Jen Atkin's Rise From Small-Town Dreamer to Most Sought-After Hairstylist in the World

Illustrated by Bonnie Mills | Courtesy of Jen Atkin
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Welcome to Big Break, where some of the most influential figures in the beauty industry reflect on the moments that made them — from the good to the bad, and everything in between. Here, celebrity stylist, beauty entrepreneur, and new author Jen Atkin shares the moments that catapulted her to a household name in the hairstyling world.

It all started with Dave Matthews.

Jen Atkin, then a 19-year-old fresh out of high school living in Salt Lake City, was visiting the movie set of Where the Red Fern Grows, a remake her then-boyfriend's mom was producing. It was exciting, being around someone so famous. Growing up in a Mormon community in Utah, celebrity sightings were few and far between. "It felt like meeting Willy Wonka," she said.

One night at dinner, after shooting wrapped, Matthews leaned over and asked the same question everyone seems to get post-graduation: what do you want to do with your life? She knew the answer right away. After all, Atkin had been playing hairstylist for what felt like forever — she just didn't know she could turn it into a career.

"I loved Barbie growing up, and I would cut every doll's hair for fun," she said. "I was also obsessed with pop culture, especially MTV and the makeover scenes in movies. I loved the idea of transformation. In high school, it was the '90s, and hairstyling was so fun back then. It was all about the Spice Girls, Gwen Stefani, Björk."

There was one time when, after watching Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" music video, Atkin tried a big transformation on herself. "I remember being obsessed with her hair, and so I went to the grocery store, bought shaving razors, and cut my own hair into that cool, choppy bob."

Still, "I never thought I could do it for a living, because that didn't really exist in my world," said Atkin. "My family is Mormon, so my parents had me on this path of Mormonism. The only hair salons I knew of were in strip malls."

Flash forward 19 years, and she's out to dinner with Dave Matthews. "I responded to his question with, 'I really want to work in beauty and move to LA or New York,' and he was like, 'You totally should.' I don't even remember exactly what he said after that, but I was so high from being in his presence — not actually high, but I was just inspired, and this was someone who is a huge celebrity — that I was like, 'OK.'"

So she moved.

Within the year, Atkin and her best friend Lindsay packed up, got out of their leases, and drove to LA with $300 and nothing to lose. "That was my first big leap of faith," she said. "The two of us were the only ones to leave our small Mormon community, and not get married and start having kids. We just broke out of this mold, and came to LA with no money. I only had Little Caesars on my resume from Utah. But that chance meeting with Dave really put fire under our butts. He gave us the permission to go work in beauty, to go work in fashion, and we did."

She landed a job as a receptionist at a salon called Estilo in Beverly Hills, where she was "feeding the meters for Bette Midler and Winona Ryder," sweeping up after hairstylists, and getting a bird's-eye view of the hair world. "It was also my first-ever time meeting gay men. I always joke that when I got to LA, I was raised by gay wolves; I got this amazing education of art, culture, fashion, music, and all these things that I never had growing up. We'd go dancing, and that's where I really fell in love with the idea of dressing up and going out, and just seeing so many amazing people transform and express themselves with beauty."

Atkin quickly advanced from receptionist to salon manager, then assistant at Chris McMillan Salon to Andy LeCompte, Madonna's longtime hairstylist.

"That was my time to sit and learn," she said. "I loved assisting; I did it for way longer than I should have, but that's when you get the most experience — what it feels like to cut different hair types and textures, how to style different types of hair with different tools. You have to put in the work because no one knows who you are. This was before Instagram, so you just hoped and prayed that a top publicist or manager would come into the salon for a blowout and recommend you to a client."

After six years of working in the salon, Atkin got an offer she couldn't refuse: to do the hair for the dancers on Madonna's Confessions Tour in 2006. "We were getting VIP service at clubs and seeing celebrities backstage at shows," she said. "It was my first time traveling the world, and it was an experience that really helped shape who I am."

Once the tour wrapped, she felt ready to venture out to the floor on her own. "It was like the bird's out of the nest, and now was the time to build my own clientele."

