Tough as nails: swapping a forklift for manicures

Leighton Denny giving Kate Moss a manicure. Picture: Contributed

Leighton Denny giving Kate Moss a manicure. Picture: Contributed

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LEIGHTON Denny drove a forklift truck before a chance encounter led him to discover the world of gloss and glamour

In the chi-chi spa of Edinburgh’s Waldorf Astoria, Leighton Denny is in his element. An audience of well-groomed women hang on his every word as the man the celebs call when they want a manicure tells them about his latest range.

All sparkling blue eyes and gleaming white teeth, the country’s leading nail technician drips charm like the varnish in his vivid pots of colour and when his presentation is finished he works the room, signing his book and answering queries about everything from weak nails to ravaged cuticles.“I’m good at relationship advice too,” he tells them and they giggle at the cuticle cutie, resplendent in his Gucci jacket, Prada shoes and Louis Vuitton trousers.

Denny has time to chat with everyone. He loves people and knows it’s the personal touch that sets him apart from the rest. His Yorkshire accent still intact, he has the gift of the gab and pats your arm as he talks 19 to the dozen.

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After the last fan has been advised on how to tame her talons we retreat to one of the treatment rooms in the Waldorf Astoria to chat. He kicks off his Prada shoes with a groan: “Nice shoes are never comfy,” and lies back on the treatment couch. It’s like a counselling session I joke. So Leighton, I ask, what’s been troubling you.

He laughs. “Nothing. I don’t allow things to become important. A situation is only as important as you want it to be. I don’t give any energy to things like that. I always thought I could do it. I always believed in myself. The only time you fail at anything is when you stop trying to succeed.”

Flitting between Los Angeles where he has a house, London, where he has another, and his home town of Bradford where he has a third, with cars at each, he’s the epitome of the glamorous jet set lifestyle the rest of us can only sniff at in those little pots.

His latest Hollywood Collection bears names of phrases he hears in LA. “Where’s My Limo? You hear that out on the strip at the weekend. Who Are You Wearing? that’s the red carpet question and Click, Click, Flash, Flash, it’s Hollywood,” he says.

He’s tended the nails of A-listers Penelope Cruz, Shirley Bassey, Kate Moss, Jerry Hall and Joan Collins and counts Dita Von Teese, Jade Jagger and Geri Halliwell among his friends.

Now the head of a multi-million pound nail and beauty empire, with 1,000 salons worldwide, the Buff Daddy to the stars started out as a dyslexic forklift truck driver in Bradford. Expelled from school for fighting at 15, Denny didn’t let it hold him back. He’d inherited his dad’s business brain, working in his TV rental business and wine bars from the age of 11.

On a trip to the US he bumped into a manicurist who was making a good living. “She told me they were charging £35 an hour and it only cost £3.50 to do it,” he says. Back in Bradford he gave up the forklift and trained as a nail technician. Soon he was doing well and spotted a gap in the market.

“I saw the likes of Nicky Clarke, a household name for hairdressing and shampoos, and realised there was no leader in the nail industry. So I decided to go to London and see what happened,” he says.

What happened was his charm and skill landed him his own showroom, then a gig in Harrods, being paid by the likes of Max Factor, Marks & Spencer, Chanel and Dior to endorse their products and being awarded Nail Technician of the Year four times until they banned him from entering and made him a judge. Soon he was tending the talons of the rich and famous, with clients flying him out to Europe and the Middle East and doing the world’s most expensive gem-studded manicure at £16,500. When he launched his eponymous range, Leighton Denny Expert Nails in 2005 and took it on to the shopping channels, a QVC star was born.

“I was determined to launch a British brand for British women. They’re completely different to American women, from education to lifestyle to attitude,” he says. “It seemed the obvious thing to do.”

Now one of his Crystal Nail Files sells every 15 seconds, and a nail varnish every 30. He’s one of QVC’s most successful brands. As well as his nail products, he has a fragrance, plus tanning and make-up lines.

His book How I Nailed It!, as well as providing an insight into growing up gay in Bradford, is also crammed with celebs, from the time he went to St Tropez in 2002 and hung out with Tara Newley and her mother, Joan Collins to the occasion when he appeared as an extra in a pop video for Girl Thing, and Simon Cowell dismissed him as “that lesbian-looking thing”. Devastated, Denny went straight home and shaved his hair off. “He really offended me.” Then there was Mariah Carey who summoned him to Claridge’s, then kept him waiting for six hours before paying him for his time and deciding she didn’t want a buffing from Leighton after all.

The celebrity stories are all very entertaining, but Denny isn’t impressed by glamour any more.

“A lot of celebrities are your friends, then one day they just stop calling. That happens a lot. I call it celebrity fever,” he says. His friendship with Patsy Kensit was a typical casualty. They went on holiday together, texted constantly, then Patsy just stopped calling.

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These days Denny is happier spending his down time at home in LA with his rescue pit bull Rhino. “We got him from the shelter where I work every Saturday. I would give my own life for him. If I had to choose between him and my partner, it would be the dog.”

Denny always had dogs as a child, at one time four greyhounds when his father was involved in racing. It’s the story of his childhood that makes for more interesting reading and tells you where he got his work ethic.

“It’s completely honest and there’s stuff in there that everybody told me to take out. Everybody thinks I came from a trust fund and went to uni. They don’t realise that I had a struggle to become the person I am today. It took me to the age of 30 to like myself.

“My mother was from a travelling family but turned away from it by marrying my father.

“We were called flatties because we moved into a house and my sister, brother and I went to school. They disowned us. I would call it rejection and that’s the mentality. I have become accepting because of it. I’m not judgmental. People don’t expect me to come from travellers,” he says. “But my life inspired me. It’s not like it used to be any more. Now everyone’s breaking their necks to get into a house and I don’t think it’s a loss of a way of life or culture. The travelling community is evolving.”

Denny hid his dyslexia at school by being unruly and developed his memory to compensate. “I couldn’t write the book. I dictated it to a ghost writer. I still find it frustrating even though I accept it. There’s nowt I can do about it. I’m an international brand in 32 countries and I can’t spell. Can you imagine how much more successful I would be if I could?

Maybe he’d be less successful.

“Maybe,” he agrees. “I have found that people can be text-book intelligent and that’s not as good. I might not be text-book clever but I’m street clever,” he says.

“I’m glad I’m dyslexic, I don’t want to change a thing. I know my worth and what I can do. I might not be able to write a book with pen and paper, never read a book until my sister bought me Gypsy Boy on the Run because she said I’d relate to it. Now I’ve read 40 or 50 books.”

This year Leighton turned 40 and his birthday present from the Queen was an MBE for services to the nail and beauty industry. “I got a phone call on my birthday. Then I saw my friend John Barrowman going to get his in the news and I thought I’d missed it. So I phoned the palace and they said, no you’re tomorrow. Maybe the Queen wanted to meet me – maybe she uses my products,” he says.

“I’m a multi-millionaire. I don’t need to work. But I enjoy it. I’ll be a bit more selective in future and just do what I want to do. I’m going to go into semi-retirement. But the funny thing is I do more now than I did when people told me what to do. When you’re in charge of your own destiny, you end up doing more.”

Leighton Denny Nails Hollywood Collection, starts from £11 and is available at M&S and John Lewis and www.leightondenny.com
How I Nailed It! by Leighton Denny, £10, is out now.

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