Episode 146: Deborah Lippmann, Celebrity Manicurist and Founder of Deborah Lippmann

It took a long time for Deborah Lippmann, celebrity manicurist and founder of Deborah Lippmann, to finally realize how much she loved nail care and her work as manicurist to the stars. Her first love was music and she originally learned the manicurist’s trade to support herself while pursuing her singing career. Now that she’s created her eponymous nail line and singing has become her side hustle, she has lots of sage advice and gentle nudging for those ready to zig and zag towards their own dreams.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in today.

This week's episode features Deborah Lippmann. She is a celebrity manicurist, and Founder of Deborah Lippmann. If you missed last week's episode, it featured Sasha Plavsic, she is the Founder of ILIA Beauty. I hope you enjoy this episode.

Hey everybody, I am so excited to be sitting across from Deborah Lippmann, she is the Founder of Deborah Lippmann, and also a celebrity manicurist. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Deborah LippmannThank you. Thrilled to be here, thanks for having me.
Jodi KatzI am so excited this is happening. We've been trying to get you here for, I don't know, years I think, at this point. You're a very busy lady.
Deborah LippmannIt's just yeah, I'm lucky to be busy.
Jodi KatzIt is amazing to be busy. I'd like to start with my favorite question, which is totally about the mundane, every day. How will you spend your day today?
Deborah LippmannToday, I will leave here, go directly to the airport, fly to LA to do a shoot tomorrow, and fly back tomorrow night, to New York.
Jodi KatzIs that a typical day and a half?
Deborah LippmannYeah. And then, I'll leave again on Friday, for something else, and then come back on Sunday. Then, get on a plane on Monday, to go to Home Shopping Network. So yeah, I live on a plane.
Jodi KatzEven though you're running this business, your schedule's almost like what being a freelance manicurist was like?
Deborah LippmannYes.
Jodi KatzSort of waiting for that next call?
Deborah LippmannExactly, exactly. You never know. I know I'm working in LA tomorrow, I don't know where. But, hopefully I'll find out by the time I arrive.
Jodi KatzOh, interesting. So you live two lives, right? You have the manicurist life, of being on set, and then you have the CEO life, of running a business?
Deborah LippmannYes. Well, my husband really runs the business now, because it's gotten to the point where we need somebody in the office, all the time. I'm out, doing all the freelance stuff, and all the creative, so I don't have to be in the office all the time. But, he has to make sure that everything keeps flowing.
Jodi KatzThat's amazing.
Deborah LippmannEspecially in these times.
Jodi KatzI sort of fantasize about my husband joining my business. Wait, let's talk about that. My husband, he would only be IT, there's not really enough for him to do here.
Deborah LippmannYeah, that's what you think.
Jodi KatzHow many years ago did your husband actively work in the business?
Deborah LippmannWe launched in 1999. My brother, Mark Lippmann, who is not to be confused with my husband, Jude Severin. Poor Mark, always gets confused for my husband.
Jodi KatzOh, because it's your maiden name.
Deborah LippmannYes. Mark and I started work together, we launched the brand in '99. By the time we had actually ... Before we had even launched, my husband jumped in and said, "I've got to help you guys, you can't do it on your own."

Initially, we've all worn a million hats. Like, "What do you in the business?" Well, what hour is it, because when you're a small brand, when you're a niche brand, you have to wear a lot of hats. There's been a lot of learning curves, but it's a family affair.
Jodi KatzThat's so fun. Well, mine's a family affair, because I have my kids come in, and help stock shelves and stuff, every once in a while.
Deborah LippmannThat's awesome.
Jodi KatzWe moved this summer, so they filled the boxes, and taped up boxes.
Deborah LippmannOh my gosh, it's so cute in here.
Jodi KatzThank you!
Deborah LippmannIt's really, really, really cute.
Jodi KatzWe're really proud.
Deborah LippmannI love it.
Jodi KatzOkay, so let's go back in time. I want to know about nails, why nails?
Deborah LippmannWhy nails? Why nails, that is such a good question.

I am a former nail biter, so as a kid I bit my nails. When I went to see my ... I remember going to see my pediatrician when I was young, and my mom was really struggling with the fact that I bit my nails. So, she asked him to talk to me about it, I'm sure. He told me that, "Your hands are your greeters. People look into your eyes, and then they look at your hand as you reach across the table to meet hands, and shake hands." It's that psychological thing, that goes into the back of your brain, and it tells you something about somebody's appearance, or how they think about themselves. And there are so many germs, if you bite your nails. Right now, in particular, we don't want to be open to any germs.

