She’s A Trailblazer: Meet Temeka Jackson, The Celebrity Manicurist Behind Custom T Nails
For Women’s History Month 2023, The Shade Room’s “She’s A Trailblazer” series celebrates women who have shattered glass ceilings and made groundbreaking contributions to creative lanes across social media. Join us to celebrate these inspiring trailblazers who empower future generations.
When you book licensed nail tech Temeka Jackson, expect all the bells and whistles. She thinks of everything–the beforehand client research, tailored mood boards, floor tarps, lights, shoe covers, and her nail table. Temeka, owner of Custom T Nails, even brings a mini vacuum so no clippings or dust lingers behind her fresh sets.
Her professionalism and ability to stay ten steps ahead of beauty trends keep her referral status hot. It’s why entertainment industry talents like Saweetie, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Quinta Brunson, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, and Ariana DeBose trust Temeka with their visions, red carpet walks, magazine shoots, and live television appearances.
“It is next-level when you’re calling Temeka. I think of every single thing…what I spend on just my set-up, you are definitely paying the prices for Temeka to come out.”
For Custom T’s services, “please have your pocketbook together,” the manicurist tells The Shade Room’s Editor, Cassandra Santiago, during an off-camera interview. We bust out laughing when I ask about her price ranges.
Temeka is vague, almost protective of what over 15 years of experience has allowed her to charge her primarily celebrity clientele. Between laughs, she refers to a recent text from Saweetie saying, “custom ain’t cheap.” Still, she shares a lil’ bit. House calls should start at $500–and she’s previously worked on projects with a $10,000+ budget.
From 'The Black Girl That Works In The Asian Shop' To Her First Viral Set Featuring Obama
When we spoke in mid-March, Custom T was recovering from celebrity bookings from the days leading to the Oscars. She had three house calls on show day, finally squeezing in her first meal after 5 p.m. Though grateful for such opportunities, she is open about her “rough” start in the business.
Hailing from Connecticut, Temeka says she became interested in nail artistry after a Black nail technician serviced her in high school. It was her first time seeing a Black woman do nails in her area, and she thought it was “so cool.” So, she started giving manicures to family members in 2002.
Fresh out of high school and enrolled in a nursing program, she started looking for a job as a nail tech. In 2003, Connecticut didn’t require techs to be licensed. As of Jan. 1, 2021, that’s no longer the case, but still, Temeka says the primarily Asian-owned and operated shops gave her hiring grief.
She finally landed a seat at a now-closed Vietnamese shop, TJ Nails. Then, things changed. Black people–her community–started questioning her skills.
“I think my community at that time didn’t know how to receive me because I was sitting on the other side of that table, and so it was so foreign to them, they acted out by saying the first thing that came out their mind versus, omg this is amazing,” Jackson said.
She had three clients during her first six months and hardly made any money. Her nickname in the area became ‘the Black girl that worked in the Vietnamese shop.’
“I can’t say in my career that I’ve had anyone of another race outside of my own that questioned me that much. And I have clients in Connecticut that would be like, yeah, she’s right. Temeka really went through a lot at that time to prove my talent or to prove that I could do nails.”
But she pushed through–maintaining school work, another job at Yale Hospital, and constantly working on her nail skills. She gained trust and popularity in the area.
In 2008, she went viral for the first time after putting President Obama’s face on a set for a client attending the inauguration. The $55 nails received local and national media coverage. She wrote a letter to the White House, attaching a photo, and even received a letter in return. Amid the high of the moment came the lows–hate calls to the salon and online trolling over the set price.
“Getting a letter from the WH was forsure a pivotal moment but to me even still it wasn’t THAT moment because I still felt unseen,” Jackson said. “I still felt like wow I’m still fighting here. I thought that was going to make me really huge, take my career to the next level but it didn’t.”
The Obama nails popularity lasted about two weeks, and Temeka stayed at TJ’s for 7.5 years before breaking out as her own boss for Custom Nails by Temeka Jackson.
