The celebrity hairstylist and entrepreneur talks to GRAZIA about her new book and the importance of taking care of one’s mental health in the COVID-19 era
Wednesday, December 9, 2020, 6 pm E.T.:Jen Atkin and I were on a Zoom call when her social media manager alerted her that Cindy Crawford posted a video with the hair expert’s new novel, Blowing My Way to the Top, in hand. One wouldn’t think that this sort of thing is particularly out-of-the-ordinary for the celebrity hairstylist, who transforms the manes of the biggest names in Hollywood regularly and even considers them some of her closest friends. But the Ouai Haircare founder and I took a moment to freak out like two girls who just saw their teenage crush at the mall. Then we got back to business.
Atkin’s a celebrity in her own right, with 3.6 million Instagram followers, a haircare brand that’s available at all major beauty retailers, and her own digital hair platform, Mane Addicts. Her resume’s extensive, and she knows it. Nevertheless, she’s hasn’t lost sight of the teenager she once was: the girl that was raised by a Mormon family in Utah, worked at Little Caesars, and drove a Honda Civic. When she downloaded Instagram in 2010, right after its launch, she says she “had an advantage when it came to reaching new audiences.” As someone who wasn’t born into the Hollywood scene, she knew just what the people wanted to see. In turn, she quickly amassed a large global audience.
Social media is undoubtedly still a part of her career, but authenticity is her top priority, by way of being open, honest, and vocal about matters she cares about. One of those topics is mental health, which came up several times during our Zoom call. In October 2019, Atkin enrolled in the Hoffman Process a week-long healing retreat in San Rafael, California. The experience gave her a renewed sense of clarity and purpose and helped her find her spark again.
Ahead, Atkin chats with GRAZIA about her new book, some of her favorite hair creations of all time, and the importance of prioritizing your mental health.
GRAZIA: What was the writing process like for you?
JEN ATKIN: So emotional and amazing. I didn’t think that I would have that much to say. I really felt like I didn’t have an interesting story for some reason. I had this incredible woman Rachel Bertsche to help me get all my thoughts and then help me categorize things because I wanted to go in chronological order, but I didn’t just want it to be just about hairstyling and I didn’t want it to be about my clients and so celebrity-driven. I wanted it to have a message and heart behind it. What’s crazy is that it all just kind of flowed. I had traveled so much the past eight years, and I got to sit and actually reflect on life before with celebrities, hustling in the salon, and backstage days. When I first moved to L.A., there was so much that happened, and I finally got to sit and go through photo albums and Blackberry photos. It jogged my memory. We picked the crème de la crème of the stories, and I’m really, really proud of how it turned out.
It must have been so nice to take that time and really reflect for the first time in so long.
It was pretty crazy. And also getting the full-circle stories. I tell a story about how I was so embarrassed in my Honda Civic when I worked at the salon as a receptionist that I would park a few blocks away, to then doing these insane multi-million dollar weddings in Dubai and Qatar. Meanwhile, my [female] clients there would tell me how they just got the right in Saudi to drive. These kind of moments put my struggles into perspective.
The title, Blowing My Way to the Top, is everything. Were you set on it from the beginning, or did you play with some other options, too?
I looked at the space, what the titles were, which ones jumped out on me. We had Making Waves, written down, and Cutting the Line. I was randomly at home with my husband, and I was like, ‘Ugh, I really feel like it should be Blowing My Way to the Top.’
What did he say?
He was like, ‘100 percent.’ It was so me. The awkward part was telling my Mormon parents and getting their blessing, and also Harper Collins. It was a far cry from Cutting the Line. I’m really happy they trusted me on that one, and I think it’s such a funny title.
Your book title got me thinking. What blow dryer did you use at the start of your career and what do you use now?
Oh my god, for sure, it was a CVS Conair. Then I graduated to a Parlux, and then I went to ParLuxe to probably GHD, and now I’m a [Dyson] Supersonic girl for life.
The New York Times has called you the “most influential hairstylist in the world,” which you mentioned in your book, “changed your life forever.” In what ways do you hope you’ve influenced your social media following?
I was just giving a bird’s-eye view of my life because it felt so crazy to me, the places I got to and the things I got to be a part of: Met Ball, Cannes Film Festival, Paris Fashion Week. I had so many Sex and the City/Devil Wears Prada moments, and I really wanted to take my followers along for the ride. But I also try to have substance and I try to be vocal and honest about certain things, whether we’re talking about gun control, the election, or women’s rights.
I try to just keep the most authentic tone that I can, and I also want girls to know that our value is not just being pretty. Our value is being smart and being funny, and independent, and having our own voice.
What do you hope every reader takes away from your book?
I hope that you get that push that you need. I hope that this can be a spirited guide for you to help you find your purpose. I really want to help people who feel like they’re stuck in a rut, those that haven’t figured out how to live their full potential. When I first moved here in my early 20s, I wish I would have had something like this to help guide and shape me. I hope they learn from my good decisions and my big mistakes.
This feels cruel to ask, but what are some of your all-time favorite hair looks of all time?
I have the worst memory on earth, so I’m going to my BTS work album. *pulls out iPhone to look* Doing Bella for the CFDA Awards, we did this really fun brushed out disco wave. Hailey Bieber’s Olivia Newton John-inspired ponytail for an Alexander Wang event, and Met Ball last year. Kendall, with her really cute little curl and big orange feathers.
From left to right: Hailey Bieber (Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty Images), Bella Hadid (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic), and Kendall Jenner (Theo Wargo/WireImage)
I saw you post about your favorite Chelsea Handler quote: “Whenever I have trouble standing up for myself, I think about whether I’d tolerate the situation if it were happening to one of my sisters, mother, daughter, or niece. If it’s not acceptable for them, it’s not acceptable for me.” Walk me through the moment of reading it for the first time.
It was Life Will Be the Death of Me. I just devoured that book. I really love what she stands for. She’s strong, independent, and she also has a Mormon background, which I love. When I read her book, she was going through this whole psychotherapy journey and figuring out how to have empathy for people, and I related to it so much.
In your Today interview, you touched on the idea of hustle porn, or the act of glorifying overworking. Can you elaborate on your personal experience with it?
I was fully guilty of perpetuating it. We are in this post-feminist era, breaking ceilings and knocking down walls and taking those seats at the table.
There was so much opportunity coming to us that I felt like I couldn’t say “no” to anything because I was like, ‘this is our moment, and I want to show every girl that she can do it; that we can have it all.
When I look now, pre-pandemic to my schedule, it was… that’s the reason I went to Hoffman. I found myself crying on planes and having panic attacks for the first time. I love to be busy, but I was to the point that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I want to share my journey to realizing that that is not sustainable. For me, it did not give me back what I thought I was going to get from it. I want to make sure people understand how important unplugging from your phone is, paying attention to your screen time, taking time to meditate, and taking time to even go to therapy if you can.
In previous years I’ve seen you post about your New Year’s resolutions on social media. How do you plan on reflecting on 2020?
Oh my god, there’s so much to reflect on. I think this year has been such a huge reset for everyone. I’ve been forced to really look within and reflect…a lot. It was a reset that all of us needed. I keep saying we were living life on a treadmill every day, going from this place to this place and doing all the things. It feels like, if anything, this year has been a year of being in service to other people, checking in on friends, taking care of your own mental health, really recognizing what we have control over and what we don’t – and learning how to deal with that.