(Writer’s note: I recently analyzed the business implications of introducing fish into the nail salon work force, but neglected to share a personal account of what it feels like to take the plunge with these voracious creatures. For the record, my toes have never been prettier).
Kim Ong and I were born a year apart at opposite ends of the world. If you were to map out a timeline of our lives – hers starting in war-ravaged Vietnam, mine in relatively tranquil Boston – you would never expect to see our paths cross at a New Hampshire nail salon.
Flashy, neon-smothered Kim’s Spa & Nails, located next to Papa Gino’s Pizza in suburban Derry, is the first beauty salon to lure me in its doors. Hardly qualifying as a metrosexual, I cringe when the Supercuts stylist asks if I want any mousse or gel. But Kim had me at hello when I heard she was the first to bring fish pedicures to New England.
Using fish to nibble dead skin off toes reminds me of the primitive technology of The Flintstones. Like their bird beak phonograph needle or elephant trunk vacuum cleaner.
Salon owner Kim Ong owns 500 chin chins, native Chinese guppy-like fish with a ravenous appetite. These toothless creatures relentlessly scrape and soften rough feet before the pumice stone even gets a chance. But so far, they are incapable of steadily controlling a nail polish brush – and thus, pose no serious threat to American jobs.
***BANNED IN TEXAS AND WASHINGTON***
Fish pedicures are forbidden by law in Texas and Washington state, a factor that only heightens the appeal for me. New Hampshire is the state that doesn’t believe in motorcycle helmets, so letting us dip our bodies into buckets of flesh-eating fish doesn’t seem so risky.
Most government health concerns center on communal pedicure tanks which become mixed foot germ cocktails. Kim’s Spa gives each customer separate fish tubs, and will not use the same fish twice in one day. These personal tanks are also cleaned with hot water and bleach in between each use.
Before the feast begins, my feet and legs are scrutinized for minor cuts that could start spurting blood from the sucking fish. Kim tells me these guppies don’t start humming the Jaws theme when they see blood – on the contrary, it can actually kill them. She finds a minor scrape I didn’t know existed and adjusts the water level accordingly.
***TICKLISH RESISTANCE TRAINING***
Even in the girly environment of a nail salon, there is something manly about letting your feet get attacked by nature.
I have extremely ticklish feet, and my first plunge into a tank with 100 chin chins is almost unbearable. It feels like a gazillion ants are scampering up my legs. After about five minutes, however, the sensation evolves into a gentle, prolonged tickle.
Kim reminds me to keep my feet still because the fish don’t “like to have their dinner moving.”
Another challenge: Making sure I don’t crush a hard-working guppy or two with my massive Fred Flintstone toes. An aerial view of the chin chins shows how tiny and vulnerable they really are.
These fish are meticulous and thorough – I never imagined getting tickled between the toes was anatomically possible. It feels like a bizarre new setting on a pulsating shower head, but the sensation is overall a positive one and I want to continue.
I’m sitting on a padded bench across from the fancy pedicure-massage thrones and if I shut my eyes, this definitely could be a Field & Stream moment. Delores Nichols, the vivacious spa director, tells me this isolation and neutral setting (against a waterfall mural) might make guys like me more comfortable to walk in the door.
“When you are getting a traditional pedicure, you almost feel there is a need to have a conversation (with the nail technician),” she says. “Here, you are able to have a moment to yourself. Hence, why I think this is great for men!”
Delores should teach a sociology class on the side. She definitely has an insider’s scoop on the male psyche. Although I’m being very chatty here — eager to fill up my notebook — I usually grunt out three-word sentences when I’m getting my hair cut.
Kim’s 8-year-old daughter, Priscilla, jumps in the conversation and announces that she is naming each and every one of the salon’s chin chins.
“Bob!” she squeals, pressing her finger up against my plexiglass cube. “Fred! Dr. Phil! William! Tommy! Dana! Tricia!”
I ask how she can tell the fish apart and she concedes that she cannot. I encourage her to name the other 93 fish in the tank, however. Doctor Phil, the intolerable TV shrink, gets mentioned because chin chins are also known as “doctor fish.”
After 25 minutes of immersion, my tingling feet are completely numb. I am grateful for a towel. Kim gives me a bright orange pair of flowered flip-flops, at least four sizes too small for me. I figure her regular clients must bring their own flip-flops and that I’ve made a rookie mistake. (You can see the full design on these tacky sandals by scrolling up to the aerial view of the fish tank and looking at the bottom left-hand corner).
