On any given day, Maria Ortiz is the show-stopping core of a glittering circle of women, each more head-turning than the next. She is their counselor, soothing her courtiers from a kaleidoscope throne. And she is their sorceress, manifesting beauty out of the everyday.
They are the Long Nail Goddesses of Newark, N.J., and, for a decade, Maria has reigned as their queen.
The vivacious 40-something’s love of gaudy claws has brought her a coven of women, dozens strong, whose nails stretch past six, eight, even 10 inches — mega-manicures that have blessed them with notoriety that stretches on and on.
By the time InsideEdition.com arrived to Zeyne Unisex Salon to visit the Long Nail Goddesses in their sacred space, crews from New York Magazine, Bust, Allure, The Doctors and a string of international outlets had already marched through in what has become a familiar dance for the ladies: They flaunt their shocking manicures, crack their defiant jokes and watch the video views tic up, up, up.
This would be their last interview for a while, however.
“At first I was so thrilled and happy about it,” Maria wrote of her viral Facebook fame days before InsideEdition.com was set to arrive. “I realize it's not as easy as people think… I miss my humble life and I want it back.”
Maria summons six of her dearest clients for our shoot. As she stays in back, showcasing her polish-lined workspace for the camera — claws out like Vanna White divining for the perfect color — the goddesses make their introductions.
“I’m Janene,” one woman says, spelling it out politely, like she’s been through this before. Janene says she likes to sport a range of looks, on her nails and otherwise, depending on her mood. Today, her hair is big and bountiful and she wears a glittering t-shirt she had custom-made for the occasion.
“We are a family that comes out to support Maria,” Janene says. “That’s why my shirt says, ‘My nail technician is dope.’ I wanted to really represent her today because she’s awesome.”
Janene’s nails are possibly the most ornate among this inner circle. In addition to the swirling polish and rhinestones they all sport, she likes each nail to tell a story. One is festooned with a rubber ducky and baby bottle. "You know, like a child’s room,” the mother says.
Her dice-covered right pinkie is for her love of Atlantic City gambling. On another finger, her name is spelled out in a simple ode to all things Janene.
A charm dangles from her 7-inch middle nail.
“My charms at work used to get stuck,” notes a woman nearby. Petite and impeccably dressed in purple, her practiced introduction comes with a polite tip of her fascinator.
“First Lady Tammy Dunmore.”
Tammy is the wife of a Baptist pastor, a position that comes with perks and a title as well as a lot of expectations.
Parishioners, she says, weren’t always on the Long Nail Goddess train. And when she married her husband and moved to New Jersey from her native South Carolina a few years back, it took some adjustment for everyone.
While her clothes got an update, the nails remained long and lustrous.
“I don’t want to feel like I have to walk out every day dressed up like this,” Tammy says, smoothing her dress. “I’m so beyond tradition because we’re in such a totally different society now.”
Only part of the way through introductions, Maria says she’s got something she wants to share with InsideEdition.com — as well as her throngs of Facebook fans around the globe.
Maria has chosen this moment to tell the world she is a trans woman.
“This wasn’t planned,” she says. “But I gotta come out and tell you guys. And I’m coming out to you guys because I feel the need that I wanna be sincere just like y'all are with me, as well. I have to tell before it comes up. So, love y'all girls.”
Back in the '90s, when she says being trans was even tougher than today, Maria came out to her loved ones. Twenty years later, she’s become an internet star. "When I saw 10 million views, I’m like: Somebody’s gonna put my [personal] stuff out there,” Maria said.
Just a day earlier, Maria said she broke it down for her young, beloved nieces and nephews.
“It’s something I have barely talked about,” Maria tells us as she shuts down her Facebook Live and takes her place in the circle. Around her, the Goddesses silently offer their support with smiles and nods. “At the end of the day, I’m here to stay and I’m glad that I’m opening the door to diversity to anybody. Not only nails, just being different. It’s okay.”
Ana, one of the most outspoken of the Goddesses, picks up as Maria turns quiet.
“I like being different. This is 28 years,” the 51-year-old mother says, sweeping back long, black hair with flamboyant orange nails. “I’ve been different for a long time — between tattoos and piercings, I’m different — and it doesn’t bother me.”
Ana is one of the few Goddesses who doesn’t call New Jersey home. When she’s not with family or seeing doctors for the illnesses that led to her early retirement, Ana happily makes the hour-long trip from Brooklyn to see Maria.
