Nikki Powell

Berlin. A city of greatness: the capital of the most powerful economy in Europe, home of the looming TV Tower (the tallest structure in Germany and fourth tallest in Europe); host of the 61 year old Berlinale Film Festival, and with over 170 museums, a league-topping ice hockey team and the oldest Zoo in Germany to boot. But Berlin is also home to a Champion. In the suburb of Karow, approximately 10 km north-east from Alexanderplatz, lies Die Zauberfeile, the studio of Sabrina Siebert.  Sabrina is four times German champion, 2006 European Champion and runner up at the 3rd World Championship, in Nail Design. Quite a talented lady. I visited Sabrina at Die Zauberfeile, to find out more about her, about nails and about Nail Championships.

Sabrina Siebert is a home-grown, real-life Berliner, speaking with a strong Berliner accent. She is a petite and friendly woman, keen to explain the bizarre-sounding world of competitive nail design. Sabrina’s career as a nail champion peaked last year when she took part in the 3rd Word Nail Championship in Monaco, the glitzy, yacht-filled Principality, worlds away from former GDR Pankow, where she was raised; “I grew up very rurally here in Berlin, not really as a ‘city’ type, and more outside. It was all fields around here, and Karow was a proper village. To go to the city we had to take the tram, but it wasn’t so bad for us and I enjoyed growing up in Pankow. I lived in a house on a small street and went to school very close by, where I met my husband. We went to school together, we stayed here and we grew up together”.

Meanwhile, Berlin also grew up around them and when Karow was developed 14 years ago, with new shopping arcades and industrial areas built on what was once farmland, Sabrina and her husband opened a business together; a tanning studio in one of the large new retail streets. It wasn’t long before Sabrina began thinking about other things she could do to supplement her professional life. One day, she got her nails lengthened and sculpted, a turning point for her; “I found it so interesting that I decided, ‘I’m going to learn how to do that’, found a course and began training as a nail technician.’ But even for the now-champion, it wasn’t an easy start; “At first I thought, ‘You are never going to learn this!’. Everything hurt, I struggled completely, I needed six hours to do one customer. But, next morning I just said to myself, “Ok, try again”, and then it came, slowly, until I finished.”

Sabrina began doing customers’ nails in the tanning studio, which quickly grew too small for her needs. She moved into the studio above, and then two and a half years later to the space which is now home to die Zauberfeile, which she presides over with a team of five nail designers and two beauticians. Sabrina is helped along on the business side of things by her son Patrick, who is studying business management; he is extremely proud of working alongside his champion mother, who also does his girlfriend’s nails.

But how exactly does one become a Nail Champion? For Sabrina, the change from Nail Technician to Nail Champion began when she met representatives from the company Cesars Secrets at a beauty trade fair in Düsseldorf. In June 2002, she traveled to Austria and re-trained at the Cesars Secrets school, where she was asked if she would like to take part in the regional nail design competition for Berlin-Brandenburg. The decision wasn’t made instantly; “I thought ‘Nee dit kann ick nicht! Du bist ein Schisser!’. I had to think about it a lot, it was really a big step for me. I didn’t think I could do it, and I um’ed and ah’d for about a year before I thought, ‘enough!’ and registered myself.”

The day of the competition arrived, and with it came a little surprise for Sabrina; “I had no idea what was going on, they said to me, ‘Sabrina, you have to do stencil nails for this competition, no tips’. I sat myself down, got the stencils and thought, ‘Oh my God, what are these?!’. But I got on with it, modeled the nails with white stencil tips, and finally, thank goodness, got to the end. I thought I would never finish!”. But she did finish, and after the jury had inspected all the models, the results were announced; “Third place! With the stencil technique, that I had never used before. It was actually very, very close between the three of us who came first, second and third.”

And that was the beginning of Sabrina’s ascent. She competed the next year in the equivalent competition in Hamburg, this time knowing beforehand that she had to create a perfect set of stencil nails, and made second place. Then she took on Berlin again, defeating all the other competitors and taking first place. “This meant I qualified to compete in the German Championship, which took place at Beauty Forum München. I’d never been to Munich before and I came first in that competition.”

Nail design championships are like a pyramid; winning at one level qualifies you to move up and compete at the next level, all the way up to the World Championship. Sabrina re-secured her title as German champion twice more before competing in the European Championship in Munich and taking first place. The reigning European Queen of Nails was then selected to take part in the 3rd World Nail Championship in 2010, where after a tough competition alongside 15 other nail champions from various countries, she took the silver medal.

