Tippi Hedren Helped Vietnamese Refugees Find Jobs As Nail Artists

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Tippi Hedren might be best known for her work in the Alfred Hitchcock classics The Birds and Marnie. But the Hollywood legend unarguably made an even greater impact in the beauty industry. Here’s a look at why the actress is treated as a goddess by one particular section of that world.

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Born in Minnesota in 1930, Tippi Hedren began fashion modeling in shows at department stores during her teens. After moving to New York aged 20, she was taken on by an agency and spent much of the next decade posing for magazines such as Life, Glamour and McCall’s. She was initially reluctant to pursue an acting career due to the tough nature of the film industry.

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However, Hedren changed her mind in 1961 when Alfred Hitchcock requested her services. The iconic director had spotted her in a diet soda commercial and immediately became interested in casting her for his next project. “She has a touch of that high-style, lady-like quality which was once well-represented in films by actress like Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly [and] Claudette Colbert,” Hitchcock once said of Hedren.

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After a long period of screen testing, Hedren was cast as the lead in seminal horror thriller The Birds. “I was so stunned,” Hedren once recalled, according to the Financial Times. “It never occurred to me that I would be given a leading role in a major motion picture. I had great big tears in my eyes.”

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Hitchcock took Hedren under his wing during the filming of the 1963 classic. “I probably learned in three years what it would have taken me 15 years to learn otherwise,” she once noted, according to Kyle Counts’ The Making Of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hedren later earned rave reviews for her central performance as Melanie Daniels.

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However, Hedren’s first experience of filming a major motion picture wasn’t always an enjoyable one. The actress had to endure close to a week of various live birds being thrown at her while shooting a particular scene. One of the many ravens, gulls and crows sliced her cheek in an incident that saw Hedren come close to losing an eye.

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Despite those ordeals, though, Hedren still agreed to star in another Hitchcock movie, 1964’s Marnie. Although overlooked at the time, the actress’ turn in the title role is now considered to be one of the greatest that the master of suspense ever coaxed from a performer. Marnie would nonetheless prove to be Hedren and Hitchcock’s final collaboration.

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“He was too possessive and too demanding,” Hedren said of the director in a 1973 interview with The Beaver County Times. She later added, “Everyone, I mean everyone, knew [Hitchcock] was obsessed with me. He always wanted a glass of wine or champagne, with me alone, at the end of the day. He was really isolating me from everyone.”

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Hedren went on to appear alongside Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in A Countess from Hong Kong. She then added Tiger by the Tail, Satan’s Harvest and Mister Kingstreet’s War to her filmography before playing a teacher in The Harrad Experiment. Next, Hedren began working on a film that has since passed into Hollywood folklore due to the dangers that its cast were subjected to during filming.

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And that movie was Roar, the 1981 action adventure that took an incredible 11 years to make. Around 70 different cast and crew members suffered injuries while filming this story of a family that’s attacked by an array of big cats. Roar was directed by Hedren’s then husband Noel Marshall and also starred her daughter Melanie Griffith and stepsons Jerry and John.

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Hedren had first walked down the aisle in 1952 with Peter Griffith and five years later the pair welcomed daughter Melanie into the world. After divorcing the ad executive in 1961, the actress began dating her agent and future film producer Noel Marshall. The couple married in 1964 but went their separate ways in 1982.

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Hedren said “I do” for a third time when she wed industrialist Luis Barrenechea in 1985. However, she took to the divorce courts yet again when the couple split ten years later. Hedren subsequently enjoyed a six-year engagement to Martin Dinnes, a veterinarian, which was called off in 2008.

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Following the release of Roar, Hedren focused largely on the small screen. She showed up in Hart to Hart, Tales from the Darkside and The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for example. In 1990 she joined the cast of daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, and later on that decade Hedren enjoyed a recurring part on sitcom Dream On.

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Hedren also occasionally added to her big screen filmography. She had a minor part in the sequel to her most famous film, The Birds II: Land’s End. Hedren also appeared in Citizen Ruth and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died and memorably smacked Jude Law while playing a coarse-yet-glamorous older lady in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees.

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Hedren once again joined her daughter Melanie on screen in a 2012 episode of sitcom Raising Hope. She also portrayed an ageing movie star in 2013 indie film Free Samples and guested as herself in Cougar Town. In 2016 she published her life story Tippi: A Memoir and two years later became a central part of a Gucci advertising campaign at the age of 88.

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Of course, since filming 1981’s Roar Hedren’s main focus has been on conservationism. Two years after the troubled movie’s release, the actress set up a non-profit foundation to help fund a sanctuary that’s home to approximately 70 different animals. Hedren also resides at the reserve, which is situated on the fringes of California’s Mojave Desert.

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Speaking to the magazine Ability in 2015, Hedren was keen to state that none of the animals housed at the preserve have any human contact. The actress has taken in several famous creatures over the years including Michael Jackson’s Bengal tigers Thriller and Sabu and Anton Lavey’s lion Togar. The preserve has been the subject of several documentaries as well, including 1995’s Lions: Kings of the Serengeti.

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In fact, Hedren’s passion for animal conservation, and lions in particular, began in 1969 while she was in Africa shooting Satan’s Harvest. The actress and her husband at the time, Noel Marshall, became so enamored with the creatures that they decided to raise a cub in their very own California home. The young lion in question was even allowed to sleep in the couple’s bed.

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Hedren’s philanthropic work doesn’t end there, either. The star has also traveled across the globe to set up various initiatives designed to aid those affected by natural disasters, war and famine. And it was while working with a group named Food for the Hungry that Hedren inadvertently changed the face of the beauty industry.

