How Lil' Kim's most memorable manicure ended up in the Museum of Modern Art

Examples of Bernadette Thompson's money nails, which the manicurist created in the mid-1990s.
Examples of Bernadette Thompson's money nails, which the manicurist created in the mid-1990s.PHOTO: BERNADETTE THOMPSON

WASHINGTON • In the mid-1990s, manicurist Bernadette Thompson was working on a fashion shoot with Lil' Kim, who was then on her way to becoming a hip-hop fashion icon and still years away from becoming a jailbird.

It was not the first time she had worked with the influential rapper, so Thompson was feeling a bit of self-imposed pressure to come up with something new and jaw-dropping - something creative enough to compete with the make-up, the hair and all the rest.

The shoot was for a denim campaign, but Kim was also surfing a wave of enthusiasm for her contribution to the Junior M.A.F.I.A. single, Get Money.

That became the manicurist's source of inspiration. She reached into her little nylon wallet, pulled out a dollar bill, cut it into pieces and strategically applied bits of currency to Kim's acrylic nails to create an eye-popping manicure by way of the United States Treasury.

"There were a lot of people on the photo shoots who know about fashion and beauty, but they didn't really know that much about nails," Thompson says. "So, they left it up to me."

Soon, she was riffing on her original idea, upping the flash by using hundred dollar bills and charging that added expense to her clients. While she might have been manicuring the nails of millionaires, she was still a woman of modest means.

Eventually, the US government sent her a gentle reminder that she was not supposed to deface money, even if it belongs to her. So, she started using fake bills, which were thinner and more flexible than the real thing and thus easier to apply to nails.

Thompson's creative flash transformed into a trend. Google "money nails" and an array of currency-adorned talons will pop up.

Now, those nails are part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, which runs until Jan 28. The show examines 111 garments and accessories that have had a lasting impact over the past century.

The assembled collection includes the little black dress, the pencil skirt, Levi's jeans, the hoodie, the Wonderbra, stilettos and Converse All-Star sneakers. The idea is to explore the ways in which fashion speaks to politics, culture and identity.

Thompson's re-creations of her original money nails are one of the few examples of beauty products or rituals in the exhibition, which also includes red lipstick and the Chanel No. 5 fragrance.

The nails are also a rare example of an iconic look that comes directly from the world of black women.

"Black girls always added things to nails, like they added things to clothes," says Thompson, 48, who is black and grew up in Yonkers, New York. A manicure "is not super expensive. It's less than an Hermes bag. And you wear it every day".

"I'm not the first to create nail art. I've been around a whole bunch of creative nail artists who are Hispanic, black," she says. But "I introduced it to fashion".

In the beginning, the nails were a part of hip-hop style, which was a separate category from mainstream fashion. Thompson once considered law school, but always had an affinity for hair-styling and beauty. She got her start working on videos and album covers for singer Mary J. Blige, as well as Kim and rapper Sean Combs.

Once she started to work for corporate brands, she saw that a manicure still meant neutral tones, pale pink or the occasional red. She helped to change that. One of her earliest corporate clients was fashion brand Louis Vuitton. She painted nails to match the monogram of the bags.

Today, thanks in large measure to Thompson, manicurists are regularly credited in fashion shoots.

And nail art is as common on a European runway or corporate fashion shoot as it is in a Detroit or Harlem nail salon.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'How Lil' Kim's most memorable manicure ended up in the Museum of Modern Art'. Subscribe