***THE PEDICURE PART OF THE FISH PEDICURE***
Kim and Delores seem surprised I’m willing to brave the full fish pedicure experience. Perhaps they expect me to sprint for the door in my half-sized flip-flops.
I’m not getting a pedicure to explore my so-called feminine side, as the sensitive Mel Gibson did in his insightful “What Women Want” movie. This is, pardon the pun, a fish-out-of-water experience and therefore, worth pursuing at least once.
As instructed, I’m in the massage chair sniffing mint tea as another employee brings me a Diet Coke. Not spoiled yet, I don’t demand a fresh wedge of lemon. While my rhino-like toenails are being clipped and filed, I ask Kim about her life and why she thinks there is so little resentment in her native Vietnam toward the United States (I have always wanted to travel there).
Kim offers no answers on the mysteries of international grudges, but her love for the United States is so deep and intense that it almost sounds fake.
“I am very grateful to this country for the opportunities it gave me and now it’s time to give back,” she says, showing off a Rotary Club plaque outlining her business ethics.
Kim donates money from every manicure and pedicure to the local Boys & Girls Club – and she and her daughter both recently cut their hair for “Locks of Love,” the charity that makes wigs for children with cancer.
I don’t normally go to spas, but if I did, I’d want all my spa money to go to Kim. She’s also a business saint, altruistically offering to help her competition set up their own fish salons (without charging a consulting fee). Nobody does that in today’s cutthroat salon world.
My feet are now being scrubbed with a pumice stone, but apparently the fish have done 90 percent of the descruffing already. Chin chins and garra rufa fish (another breed used to treat eczema and psoriasis) are meant to replace razor blades, which are still widely used in salons to shave calluses, but are illegal in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Some pedicure clients are scared of fish germs, but I would be petrified if someone started slicing my foot like Muenster cheese.
Far away from any blades, my legs are then coated in mint green scrubby goo and wrapped tightly in warm towels. I’m still unsure exactly why. Something about moisturizing and sealing in my legs’ inner goodness.
The whimsical pan flute music piped into the salon fails to hypnotize me. I’m definitely amused by the whole scene, but am far from relaxed. There will be important decisions to make soon.
***HUNDREDS OF COLORS, ANYTHING BUT GOTH***
With 300 different nail polish colors to choose from, now was a time to exercise decisive leadership. My only rule: No black.
At the risk of getting hate mail from the nail polish and/or goth community, to me, black vanish means you hate your parents. It means you are one step away from an eyebrow piercing and hanging out at the mall with the skulking vampire wannabes.
The Backstreet Boys have a tough guy singer named “A.J.” who wears black nail polish when he goes out with the band. I am not intimidated one bit by A.J., but I might be if he wore his nails au naturel.
I also just learned of a company called “Manglaze,” that is marketing black and grey nail polish colors with a flat matte finish. They laughably use Satanic imagery and claim that because they don’t use a shiny topcoat, they are even more masculine than the rest of us. Memo to Manglaze: You can name your nail polish after motor oil, antifreeze or termite vomit — it’s still girly nail polish.
Back to Kim’s Spa & Nails…
Little Priscilla is excited to see a guy get his nails painted, and she giddily offers to bring me a few different colors to choose from. Keeping the Halloween-Autumn-Thanksgiving season in mind, I ask for her finest selection of oranges.
It’s a toss-up between Apricot and “Osaka-To-Me-Orange.” I admit I went for the intrigue of the Japanese industrial city of Osaka, home of the 400-year-old castle built for Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who may or may not have worn orange nail polish.
These clever and kitschy color names remind me of when I used to work in a carpet store and a co-worker and I would guess which rug was “Moss” and which one was “Forest Green.” I put the nail polish industry in the same esteemed marketing company as Jones Soda for making the ordinary seem extraordinary.
There is even a purple color named after Boris and Natasha, the bumbling Soviet Spies from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Upon selecting “Osaka-To-Me,” Kim informed me that this color was “by OPI.” This information was delivered with a mixed tone of sophistication and pride – like she was going to also reveal that her salon building was an original Frank Lloyd Wright.
