versions also add dimension to the nail art.
The polish is supposedly hypoallergenic, strengthens weak nails - no doubt created to fix Madam Ai's own nail problems - and lasts more than a month.
At Glamourous Factory, prices start from $100 for a metallic gel manicure.
This article was first published on July 2, 2015.
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