How to Quit Your Shit Job and Become... a Professional Nail Artist!

Alice McColm left behind a monotonous, soul-sucking job in corporate retail to paint glam nails for a living.

by Rose Stokes
16 October 2019, 8:58am

All photos courtesy of Alice McColm

Quit Your Shit Job is a column that speaks to people who turned their back on their totally average and soul-crushing jobs to pursue something actually worthwhile. This week, we speak to Alice McColm, a 33 year old from Eastbourne, UK. She turned her back on a boring corporate retail job and became a nail artist and session manicurist – and she makes her own cuticle oils, too.

VICE: Hi Alice! What did you do previously?
Alice McColm: I worked as a personal stylist for a big retail brand working with both the general public and celebrities – mostly from reality TV – who would come in to be gifted clothes.

Why did it suck?
It just wasn’t creative enough for me. I never set out to work in retail or even the business side of fashion. I’m not corporate at all, and just wasn’t excited by “revenue growth”, “sales targets”, bar charts or spreadsheets. The hours were long, and so was my commute. But mostly I was just bored!

What did you switch to instead?
I’m a freelance nail artist and a session manicurist for fashion shoots and events. I’ve also recently become a brand ambassador for a gel polish brand and am making my own cuticle oils for my clients.

Was there a lightbulb moment?
Nothing drastic as such. From about six months in, I was desperate to leave, but I ended up staying for two and a half years. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I knew the two key components that I wanted my next job to have – freedom and creativity – but I hadn’t quite figured out what that would look like. So I started to plan my escape. First, I started saving money. I moved out of London and even told my boss that I wanted to leave. I was so miserable that he would even say to me, “Alice, you need to leave.”

What do you love most about your job?
The freedom to do whatever I want – both creatively and in terms of the direction of the business! It’s all mine: my decisions, my hours, my designs. I also get to be creative every single day in a social setting. All of my customers come to me because they like the aesthetic of my work, which is really validating, and means I can mostly go wherever my mind takes me. I am also now making more money than I was in my previous job, which certainly helps.

Alice McColm professional nail art

Are there any downsides?
Because I love my work, I find it hard to say no to clients. This sometimes means that I work back-to-back 12-hour days, which is obviously really tiring and gives me a bad back. I guess the biggest fear when you’re self-employed is falling ill, and not being covered by sick pay. I’ve been lucky in that respect so far, but it definitely makes you conscious of putting a bit of money aside.

How did you train?
My journey into nails was very long. Essentially it all began in the early days of Twitter, when nail art was only just really starting to become a thing. I used to paint things on my own nails for fun using some crappy kit from eBay and upload the photos. At the time, there were these Miu Miu shoes everyone was salivating over that were baby pink with black swallows, so I replicated the design on my nails. To my surprise, Sophie Robson, one of the early pioneers of nail art, messaged me and said, “You’re really good! You should go and do a nail course and then I’ll employ you!”

At the time I was a freelance fashion assistant, basically being paid £50 a day to lug suitcases around and be treated like shit, so I took this advice quite literally, hoping it would lead me to something better. I grafted and put myself through a night course while working a full-time job. When I finished it I messaged her and never heard back. Quite funny when I think about it now, but not at the time, obviously.

Not long after I moved to Berlin and started doing nails in a place called the Shit Shop, which is so Berlin it hurts. I’m not even joking when I say that my services had to be branded “Shit Nails”. In those days, it was harder to make a living out of nails because it was before gel polish products had come out and changed the game for the whole industry, so when I came back to London, I went into personal styling.

Alice McColm professional nail artist

Are you proud of any sets in particular?
I had to do a portrait of someone’s two Maine Coon cats once, which was really hard, but I think they came out alright.

What do you wish you'd known about your new job before you started?
How to do my own taxes! It is crazy that they don’t teach this stuff in schools.

What was the single worst moment of your dull job?
Honestly, there wasn’t one single moment I can pick out, it was just so mundane. My colleagues would often tell me I looked miserable, but to be fair, I did… because I was! The odd blogger would come in and be a bit rude, but the boredom was the killer.

Rate your life out of 10 before, and now:
I reckon I was a four before – the days just blended into one another. These days I’m pretty consistently a 10.

How smug do you feel when you talk to your mates in shit jobs?
Not smug but glad I finally pushed myself to make a change. I’m one of those people that thinks and thinks about doing things, and talks everyone’s ears off in the process. I’m very aware that I very easily could still be in a shit job, and I’m proud of myself for taking a leap of faith. It’s really paid off so far.

What advice would you give other people who hate their jobs?
Make a list of the things you actually want out of your job, rather than your skills. Because ultimately, what’s important is not really what your “dream job” is but what you want out of a job and whether you’re getting it. If that means more freedom and flexibility, then self-employment could be a good option. But if it’s structure and routine that gets you going, then going freelance would drive you nuts! Once you work out what you want out of a job, deciding what to do becomes much easier!


nail art