“I like when I come here. I swear I can't go to a technician in Brooklyn — they don’t do it right. They don’t take the time, they don’t. It’s business to them. But to Maria, this is a passion,” Ana says. “She enjoys making us feel good about our hands and about how we look.”
Maria says she was once just a nail tech “doing French manicures all day” when she started taking in the long-nailed ladies who other professionals would turn away. Her love of lengthy nails, her knack for creative touches and her willingness to put in the hours necessary for mega-manicures made her a hit among long-nailed women in the area.
One such encounter left the client weeping tears of joy after finally finding a technician who got it.
“From that moment, I'm like, “I'm definitely taking this forward,’” Maria said.
But Maria’s passions don’t end with nails, and that’s a big part of why she’s turning down future offers. In her next phase, Maria is becoming a foster mom.
“I had the opportunity to foster, and it was such a beautiful experience," she explains. "I'm dying to do it again. I always loved kids. I always had a passion for kids, nails and [I'm] very family-oriented.”
She’s so driven that Maria is prepared to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to help foster children in need, even one that sounds particularly big.
“Cut my nails… I would do it in a heartbeat, that's how passionate I feel.”
Hours after her interview with InsideEdition.com, Maria did just that. In a Facebook Live video in which she thanked her throngs of followers for their support of her public coming-out, the queen of the Long Nail Goddesses revealed she’d lopped her claws.
“Ya’ll guys know that I want to do the fostering thing and I am going for it… I want to do the right thing and if I’m going to be a foster mom — I want to be able to tie my foster kids’ shoes.”
But Olympus is not falling and Maria has no plans to quit her booming business. At an annual event they’ve dubbed the “Black Friday of Nails,” her clients will continue to line up en masse to get their names on the books the one day a year she takes reservations. The Goddesses, meanwhile, will continue gathering for dinners in, nights out and for backyard family barbecues.
Goddesses like Kim, who’s been living the long nail life for more than 30 years.
“It's like a family," said Kim, a former corrections officer who once had the most dazzling hands in the prison system. "And within the family you have all personalities, but we all come together when we need to. And we just bond."
Her fingernails caused quite a stir at work.
“I was a corrections officer with nails," said Kim, who now favors bright prints over uniform blues. "When I first started, it was okay. Well, I got grandfathered in because I started with nails.”
However, when she recertified her ability to fire her gun, Kim says she was forced to cut her nails. Lucky for her, biology was in her favor.
“Because my nails grew so fast, by the time I would cut them, within a couple of weeks or months they would be long again so they eventually left me alone.”
Kathy is perhaps the longest-nailed and also the only white woman of the Goddesses.
“Maria kids me about being the only Caucasian client she has,” says the Mississippi native, who’s been visiting Maria for 10 years.
With the ladies, she says, “nobody judges.” With strangers, Kathy says Goddesses like her aren’t as fortunate. She’s had to go into business for herself in private home care because agencies just automatically assume long nails mean dirty nails.
“It's a common thing that people think you're dirty because you have long nails, but my nails are very clean," Kathy said. "I always keep them polished and neat. Maria always takes care of them,” she says. “When I come in here, it's acceptance… Maria doesn't judge. I don't think any of the girls judge either. They all have long nails too. I don't think they're quite as long as mine but they all have long nails.”
For Goddesses like Debbie, fingernails have become a source of both pride and community for her in the decade she’s been seeing Maria.
“It's like a club," says the grandmother of 10, who sports pink, silver and zebra-striped 8-inchers. "It means a lot to me because I never had that before."
Like all her sisters, Debbie says Maria’s the glue that holds the Long Nail Goddesses together.
“This lady really has talent; she could work for celebrities, but she choose to stay here and love us and let us be a part of her life," Debbie said. "And she loves us so much and I really appreciate that from her. She really does care for you. I really respect that from her. That's what I love about Ms. Maria.”
As Maria walks boldly into her new and quieter life, it should come as no surprise her clients seem overjoyed that the spotlight could soon fade. It’s the natural step for Maria and her girls as they’ve evolved from mere mortals to the Long Nail Goddesses that the internet can’t get enough of today.
“At first, it was like I was against the world,” Maria says. “Seeing these girls that are different, I made a difference… just doing their nails. It becomes a passion. It changes people's life.”