Meet Bernadette Thompson, the Living Legend Behind the World's Most Culture-Shifting Nail Art

By Isoul Hussein Harris | November 15, 2021

Mansa Musa Nail. “The gold reminds me of Mansa Musa, African ruler of the Kingdom of Mali and at one time the richest man in the world,” says Thompson. “Our community needs generational wealth. As Beyoncé raps on [2018‘s Everything Is Love song] ‘Boss‘: ’My great-great-great-grandchildren are already rich. Photographed by Carlton Davi That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.’”Mansa Musa Nail. “The gold reminds me of Mansa Musa, African ruler of the Kingdom of Mali and at one time the richest man in the world,” says Thompson. “Our community needs generational wealth. As Beyoncé raps on [2018‘s Everything Is Love song] ‘Boss‘: ’My great-great-great-grandchildren are already rich. That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.’” Photographed by Carlton Davi

The living legend behind the world's most culture-shifting nail art, Bernadette Thompson, snatches her future with points from her past.

Watching Bernadette Thompson (bernadettethompson.com) being photographed is fun. With each click and flash, Thompson gives a more fluid and provocative tone than the previous. “Someone did not come to play today…,” exclaims celebrity photographer Michael Rowe, who then turns to me to complete the declaration. I oblige.

Crystal Clear Nail. “I recently closed a deal to open a nationwide chain of Bernadette Thompson Nail Salons that will also carry my entire line of nail polish,” the artist reveals. “I will train young women and men and provide jobs. This nail reminds me that my mission is clear and to remain on it.” Photographed by Carlton Davis
Crystal Clear Nail. “I recently closed a deal to open a nationwide chain of Bernadette Thompson Nail Salons that will also carry my entire line of nail polish,” the artist reveals. “I will train young women and men and provide jobs. This nail reminds me that my mission is clear and to remain on it.” Photographed by Carlton Davis

“She came to slay!” I proclaim— completing the phrase created and performed by the New Orleans bounce music artist Big Freedia for Beyoncé’s 2016 culture-shifting anthem “Formation.”

“This is all about the nails!” Thompson yells out loud, waving her neon green, multilength, Swarovski crystal-covered points. Thompson knows the nail game. As a celebrity nail tech, she has lived on television, commercial, film, and photography sets for over two decades. In 2001, Thompson released The Bernadette Thompson Nail Collection, making it the only Black-owned nail polish company in America.

Ur The Wiz Nail. “This design reminds me of the Emerald City scene from the [1978] film The Wiz,” says Thompson. “It’s a fierce snapshot of late ’70s NYC with hundreds of dancers, sex and fantastic colors all shot at the World Trade Center.”  Photographed by Carlton Davis
Ur The Wiz Nail. “This design reminds me of the Emerald City scene from the [1978] film The Wiz,” says Thompson. “It’s a fierce snapshot of late ’70s NYC with hundreds of dancers, sex, and fantastic colors all shot at the World Trade Center.” Photographed by Carlton Davis

The explosive popularity of modern nail art has its origins in the work Thompson started with fellow Yonkers, N.Y., native singer Mary J. Blige. “When Mary went on her first tour, she brought me with her, and then my career took off from there,” Thompson recalls as we leave Blonde Studios in Manhattan’s Nomad district. We approach her matte black Audi SUV and climb inside. As we pull off, she begins listing her celebrity clientele: Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Halle Berry, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Claire Danes, Lupita Nyong’o, Ariana Grande, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and Sex and the City stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis.

Junk Nail
Junk Nail. “My nail art was the first in history in luxury magazines. So, for inspiration, I looked to underground scenes, such as Detroit,” says Thompson. “The young ladies would throw everything on it: sparkling glitter here, colored powder there, and call it the ‘Junk Nail’” Photographed by Carlton Davis

Thompson also speaks of how she helped Lil’ Kim become a cultural provocateur from the mid-’90s to the early ’00s, including “The Money Nail” she designed for Lil’ Kim, secured by The Museum of Modern Art (moma.org) for its permanent collection. Thompson’s inclusion officially made her the first nail artist featured in the museum. “There’s no nail art in high fashion magazines before us,” Thompson says.

El Barrio Nail
El Barrio Nail. “This nail reminds me of my former Spanish Harlem salon. It was such a busy time,” she recalls. “We were so busy, we stayed open 24 hours every day. Customers would place their names on the list, go home, sleep and come back.” Photographed by Carlton Davis

After establishing herself in the editorial world, Thompson helped usher her fashion-obsessed clients in as well. Look inside Vogue’s 1998 September issue and feast your eyes on Mary J. Blige and Lil’ Kim draped in John Galliano furs and Missy Elliott in a Dennis Basso lynx coat. Thompson used her passion for nails to connect the hip-hop and high fashion worlds. “I was the first one to point where we were headed,” she says while pulling up to the Harlem restaurant where I am meeting friends. “Today, my nails are beyond our community. Google it. They are global!”

Money Nail. “I was inspired by Lil’ Kim and Biggie’s [1996] song ‘Get Money’ [featuring Junior M.A.F.I.A.],” says Thompson. “After Kim, I never did these again until the Museum of Modern Art called in 2017, wanting it for their permanent collection. I am the first nail artist [exhibited] at a major American museum.” Photographed by Carlton Davis
Money Nail. “I was inspired by Lil’ Kim and Biggie’s [1996] song ‘Get Money’ [featuring Junior M.A.F.I.A.],” says Thompson. “After Kim, I never did these again until the Museum of Modern Art called in 2017, wanting it for their permanent collection. I am the first nail artist [exhibited] at a major American museum.” Photographed by Carlton Davis

Photography by: (Images credited above)