That was the beginning of it. I had a really hard time breaking the habit, it's a very, very difficult habit to break. I'm also a singer. So, I went to college to become a musician, and I have my degree in music. When I finished college, I just was doing singing gigs, but it wasn't enough, and I couldn't wait tables, like at all. I tried, but I threw pasta with red sauce, on a woman wearing a white suit, with blond hair.
Jodi KatzOh no.
Deborah LippmannSo, that night after I was fired, I had to look at my life and go, "What else do I love? What else can I do as a side hustle?" I went to cosmetology school, and did manicuring because I ... Well, for one thing, ... Hang on, let me think of the best way to say this.

So, I went to cosmetology school. Prior to going to cosmetology school, I had never done my nails. When I was singing in my first professional job, I was wearing fancy costumes, and was part of a show, and I picked up the microphone at dress rehearsal with my nubby nails, and Director was like, "Whoa!" The next day, he took me to have a full set of artificial nails put on. That is, actually, what helped me stop biting my nails.

So, by the time I went to manicure school, which was after that, I had pretty nails, and it had changed my life. Putting nails on made me use my hands differently, and depending on what color I had on, I would be edgy, or ... I guess, I wasn't edgy in those days, but you know, I would be ... It changed my mood, or how I would use my hands, or how I would feel about myself. It brought me strength, or power, the different colors that I would wear.

Then, when I sit down to do a manicure, in manicuring school, I had literally never done a nail, like ever. It was really starting from scratch. It seemed like, when I was in school, standing up on my feet all day, then going to sing at a gig for four hours a night, and I thought, ... During this whole process, one of my friends who's a manicurist, who actually talked me into going to cosmetology school, he said, "You know what? Stick with manicuring. You can stand up on your heels all night, and then sit down during the day."
Jodi KatzRight, instead of being behind a chair.
Deborah LippmannYeah. Then, what I found that I really, really loved in manicuring was holding hands with people, was what I like.
Jodi KatzOh!
Deborah LippmannNow, we are sitting across the table, and my energy going to you, your energy going to me. I always watch how my clients are breathing when I'm working with them, and I try to bring them to a better place, feeling better, feeling relaxed. Especially, since I work on set, or award shows, or things where there's a lot of pressure.
Jodi KatzRight. The advice of the doctor, when he said, "Your hands speak for you," as a young kid, did that resonate at all?
Deborah LippmannIt has stuck with me, like one of the most important things I ever, ever heard. It's a shame that I didn't listen to him earlier. I mean, I think I tried, but again, it's a ... I totally get my customer, because biting your nails, biting your cuticles, is very, very, very common. So, part of what I did with that, with all those years of thinking about what he told me, and then going to school, and then becoming a manicurist, and working. And then moving to New York, and working for years, and years, and years with women, all day long, it would just always stick in my head, that this was such an important thing about a woman and a man, how they feel about themselves.

I know that whenever I meet anybody now they, nine times out of 10, ... If I meet somebody on a plane this afternoon, and I were to say, "I'm a singer," and they would have a conversation. If I say, "I'm a manicurist," they will hide their hands, immediately.
Jodi KatzReally?
Deborah LippmannHide their hands immediately, depending on how they feel. But it's like, nine times out of 10. Our hands are in front of our own face, all the time. Even though they're there all the time, it still is that last minute detail, that we don't always do.
Jodi KatzDeep down inside, these strangers that you meet, all of us I guess, we know that our hands are speaking about us, they're the tell, even if we're not considering that every day of our lives, right?
Deborah LippmannMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzDeep down inside, because why else would they hide it, right?
Deborah LippmannRight.
Jodi KatzIt's so fascinating, that there's so much power in these digits, right?
Deborah LippmannRight. Well said. Oh, I like that. There's so much power in the digits. I mean, I guarantee you, when I get on the plane this afternoon, and they make the announcement to turn your cell phones off, the first thing I see people around me do is start picking at their nails. Every time I'm on the airplane.
Jodi KatzYou know what I do? I rub one nail against the other one, to feel the highs and lows.
Deborah LippmannOh, that's nice.
Jodi KatzDepending upon how I file them, they get strange shapes.
Deborah LippmannYes.
Jodi KatzI find myself doing that.
Deborah LippmannYes. The thing is, our teeth are not sharp enough to fix our nails if they're crooked, or bite off our cuticle if they're crooked, they're just not sharp enough.
Jodi KatzIt's just a mess.
Deborah LippmannYes. It's better to get a nail file, put a nail file everywhere in your house, or in your office, somewhere that's really accessible, and try to change that habit. That's the first thing any kind of a person with any kind of nail or picking disorder ... Not disorder, but ...
Jodi KatzHabit?
Deborah LippmannHabit, thank you.
Jodi KatzWe're speaking so much about nails, but I want to hear about the singing. I'm wondering, when you were in cosmetology school, considering, "What career can I have, that would enable me to sing at night," was your goal really to focus on performing?
Deborah LippmannYes, absolutely. Absolutely.