I later researched OPI and learned the company uses a secret “chip-free formula” without stinky formaldehyde, a chemical that shows up in funeral homes, frog dissections and you’ll never believe where else.
OPI also brags about its patented “ProWide” brush with “precisely aligned bristles” for a quicker application and streak-free results. The brush is so innovative, so technologically superior, that it is only a matter of time until the chin chin fish learn how to use it.
Thrilled that formaldehyde is not being painted on my toes, I watch as Kim meticulously applies the first coat of orange. No turning back now.
I ask her to give me a candid fashion assessment. Did I make the right decision for my skin tone? Was my pick a trendy one?
After two more coats of Osaka-To-Me, I’m ready for a shiny, clear topcoat. This step effectively kills the matte finish, and any chance I have to impress the Manglaze community.
I wonder aloud how long nail polish takes to dry. I’ve stopped taking notes and snapping photos — and at this point, I’m starting to feel slightly uncomfortable. Journalism force shield down, my self-consciousness magnifies as I walk the length of the salon in my new toes and matching flip flops.
I’ve arrived at the toe-drying station – who knew such a thing existed? – and I’m mesmerized by the combination of ultra-violet light and electric fans to finalize my pedicure. Kim pronounces me dry after about five minutes, but she’s not done. She pulls out a special vial of Vitamin C oil and brushes it on my toes to “help soften the cuticles.”
Flashing my Vitamin C-infused feet at home, I am given kudos all around for bravery – but failing grades for taste.
“Did you actually PICK that color?” my wife, Stacy, asks in mock indignation. “Weren’t there any prettier oranges?”
My sister-in-law, Kari, thinks “Osaka-To-Me” is “heinous” and “beyond hideous.” My other sister-in-law, Robin, declares the color to be “butt ugly.”
I don’t like to be blindsided, so I tracked down some nail polish experts.
Michelle Mismas, founder and editor-in-chief of “All Lacquered Up,” says she is impressed that I don’t have “horrible gross man feet,” which I assume is meant as a compliment.
“I give you credit for really going there,” she says. “You certainly don’t half ass it.”
On the fish pedicure front, Michelle has been following the trend since it first made a splash in Japan and later was featured on an episode of “Ugly Betty.” She chips in an interesting sidenote: Singer, model and fashion designer Rihanna showed up to the Grammys earlier this year also flashing orange polish.
Nail expert Stephanie Toledo, curator of “The Polish Addict,” recently turned a few heads with her pro-Obama manicure. Based on her experiences, my color choice has no place in an America divided by Red States and Blue States.
“Orange is one of those strange colors with no middle ground,” Stephanie says. “People either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. I think that the right orange can be very chic.”
“I wish the general non-nail-polish-obsessed population would be more accepting of colors like orange,” she adds. “People like me don’t color discriminate, I’ll wear any color. It would be nice to have some variation from the standard pinks and reds.”
Stephanie, who has been squeamish about letting her own feet be devoured by chin chins, left me with this final thought: “Wow, those fish really did a number on your feet. Did your feet look so smooth before? I think I might have to reconsider getting this treatment after seeing your results.”
***CHANNELING THE KARATE KID***
Basking in the orange glow of Stephanie’s testimonial, I believe this bold exercise has taught me three things:
1. Manicurists and pedicurists do not have cushy jobs. They work their butts off and strain their entire bodies to smooth out relatively small surface areas on their clients. I previously assumed the gig was as stressful as one of those paint-your-own-pottery parties.
2. When you empty the Crayola box, one person’s “cool” is another person’s “heinous.” Who knew a simple color choice had the power to test my personal relationships?
3. For those of us who are not Olympic gymnasts, it is not easy to remove your own toenail polish. Striking the Karate Kid pose over my bathroom sink with a bottle of acetone takes more coordination than God gave me.
I know I have no future as a foot model. I also don’t harbor any cravings for more Vitamin C cuticle oil. But if the opportunity arises, I would eagerly take another dip with these fish.
Is there such a thing as a fish manicure?
** BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Fish pedicures are now BANNED in the risk-embracing Granite State, a place where riding a motorcycle without a helmet is totally legal.
** Are fish pedicures cruel to the fish? You decide.
AMERICA’S LIBERTARIAN TOUGH GUY, contrarian journalist John Stossel, goes on the offensive in defense of fish pedicures.