In many a corporate rules handbook, you will find guidelines — restrictions, usually — on makeup.  Wall Street traders and the C-suite know that they’re pretty much confined to wearing blue glitter eyeliner or black lipstick on weekends only. But there’s one career that doesn’t exactly come with a corporate handbook and yet has plenty of unspoken rules governing it: sign language interpreters.

Photo Credit: Josh Garrett

Interpreters speak with their hands in American Sign Language (ASL) order to communicate with Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. As the focus is supposed to be on what they’re saying, not on what they’re wearing, most interpreters stick to black or neutral clothes and minimal makeup. But interpreters have to keep an eye on their hands in particular — wearing nail polish, rings, or bracelets is too distracting.For Samantha Cotter, a sign language interpreter who was Deaf fashion designer Justin LeBlanc‘s interpreter on two seasons of “Project Runway,” balancing her job with her love of nail art is a constant game of back-and-forth.Cotter loves to have her nails done, but like many interpreters, she doesn’t have an established schedule that enables her to just wear crazy nail art on weekends like someone who, say, works in finance. She’s often called in to hospitals or police stations at the spur of the moment. So she has learned how, in the words of “Runway” guru Tim Gunn, to make it work. Cotter buys press-on nails that can easily be removed if she gets called in to a last-minute job, then repaints them with different colors and designs to get maximum use out of them.Billieanne McLellan, an interpreter and ASL instructor based in San Diego, has also found ways to express her creativity and love of beauty products within the confines of the job. She usually wears nude or clear nail polish when she’s working and has learned from trial and error which colors she can get away with. “One student stopped me mid-interpreting to admire my nails,” McLellan recalled. “I had pastel tips and polka dots for Easter. I didn’t think they were very noticeable because the colors were so light, but the student was sitting close enough to me to see them and thought they were way more interesting than the teacher’s lecture. When I got home, I removed the polish.”

via Billianne McLellanSome of Billieanne’s nail art.
Billieanne McLellan nails

Interpreters occupy a liminal place in our culture. Their job depends on them being neutral and, in some ways, invisible. When Cotter appeared on “Project Runway,” she was often half out of frame — the idea being that she was there to help a contestant communicate, not to be in the spotlight herself. That idea of being a human intermediary can make it a challenge for interpreters to show off their own personality without overwhelming the conversation. In some workplaces, bright accessories or makeup can help a person stand out. But for ASL interpreters, anything that takes away from their hands and from the message they’re conveying could not only hurt their professional image – it could prevent a Deaf person from getting important information.Since her Easter nails incident, McLellan has found other ways to bring personality to her look without having any flourishes on her hands, including colorful belts and shoes and the occasional sparkly hair accessory.  “I don’t want the people I am working for to miss the message because they are wondering if I used Sally Hansen or OPI,” she said. “Then I am not doing my job.”But that doesn’t stop both women from thinking about what nail looks they might try on vacation or a day off. Cotter got major nail envy from Helen Castillo, another designer on “Project Runway,” whose long, dark, Elvira-esque nails were one of her most dramatic accessories. “Helen – her nails are beautiful in person,” Cotter recalled. “They’re long, but they’re beautiful. That was what piqued my interest [in nail art] — seeing hers. “Cotter also browses Pinterest and Tumblr to get nail art inspiration and has been considering trying out nail wraps. Still, despite the limits that her job puts on her beauty choices, both she and McLellan agree that they’d never consider any other line of work. They love ASL interpreting, even if it limits their nail art fun.Now, how can we get a beauty brand to create some fingerspelling-printed nail decals?

Related Articles: