How Hollywood’s most in-demand celebrity hairstylist built her brand
Jen Atkin on why she feels a responsibility to share her life on social media, making smart business decisions and her hair goals for the world.
I connect with Jen Atkin during Paris Fashion Week as one does in 2016: on Snapchat. When we meet up, it’s clear that Hollywood’s most in-demand hair stylist – her recent (and regular) clientele include pretty much all of the Kardashian-Jenners, Jessica Alba, Chrissy Teigen, Bella Hadid and Jenna Dewan Tatum, to name a few – is also in the running for the most hardworking. After finishing the last of several back-to-back haircuts, she livestreams her workspace, an apartment near the Arc de Triomphe, from ELLE Canada’s Periscope account and her own simultaneously. Nothing is off limits. She’s happy to answer any question thrown at her (“Those aren’t freckles, that’s my melasma,” she tells one curious viewer). She presents two blotters with scents she’s debating over for an upcoming Ouai product, her recently-launched, but already massively popular line of hair care products, which were made available to Canadians last week. When she pulls out products from her kit, not all of them are from her own brand, but she talks about using and loving them anyway. Then, after we’re done chatting, she looks around for a broom to start sweeping. It’s a work ethic Khloe Kardashian summarized for The New York Times saying, “Some people, you give them an inch and they take a mile. Jen is always on time in the morning.” Here, Atkin explains why she feels a responsibility to share her life on social media, her decision-making process and what she wants everyone to be able to do with their hair.
You started off as a hairstylist, and now you have Mane Addicts (a website devoted to hair), you have Mane University (hairstyling classes for professionals) and Ouai (hair care line). Was expanding your brand always something you were conscious of?
No, everything has happened super organically. So it’s hard when people ask me what my strategy was – there was no strategy. It’s just my path. If you were to tell me I would be in Paris doing hair, and be able to make a living doing it, I would have said you’re crazy. Here’s the thing: I definitely think you have control over your destiny. I’m a big believer in setting goals and working hard, but – and this sounds like a contradiction – I don’t ever do something thinking “Oh, I want to do this because that’s going to happen.” I’m doing what I know, and what I like to do.
Let’s talk about that New York Times profile, “Is This The Most Influential Hairstylist in The World?”
I woke up to all my friends texting me and emailing me [when that article came out] – first of all, I was shocked that my friends read The New York Times! [Laughs.] It was life-changing, one of the highlights of my career was waking up and reading that. It was such an honour, but I even say in the article, I take it all in stride. I don’t neccesarily think I’m the best at what I do – I do what I aesthetically think is cool. I’m just having fun. I built a website to expose amazing artists, because I think there are so many talented people out there.
Do you ever second-guess yourself?
I do a lot of research. For Mane Addicts, I sat down with Katherine [Power] and Hillary [Kerr] from Who What Wear, with Sophia Rossi from HelloGiggles and Emily [Weiss] from Into The Gloss. Anyone who knew the digital space, and could give me tips and tell me whether or not it was a good idea. With the hair care line, I asked all of my hairstylist friends to try things out and my girlfriends and my clients were my guinea pigs. When I feel like it’s a smart decision, I go for it. But there are plenty of ideas that I have scrapped once I did the research and realized this is not the best thing.
You have a huge social media presence. I feel like promoting yourself as a “brand” can have negative connotations these days, but you seem to navigate that well. It all seems authentic.
I think we are in a digital marketing era, and I think everyone is a brand. I’ve even talked to Eva Chen [head of fashion partnerships at Instagram] about this: I think that people can read through unauthentic things online. You can’t play a part, and I think that’s why people are kind of revolting against things that are sponsored. We’re sick of being sold things. I appreciate things in culture that are curated and limited-edition – things that have more thought put into it. I’m on this crazy journey. I say all the time, I feel like I’m on The Truman Show. I’m grateful for it, and I want to help encourage other people. I would have never thought when I was in high school in Utah that I’d be in Paris working with Kendall Jenner. I always yell at my friends that don’t like sharing as much, because I feel like it’s our responsibility to help encourage people who are starting out and don’t feel like they have what it takes.
So social isn’t ever overwhelming to you? Do you ever feel the need to take a step back?
It depends on the day. There are days when I feel like I have nothing exciting to share, and there are days when I’m like, “I need to stop sharing because I’m posting too much.” I might have a really great day; I might have a boring day. That’s life!
The “glam team” isn’t in the background any more, celebs call out their hairstylists and makeup artists all the time now. Is it weird to be a celebrity in your own right?
We’re the plus-ones, we’re the pseudo-celebs! [Laughs.] It is weird, I did get recognized the other day. I think I got lucky, I work with girls who are very encouraging. I think the Kardashians were one of the first girls on the scene to start shouting out their glam squad and thanking us and tagging us. It’s great to see other celebs doing that. It’s a small thing for them, but it’s a huge thing for us and it’s really helpful for our careers to get that exposure.
I have to ask, I feel like it’s an open secret that everyone in Hollywood has hair extensions in most of the time.
It’s not a secret! I love Kylie and Khloe both, and I feel like they’ve made it cool to play around with length. As women, we’re able to play with our makeup and our clothing but no one expresses their different personalities with their hair – that’s my goal. My first goal is showing everyone how to use mousse and a diffuser. My second goal is to show people how to put in extensions and learn how to style them on your own.
This interview has been condensed and edited.