From Oxygen's 'Nail'd It' To Building Her Stacked Celebrity List
One day, Temeka’s friend suggested she audition for Oxygen’s show, Nail’d It. She did, landing an in-person interview that later secured her a spot in the show.
When filming began in her dream city, Los Angeles, she almost lost her spot in the competition. Unlike Connecticut at the time, California required licensing, and Temeka only had certifications.
Luckily, the show made an exception–given that she still resided in CT, production allowed that state’s requirements to apply.
“The show taught me a lot. I was competing, I was fighting. It’s so much that went on in the show. It showed me how hungry I was and how determined I was. And how I felt that faith is really the evidence we don’t see.”
The show also solidified her desire to relocate. When filming wrapped, she returned to CT to plan her move, including getting licensed. She flew back and forth from CT to L.A. for her test and its requirements. On the day her Nail’d It aired episode aired, she found out she failed the technical exam. She was devastated–only uplifted by her support system of family, friends, and longtime clients.
“I had failed how to do nails and then the next day I was watching myself on national television in theater so it was mental for me. Can’t say I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. I hated nails at that moment because I felt like here I competing for $100,000 and I just failed how to do nails.”
After a third try, she got her license, packed her things, and finally moved across the country for an already-secured job in October 2015. Within two weeks, the shop owner gave Temeka her first celebrity client, Vanessa Simmons.
By November, she was no longer working for commission and was granted booth rental. The more work she put in, the more referrals poured in.
In January 2016, she got her first red-carpet opportunity–Jada Pinkett Smith’s nails for the Golden Globes.
“I just felt like God said for the hell you’ve been through, I’m going to bless you, you trusted me, you kept fighting, you got everything you wanted, you got your license, Temeka this is your time…even if it gets ugly, even if it gets hard, even if LA is a lot I’m going to give you more than what you have suffered for and I just felt like that’s been my career, that’s been my story, that’s been my testimony. I was faithful in it.”
A Typical Day For Custom T Is Not Your Standard 9-5
Now in 2023, Temeka has found her lane in Los Angeles. She maintains a private studio in Burbank mainly for her non-celebrity clients, who believed in and used her services before establishing that celebrity clientele.
A-Frame Agency manages her while she employs an executive assistant, nail assistants, and pedicurists.
Her typical day is not at all typical. House calls, sets, performances, award shows, and red carpets bring her bookings in the early mornings, all day, and late into the night.
Last summer, Temeka changed Taraji P. Henson’s custom press-ons eight times during her live-streamed BET Awards hosting.
As of last month, she’s five years in with her first rapper client, Saweetie. Temeka describes the Icy Girl rapper as “very vocal, very visual,” but still trusting of her talents.
“With Saweetie, we always need to have a moment so I’m always going to take her out her comfort zone, I’m always gon present her with crazy things.”
Temeka Jackson Is Ready For Nail Techs To Get Their Respect And Recognition
But despite her lengthy celeb roster, which also includes the likes of the entire Smith family and Lil Nas X, Temeka remains humble. And she insists that all her clients, celebrity or not, get the same respect and treatment.
Meanwhile, she says, respect and recognition are the biggest challenges all manicurists in her industry, “whether you’re Asian, White, Hispanic, Black,” face.
“To me, for us, the challenge is people not recognizing us. Us not being tagged, us not being recognized. That is the heaviest challenge, the challenge is not the work because we do the work,” Jackson said.
Still, her advice to young nail techs hoping to follow in her footsteps is to research and be where the celebrity clients are.
“Do the research, do the homework, and trust the process. Know that nothing comes easy, set yourself apart. No success is for the weak. If you’re spiritual, pray about your move. I prayed about this move…lean on that support system you have, even if it’s just one person, and take care of yourself.”
When our hour-long interview ends, Temeka is a short time away from her next house visit. Still, she doesn’t rush me off the call because, as always, she’s already prepared to go.
“I’m packed up, I stay ready, so I don’t have to get ready,” Custom T boasts with a warm and confident laugh.