In Bustle's Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance they've ever gotten to what they're still figuring out. Here, Kardashian hair whisperer Jen Atkin tells Bustle about her new book, the best advice Kris Jenner gave her, and building a pandemic routine.
As Jen Atkin logs into our Zoom call and fiddles to connect her AirPods, I’m struck by what’s on the wall behind her: the covers of practically every major fashion magazine — Elle, Vogue, you name it — a visual resume of sorts for a woman once crowned by the New York Times as “the most influential hairstylist in the world.”
Even still, the wall tells only part of her story: a young woman who grew up in a conservative Mormon family, moved to L.A. at age 19 with $300, and worked her way up in the hair business to style the likes of Kim Kardashian West and Chrissy Teigen, and launch a cult hair care brand, Ouai, in 2016.
With a 3.6 million strong Instagram following, Atkin is now a celebrity in her own right, and her latest endeavor, the cheekily titled memoir Blowing My Way to the Top, complete with a virtual book tour, recounts her rise to the top and what she learned in the process.
For Atkin, this period of reflection coincided with the forced slowdown — “living at work or working from home,” as she calls it — thrust upon so many by the pandemic. “I never had time to reflect,” she says. “People would mention something, like a hairstyle or a red carpet moment or something, and I’d be like, I don't even remember it.”
Speaking exactly one week after the election, Atkin is also looking ahead to what a post-COVID world may hold, including when it comes to hair trends. “I think that while we all have been stuck at home in our boxes and not being able to express ourselves, it's been nice to hydrate from head to toe," she says. "Personally, my skin's never been better. My hair is getting long and healthy. But I do think there's going to be this resurgence of artists and really statement hairstyles.”
Here, Atkin opens up about trusting your gut, how she avoids “hustle porn,” and the bad career advice she ignored.
You went through decades of old photos to jog your memory as you wrote this book. What jumped out or made you think, “Oh my God, I totally forgot all about that"?
So much of it. Pictures from the salon days, my first time I had a writeup in Allure, or working with John Galliano in Paris. And I have it framed behind me, but seeing pictures from doing Vogue with Gwen Stefani. That was my Devil Wears Prada moment. I got a phone call, they were on set, she needed somebody ASAP, and I remember my boyfriend at the time — my husband now — just hearing me scream and drop the phone.
The book is chock-full of career advice, but I'm curious if there’s a single best piece of career advice you ever got.
I always quote this Chelsea Handler line — I think it's from one of her books actually — but she talks about the importance of promoting yourself like you would your sister or a friend. And getting into that habit of really not feeling self-deprecating and not feeling like you have to stand in the background but really getting your voice out there and promoting yourself and feeling confident in doing that.
The other advice that really stands out — Kris Jenner says it a lot — is that if you keep being told no, you're talking to the wrong person. And that's something that I have lived by. No one is going to have your best interest or have your back or want you to succeed. You really need to be in the driver's seat.
On the flip side, what was the worst piece of career advice you ever got?
I was told by an old agent to not work with the Kardashians. That was bad advice!
Yeah! You also talk in the book about trusting your gut. How did you hone that instinct over the years? I feel like that's a tricky thing.
I think by just taking leaps and chances. I left my Mormon community and dumped my high school boyfriend I was supposed to get married to, and my best friend and I packed our cars up like Romy and Michele and came out to L.A. not knowing anybody, not having money, really just hoping for the best. At 19 though, you're just so fearless. You don't know what's on the other side, so you just go for it. I tried to continue to have that mentality, whether it's a salon I really wanted to work at or a stylist I really wanted to work for or a client I really wanted to work with.
"No one is going to have your best interest or have your back or want you to succeed. You really need to be in the driver's seat."
What advice would you give 19-year-old Jen?
Oh my God, I would have said, “Don't do that second or third shot of tequila.” I always talk about how we [Mormons] were banned from alcohol. It was such a bad thing growing up. I think about my days in the club when I first started getting a paycheck ... buying tables and bottles. I remember just thinking at the time, “This is living.” And now I'm like, “Oh, I wish I would have slept in. I wish I had taken better care of myself.”
I also always kind of joke with my younger clients that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. When you're in young love or when things are so emotional, I feel like things are bigger in your early 20s. I wasn't really boy crazy, but I feel like I would've homed in on my career and really created the business that I wanted earlier.
You talk a lot about hustle porn and burnout, which is really resonant, especially right now with so many people working from home and having those lines between work life and nonwork life kind of blurred. How did you identify the warning signs of burnout?
Two things happened. I remember getting a text from my best friend who I moved to L.A. with. She was like, “Are we just going to look back in 20 years and laugh at the fact that you just have not shown up as a friend, and you're just emotionally not available and not there?” And that for me was like, “Oh wow. This is somebody who’s so close to me who knows me better than anyone.”
The second thing was I had a panic attack and fainted in the middle of the night, which I never had done before in my life. I got a dislocated neck and couldn't move for a week. There was just one thing after another, and I think those were just the signs and the wear and tear of me trying to do the most. And it does become kind of an addiction when you're getting pats on the back or you get caught up in the hustle porn and you're watching your other friends doing everything.
On a related note, how has your own pandemic routine or day-to-day changed compared with pre-COVID?
I actually have a routine for the first time in my life. I wake up at 6:30 and walk the dogs. I usually get coffee or go for a run. I do meditation. I will write in a gratitude journal. And I have a habit tracker that I started really paying attention to my sleep pattern. And then I start my workday around 10 and do 90-minute increments of work, whether it's shooting content or emails or Zooming with the teams. Then in the evening, my husband usually cooks or we order in and watch The Crown or Love Island.
I'm very excited for The Crown to come back.
I am so excited. I think in a week it comes back. But who's counting, right?
Sort of a tangential work-related question — I'm always curious to hear what happens when you're styling a celebrity’s hair and they decide they hate it and you have to start over. How do you deal with that?
I don't have an ego in the same way that I don't feel like I'm there to put my stamp on something. I know what it feels like not to feel yourself. If someone isn't feeling great, I talk them through it — “OK, did you just go through a breakup? Did you just lose a job? Do you feel a little out of control in your life?” There’s usually an emotional tie to the frustration. I have always been about whatever makes somebody feel comfortable and feel happy. That said, while I want to make sure that they feel comforted, I also need to be confident in what I'm presenting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.