I have records on iTunes, I still continue to sing. I'm actually getting ready to sing on an album next week, John Minick, a friend of mine that I sing with occasionally. Great jazz singer. So, I still keep that part of my heart alive, all the names of my products are song titles. It's all related, interrelated. Because of my customers, my great, great, great, wonderful people who support the brand, they are all supportive of my singing as well, and I now have three albums on iTunes.
Jodi KatzOh my goodness, that's so cool!
Deborah LippmannYeah.
Jodi KatzAt the point when you were getting your license, were you like, "Okay, being a manicurist is paying the rent so that I can keep singing, and going on auditions, and things like that?"
Deborah LippmannYes.
Jodi KatzHow many years of that life were you living, before you decided, "You know what? My number one is nails?"
Deborah LippmannYes. I moved to New York in the early '90s to pursue music. I'd been doing nails since the early '80s. So, I'd been manicuring in different salons, and I'd managed salons, and I'd had been hearing women talk about nail care so much. I had so many things in my head that were like, "People don't understand, this is such a ..." I kept hearing this resounding noise in my head of what a lack there was of knowledge, about nail care.

I moved to New York in the early '90s, and was working in a super, super fancy salon, with fancy, fancy women, who then continued that whole thing about they didn't understand. They would ask me to put a product with formaldehyde right on their nails, and then asked me if the polish we used in the salon was formaldehyde free.
Jodi KatzOh.
Deborah LippmannOver, and over, and over again, from Fortune 500 CEOs. So I'd be like, "Okay, there's ..." My brain started splitting and going, "Oh my gosh, there's a white space here." Not that it was something that I looked to do, and it was actually a huge emotional struggle with me, to actually start the brand.

I met Bobby Brown, in the salon, when her brand was so new it was only in Bergdorf. She had a manicure with me. She went to Allure Magazine, and told them that there was a new manicurist in town, and they had to come and check me out. They came in, undercover.
Jodi KatzOh, how fun.
Deborah LippmannPut me, my picture in a magazine afterwards. I was like, "What is happening?" Then, celebrities started coming in. One thing led to another, and I was called to do photo shoots, which I had no idea about. What is an editorial manicurist? What do you do when you go to a photo shoot? What do you need to bring with you?

Then, I started really thinking about, when I was doing editorial, was when I really realized, "I need to ..." When I started doing editorial, and had to bring all of the products with me, I started realizing ... Let me back up, hold on.

When I was working in the salon, and it was in Bergdorf Goodman, which is a very high end store, and I would try to educate my customers, while they were in the salon with me. But then, they would go downstairs, and not be able to buy anything on the floor, because there were no nail brands at that time. There was zero, you couldn't buy a polish remover in a luxury space. It just didn't exist. There was Dior Cuticle Cream, which was amazing, but there weren't anythings. You couldn't by a nail file, you couldn't buy a buffer, you couldn't buy a cuticle remover, or a polish remover, or so many of the things.

Bobby started saying to me, "You should really do a brand." Then, I was also doing editorial at that point, with Laura Mercier, who also was like, "You should create a brand. You have everything that you bring with you, and you're creating things on set." I was fighting, because I'm like, "Ah! I'm a singer! I'm a singer, and this is my side job." I struggled so much so, that when we launched the brand, we called it Lippmann Collection, because I wanted to save my name, Deborah Lippmann, for my music.

Then, we realized about the big mistake that we made in business, five or so years into it, that in much of the press that we get, they would say Deborah Lippmann at the beginning of the article, and then further on in the article it would just say, "And then, Lippmann says, and then Lippmann says, and then Lippmann says." Or, "Then Deborah says, then Deborah says," sorry. The articles would say, "And then Deborah says, and then Deborah says, and then Deborah says." I was like, "Oh, that's a big, huge PR miss."
Jodi KatzYeah.
Deborah LippmannBecause there's no connecting the dots, so we changed the name of the brand, which was very scary. Very, very scary, and complicated, but super, definitely the best thing we ever did. There's no reason that I can't sing as Deborah Lippmann, and be a manicurist as Deborah Lippmann. Many of my clients come to see me sing, and support my music, so it's all worked, hand in hand.
Jodi KatzWell, we all write rules for the way we think the world is supposed to be, based on old garbage, or personal experience that wasn't super satisfying at the time.

