That’s the first question everyone has for Yani Williams when they see her for the first time. She’s a strange sight, that’s for sure, but it’s what precedes her appearance as she descends the stairs in her modest north Houston apartment one sweltering day in October — the unmistakable sound of it all — that is perhaps most startling: the clacking, clicking, rattling of her...fingernails. Yeah, that’s right, her fingernails. Even the slightest movement is enough to set off her anatomical wind chimes, those 26-inch-long talons, gravity curving them downward like the branches of a weeping willow. They are thin but strong, sometimes spectacularly bedazzled with sparkly blues and purples and swirly pink paint. These nails, Williams says, are her art, her babies. They are her life.
In a city where she lives among more than two million normal-nailed people, Williams is unquestionably unique. But she and her nails are not alone in the world. She’s the unofficial leader of the Real Nail Qweenz, a group of four women scattered across the country, brought together by one thing: their extremely long nails.
They provide each other friendship and support, and they are refreshingly honest about their desire for publicity, showcasing a strong entrepreneurial spirit while trying to capitalize on their commitment to natural nail growth and their heroic avoidance of acrylic. If they do achieve their ultimate dream of receiving a reality TV show, it will be well-earned, for nails that long do not come without social media haters and perverted creeps and people who are just plain rude. The Real Nail Qweenz truly suffer for their art.
“We get the most hated, absurd comments on social networks,” Williams said during an interview at her apartment. A black chair with a salon-grade hair steamer sat in one corner, next to a table covered by hundreds and hundreds of little bottles of nail paint. The living room was engulfed in a chemical cloud of nail polish and hair spray, combining for a caustic scent that makes you feel a little dizzy and a little outside of yourself, but singes the nostrils just enough to snap you back to Earth. “People say that we’re nasty, that we’re the ugliest person in the world,” Williams said. “We are bullied. But we’re just like everybody else, except for some extra additions.”
It’s not always so hard having 26-inch fingernails. Williams’s nails have taken her around the world, earned her a place in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” and have landed her on national television. She’s the subject of sexual objectification by men who have “long-nail fetishes,” but she manages to flip that power dynamic by offering them private videos, for a fee. She has fans around the world who send her gifts, and thousands of admirers online. Her long nails require a hefty financial commitment — Williams said she spends about $400 per month on nail products (she uses Tammy Taylor, a top-of-the-line retailer aimed at professional nail technicians). And the actual process of maintaining her nails is long and arduous. It’s a labor of love, though, providing her a sense of satisfaction that could never be replicated by trimmed nails or fake extensions. “It’s that feeling you get with natural nails,” Williams said. “It’s just different.”
This is the mantra of the Real Nail Qweenz: “Dare to Be Different.” Sure, it’s borderline cliché, but it’s appropriated and owned by the Nail Qweenz in a singular way. “To be different,” of course, is a feat accomplished by their long, natural nails; the “dare” is the simple act of walking outside and existing: buying groceries at H-E-B, searching for discounts at Walmart, strolling through the park. Their exceptionally long nails save them from suffering a lifetime of searching for the answer to a question that plagues each and every one of us: What makes me unique? For these women, the answer is already at their fingertips.
“I just don’t understand when there isn’t something about you that’s all your own,” said Edith Graham, a member of the Nail Qweenz who lives in Dallas but may soon move to Houston. “That just seems like such a bleak existence.” She spoke while sitting next to Williams, the two “sisters” finishing each others’ sentences and cracking jokes as though they’d been together their entire lives. Unlike Williams’s extended appendages, the nails on Graham’s left hand are curly, like five corkscrews attached to her fingertips. “I don’t care if it’s an earring, a tattoo, a haircut,” Graham said, “whatever it is, everyone needs to have that individual thing about themselves.”
“And everybody should be able to accept people for being themselves,” Williams said.
“It’s like an instant lesson in tolerance,” Graham said. “And it makes the world a lot more interesting.”
Fingernails arose very early in primate evolution. The earliest evidence of the fingernail dates back 55 million years, to the Eocene Epoch, when our ancestors were most likely just furry, squirrel-like creatures similar to tarsier monkeys or dwarf lemurs, although anthropologists suspect nails have been around for even longer than that.
