One of Oprah Winfrey‘s favorite things is getting pedicures, but not just any old pedicure. For years her toes were given the VIP treatment by Gloria L. Williams, aka the Footnanny. She loved Gloria’s treatments so much, she (and Stedman Graham) encouraged the pedicurist to bottle up her concoctions—old family recipes from the South she learned growing up in Dixmoor, Illinois—and share them with others.
That encouragement developed into a line of premium lotions, soaks, and oils that focused strictly on feet and birthed the Footnanny. Since then, Gloria has found her products on Oprah’s holiday “Favorite Things” list seven years in a row and has had the opportunity to work her holistic magic on the soles of Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, and more.
Her biggest problem now? Staying stocked. Mostly, because Gloria refuses to alter the “old-fashioned” remedies passed down by her mother to mass-produce Footnanny.
A Foundation to Stand On
“[My mother] mimicked what her mother, my grandmother, taught her. They would massage, scrub, and soak the feet—your feet would feel so good after,” she tells theGrio before describing her father’s contributions to her love of foot apothecary. “I would see the look on [my mom’s] face when my father—I would say once a month—came home and would take table salt, mix it with water and let it sit.”
“He would put her feet in the water and let them soak. Then he would take this pocket knife and just scrape off the loose skin. My mother was in heaven. He’d finish up using lard to moisturize. Back in the day, when you bought a can of lard, it had so many uses including giving someone a rub down.” As a teen, Williams’ mom developed diabetes, a disease that often attacks the feet. Williams nursed her by finding different formulas to soothe her symptoms.
Of course, her methods have advanced somewhat (she’s upgraded to Epsom salt in place of table salt), but that holistic foundation is what she used years later to become Oprah’s right-foot lady.
“When your feet feel good, everything feels good” is a family motto passed down to Williams and has become the Footnanny way. Williams found herself doing nails and working full time as an administrative assistant.
“When I made more in one day from doing nails, than it took me to make in a week of going to my other job, getting on the train, and doing all that, I was happy. I was talking to people and I was getting paid for it,” she explains. Williams’ services always left a lasting impression, so she decided to open her own in-home nail salon. That’s when she had her first Oprah encounter, unbeknownst to Oprah.
Manifesting Big Things
“The Oprah Winfrey Show would come on, before that it was A.M. Chicago,” says Williams. “All of a sudden you see this black woman on TV and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a black woman on TV!’” She remembers some people would say she’s not gonna make it while others would say, “You should do her nails.”
Gloria listened to the latter. She learned early on if you work with the best, you can yield your best results, something she repeatedly brings up during this interview. After making manager at the esteemed Mario Tricoci’s Hair Salon & Day Spa in Chicago, IL, she moved on to the even bigger leagues—Harpo.
She found herself treating Oprah to the lap of luxury in foot care at Harpo Studios as a freelancer. But she almost missed her shot because Oprah didn’t originally sit in Williams’ chair at the studio’s salon. Another pedicurist got the honor, but it’s Williams who later rose to the occasion.
“The lady set up and there were no bubbles. No presentation is as if [Oprah] was like just anybody. I mean, my regular clients get bubbles,” she says.
Months of campaigning later, she had plenty of bubbles and added a pinch of lavender (according to her, Oprah’s not too keen on overpowering aromas, but enjoys the scent) for a set up she compares to the Four Seasons.
“I thought: Don’t look at her. Look down at her feet, and then that way you won’t have a heart attack,” she remembers. What she also remembers is that Oprah was the only person at Harpo who let Gloria give her a full pedicure service because everyone else was always in a hurry. This begs the question if Oprah has time to treat her tootsies like a queen, shouldn’t we all be doing that?
Making a Name For Herself
The rest is history. Oprah asked Gloria to be her personal pedicurist and even booked her as a birthday present to Stedman, who gave her some sage business advice.
“‘You need to put this stuff in a jar and give it a name that feels like you,’ he said. Just fascinated by the whole thing,” she explains. He gave her his bestseller, Build Your Own Life Brand!, and stressed to her the importance of popping up at the top of a Google search. She jokingly adds that Oprah practically “invented Google,” hiring a whole department at Harpo to search the web to see how many times per day her name was mentioned.
The pressure was on with the announcement that the show was ending, and Gloria was racking her brain to think of her brand name. She hit the jackpot when she came up with Footnanny and anointed the occasion by gifting Oprah products and a T-shirt with her new name.
Oprah couldn’t wait to give the Footnanny the co-sign. She insisted on recording a video of Gloria doing her feet on her iPad. Three takes and some lighting adjustments later, it spread like wildfire on Twitter.
“I had only maybe 200 jars of Foot Cream available,” she says. The Footnanny has expanded its offerings since then—from a Boots collection that caters to the needs of the military to a collection formulated specifically for those with diabetes, like her mom. Asking Gloria for her recipes is like asking a chef what’s in their secret sauce but she will share what you won’t find—artificial fragrances and harsh chemicals.
Her products are a breath of fresh air in a nail industry that primarily focuses on aesthetics. Customer favorite “flavors” include lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and cotton candy. Her business strategy is simple but effective: “I built my brand off the feedback.”
She still goes through the 6000+ emails she received after Oprah’s little tweet for ideas on how to give the people what they want, without compromising the integrity of Footnanny. For now, Footnanny’s limited quantities are making fans scoop up foot creams like hotcakes.
Bigger manufacturers want to alter her formula to cut costs but as she puts it, “that’s not her thing.” Until then she has big plans to structure her site in a way that makes it easier to find products that target things like stress relief—a customer request—and setting her sites on the notorious toes of Shaquille O’Neal.
Gloria shared with us the question she asked Oprah right before Footnanny took off.
“When did you know you wanted to be a talk show host?” she asked.
Oprah responded, “No, I wanted to be a journalist. You have to go with what the feedback is. What does everybody say about you?”
To learn more about Footnanny and purchase products you can visit Footnanny.com or Amazon.
Have you subscribed to theGrio’s new podcast “Dear Culture”? Download our newest episodes now! – is now on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, and Roku. Download theGrio today!