Keeping Up with Jen Atkin: An Hour with the Celebrity Stylist
Jen Atkin on set using her Beauty Works collection line of hair extensions.
The world has come to know Jen Atkin for her celebrity-packed clientele of A-listers including Gigi Hadid, Chrissy Teigen and the Kardashian/Jenner family. Dividing her time among LA, New York and Dubai, Atkin is frequently covered and sourced as an expert by magazines including Vogue, Elle, InStyle, Esquire, Nylon and Allure.
With her booming Mane Addicts website, she works tirelessly to grow the professional beauty industry with access to education, insights and experts.
“It’s always been my dream to bring hair education to the masses, not just everyone who can afford a pricey ticket,” Atkin says.
Beyond Mane Addicts, her cult-status Ouai styling line, non-stop travel, and Beauty Works collection extension line, Atkin managed to find time for an exclusive interview with MODERN SALON where she dishes on assembling the perfect glam squad, girl power, her Diet Coke addition, and how working with the Kardashians shaped her career.
MODERN: What advice do you have for styling a celebrity for the first time?
JEN ATKIN: Especially with someone you’re a fan of, talk yourself out of fan-girling and try to humanize the person you’re working on. They might be tired, or overworked, and don’t get much downtime. So be really cautious about feeling the energy, and remind yourself that you’re in a service industry and it’s not about you. When people get nervous, they talk about themselves a lot—you have to check that at the door. You’re there to help your client feel good, and look their best. If they need quiet time, give them quiet time.
MODERN: Has there ever been a celebrity you worked with who made you nervous?
JA: Definitely Jennifer Lopez, I had to be like "get it together." And Gwen Stefani. She’s so iconic and amazing, I had to keep reminding myself to try and keep my cool.
MODERN: How can you best prepare for working on a celebrity for the first time?
JA: In your kit, you definitely need a good dry shampoo. I love our Ouai Dry Shampoo Foam; it’s amazing for every hair type, works on dry hair and is an instant way of getting good volume. I also think everyone should have a Dyson Supersonic blowdryer—it’s hard for people to take the plunge and buy it, but I tell pros it’s only going to make you look more professional. Also, you need to have a good set of tools, a small curling iron, a 1-inch, 1 ¼, 2-inch, a mini flatiron, crimper. You need to have an arsenal of tools and references because you never know what’s going to be thrown at you. I’m old-school. My clients are so much younger than me, and I’m realizing how important that arsenal is. I’ll be with a client and make a ’90s reference, or talk about using a diffuser, and they’re like, "What’s that?"
MODERN: Do you typically have the look in mind, or does the celebrity tell you what she’s thinking?
JA: Usually on a job, when you’re first starting out, it’s more intense of a process—now it’s easier because the makeup artist and the fashion stylist are all pretty familiar with one another. The reason celebrities use same people is when they know how to work together as a team. Not every red-carpet or every press opportunity or photo is going to be your moment. You have to take turns. That’s what really builds a good glam squad.
MODERN: Do they give you free reign to do what you want?
JA: It totally depends on the day. There are some days, they’re like ‘do whatever you want.’ But I always like to talk to the makeup artist and stylist to figure out the vibe. It’s really important to know when you need to take a step back. It might be a major outfit moment, major makeup look, or major hair look. You need to know how to collaborate so the client doesn’t look crazy. The artists I work with, we all understand that at this point in our careers, you have to collaborate and take turns to compliment each others’ work.
MODERN: Do you ever have to re-do a style because your client didn’t like it?
JA: Chrissy Teigen loves to tease me whenever I’m done with an intricate two hours of glam—she’ll say, "You know, I think I want to wear it up, or I think I want to wear it down." That’s literally every hairdresser’s worst nightmare. That doesn’t happen so much, but it does happen once in a while. That’s why it’s so important to have the right tools and products with you to do what needs to happen in a short amount of time—I learned that from working backstage at fashion shows.
MODERN: How did you get involved with working with the Kardashians?
JA: When I first started in 2007 at Chris McMillan, it was the salon where all the cool publicists would come. So you would just hope a publicist would book you for a blow dry, and you’d be able to get face time and get booked with their celebrity clients. This was all pre-Instagram—it was the only way to get ahead. With Kim, I knew her socially through Lorraine Schwartz the jeweler. We’d be in Lorraine’s hotel room during awards season so I knew her stylist at the time. It was actually 5 years ago almost to the day that she asked me to do hair for the cover of Cosmo. My agent was like, "You’re working with all these top people right now, Jen, I don’t think you need to do this. She’s a reality star." At the time, "reality" was such a bad word. But I thought she was so pretty and I really wanted to do it. So I went to Miami and that’s where I also met Khloe. Khloe was doing X-Factor and wrote me the cutest email. She was like "It’s my first time hosting, I’m really nervous, can you help me figure out my looks?" Again, my agent said, "I don’t know if you need to do this, Jen." But I was like, "I really love these girls! I really liked working with them."
MODERN: So what’s Kim really like?
