Jenny Bui, 48, has hand-crafted each one of Cardi B's signature stiletto jeweled nail looks, but before she opened her nail salon in New York City, Bui grew up in poverty in Cambodia, fled the Khmer Rouge genocide, and started a family and a new life for herself in the U.S. Here's how she overcame unimaginable hardship to become the "Queen of Bling."
I was born in Cambodia and lived there until I was 8 with my parents and eight brothers and sisters. Until I was 5 years old, life was good. My dad was a cook, and mom would sell soda on the street, and made a really good living from it. But then the war started and the Khmer Rouge came, and we lost everything. For three years, from when I was 5 until 8 years old, I didn’t have food. We would be given one spoon of rice for 30 people to share. We would eat lunch and dinner in a cafeteria, but it wasn’t really dinner, it was just water and vegetables. We were so hungry, we would cut a papaya tree, scrape the inside of the tree, and eat that. Our mouths would get infections from it, and we didn’t have toothbrushes or anything, so to brush our teeth, we’d just use our fingers.
When I was 8, we ran to Thailand to escape the Khmer Rouge and lived in a [refugee] camp. One night, people from the Thai government told us they were going to take us to meet my other brother at another camp, but they didn’t. They took us back toward Cambodia and started killing people. They dropped us at a mountain halfway between Thailand and Cambodia that was covered with land mines and people who had died from them. We got separated from my dad and some of my siblings in a cornfield, but my mom took three of us and we walked back to Cambodia. It took three months. I had no shoes and the ground was covered in red rocks that were so hot the bottoms of my feet were all blistered from them. We were almost back when my younger brother got the chicken pox. He died because we didn't have any shelter.
My parents are from China, so everybody would write to my mom and dad’s families in China and say, “Do you know where this person is?” They would write back and say, “Oh, this person is here, that person is there.” That’s how we found out that my dad and another sister were in Boston, and they sent us a little money. One of my sisters found us in Cambodia and paid someone to take us to Vietnam. We stayed with 10 people in a small shelter made of bamboo for a while and then we moved in with someone else. Life in Vietnam was better. My mom would pay for me to see a tutor for three hours a day to learn English, French, and Chinese - just enough to know how to say the alphabet and count.
When I turned 14, my older brother, who was living in Canada, sponsored my mom, my other brother, and me so we could move to Montreal, Canada. I had a couple jobs waiting tables and picking strawberries to earn money at first, and eventually got a job as a dental assistant. I lived there for the next eight years, and then when I was 22, I met somebody, got married, and moved to the Bronx because that's where he was from.
I didn’t work when I first moved to New York. I love the Bronx now, but I didn’t then. I cried every day. In Canada we lived in a house and I never saw roaches or rats, but in New York, the building we lived in felt like a prison. I had my first baby when I was 23 and my second when I was 25. After my second kid, I wanted to go to cosmetology school and get my license. I wanted to make my own money and have my own things so no one could take them from me. In the beginning I thought I would want to focus on doing hair, but after I went to school, I decided it was too difficult for me. I would go to my friend’s salon to watch her, and it was there that I realized doing nails was more interesting to me than hair. I thought about going to a nail salon to learn how to do nails, but instead I just taught myself from watching other people do it. I would do it on my own nails until they started bleeding because I was trying so many things to perfect it. I got a job at my sister-in-law's salon doing nails. A lot of times people chat when they’re waiting for a customer, but I wouldn’t. I would try to create something.
After three months, I opened my first salon in the Bronx. I saved all my money, and back then you didn’t need a lot of money to open a salon anyway. I was open for three or four years, but there was no business there. Someone was like, “Oh, you do good nails. Why don’t you try in Harlem? Maybe you’ll do better over there.” So I moved my shop to Harlem, [a neighborhood in Manhattan]. But people gave me a really hard time there. They’d tell me things like, “Go back to China,” or would call me “Jenny from the boat.” In the Bronx, the people don't really talk to you, and you only needed to know how to say, “Hi, how are you doing,” or “What do you want?” But if you don’t understand English in Harlem, they'll make fun of you. So I was forced to learn just by doing nails. They would cuss me out. The first word I learned here was a curse word: f-you. Sometimes people wouldn’t pay after I did their nails. I cried almost every day back then. A lot of people now don’t like my attitude and say I’m too aggressive. But I am the way I am because Harlem made me like this. When people pick on you, you have to learn how to be really tough.
I had my third baby when I was 28, but after 10 years of marriage, my first husband and I separated. I started working seven days a week to support my three kids as a single mom. Around that same time, in 2000, one of my friends sent me a catalog from Japan, and inside were pictures of huge bling on nails. I love diamonds and bling, so I was like Oh my god, imagine if I put the diamonds on my customers’ hands so they don’t have to wear jewelry. How nice would that be? In the beginning I would only do two fingers, but every time the customer would come back, they’d want more and more. People used to call my nails ratchet because of the big bling, but now everybody does it. I’m known as the Queen of Bling.
