Job diary: I'm a mobile manicurist who travels around NYC giving $85 manicures to clients who all want to keep me a secret

Job diary: I'm a mobile manicurist who travels around NYC giving $85 manicures to clients who all want to keep me a secret
Barbara Mutnick has been a manicurist since the 1970s.Barbara Mutnick.
  • Barbara Mutnick has been a manicurist for nearly 50 years after getting her start at beauty school in Florida in the 1970s.
  • Over the years, she's worked on-call in five-star hotels and luxury salons throughout New York City, and has done the nails of celebrities like Lucille Ball and Barbara Walters.
  • Her standard rates are $85 for a manicure, or $165 for a mani/pedi. Before the pandemic, Mutnick says she frequently volunteered at hospitals and The Ronald McDonald House, giving free manicures to hospitalized kids and their parents.
  • This is what her job is like, as told to freelance author Jenny Powers.

I've been a manicurist for nearly 50 years. There have been days where I've been called to five-star hotels and Saudi Arabian royals have handed me $1,000 in tips for my services and others where I've been instructed to take the freight elevator up to my client's luxury high-rise apartment where I'm treated like the help. I've worked on celebrities and socialites and kids dying of cancer.

Every day is different but one thing remains the same — I never say no to a job if I can do it

I got my start in Florida in 1972. My father had died the previous year so my mother and I packed up and moved from Brooklyn, New York to Del Ray Beach, where my parents owned a condo. Today Del Ray Beach is a popular hot spot, but back then, not so much. In those days, there wasn't a bagel to be had.
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So there I was in my early 20s living with my mother in Florida, with no friends or job to my name. One day I went out in search of a salon to get waxed and met a waxer who told me, "Go to school and become a manicurist. I'll be a hairdresser and we can go into business together."
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Two weeks later, I enrolled in a three-month beauty school program to become a licensed manicurist. It turns out I was pretty good at it. It was the 1970s, the Diana Ross days, so acrylics were big. I never did see that waxer again, but there's a saying, 'There's a reason for every season,' and she was the reason I became a manicurist.

I began working as a manicurist, but I hated Florida, so in 1978 when I returned to New York on vacation, I walked the streets in search of a job there. On 54th Street and Second Avenue, I came across a salon owned by a husband and wife that was about to open called Sabella. They offered me a job and I took it. I called my mother and she packed up all my clothing and shipped it off to me in a carton.

I worked at Sabella until 1983. Diana Ross' secretary was my client there, and I always joked with her "If Diana Ross ever breaks a nail, call me!" I got my wish on July 21, 1983, when she called in a panic and told me Diana Ross was performing in Central Park that night and had broken a nail and that her personal manicurist was on maternity leave, so I was recruited to fix the broken nail. I left Sabella shortly after and moved over to The Palace Hotel, where I remained for three years.
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My clients at The Palace Hotel were a mix of hotel guests and Manhattan's upper echelons of women

I'll never forget my very first celebrity encounter there. Lucille O'Ball was sitting under a hairdryer and I made my way over and said, "Do you want a manicure? And when she hesitated, I said,"I can do you in 20 minutes." She agreed, and she didn't talk the whole time. In the end, I asked for her autograph. She gave me one and it said, 'To the whirlwind manicurist.'

Job diary: I'm a mobile manicurist who travels around NYC giving $85 manicures to clients who all want to keep me a secret
Lucille Ball's note and autograph to Mutnick after her manicure in the mid-1980s.Barbara Mutnick
In 1986, I went to work at Josephine's, a salon across the street from Bloomingdales in Midtown Manhattan. Josephine was the queen of acrylic nails, and it turned out she was the manicurist on maternity leave when I was called over to Diana Ross' apartment that summer in 1983 to fix her broken nail.
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After more than a decade of working for other people, I went out on my own in 1990

Initially, I worked out of my Upper East Side apartment and clients came to me. I also made a practice of walking into hotels and speaking with their concierges offering myself up for on-call, in-room mani/pedi services for their guests.

If there's one thing I've got, it's an incredible celebrity radar. One time while shopping at The Limited, I spotted Barbara Walters along with her daughter at the register. I walked right up to her and said, "My name is Barbara and I'm a manicurist so if you ever need one, here's my card," and handed her my business card. To my surprise and delight, she said her manicurist had just retired, and then turned to her daughter and said, 'Why don't we get mani/pedis tomorrow?' and they did. Thirty years later, I'm still Barbara Walters' manicurist. I adore her because she is loyal and doesn't cheat on me.

Over the years, I've worked with plenty of rich and famous types, but I also know the importance of giving back

Until COVID-19 hit, I volunteered at hospitals and for The Ronald McDonald House in New York, and gave free manicures to the children with cancer and their parents. For a lot of the kids, I'm their first and last manicurist because sadly, some of them have died.
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Between March and July of this year, I didn't work at all. Now that I've returned to work, in addition to always sterilizing my tools and using throwaway liners and plastic tablecloths, I wear a mask and hospital booties over my shoes. I also get a monthly COVID test.

Job diary: I'm a mobile manicurist who travels around NYC giving $85 manicures to clients who all want to keep me a secret
Mutnick's gear for doing manicures during the COVID-19 pandemic.Barbara Mutnick

My standard rates are $85 for a manicure and $165 for a mani/pedi. It usually takes me 90 minutes for both but I can be as fast as I have to be if someone is in a rush. Usually, though, I like to go slow and put in the time.

Job diary: I'm a mobile manicurist who travels around NYC giving $85 manicures to clients who all want to keep me a secret
A bright red manicure by Mutnick.Barbara Mutnick
All my business is through word of mouth. I don't do any marketing or advertising whatsoever. My clients love me —which is also my downfall, because they don't want to share me with anyone else. It's like I'm their secret weapon and all they want to keep me a secret.
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