I want to go back to this time when you're working in the salon, and you have all these aha moments. These are big aha moments, right? You're seeing the white space at retail?
Deborah LippmannMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzYou're seeing the white space in formulation. You see the white space in education, right?
Deborah LippmannMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzYou're not even really investing your life in nails, you're investing your life in singing, right?
Deborah LippmannRight.
Jodi KatzThis is really odd.
Deborah LippmannYes, it was very odd.
Jodi KatzWhere do you think the courage came from, in those moments, to actually make an investment in your time and money? That's a big lift, a lot of people have good ideas.
Deborah LippmannYes.
Jodi KatzBut, they don't act on them.
Deborah LippmannExactly, exactly. I remember the exact ... There were two moments, that happened within a week of each other.

One was, I was working with Mariah Carey at the time, and she was going to be singing at the Oscars. Everybody was sending ... Designers, and jewelers, and the hair and makeup were going to do something special. I was like, "What can I do that's special, what can I do that's special?" So, I created a color for her, for that night, based on what she was going to be wearing. I'd never done that before, it was just for fun, really. All of her friends wanted the color, she loved it. Then, she looked at me and she was like, "You're so great with color, why don't you do a brand?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm a singer, I'm a singer." She's like, "I know, I know, but you're here every day, so you're a good manicurist."

Then, a few days after that ... That hit me pretty hard. I say now that she stuck her big old high heel in my rear end, and pushed me forward. She was like, "Don't be afraid, you can do both." Then, I was shopping at C.O. Bigelow a couple of years later, which now has been, for a long time, a place where we retail. I was shopping at C.O. Bigelow, with one of my best friends, who'd I'd been tossing this idea around with for, I don't know, two years or something. She turned and looked at me, and said, "Either do it, or stop talking to me about it."
Jodi KatzOh, man. That's tough love.
Deborah LippmannThat was like, okay. That was the moment, I still remember, it gives me chills when I think about it. Thank you, Loretta Munoz, for doing that for me.
Jodi KatzShe's still a friend?
Deborah LippmannShe's still a friend, still a friend.
Jodi KatzSo that's like her intervention, was at C.O. Bigelow?
Deborah LippmannIt was at C.O. Bigelow. It was fully like, "Okay! All right, I hear all your ideas, they're great. Either do it, or get off the pot," as they say.
Jodi KatzI wonder how long Loretta was thinking about having this tough love conversation with you?
Deborah LippmannOh, that is a really good question, that I'm going to ask her as soon as I finish here.
Jodi KatzYeah, because I bet it was a while.
Deborah LippmannI bet it was a while, I bet it was a while.
Jodi KatzWhen you love someone, and you see the opportunity in front of them, but they're not seeing it clearly, it's really frustrating.
Deborah LippmannYeah, right.
Jodi KatzIt's really hard to be around that.
Deborah LippmannAh, that's gives me a whole new perspective. Oh my gosh.
Jodi KatzYeah. I'd like to hear what Loretta says to that question.
Deborah LippmannYes, I'm going to ask her, right after I'm done.
Jodi KatzOkay. What did it take, in the beginning? Like, there was no Indie beauty back then, right?
Deborah LippmannNo, there was no Indie beauty. To be honest, there was barely Internet, there were barely home computers in '99. I didn't have one, my brother had one. Nobody had a website, so I couldn't go, okay, nail polish manufacturers, through the Yellow Pages, looking, looking, looking. No, it didn't exist.

Where do I get a bottle for nail polish? I have no idea. I had no idea, and there was the phone book. Do you remember the phone book?
Jodi KatzOh my God.
Deborah LippmannWere you alive, when there were phone books?
Jodi KatzYes.
Deborah LippmannI'm not sure.
Jodi KatzI was.
Deborah LippmannThat information was not there, it wasn't accessible. So, one friend of mine, that had a brand, Sue Devitt, a makeup artist that I worked with on photo shoots ... thank you, Sue, for this, give me the name of one packaging guy. That one packaging guy gave me the name of 10 other people, and those 10 other gave me the name of 10 other people. I went through the whole process of realizing, "Wow, just to make a bottle of nail polish, I need a bottle, I need a brush, I need a cap. I need to decide whether I'm going to put BBs in it, to mix the formula." Which I think is, personally, really important, but all those pennies start to add up.