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During a stint in Saigon in 1975, Hedren was tasked with helping to find jobs for numerous Vietnamese refugees. The actress initially focused on traditional vocations such as typing and sewing. However, she soon had a light bulb moment when she noticed that many of the refugees were fascinated by her fingernails.

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“A group of us were standing close to her and saw that her nails were so beautiful,” a refugee called Thuan Le later told TakePart. “We talked to each other and said they looked so pretty. I looked in [Hedren’s] eyes and knew she was thinking something. She said, ‘Ah, maybe you can learn nails.’ And we looked at each other and she said, ‘Yes, manicures!’”

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In order to give the refugees the best possible training, Hedren brought her very own manicurist, Dusty, from the United States to Saigon. With extra support from a nearby college, Dusty helped to train 20 women in various techniques. Most of the students were the spouses of Vietnamese military officials.

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Dusty helped the women to learn an emerging skill known as silk nail wrapping. This involves the processing of silk to produce imitation fingernails. “I was so proud,” Hedren told ABC in 2015. “Every one of them passed the cosmetic license test in English.”

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Hedren subsequently made it her mission to find these Vietnamese students employment in Southern California. And this started a trend in the beauty industry that can still be felt today. Just over half of U.S. nail technicians in 2015 were of Vietnamese origin, a figure that rises to more than three-quarters in Hedren’s adopted home state of California.

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“I loved these women so much that I wanted something good to happen for them after losing literally everything,” Hedren told the BBC in 2015. “Some of them lost their entire family and everything they had in Vietnam: their homes; their jobs; their friends, everything was gone. They lost even their own country.”

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In addition, Hedren did her very best to ensure that the refugees earned as much as possible. In 2016 Thuan Le revealed that the actress once discussed the reasoning behind her choice of teaching methods. Le told NPR, “[Hedren] said, ‘I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just [a] plain manicurist… because you make more money.’ “

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The influx of Vietnamese workers in the American beauty industry also helped to make beauty treatments more affordable. Before Hedren’s influence was felt, a typical pedicure or manicure would cost approximately $50. However, Vietnamese-American salons can offer customers the same treatment for considerably less than their competitors.

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As a result, Hedren is hailed by many as a revolutionary figure in the beauty world. This includes Advance Beauty College president Tam Nguyen, whose mother was close friends with original student Thuan Le. “Of course I know who Tippi Hedren is!” he told the BBC. “She’s the godmother of the nail industry.”

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Nugyen began overseeing the family business alongside his sister after giving up his career as a doctor. The pair are now in charge of overseeing several beauty schools, with students able to take courses in both Vietnamese and English. One of the reasons nailcare became such a popular profession with refugees was that they only needed to master a small number of English words to do their jobs.

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Four decades on, Thuan Le herself remains employed as a manicurist at a Santa Monica salon. Another of the original refugees trained by Hedren, Yan Rist, also enjoyed a lengthy stint in the profession before venturing out into tattoos. Rist told the BBC that she initially found it hard to make a living, however.

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“Tippi got me a job in Beverly Hills so I could make a lot of money,” Rist explained. “I worked on Rodeo Drive, but I am a refugee and I didn’t dress well at the time. All the rich women coming in, they didn’t want to try the newcomer.”

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“Every day I went to work it cost me $8 for the parking. Eight dollars for parking! In 1976!” Rist added. However, she was soon able to save this money when Hedren managed to find her a new manicurist job nearer to Rist’s home.

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The original group of refugees admit they never expected their move into the nail industry to be so groundbreaking. It’s a sentiment echoed by Hedren herself, who told the BBC, “There was hope in an idea that maybe I could help these incredibly wonderful women. And I had no idea it would reach [such] gigantic numbers.”

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And Hedren has continued to support Vietnamese workers in the industry on a more personal level. Indeed, during her interview with the BBC, she displayed a toenail painting of a tiny rabbit. And this particular design had been applied by her very own manicurist, a man of Vietnamese origin.

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In the same interview, Hedren stated that she hasn’t benefitted financially from her revolutionary idea. Referring to the nail industry, she said, “Now it’s dominated by the Vietnamese. I sure wish I had a percentage of it. I wouldn’t be working so hard to keep these lions and tigers fed.”

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Hedren’s pioneering work was highlighted in the 2014 documentary Nailed It. Its director, Adele Pham, told Medium in September 2018 that she was in awe of the actress’ efforts. She said, “What I appreciate most about Tippi is that she maneuvered as if the first 20 [women] were her family and opened up a pathway to getting their nail licenses that would not have happened without her intervention.”

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“She used her privilege and allowed these women to borrow it when hooking them up with work opportunities after they left the camp,” Pham continued. “When you think about how many Vietnamese nail salons sprouted all over the world because of this act of kindness, it boggles the mind.” And Pham also has a theory about the inspiration behind Hedren’s philanthropic endeavors.

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Indeed, the director told Medium that she believes Hedren’s early experiences as an actress were instrumental to her future work. “I have no doubt that the economic and emotional sadism Tippi endured at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock influenced her philanthropy,” Pham said.

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Hedren hasn’t been seen on the big screen since appearing alongside Jonathan Pryce in The Ghost and the Whale. The 2017 drama was shot at Bodega Bay, which was also where Hedren’s first movie, The Birds, was filmed. But the actress told The Hollywood Reporter in May 2018 that she’s unlikely to ever add to her extensive filmography.

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“I am at the time in my life when I have done almost everything I wanted to do,” Hedren said. “My constant work here at the preserve to care for my rescued and abandoned big cats fills my days now. I doubt that I will do much work in the motion-picture business or television again.”

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