“There was only two points in it. Unfortunately I didn’t come first because of a slight imperfection on the index finger. The smile-line was perfect, but some little bubbles appeared whilst I was modeling the white tip, and that was my downfall. I really hoped the jury wouldn’t notice them, but they did, and my model had to go back a second time for judging. I said to her then, ‘it’s not my day!’. Then I was interviewed, and afterwards started crying straight away, probably from all the stress and excitement. It was really tough for the three of us at the very top, and not clear who would win. I actually had the highest point count, but really I think it was a good thing that I didn’t come first. It’s an incentive for me to carry on and compete again. I’ll get first one day!”

Sabrina is clear to stress the aim of her particular field of competition; “I’m not a champion of nail art, I’m a champion of white tips created using the stencil technique. Nail art is something completely different.” Stencil technique, as the name suggests, uses paper stencils as a base on which to build and model a nail, in Sabrina’s case with white tips. For the championships, competitors have 2.5 hours to model the nails (or 2 hours at World Championship level) before the nails are judged, firstly on their length (determined by measuring the model’s nail bed, dividing that length by three and then multiplying it by two), but also by the shape, the creation of a ‘smile-line’ and the perfection of the application.

The nails are not nails that can be worn normally but thinner, longer versions, sculpted to perfection; Sabrina’s models have 17mm nail beds which she extends with a tip of 11,3mm on every single nail. Not exactly practical for day to day life. One hand of nails must also be painted Ferrari red, the worst part of the competition for Sabrina; “right at the end, to paint the nails red, with the shakes, it’s awful! The last couple of minutes, you really have to rush, The model absolutely mustn’t move her hand anymore until the red polish is completely dry.”

The rules for being a nail model are also strict; nail beds must be perfect, clean and healthy, and of equal length on every single nail. Not surprisingly given the strict criteria, Sabrina has used the same models for years, training intensively on them for two months before a big competition, whilst training them at the same time to understand her process of creating the nails. Unfortunately, one of her models can no longer go with her to competitions as she has to take tablets for her heart, which cause her hands to shake too much.

Where does a Nail Champion such as Sabrina Siebert go from here? Apart from the upcoming World Championship in 2015, her next goal is to take on America, home of ‘nail gods’ such as Tom Holcomb and Tom Bachik. But Sabrina is greatly sought after in Berlin, training other would-be champions, judging at competitions and running a constantly booked-up studio, where alongside the usual manicures and stencil technique extension, Sabrina and her team of nail technicians also offer their customers nail art.

Nail art has recently become incredibly fashionable, hitting the mainstream helped along by brilliant nail studios such as WAH Nails in London, but it is yet to make such an impact in Karow. Although Sabrina regularly bedecks clients, and her own, hands with nail art designs which include diamante stones, 3D flowers or intricate hand- painted designs, she only has a handful of ladies who opt for ‘stiletto’ nails (extremely long and pointed tips) and more full-on nail art. The designs that are requested do, however, change from season to season; “Christmas and New Year’s are really colorful! Gold, glitter, red, lots of stars and all sorts of things painted on the nails. Then comes the ski season and everybody wants white glitter and snowflakes. Then a phase of more ‘normal’ nails, natural colours, white tips. Then we get to summer and it’s all colorful again, with shells, little diamantes and so on.”

Sabrina is also on-call when celebrities come to town with their nails in need of a good seeing-to; she was sought out by Rihanna’s managing team when the pop star came to play Berlin last year. Leaving her Karow studio for Rihanna’s hotel room in Potsdamer Platz, Sabrina worked on the singer’s nails alongside a team of beauty professionals and replaced her square nails with a set of long, almond-shaped extensions (inspired by Sabrina’s own long ‘stilettos’) polished to match the shoes Rihanna would wear for her next Berlin performance. Sabrina, a true professional, was completely nonplussed by the situation, just pleased to have been described as the ‘acrylic expert’ in Berlin. The nails were also seen by a wider audience when Rihanna made an appearance at Alexa shopping centre to sign autographs; “I heard from so many of my customers after that, and I said, “yes! I did those nails!”.

I ask Sabrina if she has a dream nail model, perhaps another pop star? She answers, “you know, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think there’s anybody! I would say that anyone who comes to me, loves nails and says they would like to have them done, I’d do them very happily, no matter who it was sitting front of me.”