Things were like, "Oh, it's a quarter of a cent," or "It's only going to be $1." Then you realize, oh wow, that's adding up, quite a bit, quite a bit. There was a huge, huge, huge learning curve, thank goodness. My brother was genius, is a genius. And, in 1999, we launched eCommerce.
Jodi KatzOh, man.
Deborah LippmannWe launched our brand, and we were eCommerce from day one.
Jodi KatzRight before Y2K.
Deborah LippmannRight before.
Jodi KatzWhich, now you know how old I am, because that was a big deal where I was working.
Deborah LippmannI'm not telling you how old I am.
Jodi KatzIt's been so many years that you've been running the business, it's still a family business, it's privately owned, which is unusual.
Deborah LippmannMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzWhat's one of the scariest things that has happened in the business, after all these years? Like, something that you're like, "Oh, I never want to do that again."
Deborah LippmannOh my gosh, it's a roller coaster of things that you can't believe could possibly happen. To be frank right now, we're looking at the Coronavirus and thinking that a lot of what we do comes from Asia, and how can we problem solve that now? But, we wouldn't have thought of that, 20 years. We wouldn't have thought about problem solving something like this, but we've been through enough smaller versions of this to know that we need to try to be really, really be prepared for what could happen. If we can't get our product, then we can't get it to our customer.

I mean, we've had things happen that you couldn't expect to happen, at all. Both amazing, and difficult. One of them that really hits me hard is there was a tsunami, and one of our labs got wiped out. We were trying to get ... I mean, they were really, really, really in a bind, they weren't wiped. But, they were in trouble. We were very, very behind on production, and we had to air ship our glass bottles from Asia, which was very, very pricey. Normally, they come on a boat, and it takes three to four months. We flew them in, my brother was waiting to see them land. They landed, they go through customs, watching each step of the way.

They got into the truck, to go up to our filler, which is in New York. We finish all the product in New York, so that we can see it before we put it out. Literally, the truck was in an accident. The driver was fine, but the bottles were not.
Jodi KatzOh, man.
Deborah LippmannLike, he came an hour away from getting to the filler. It's like, you just can't prepare for that, there are just things like that. That's a big example, but we've had plenty of those big things happen, that you can't prepare for.
Jodi KatzAs an entrepreneur, I feel like I'm constantly evolving as a human, and work really helps me. Thankfully, family life is great, and even, and I'm not met with challenges every day there. But here, at work, every day is something to learn, sometimes in a great way, sometimes in an exhausting way. I work really hard with therapists, and coaches, and many other people, because it takes a village.
Deborah LippmannYes it does.
Jodi KatzTo be able to breathe through these things, and realize it's exactly where I should be in that moment, and there's a lesson that I need to learn, and there's something great on the other end of this. But it's hard, right?
Deborah LippmannIt's hard. It's really, really hard. Breathing, I would say, is the number one thing you need to learn to do. That was really difficult, because I'm, "Let's fix it now, let's do this, let's call this person, let's do that." My husband is completely the opposite, and my brother. They are thoughtful, and they take their time, and they think things through.

There are times that my assertiveness gets us places, and my excitement about things gets us places, and there are times that it is a disservice to us. So, it's a great balance, having my brother and my husband with me to go, "Okay, hold on. This is where we need to take a breath." Now, I actually do a lot of breath work. I really do a lot of breath work.
Jodi KatzI've also practiced doing nothing. Like, waiting, just waiting. Like, "Okay, I know there's a situation happening, but I don't need to solve it in this moment." I'm like you, I'd be like, "Okay, what's step one, step two, step three, step four?" And just run, and that's not always the best. Waiting, and watching is sometimes the option, but I have to breath to be able to do that.
Deborah LippmannYou have to be able to breath, yeah.
Jodi KatzMy last question to you is about entrepreneurs, in general. I assume that many reach out to you, for advice?
Deborah LippmannMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzThis industry is completely different now, then it was when you started. What's that one takeaway that you think is actually relevant, no matter what year it is?
Deborah LippmannI would just say, anything is possible.
Jodi KatzOh, that's so sweet.
Deborah LippmannIf you believe it, you can do it. If you believe it, you can do it, you can find a way to make it happen. It really is, I encourage everyone, if you have a dream, you should really not do what I did, and have to have your friend finally look at you and say, "Do it, or shut up about it." Because, if you just do it, then you'll have peace of mind.

There have been, really, times during our journey that we've thought, okay, if it all goes away tomorrow, we're such better people for it, we've learned so much. Yes, that would be painful, but we're such better people for it.

I would just say to any budding entrepreneurs, just go for it, and get that, so you don't have any regrets, because anything is possible.
Jodi KatzOh, that's so sweet. Thank you for sharing that wisdom, and your story with us, today on the show.
Deborah LippmannThank you for having me.
Jodi KatzFor our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Deborah. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram at @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again, for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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