JA: She is exactly who you think she is. She’s such a boss, but really wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s such a sweetheart. Before it was a trend, she would tag us in her photos and thank us, and she really put her glam squad out there. I owe so much of my career to her.
MODERN: When we watch your SnapChats or Instagram Stories, you’ve clearly become very good friends with your clients. The Kardashians are in so many of your posts. How has the dynamic shifted now that you’re friends with your clients?
JA: It’s not just the Kardashians—any stylist can attest to the relationship you have with your client. You’re in their houses, in their space, in their hair, it can get very personal. In a way, stylists are like therapists. No matter who you’re working with, you’re a part of their private lives, their insecurities, it’s about making that human connection. That’s what’s so fun about being a stylist, giving women confidence, helping them. Hairdressing has been very good for me, and saved me tons of money in therapy. When I’m in the salon, all I do is talk about my life all day long to the point where I figure out how to solve my own problems.
MODERN: Back in the day, you were sort of KNOWN for doing hair extensions. How have extensions have changed over time?
JA: Extensions are so much more fun, and socially acceptable. When I first started doing them, only girls in LA were doing it. They looked stringy and there weren’t a lot of options—just glue-ins. Tape-ins didn’t exist. With my Beauty Works Collection, I was really passionate about offering extensions with a root, with lowlights, with highlights, to blend with clients’ hair more seamlessly with that 3D effect. It makes the hair look so much more real. We have tape-ins, Invisi-Tape, Invisi-Wefts, Clip-Ins, enhancers for a fuller, thicker ponytail. I love that extensions can be used not just for length but to give that illusion of a nice thick line at the bottom of a lob. The Enhancer is amazing for special occasions, weddings, getting your photo taken—hair photographs so much smaller than it is in real life. I love when people ask me, "Is that Kim’s hair, or is that a wig?" Extensions have come such a long way, even wigs. Women always play up their personalities with makeup and fashion, but now, and I think the Kardashians have been a huge influencer in that, whatever story you want to tell for the day you can do that with your hair. [Jen Atkin Beauty Works Hair Extensions are available from beautyworksonline.com]
MODERN: With social media and Instagram and having total access to massive reach and celebrities at your fingertips, what's the best way for someone to break into the scene? Do you have to move to LA if you want to be in the celebrity world?
JA: It’s not a bad idea. The industry is here. A lot of people from NY are moving to LA because there’s more work with a lot of TV and film here, and all the awards shows. Plus, it’s really expensive to live in New York, and it’s a harder lifestyle. Having an agent is not as important as it used to be. The majority of stylists don’t have agents because all their contact info is on Instagram, and their book is on Instagram. My advice for budding artists is to be cautious—have two different accounts. Your personal page can be you getting lit in the club, but you should also have a page that’s just your work, inspiration pics, and the vibe you want to create. Two separate accounts is always a good idea: your professional page, and your Finsta.
JA: Um, yes! Faux-insta. Your Finsta is your real you that only your friends know and it’s public. Everyone in Hollywood has one. You know you’re really friends with someone when you have their Finsta.
MODERN: With Instagram being so important in our industry and everyone buzzing about big followings and influencers, what advice do you have for experienced platform artists and educators to build their following? If they aren’t doing hair every day in a salon, and they spend a lot of their time on photoshoots or teaching in classrooms, but they don’t have big numbers, what can they do?
JA: I came up in a time when there was no social media, so I understand what paying your dues back then looks like. Nowadays, it’s a different world with communicating and sharing. A lot of my peers who are older than me were hesitant to embrace Instagram. They’d say, "It’s going to go away. It’s a fad." But Instagram has changed the way we communicate and the way we share info—if anything it’s a free marketing tool. It might not be your cup of tea and that’s okay. If you want to focus on your art and what you’re creating, and you don’t care about showing your work or having a big following, do what’s right for you. If you’re just starting out and want to get your work seen, it’s a very important tool. Not only to market yourself but to get inspiration and fuel your creative energy. I love it. I have so many amazing screengrabs from scrolling through Instagram.
MODERN: How else have you seen social media change the industry?
JA: I love that there are so many girls on the scene. The reason we see so many successful females right now is due to social media. If you look at your Insights, women are the majority on social media. Personally, my Instagram following is 70% female, and 90% on SnapChat. Women are so much more inclined to share things we’re inspired by, or things we love, like products or whatever. It’s a really important time for women to help inspire and encourage each other to excel in different fields. Look at influencers; they’re killing it.
MODERN: Okay, now onto the hard questions. New York or LA?
JA: Oh my God. Both are equally important. New York is so inspiring with fashion. In LA we lounge around in Lululemon all day. New York is the cool girl on the go, like the iconic Carrie Bradshaw. LA is coming up big time. We were seen as cheesy like 10 years ago, but now people understand LA girls know how to live life. Yes, we live in a beautiful setting, but LA is the home to all our favorite celebrities, SnapChatters and influencers, we have a lot going on. We might not be out on the streets like NYC, but we’re inside our houses making awesome video tutorials.
