LARGO — On her right hand, Devin Strebler wore epic artificial nails, painted herself, with flirty versions of the Powerpuff Girls. This hand was all business. This hand was Content.
On her left hand, nothing. These nails, she kept short, bare, natural, encased inside a baby pink latex glove. This hand was for creation.
Strebler, 31, clipped an iPhone above her workstation. Part buoyant pop culture maven in pink and white Nikes, part business-savvy striver, she knows every appointment hinges on the perfect shot. She stood a second iPhone upright beside her.
This skilled miniature painter destroys her own work every three weeks. Her canvas, fingernails. Working on the scale of millimeters, with impossibly small brushes, Strebler can recreate almost anything. She paints on gel, acrylic, natural nail or press-on: Hello Kitty, McDonald’s chicken nuggets, Beetlejuice, “Hocus Pocus,” “Rugrats.” She paints lifelike portraits of rappers, actors, Danny and Sandy grinning in “Grease,” Macaulay Culkin slapping his cheeks in “Home Alone.” She even reproduced Salvador Dali’s “Woman with a Head of Roses” on a client’s middle finger.
For all this, she has amassed 1.7 million TikTok followers, making her a “mega influencer” in marketing speak. She spends most of her time running Nailz by Dev, her mail-order line of brushes, nail polishes and hand-painted press-on nails.
And for all this, she maintains six regular nail clients. Her work is not for walk-ins, not a quick hit of self-care. This is an ordeal. This takes between 2 and 5 hours.
Just after 10 a.m. the day after Halloween, Theresa Spencer arrived to change out her Freddy Krueger nails complete with three-dimensional drops of blood. The women talked length and shape. Spencer requested clusters of tiny, hand-painted images resembling tattoos on nude skin.
“This elevator music is killing me,” Strebler said, changing the video to Destiny’s Child and firing up her pink drill.
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Humans have embellished fingernails for thousands of years. Those little sheets of protein? A veritable museum for those who want it. A platform to transform a meh day into a yay day, to change your life, just a little.
Or, in the case of Strebler, a lot. She liked nails as much as the next 2000s teen — the flare French tips with glitter, the wonky airbrush work, the ersatz cheetah print. Nail art, though, never looked exactly right when someone else did it.
She grew up in Seminole in a family with artistic leanings. Dad doodled; mom styled hair. Her grandmother painted miniature portraits and her grandfather introduced her to Salvador Dalí. Strebler favored cartooning, sketching big-eyed, curvy girls akin to early aughts Bratz Dolls.
But she’s the first to call herself a bad teenager. A “screw-up.” At Seminole High, her grades tanked as she traded studying for a haze of partying. Her only bright spot remained advanced art. She won contests, even had a piece featured in the Dalí Museum. She knew art could be a career, but she didn’t do much about it.
“I found out I was pregnant. I was like, OK, time to grow up. Let’s do it. I have to do it. And I decided to go to school. I really just cut off everybody in my life that was partying and just focused. I set up a little nail room in my house. And I would just practice, practice and practice.”
While Strebler told her story, Melissa Gratton worked at a station next to her, converting a customer’s neon nails into a fall sweater theme. Gratton was Strebler’s teacher at the American Institute of Beauty. She never had seen a student with so much raw talent. People go to nail school to get licensed and learn basics. Miniature art skills are not necessarily teachable.
Gratton was so taken with her student that she quit teaching to work with Strebler. In her, she saw a creative star, a left-handed whiz who could paint equally well with the right.
“She does characters on her non-dominant hand!” Gratton said. She threw down her brush in mock disgust, laughing. “Can I have half the talent in your other hand?”
Strebler opened Nail Addicts on Seminole Boulevard in 2019 next to her mom’s hair salon. Most of us nail chewers would drive right by the strip mall with a vape shop and a tattoo parlor. Inside, Nail Addicts is a wonderland of the 1990s. We’re talking NSYNC and Missy Elliott, Kool-Aid, Cosmic Brownies, Happy Bunny, Trolls, Furbies. Everything is pink.
Strebler said she doesn’t touch drugs or alcohol at all anymore. It’s impossible to do what she does hungover; her hands shake if she has an espresso. But mostly she’s busy raising Zaiden, 8, and running two businesses with family members and Zaiden’s dad, her boyfriend Brandon Webb.
The internet is basically a third job. Strebler thought she was too old for TikTok. Then her shop got shut down in the pandemic. She hung out alone in her building and uploaded funny clips. She ordered a bunch of press-ons, started painting them and offered to ship them worldwide, cracking into a market of customers shut in the house.
Hers unfolded like so many viral stories: randomly. One day, she woke up to a million views. Another day, the rapper Cardi B shared one of Strebler’s videos. And on. And on. Offers to promote products flooded in, but Strebler decided to make her own, sinking money from one success into the next. She bought her first house and a car.
“I couldn’t even imagine where we are at right now,” she said of her finances. “It changed things in a huge way. Let’s put it that way.”
Her business grew so large, she had to open a separate office in Largo. It’s pink, too, with tie-dye rugs and those baddie Powerpuff Girls blown up life-size on the wall.
After four hours and countless 90s music videos, Strebler applied the final, shiny topcoat to Spencer’s nails. She’d painted Stan from “South Park,” Courage the Cowardly Dog, Bender the robot from “Futurama” and copious other teeny designs.
Strebler and Spencer met online. Spencer, a 26-year-old content creator and makeup influencer who sells her own line of products, is a model for Strebler’s products, so she gets a discount. Her nails cost $200, down from the usual $350 to $400.
If that seems wild, remember. This is not just a manicure, it’s a showpiece. It’s art. It’s time. It’s views. Spencer drives from Lakeland for these nails because her hands factor into nearly every video she makes. The women cross-promote each other, hacking further into the algorithm, breeding progress, keeping an empire growing.
Strebler arranged Spencer’s fingers on a sheet of white paper to cut out glare. This was the most important step of all. She snapped photos and videos of her work to share with the world.
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