When Cardi B.’s nail stylist, Jenny Bui, started crying she still managed to look up to prevent her mascara from running. Tears don’t stain for a reason, but in tracing the trajectory of their flow we arrive at the source of why success for Jenny feels more like a reckoning than a rite.
As I walked up the stairs at the Bronx location of Jenny Nail’s, “Bodak Yellow” ironically (or not) started playing. The salon is spacious, Chanel chandeliers hung from the ceiling taking on the discrete role of moodboard, the smell of acetone daintily laced the air, rows and rows of manicure stations mapped the floor plan and the pedicure chairs looked more like thrones than a place you sat to get your feet scrubbed. “I’m looking for Jenny,” I said somewhat meekly while being sure to tuck my deficient nails (never have I ever gotten a manicure, ssh) into my coat pockets. “She’s in her room,” a girl said, barely glancing up at me while gesturing to a closed door.
Nestled into the far left corner of the spa was “Jenny’s Room” and I knew this because that’s what the door spelled out for me in silver, all-caps lettering. I pushed my way in to find the Queen of Bling herself seated on a chair, head tilted back as another girl was gluing eyelash extensions on. “Hi Lindsey! Sorry yeah, we running little late,” said Jenny waving at me, my eyes catching the glint sparked by her own set of glittery nails, “I need to look good if I’m getting my photo taken.” After the extensions came the curls and I watched as Jenny checked her reflection in the selfie camera of her iPhone. Little did I then know that for this forty-something year-old, a life of luxury would indeed seem like another life itself.
Jenny was born in Cambodia. She lived a normal life with her parents and eight siblings until she was five years old and the Khmer Rouge regime rose to power and war broke out. “We had no food to eat, no house to live in, everyday we live under the air, we sleep on the grass. We had to go to work for them for free and sometimes when you didn’t do good, they’d hit you. I was five years od and they made me go pick up cow and horse shit. If I didn’t go they’d come to the house and they’d use the thing that they hit the horses with to hit me. There was no schooling, no toothbrushes, no nothing. We would scrape the insides of the papaya trees and eat that until our mouths had infections, we were so hungry, it’s really sad,” said Jenny as the tears began to flow down her cheeks.
The Khmer Rouge regime lasted for four years from 1975-1979, claiming the lives of up to two million people. When Jenny was eight, she and her family fled to Thailand to live in a refugee camp. During that time, her family was split up, deceived by the Thai government; told that they would be taken to reunite with the other members of their family including her father, they were instead left to die on a mountain between Cambodia and Thailand where landmines claimed the lives of thousands. Barely surviving, Jenny, her mother and brother walked back to Cambodia barefoot, a journey which took three months. Her mother swam with two kids on her back across a river. They watched as others drank their pee and desperately dug holes in the ground to get but a sip of water. Upon returning to Cambodia, her brother got chicken pox and without shelter from the elements, he got sick. No one would spare even a bowl of soup to feed him and Jenny’s mother begged and begged street vendors and laymen alike for compassion but received nothing but reality’s bitter pill.
Still too grim to be called a stroke of “luck”, Jenny’s sister found her and her mother in Cambodia and was able to pay someone to transport them to Vietnam where she had been living after her marriage at the age of 18. Life in Vietnam was somewhat better but after three months of living with her sister’s family, she and her mom were forced to vacate the premises as the government announced that the harboring of Cambodian refugees was illegal and would result in a massive fine. Jenny and her mother were forced back into life in the camps without any knowledge of where the rest of their family was until her older sister sent a letter to China inquiring about their whereabouts. Discovering that her dad and another sister were in Boston at the time, they started receiving sparse amounts of money but it still wasn’t nearly enough to support them. “Every year I only had two sets of clothes and on Chinese New Year, you’re supposed to wear new clothes and every year I don’t have enough money. My mom she don’t spend anything and she gave me a little money to go to school for an hour a day. We lived there for six years,” said Jenny.