MODERN: Denim or leather?
JA: Depends on the day. LA is denim. NYC leather. I choose denim.
MODERN: Stones or Beatles?
JA: Harry Styles. Is that an option? These are really mean questions. I love both. Beatles.
MODERN: Curly or Straight?
MODERN: Blonde or brunette?
JA: Brunette, but secretly wanting to be a blonde.
MODERN: Have you ever?
JA: Never. I would not look good as a blonde.
MODERN: iPhone or Android?
MODERN: Your most over-used word or phrase?
MODERN: Fashion-wise, where do you save and where do you splurge?
JA: I splurge at Gucci literally once a year. I just bought this Off-White bag and a belt. I save at Naked Wardrobe, they have amazing stuff. And Re/Done for jeans and shorts. When I first started, stylists had a mentality where they had a lot of clothes in the closet and no money in the bank. If I could give anyone any advice, just be smart with your money. Don’t waste it on a seasonal shoe or bag. Invest in real estate or your kit.
MODERN: …and a Dyson blowdryer?
JA: Yes! Go buy a Dyson!
MODERN: Who are you following on your Finsta?
JA: Outside of friends, on the DL I am following a bunch of new young artists, but I’m also loving @glencocoforhair, @_ep_, @cailenoble, @jenloura, @bpalestino, @paintedhair, @andrewfitzsimons, @justinemarjan, @chrisappleton1, @laurapolko, @sydhayeshair, @georgiykot.
MODERN: Do you have any tattoos?
JA: I have three. A Japanese Kanji symbol tramp stamp. A hummingbird outline on the inside of my wrist because it was my grandmother’s favorite bird. And a red star on top of hand that I got the year I moved to LA. I was in Venice Beach and I was like, "I totally need to get a star tattooed on my hand." Then someone told me that you get a red star tattoo if you survived heroin. Apparently, Tommy Lee has that tattoo, too. [long pause] It was a badly researched tattoo. Sorry, I’m eating gummy bears.
MODERN: Gummy bears at 8:30 a.m.? I was certain you were going to say you get your energy by working out.
JA: I was just telling my husband that I haven’t worked out in nine months. I’m definitely skinny fat right now. I pulled muscle in shoulder this weekend and I’m in so much pain. It’s been hard because I just don’t have time. I used to be that girl going to Tracy Anderson’s Bootcamp first thing in the morning, but I’m so dependant on sleep, and I need as many hours I can get, and I gave up working out for sleep.
MODERN: What look or trend are you loving right now?
JA: I’m going through a major ’90s phase, and I really love old Kate Moss, old Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymore. It was an amazing decade for fashion—Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson, Janet Jackson with her braids.
MODERN: ...and Natalie Imbruglia, right?
JA: Yes! That was the reason I started doing hair. I wanted a haircut that no one could give me. I wanted a disconnected razored bob.
MODERN: You went from being behind the scenes to front and center on TVs across the globe. You have more than 2 million followers on Instagram alone. What has been the price of fame? Do you get a better seat at a restaurant? Are you mobbed by fans? Do you ever go out without mascara?
JA: It’s the same as it was eight years ago. I get recognized now because of Instagram and working with clients. But I’ve always felt like I’m in service industry, it’s always about my clients. When I do meet and greets, or get recognized, it’s more emotional for me, it’s not an ego boost. As women, we tend to be self deprecating, I’m doing it now. If someone is excited to meet me, I want to learn about who they are, I don’t want to brush them off. I love when people are polite; asking if they can take a pic versus pretending they’re not.
MODERN: How do you keep it all straight?
JA: We use Trello: it’s a to-do list, and we can all see each other's. I’m anally organized. To help with travel, we’re all on a shared calendar so we know what the day looks like. We’re on shared iCloud photo album, too. So if the client gets there before I can get there, they can access the inspiration board, talk about what the look is going to be. I also have an app called Sleep Pillow, it has relaxing melodies so I can meditate, it helps with jet lag and canceling out hotel noises. In the states, what gets me through is Postmates, and Deliveroo in Europe—they’re the best, that saves me. I also love Uber and Waze.
MODERN: What about traveling? How do you survive?
JA: The past month and a half or two months, I’ve only been home 10 days. It takes a village. I have two hair assistants, an assistant at the house to pack the kits. I’m fresh from fashion month, I had an event for Ouai in Singapore, a few salon days. My team is so organized. I learned the past year just how amazing women are at multi-tasking. At Ouai, my investor is a woman, the president of my company is a woman, there are only two guys in the office.
MODERN: Other than gummy bears at 8:30 a.m., how else do you keep going throughout the day? Your Instagram Story yesterday showed you going from on set, to a party, to socializing, to live-streaming with your followers, and now we’re having this interview bright and early.
JA: Coffee in the morning: an iced Venti vanilla latte with coconut milk when I can get it. But when the clock strikes noon, I switch to Diet Coke. I keep trying to give them enough plugs where they’ll start sending it to my house. It hasn’t happened yet. Call me, Diet Coke.