“We don’t have any fossilized nails themselves [from 55 million years ago], but we have bones that support these nails, and depending on whether they support a nail or a claw, they look very different,” Stephanie Maiolino, a lecturer at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and an expert on nails, said in a phone interview. “We think nails are derived from claws, which are more like what your cat has — biologically, it’s a similar substance, but the shape is very different. A claw is narrow, comes together at a sharp point and projects well beyond the pad of your finger. Claws are really good for climbing trees. Most animals that live in trees now, they pretty much all have claws. Some lizards have suction on their digit tips so they can adhere to large trees, but with mammals, we don’t have a lot of these adaptations. We have to rely on claws or the alternative, which is grasping. What’s interesting is that we don’t really know why the earliest primates actually had nails. The circumstances surrounding the origin of the nails is something we’re still researching.”
Humans don’t climb trees too much anymore, but the fingernail still serves a few important non-arboreal purposes. Nails help us do things like scratch an itch, groom ourselves and pick up tiny objects (we all know how hard it is to pick a dime up off the ground with freshly trimmed nails). They also help us with more technical processes. “There are special cells that allow us to tell the direction of forces placed on the fingertip,” Maiolino said. “The fingernail plays a role in this. When you grab an object, depending on how you’re grabbing it, like if you’re pushing on it in the middle of your finger or on the side, those cells are going to be triggered in different ways, and this tells the brain exactly what position your finger is in. This is really important for us, because it allows us to do things like writing, drawing, things like that.”
But nails are also susceptible to diseases and disorders. There’s onychomycosis, onychia, onychomadesis, koilonychia and paronychia, among others (the prefix onych means “the nails”). It would be unwise to conduct a Google image search for any of these afflictions, but you’ll probably do it anyway. Fingernails can become brittle and fall off, they can curve upward, turn black or brown, cut into the nail bed or curl into a yellowed ram’s horn. Some fungal infections can even turn deadly if left ignored.
The obsession with beautiful nails dates at least to the time of ancient Rome, when Ovid wrote, “You wish to have hands that shine with gems…Let her whose fingers are fat, or nails rough, mark what she says with but little gesture.” In her 2014 book Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, Suzanne E. Shapiro wrote that “gilded nails and henna-dyed fingertips” have been found on the embalmed hands of Egyptian mummies, while in Eastern civilization, beginning with the Yuan Dynasty in 13th-century China, extremely long nails were associated with nobility — if your nails had grown that long without breaking, then you probably hadn’t done much manual labor — and the rich covered their nails in precious metals and lacquers (it should be noted that Williams, who is solidly middle-class, seems to have reclaimed exceptionally long and ornate nails for the proletariat).
Western Europeans thought the long nail length of their Far East neighbors was strange and exotic. Shapiro observed that most Renaissance-era portraits showed short, clean nails “with no ragged cuticle in sight.” Still, they stole some Chinese methods for decorating and maintaining their nails, and by the late 19th century, manicure parlors started popping up all over the place, signaling the beginning of the long, enduring reign of the modern, manicured nail.
According to Shapiro, Americans spent $7.47 billion on professional nail treatments in 2012 — compared to $7 billion on engagement rings — and there are about 357,000 licensed nail techs in the United States, which is more than the population of Corpus Christi. There are nearly 50,000 records of manicurist licenses in Texas alone, though some of them are expired or inactive.
This goes without saying, but it’s far, far rarer to see extremely long nails than those that are trim and precisely manicured. The Guinness World Record-holder for the longest nails ever belongs to Shridhar Chillal, an elderly Indian man who has not cut the fingernails on his left hand since the Truman administration. As of November 2014, his fingernails measured a cumulative length of more than 358 inches. Lee Redmond, from Utah, held the women’s record for decades until 2009, when a tragic car crash ended her run at the top. Her vehicle struck another car at an intersection, and she was sent flying from her SUV, landing violently on the road. Redmond survived the wreck, but her 30-inch nails did not. The ejection snapped her life’s work clean off at the fingertips. ‘’The thing that bothered me with losing the fingernails was that it becomes your identity, and I felt like I’d lost part of that,” Redmond later told the UK’s The Telegraph. That’s the perilously high price of growing extremely long nails: They begin as a part of your body, but they become a part of your soul.