Atkin started booking appointments for extensions, which is how she began working with her own roster of celebrities. First, it was Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton, and Lindsay Lohan. Then she was cutting the hair of Hayden Panettiere, Amanda Bynes, and Sofia Vergara, right as she catapulted to Modern Family fame.

In the span of the 15 years that followed came the domino effect of little big moments that led to even bigger moments. It was working backstage at Paris Fashion Week. Doing editorial photo shoots. Traveling with John Galliano when he was at the House of Dior to Shanghai and Paris. Meeting Kim Kardashian for the cover of Cosmopolitan, then Khloé, then the entire Kardashian-Jenner clan. "And yeah, the rest is history."

By this point, Atkin had made a name for herself in the hairstyling world, earning enough clout to start expanding her reach. She masterminded the digital educational platform Mane Addicts, which serves as a source of inspiration and advice on all things hair. Then, around the same time, came the idea to launch the hair-care brand, Ouai.

"I wanted to create a solution to people's problems," said Atkin. "By then, I had spent enough time working with so many different brands and really honing in on my hair skills and talking to numerous clients in the salon, that by the time 2014 came along, I was like, 'God, I really wish that a brand spoke a little bit more like my friends, and felt more relatable, and had a social media aspect to it.' Because at the time, Instagram had only been out for a few years. I thought, 'I would really love to be able to speak to this community that follows me, and create a brand with and for these people.' It was just this notion of democracy."

This is not to say there weren't hurdles. In fact, there were many.

It wasn't just investors shooting down her business idea for Ouai ("They'd say, you're not famous enough' or 'this isn't the right time,'" she recalled) or hustling to even get her foot in the door, although there was plenty of that. At the time of her rise, the hairstyling business was also known for being male-dominated and highly competitive.

I had to believe in myself. In the same way I looked at Dave Matthews like, 'This is a human being who created success for himself out of his talent,' I looked in the mirror at my own success.

" There weren't a lot of women to look up to in the industry at the time," said Atkin. "That's changed dramatically, which is awesome to see, but I always felt like, 'I don't belong, this is a boy's game.' I understand as a woman what it feels like to have a gorgeous gay man doing your hair, and I never felt like I could compete with that. But I had to push that aside and believe in myself. In the same way I looked at Dave Matthews like, 'This is a human being who created success for himself out of his talent' — I had to look in the mirror at my own success."

Still, after 10 years of "living on a plane, in the salon, on set," as she describes it, Atkin reached a breaking point. "I hit a wall and my body just gave out. I was go, go, go all the time and doing too much. I was very guilty of being a part of the hustle-porn culture, constantly saying yes to everything. If I wasn't working, I was still working. I just felt like I didn't deserve to have a day off. I got a herniated disc in my neck from being on my phone and computer all the time. My body said, Enough."

Finally she ditched her phone for a week and headed to the Hoffman Institute, a psychotherapy camp, to reprioritize her mental health. She was in the middle of writing her first book — aptly titled Blowing My Way to the Top — and it quickly became her reason to slow down and reflect. It was the ironic luxury she hadn't afforded herself until then.

"I never had enough time to really stop and look at my journey," she said. "So I set aside my old job log, because I kept track of every job I've ever had in a Google Doc, and then I went through my photo albums, and my Blackberry photos, and then my iPhotos, year by year, and just started writing down a jogged memories."

The moments of self-reflection have been key: "Right now, I am sitting in my office, and I can see the Chase Bank that was near the Estilo Salon that I used to rush to when I was a receptionist to make sure I didn't get overdraft fees," she said. "It's so surreal because it feels like it was just yesterday, but also it feels like it was a hundred years ago. So much growth has happened."

More than anything, though, Atkin says her greatest success thus far has been paying it forward to other up-and-coming women hairstylists in the field — and becoming her own Dave Matthews for the next generation.

"Out of everything I've done — of all my accomplishments, all the glitzy, glamorous moments working in Hollywood — the moments that really stand out the most are the times that I've been able to give back and be in service of others," she said. "I would hope that I'm inspiring people to be the best that they can be, but also to keep in mind their community and serving others while they are bettering themselves. I want the artists that I've worked with at Mane Addicts, and my former assistants, to continue to send the elevator back down for more women so that we continue to create opportunity in the hair and beauty space."