The Rise of Chris Appleton, the Man Behind Kim Kardashian and J Lo's Best Hair Looks

Courtesy of Chris Appleton | Getty / Illustrations by Deniza Sabio
Courtesy of Chris Appleton | Getty / Illustrations by Deniza Sabio
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Welcome to Big Break, where some of the most influential figures in the beauty industry reflect on the beauty moments that made them — from the good to the bad, and everything in between. Here, celebrity hairstylist Chris Appleton shares his journey from hair competitions in a small town in England to working with some of the most famous women in Hollywood.

Before there was Kim Kardashian's sleek bob or Ariana Grande's snatched ponytail or Jennifer Lopez's Super Bowl hair flip, and waaaay before the 1.4 million followers on Instagram, celebrity hairstylist Chris Appleton had his mother — or, as he calls her, his first "muse." That was when he learned the power of hair.

"I was probably 9 when I started doing my mum's," Appleton told POPSUGAR. "You know, she had a hard life. She was a working mum of 5, so I wanted to make her look glamorous and important even if she didn't feel that way. I'd do her hair in these movie star updos, like she had been on a red carpet. I remember every time she looked in the mirror, she was taken aback by how different she looked. She'd stand up a bit taller, her shoulders would go back, and it was then I realized, Wow, you can make people look good, but you can also make them feel good. That's where it all started for me."

From there came the snowball effect of milestone after milestone, each slice of success superseding the next. First, he landed his first job at a salon in town at age 13 (he fibbed on his application, saying he was 15). Then, he moved to London, got his degree, and started submitting his work — avant garde hairstyles he had practiced on his mom, of course — to hair competitions. It worked: in 2010, Appleton won British Hairdresser of the Year.

Soon after, he was booking cover shoots for major hair magazines and working backstage at international fashion shows. Appleton's world was runway models, editorial photo shoots, and repeat — until he got a hot tip that singer Rita Ora was looking for a hairstylist, cracking open the world of celebrity hair like a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

It's never been the same since.

Courtesy of Chris Appleton | Getty / Illustrations by Deniza Sabio

Appleton's introduction to the celebrity space seemed to have been manifested at a young age. Recalling early on in his life, he said, "I was always very inspired by the visuals you would see on pop stars or movie stars or red carpets, and how they'd look so glamorous." Thus, it became his mission to re-create that magic.

Flash-forward 15 years, and he was on set talking to a makeup artist about wanting to work with celebrities. The next day, he got his shot with Ora.

"I stayed up until 1 in the morning, at a dingy little hotel, waiting for them to give me the confirmation. Then it came. Rita was flying in from LA, and I showed up when I woke up the following morning. We just vibed. She booked me the day after for a big performance, and I stayed with her for two years. She booked me for every campaign, every red carpet, her tour. I traveled the globe with her. Fortunately I've worked hard to learn my craft, because she wanted to do it all — hair extensions, wigs, hair clip-ins, color."

To nobody's surprise, people took notice. The majority of his work was on full display via social media, with the likes racking up tenfold by the day. Still, Appleton was living across the pond until he got a note from someone that demanded immediate attention: J Lo.

Courtesy of Chris Appleton

"I got an email from her team saying they've got an availability," he said, adding that, unfortunately, he wasn't in LA to take the job. "That was the moment where I was like, 'If I don't make myself available, it's not going to happen.' So that's when I moved to Hollywood."

Still, "for the first week, I didn't do anything; I didn't work and I thought, Oh my God. What have I done? I gave up my home, my life in England. I was just sitting there in LA twiddling my thumbs. I'm a worker, I like to work, so it was strange for me. Then, I got the call from Christina Aguilera's team to do her for The Voice."

After that, all bets were off — and Appleton was booking back-to-backs with everyone from Katy Perry to Adele to Ariana Grande to Kim Kardashian. Then, a moment with Lopez came full circle.

I got an email from [J Lo's] team saying they've got an availability. That's when I moved to Hollywood.

"Before I met J Lo for the first time, we had a call for the "Ain't Your Mama" music video, and she got on the phone and was like, 'Hey baby, we're going to do sixes and then we need to change, and it will be really fast-paced.' I don't even remember everything she said; I was just trying to figure out if I should call her J Lo or Jen or Jenny From the Block," he laughed. "When I met her, she told me she had her eye on me for a while. I don't get starstruck — I believe people are people — but that's about as close as I get. It felt quite like winning the lottery, in a way."

Getty | gotpap/Bauer-Griffin

When you're working with some of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, standing in the background of some of the most-shared photos on the internet, you're bound to attract an onslaught of fans — and also criticism.

"People do recognize me and they do stop me to take pictures. I get it a lot when I'm with my kids, like at theme parks and things. My kids think it's funny and are like, 'Whatever dad,' but I don't know. We talk about sacrifice when I have to move countries. They're still in England and I'm in America. It's like an iceberg — there's a lot that goes on underneath but people only see the top. Even with J Lo, you know her as J Lo, I know her as Jen. Kim you know as Kim, but it's different. I've gotten to know these people; there's a friendship there, there's loyalty. I'm genuinely invested in them as people, as a business person, as a parent. I want them to feel their absolute best."

He continued, "Even if I post a picture, millions of people might like it and write all the comments, but they don't really see them as real people. They forget. You have to be aware of that. You're working with the most famous women in the world. Every time you post a new hairstyle your fans are going to have an opinion on it. You're opening yourself up to that, to the positive or negative, and you have to have broad shoulders. I take it light-heartedly. You have to."

Courtesy of Chris Appleton | Getty / Illustrations by Deniza Sabio

One thing that's remained a constant in Appleton's career is his ability to stay true to his core mission: to make someone feel something through the power of hair. Sometimes that's through product recommendations and partnerships with Color Wow or Tangle Teezer, but he says he'll never peddle something he can't truly stand behind. ("I don't believe in jumping around from brand to brand just because I'm being paid to do it," he said. "I believe in authenticity in everything that I do, and I'm loyal to the stuff I like.")

Other times, it's through the insatiable quest of "what's next" — what he describes as his biggest driver. "Every time I've achieved something, I look toward the next challenge, and I still do that to this today. First my goal was to qualify. Once I qualified, I wanted the top prize. Once I got the top prize, I wanted to do fashion week, so then I did my first show, and then after that I wanted to be the best in hair color. So I got a color degree for hair coloring. I never stopped. I still won't. I don't think you should ever stop just because you've had a bit of success."

Success. It's something Appleton says he'll never stop reaching for, but perhaps starting now or in the future, it'll look a little different. He throws around the idea of education; giving back to the hair industry he loves so much through Masterclass sessions or YouTube tutorials.

"Everyone has been through so much lately. I just want to reach middle America and motivate people to try or create new looks. It's about so much more than being a hairdresser. I would like to be known as someone who creates iconic looks, but more than that, someone who's made people feel beautiful. It doesn't matter if it's Mrs. Jones who comes every week for a weekly blow dry or if it's J Lo — when you make someone look good and feel great, that's when the magic happens."