I was working as a single mom from the time I split from my first husband until I met my current husband, Billy Bui, in 2004. He lived down the street from me, and his brother told me Billy had an auto body shop. I had a Toyota Sienna minivan and the bumper was dented, so I thought maybe he could fix it. I didn’t have much money so I was afraid to take my car anywhere to get fixed and get taken advantage of, but he fixed my car and didn’t charge me. We started talking and dating after that and fell in love right away. We only dated a month before we moved in together and have been together ever since. I had two more daughters with him, and I named my first one Cianna, like the minivan but spelled differently. My husband is so great. He has supported me all the way. When he saw how stressed I was, he left his auto body shop to come help me. He now helps run the salon, and he can do the nails too.
I was getting kind of famous in Harlem for my nails, and Yandy Smith from Love & Hip Hop found out about me from other customers. I'm so thankful for her because she’s the one who convinced me that I needed to start my own Instagram account, and it changed everything for me. People finally started to give me more respect. They saw my work and how good it was, and I started to grow a following on Instagram.
The first time Cardi B came to my Harlem salon was five years ago, back when she danced, before she was famous. She wanted me to do her nails, but I was too busy, so one of my nail technicians did it for her instead. Cardi didn’t like how they looked at all. She was like, “This doesn’t look anything like the ones on your Instagram.” It was true, they didn’t look nice. She came back a second time though and waited on the couch. My husband recognized her and noticed it was her second time there and asked how he could help her. She said, “I really want Jenny to do my nails, but I think she’s busy, so someone else can do it.” My husband told me, “Honey, this is this girl’s second time here. Do you want to do her nails? Because she says she really likes your nails.”
When people tell me they really like my work, I want to do it for them. I don’t care if you have money or not. Cardi didn’t have nice clothes back then, but I don’t care what someone looks like when they come in. I look at the people who respect me and my art. If someone doesn’t have money, I work with them and do as much as I can for what they have. That day, Cardi told me I could do whatever I wanted, and when I finished, Cardi screamed all over the salon. I still have the video posted way back on my Instagram of her screaming, “Oh my god! You made my day! I’ve never had nails like this in my life!”
Cardi always does stiletto nails. People send me stuff hoping that I’ll use it on Cardi, but if it’s a rhinestone and not real Swarovski crystal, Cardi can tell the difference. She’ll say, “Jenny, why isn’t this bling right here shining? They’re not Swarovski, right?” And I’ll say, “You already know.” She gets her nails done by me once a month. Even if it’s just a small event, she doesn’t let anyone else touch them. She always comes to the salon too. I’ve only gone to Cardi to do her nails twice, and once was the Grammys this year. She rarely asks me to go because she knows I’m busy, and I have to support my kids who are still in school. She’s very respectful of my time.
She pays me now, but there would be times back then when she’d want to pay me, and I’d say, "It’s OK, I won’t charge," or, "I’ll charge you half price." I did that because I really liked her and because she gave me a lot of respect. She treats me like I’m a special person, like I’m not just a nail tech. I look at her like she’s my daughter, and she looks at me like I’m her auntie.
People would always give her bad comments and talk crap about her when she was dancing, so I’m very happy for her now. Before she was on VH1, I told her, “Cardi, you’re going to be really big one day. Bigger than Nicki Minaj,” and she said, “Oh my god, I don’t think so.” And look now. I told her when she got big, she would forget about me and she told me, “No, Jenny, I’ll never forget about you.”
When Cardi started posting photos of her nails I did on her Instagram, I got a lot of followers, and it was mostly international people. I’ll have customers travel from the U.K., Australia, Bermuda, Jamaica, Antigua, all over for me to do their nails. Most of the time my customers will let me choose the design for them. I can look at the person and automatically know their style. I currently do about three or four appointments a day.
My bling nails can last a month. I’m a perfectionist, and I keep the nails thin, which is what a lot of my customers like. Other nail artists have asked me how I do it, and I tell them whether they gave me credit or not because I like to support people. I get all my crystals from Dreamtime Creations, but I started making my own gel polishes called “Jenny’s Secret” last year. I’m still testing them out, but maybe next year I’ll come out with them.
I stayed in Harlem 17 years before opening another salon back up in the Bronx last year in October. My husband designed the whole thing and put bling and Chanel chandeliers everywhere because he knows I love bling. He built me a private room in this one because it’s a very stressful job. I work eight hours a day, but sometimes people will beg me to stay late because it’s their birthday or whatever. My husband always complains that I work too much, but it’s my passion. I love the way I do nails, and it makes me happy when my customers are happy.
My first priority is taking care of my kids and making sure they get an education, food, clothes, and a home, so I haven’t traveled that much yet. I’d rather have nothing and instead give everything to my kids because I don’t want my kids to live a life like I did. My brothers and sisters are in France, Canada, and the U.S. now, but I have one sister still in Thailand, and I'll send her money when she needs it. Eventually, though, I want to travel the world and teach classes.
Maybe in like 10 more years I’ll retire and then people can continue my work, but I don’t know. I saw my dad again after getting separated from him and before he passed away, and he told me not to work so hard. He was worried about how doing nails would affect my health. So I thought about it and decided maybe I’ll do it one or two more years. But it’s now been 15 years since then, and I’m still doing nails. I think I’ll probably do it all my life because I love it.
Get That Life is a biweekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now.
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