Williams said she wants to break Redmond’s record. After more than a decade of continuous growth, her fingernails now measure between 20 and 26 inches. She had been growing her nails on-and-off since she was 25 years old, but in 2004, when her nails were close to three inches long, she received a message on MySpace from Herb Lasker. According to nailpassion.com, Lasker was one of the “pioneers” of the long-nail community. Though he recently passed away, his impact on Williams was swift and long-lasting. “He knew some of the ladies that came before me who grew their nails to extreme lengths,” Williams said. “He was instrumental. He just kept encouraging me to let them grow, so I just let them grow.”
Williams was married at the time she started growing her nails, and while she has since divorced, she said her nails had nothing to do with the split and that her ex-husband actually loved her nails. She also has five kids and 15 grandkids. As she let her nails grow, she was still able to run her business, working as a loctician (which is like a hairstylist, but one who specializes in dreadlocks) and as a nail tech.
Her nails have taken her places she never would have gone with trimmed digits. She’s been featured in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! series, and has traveled to Orlando and London to help promote those books. She said she’s been featured in more than 40 publications, most of them in the United Kingdom, and was interviewed by Telemundo and TLC. Film crews have traveled from as far away as Japan and Germany to visit her in Houston.
Despite all the attention, Williams said she doesn’t consider herself a celebrity, because “a celebrity has money,” and to her family, she’s still just known as “Mama.” She’s also the unquestioned commander of the Real Nail Qweenz. Graham said she and the other three Qweenz call Williams the “Queen Bee.” Williams discovered the women mostly through social media, and the group will celebrate its third anniversary this November. The other two nail queens, Lena Cole and Nicole Chester Waters, live in Dallas and Missouri, respectively. The sisterhood was solidified mostly online, and Williams and Graham said that when the Qweenz meet in person — usually in Houston — it’s like they’ve been friends their entire lives. “It’s wonderful when you have four beautiful women who all share a passion that’s alike,” Williams said. “We’re just like real sisters.”
But nails as long as Williams’s do not come without some sacrifices. While Williams said most of her daily activities are relatively unaffected, she admittedly has trouble washing dishes, handling coins and placing a fitted sheet on her bed. Apparently, having 26-inch nails requires a team effort. Her grandchildren help out around the house, and she also has a personal assistant, Sunnie, whom Williams referred to as her “backbone.” Sunnie carries Williams’s bags, and she helps Williams put on her shoes, earrings and even her Spanx. If Williams has plans for the night, she and Sunnie have to start getting ready four, five or even six hours in advance. “I don’t want to break a nail, so we have to be very careful about that,” Williams said.
Williams said maintaining her nails is a weeklong endeavor. “First I remove nail polish if they have it on,” Williams said. “Then, sometimes the nails have cracks, so I have to repair them. I take my drill, which has a special bit on it where I can drill a groove into the acrylic overlay and not my natural nail. I just put the acrylic inside the crack, pat it down, let it dry and smooth it out. Voilà! After I make sure all the cracks are filled, I go back and buff them, and, if I feel like it, I paint them. All of this takes about five days or a week to complete.”
How many hours a day does Williams spend on her nails? “Who knows,” Williams said. “Five to eight hours? It just depends. I get so into it that I don’t think about it, and the hours just pass by. I’m a perfectionist.”
Polishing her nails is an especially tedious process. Williams said she has to let each long nail dry individually, or else they’ll get tangled and stick together. It takes about eight hours. After that, if she’s feeling inspired, Williams begins to work on her art. “I may use acrylic paint, Swarovski rhinestone crystals, some pearls, glitter,” Williams said. “My favorite is leopard print. We love a lot of bling.” It’s all about layering, sort of like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that Williams is missing out on at least a few of life’s small pleasures, particularly the ones that require a firm grip. Though Williams has plenty of potential nail-obsessed suitors, she said she’s currently single, doesn’t date and has been celibate for four years. In 2012, Williams made it onto an episode of TLC’s My Strange Addiction, which focused mostly on her long toenails (they’re nowhere near as long as her fingernails, but they’re long enough that she can only wear open-toed footwear). For the benefit of TLC’s cameras, Williams’s grandsons took her bowling. She had to tie her bowling shoes to the bottoms of her feet because her toenails were so long. Somehow, she managed to grasp the bowling ball between her winding fingernails and flung it, granny-style, down the lane.
