salon secrets

The Hidden World Of Hand Modeling

March 7th 2016

Nail art’s fashion credibility is propelling hand models to the rank of starlet and muse. Susan Schell, a New York based hand model coveted by magazines like Vogue and Nylon for their editorials, takes FAB Beauty behind the scenes of this fascinating but little known beauty profession.

Becoming A Hand Model: Susan Schell’s Story

Susan’s elegant and slender hands have borne the most extravagant of nail art trends. Ranging from ‘negative space’ manicures, where the nail’s natural tone is emphasized by the application of colorful, abstract forms to sequined, total look effects, she has modeled for the manicure editorials of the world’s greatest fashion pages. Nonetheless, when she arrived to New York to study jewelry at the prestigious Parsons New School for Design, she never expected to be plunged into the very heart of the exciting world of hand modeling.

‘It was while I was working at a jewelry company that my hands debuted in my first professional photoshoot. People had often complimented me and jokingly said things like “You should be a hand model!” so after that shoot I figured I should see if it was something I could do. I got an agent and have been working professionally ever since,’ she recalls fondly.

Paintbox Fall_Winter 2015 ; hand model Susan Schell
Paintbox Fall/Winter 2015 ; hand model Susan Schell

The Fashionable Rise Of Hand Modeling

Although hand models have always been in demand for advertising, the profession has seen an extraordinary revival in the world of fashion magazines. ‘Nail photo shoots have become real sources of inspiration for many women, especially because nail art makes fashion accessible for everyone,’ Susan tells us. The burgeoning industry has created lots of opportunities for girls who, like Susan, have the ‘ideal hand’ that fashion editors are on the lookout for.

‘For women hand models there are often two types – the “mummy” hand and the “glam” hand,’ she explains. ‘The “mummy” hand is a hand that is beautiful, with straight fingers and healthy nails, but is completely unremarkable – in the sense that it does not distract from the product. So this kind of model might be washing dishes or feeding a cat. The “glam” hand tends to have longer finger nails but above all glowing skin. I have done a lot more “glam” work but am able to do both,’ she explains. ‘Household product brands look for ‘‘mummy hands’’ and “glam” hands are targeted by fashion magazines for editorials.’

Holiday Glitter by Paintbox Fall_Winter-2015 hand model Susan-Schell
Holiday Glitter by Paintbox Fall/Winter 2015 ; hand model Susan Schell

Body part modeling agencies (hands, feet, body), such as London’s BMA models, are transitioning towards to having a luxury image and status. ‘They’ve become essential for different brands and magazines who need a go-between who has access to all kinds of parts models,’ Susan tells us. For hand modeling, her agency Parts Models gives her an enviable level of stability. For example, ‘just like for traditional models, an editorial pays in general between 150 and 500 dollars, whilst a commercial shoot might pay several thousand dollars for a single photo.’

Manicure Editorials: From Casting To Photo Shoot

‘Hand castings are a strange concept but it’s serious work! To improve your chances, I recommend you bring your book, your comp cards which show your latest photos, and above all that you have a fresh manicure.’ But making your hands beautiful isn’t enough on it’s own: ‘I always try to look my best, it can really work to your advantage. You never know if they might need your hair, lips, or whatever in the shot as well.’ For example, during the photo shoot of an accessories collaboration between New York based brand Madison Harding and Madeline Poole – a preeminent catwalk manicurist who has worked with the likes of Philip Lim and Stella McCartney – Susan’s feet posed for the camera as well.

Susan Schell for Madeline Poole
Hand model Susan Schell for Madeline Poole’s manucure
Madeline Poole's manucure x Madison Harding ; hand model Susan Schell
Madeline Poole’s manucure x Madison Harding ; hand model Susan Schell

On days when she has a photoshoot, Susan gets up at dawn because every minute counts: ‘I have done lots of shoots where I get different nail art looks on each hand so we can fit more of them in! Then when the lighting is all set, we shoot the image they are going for – which often means me holding uncomfortable positions for long periods of time to get the right angle.’ Lasting from just a few hours to a whole day, her photo shoots tend to offer up more than a few surprises. Any particularly remarkable memories? Probably a shoot for luxury manicurist Paintbox’s 2015 Spring-Summer collection where her nails were dressed in angora rabbit fur.

Once back at home, Susan dons her protective visor and gets back to forging the jewelry for her personal brand: currently brass and two-finger rings dotted with amethysts; she is of course the first to put them on. A dazzling career path for the young woman whose hands are now amongst the most famous in New York.