By STEPHANIE HAYES, Tampa Bay Times
LARGO, Fla. (AP) — On her right hand, Devin Strebler wore epic, self-painted artificial nails featuring seductive versions of the Powerpuff Girls. This hand was all business. This hand was Happy.
On his left hand, nothing. Those nails, she kept them short, bare, natural, encased in a baby-pink latex glove. This hand was for creation.
Strebler, 31, hung an iPhone above his workstation. Part dynamic pop culture expert in pink and white Nikes, part business aspirant, she knows every date hinges on the perfect shot. She held a second iPhone upright beside her.
This skilled miniature painter destroys her own work every three weeks. His canvas, his nails. Working at millimeter scale, with incredibly small brushes, Strebler can recreate almost anything. She paints on gel, acrylic, natural or press-on nails: Hello Kitty, McDonald’s chicken nuggets, Beetlejuice, “Hocus Pocus”, “Rugrats”. She paints realistic portraits of rappers, actors, Danny and Sandy smiling in “Grease”, Macaulay Culkin slapping himself in “Home Alone”. She has even reproduced Salvador Dali’s “Woman with a Head of Roses” on a client’s middle finger.
For all this, she has amassed 1.7 million followers on TikTok, making her a “mega influencer” in marketing. She spends most of her time running Nailz by Dev, her mail-order line of hand-painted brushes, nail polish, and pressed nails.
And for all that, she maintains six regular nail clients. Her job is not for walk-ins, not a quick shot of self-care. It’s a test. It takes between 2 and 5 hours.
Just after 10 a.m. the day after Halloween, Theresa Spencer arrived to change her Freddy Krueger nails with three-dimensional blood drops. Women were talking about length and shape. Spencer asked for clusters of tiny hand-painted images resembling tattoos on bare skin.
“This elevator music is killing me,” Strebler said, changing the video to Destiny’s Child and turning on his pink drill.
Humans have been beautifying fingernails for thousands of years. Those little protein sheets? A real museum for those who want it. A platform to turn a meh day into a yay day, to change your life, just a little.
Or, in Strebler’s case, a lot. She loved nails as much as the next 2000s teen – the flared French tips with glitter, the wonky airbrush work, the ersatz cheetah print. Nail art, however, has never been perfect when someone else has done it.
She grew up in Seminole in a family with artistic leanings. Dad scribbled; hair done by mom. Her grandmother painted miniature portraits and her grandfather introduced her to Salvador Dalí. Strebler preferred the cartoon, sketching girls with big eyes and curves similar to early Bratz dolls.
But she is the first to call herself a bad teenager. A mess “. At Seminole High, her grades plummeted as she traded her studies for a party haze. Its only good point remained the advanced art. She won competitions, even had a piece presented at the Dalí Museum. She knew art could be a career, but she didn’t do much with it.
“I found out I was pregnant. I was like, OK, it’s time to grow up. Let’s do this. I have to do this. And I decided to go to school. I really cut out everyone in my life who was partying and concentrating. I set up a little nail room in my house. And I was just practicing, practicing, and practicing.
While Strebler told her story, Melissa Gratton worked at a station next to her, turning a client’s neon nails into a fall sweater theme. Gratton was Strebler’s professor at the American Institute of Beauty. She had never seen a student with so much raw talent. People go to nail school to get a license and learn the basics. Miniature art skills are not necessarily teachable.
Gratton was so taken with her student that she quit teaching to work with Strebler. She saw in her a creative star, a left-handed prodigy who could paint with the right as well.
“She’s doing characters on her non-dominant hand!” said Graton. She threw down her brush in mock disgust, laughing. “Can I have half the talent in your other hand?”
Strebler opened Nail Addicts on Seminole Boulevard in 2019 next to her mother’s hair salon. Most of us nail chewers were riding right by the mall with a vape shop and tattoo parlor. Inside, Nail Addicts is a 1990s wonderland. We’re talking about NSYNC and Missy Elliott, Kool-Aid, Cosmic Brownies, Happy Bunny, Trolls, Furbies. Everything is pink.
Strebler said she no longer touches drugs or alcohol at all. It’s impossible to do what she does with a hangover; her hands shake if she has an espresso. But mostly, she’s been busy raising 8-year-old Zaiden and running two businesses with family members and Zaiden’s father, her boyfriend Brandon Webb.
The internet is essentially a third job. Strebler thought she was too old for TikTok. Then his store was closed during the pandemic. She was hanging out alone in her apartment building and uploading funny clips. She ordered a bunch of press-ons, started painting them, and offered to ship them around the world, tapping into a market of locked-in-home customers.
Hers unfolded like so many viral stories: randomly. One day she woke up with a million views. Another day, rapper Cardi B shared one of Strebler’s videos. And on. And on. Product promotion offers poured in, but Strebler decided to create his own, gobbling up cash from one hit to the next. She bought her first house and a car.
“I couldn’t even imagine where we are right now,” she said of her finances. “It changed things in a huge way. Let’s put it that way.
Her business grew so large that she had to open a separate office in Largo. It’s pink, too, with tie-dye rugs and those life-size enlarged Powerpuff Girls villains on the wall.
After four hours and countless ’90s music videos, Strebler applied the final glossy top coat to Spencer’s nails. She had painted Stan from “South Park”, Courage the cowardly dog, Bender the robot from “Futurama” and many other tiny drawings.
Strebler and Spencer met online. Spencer, a 26-year-old content creator and makeup influencer who sells her own line of products, models for Strebler’s products, so she gets a discount. Her nails are $200, compared to the usual $350-$400.
If that sounds wild, remember. It’s not just a manicure, it’s a statement piece. It’s art. It’s time. It’s views. Spencer drives from Lakeland for these nails because her hands feature in almost every video she does. Women promote each other, hacking further into the algorithm, promoting progress, growing an empire.
Strebler laid out Spencer’s fingers on a sheet of white paper to avoid glare. It was the most important step of all. She took photos and videos of her work to share with the world.
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