It rolled directly into the gutter.
(Williams told the Houston Press that the TLC cameras missed her first attempt, which was, she said, a strike.)
When Graham joined the Nail Qweenz, the group encouraged her to grow her nails and gave her support from afar, helping her come out of her shell and cope with the extra eyes constantly on her. Still, she said the attention she gets because of her nails is completely different from anything she felt when she was performing onstage. Williams and Graham said they draw crowds of gawkers pretty much every time they step outside. Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store, Walmart or a restaurant for a slice of cheesecake, there’s always someone who wants to take a photo or who recognizes Williams from TV.
Most of these curious passersby are friendly, but some can be extremely rude. Things are especially rough for the Nail Qweenz on the Internet, where they have a large and active presence on social media. If someone sneakily snaps a photo of the Qweenz and posts it online alongside an unflattering comment, it always gets back to Williams and her crew. “It’s hard,” Williams said. “Sometimes you just get bombarded.” But it can be just as bad in the real world. One time, Graham was using the restroom at a nail convention in Dallas, and a woman asked if she could videotape Graham while she peed, just to see how she managed to do it (Graham, quietly seething in anger, said she politely turned down the woman’s offer).
Men with fetishes for women who have long nails — or “Long Nailed Beauties,” as the women are referred to among the fetish’s online community — can be particularly creepy, especially in public. Graham said it’s easy to spot a man with a nail fetish. “They drool,” Graham said. “It’s instinctual, the staring. But to see someone just stand there and think it’s okay to openly defile you…it’s just like, no.” Yet the Real Nail Qweenz have managed to turn the tables a bit. “Yani is a goddess,” Graham said. “There are men on social media who worship her.”
“Yeah,” Williams said, “and guess who’s making all the money?”
Hint: It’s her. Some men are so obsessed that they’ll send Williams gifts, like brand-new pairs of shoes. She and Graham also individually offer private video sessions for the friendlier nail fetish folk, who are willing to fork over money just to watch the women present their nails on camera. “It’s beautiful,” Williams said. “They don’t care to see nudity — they’re just looking at your nails.”
Graham said the Real Nail Qweenz hope to share their experiences with bullying. “We would love more than anything to go out and talk to kids about having to deal with that, about standing your ground for who you are, being your own person and being aware that sometimes you have to endure it, because in the end, you come out the better person and you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who really like you for who you are,” Graham said. “And that gives you the opportunity to be who you really want to be.”
Both Williams and Graham said they think they’ll eventually trim their nails, but not before they cash in what they feel is their golden ticket. Williams said she hopes to cut her nails on live TV someday. “Our time has to come along sooner or later, us with extreme nails,” Williams said. “We’re the only ones that don’t have a TV show yet. Everything else is acceptable.” Williams has a point. There are reality TV shows airing right now that feature teen moms, bad chefs, hoarders, crab fishermen and families with far too many children. Why not nails?
It’s possible long-nailed women have already arrived in the mainstream. In April the New York Times fashion section declared that long, pointed manicures are coming back in style, writing, “the most famous examples — Rihanna’s, Katy Perry’s, the girls on Instagram pointing coyly at gnomic passages in unnamed novels — have been sharpened to claws and decorated with war paint.”
This hipsterization of the long nail is clearly an assault on the Real Nail Qweenz’ trademark style. But Williams and Graham are in no danger of losing their unique identities. Fashion trends come and go, their followers surging and receding en masse like an ocean tide — the exact opposite of “daring to be different.” The Real Nail Qweenz, meanwhile, remain steadily against the tide, always staying true to themselves.
Now back to the all-important question: How, exactly, do these women grasp a roll of toilet tissue and navigate their own nether regions?
“For all those that want to know how we wipe our behind,” Williams said, “why don’t y’all go start a GoFundMe page?”
“Yeah,” Graham added, with a heavy helping of side-eye. “You give us a million [dollars], we’ll all wipe for you. It’s not hard. We do it just like everyone else.”
That’s not impossible to verify, but such a journalistic effort would require a braver reporter than the Houston Press can pay for. So we’ll just have to take their word for it.