At the age of 14, Jenny, her mom and another brother were sponsored by one of her brothers who was living in Canada at the time so they could move to Montreal. Jenny would attend school for the first time at this age but to do so, her mom had to lie about Jenny’s age, saying that she was 4 years younger than she actually was. Yet as she was thrown so forcefully into Western civilization, Jenny didn’t finish high school and instead ended up getting married at 22 and moving to the Bronx where she now resides.
Far from the idea of an American dream, Jenny and her then husband moved to the Bronx during a time when cockroaches, rats and squalor characterized her perception of the red, white and blue. Married for 10 years with 3 kids to show for it, Jenny then faced divorce and life as a single mother. “I supported my three kids by myself. I was working 7 days a week and my mom was taking care of my kids for me. I was going to school for cosmetology but I didn’t like doing hair, I wanted to do nails and in 1996 I would go to my friend’s salon everyday and told them I wanted to hang out. I never told them I wanted to learn or anything, I just stood there and watched,” said Jenny.
Three months later Jenny opened her first shop located in the Bronx where she stayed for three years in a neighborhood that was predominantly Albanian and Jamaican. Without command over the English language, she couldn’t’ communicate with her clients and was subject to sharp, back-handed blows of racism. A friend suggested that she should try her luck in Harlem. “I sold the shop and I went to Harlem and it was worse. People cursed me out everyday, made me cry everyday. They’d say, ‘you f*cking Chinese bitch, want me to send you back to China?’ I still didn’t speak English and I learned English from there because they forced me to learn it Everyone was treating me so bad back then but I kept doing my work,” said Jenny. Yet it was during this time that Jenny discovered the art of bling from a friend who was living in Japan at the time and got her first big client – Yandy Smith, the “Love and Hip-Hop” star – who would catapult her career skywards. It was Yandy who helped Jenny set up her Instagram account which now boasts a following of over 102k.
There for 17 years, the first time that Cardi B. came to see Jenny for her nails, she couldn’t take her she was so busy but Cardi kept coming back. “She sits on my chair and she’s so funny and the first time I do her nails, I like her. Second time she come to me straight, she don’t go nowhere else no more because I make her look so good. Our relationship is like I treat her like she’s my daughter and she treats me like I’m her aunty, she gives me a lot of respect. I do her nail for five years and she never yelled at me once. I’m so happy for her , every time I see her dressed so pretty I never can believe that’s my Cardi B.,” said Jenny fondly.
Cardi has flaunted Jenny’s ethereal creations on the cover of New York Magazine and most recently at the Grammy’s, aligning the pair in star-crossed fame and success. Yet, she has not lost sight of what is most important to her: family . “Even now I don’t do nothing for myself, all the money I make is for my kids for college,” said Jenny. Now happily married to her husband, Billy, who she shares two more kids with, Jenny continues to carry on her mother’s legacy of selflessness in the face of her passing. “Nobody can replace my mom,” she says, “I always think about my mom before I do anything.” Jenny’s never formally told her own children about the life she once lived, in a genuine display of sacrifice far-removed from pity, she has enabled them to fully immerse themselves in the life that she’s created for them. Her oldest daughter has gone on to pharmacy school, her oldest son is in the Marines, her other son received a full-ride to college and is an aspiring food critic and her youngest daughters, named after the Toyota Sienna and Porsche Cayenne, are a nod to just how Jenny has risen above circumstance, remaining humble while also finding reasons to celebrate her steep ascension.
Although Jenny states that she never could’ve imagined that this is what her life would amount to, never pondered the prospect of living an American dream, she says she does indeed feel American. “I don’t even want to think about back then and I just think about the future. I wish I was 10 years younger and right now, I’m famous and maybe in 5 years my hands will start to shake and I can’t do nails anymore. I’m so worried about that, I love to do nails, nails are my passion,” said Jenny warmly. Yet as the inevitable approaches, Jenny hopes to one day go around the world teaching people how to do nails. With three workshops already under her belt she’s not worried about people taking her skills, “the world is so big and even if they take my skill, they’re not going to do the same like me, there is only one [me],” she said with a smile on her face. There is only one reigning Queen of Bling and her name is Jenny.