I first met Jen Atkin in 2015, a few short months before the New York Times would name her “the most influential hairstylist in the world.” We were crowded inside the latest hit blowout bar to open in New York City, where dozens of hairstylists had traveled from across the country—California, New Mexico, Florida—to watch her give a masterclass on Kardashian hair for a nominal fee of $450 to $1,100 a ticket. Selfie booths and mylar balloons (the same kind that had been at Kylie Jenner’s graduation that year) were set up for optimal Instagram shots, almost all of which were taken with the then 35-year-old stylist. The second she’d speak, grainy iPhone 5 screens would shoot into air to record her every move.
It was a new kind of celebrity—one that was completely unheard of for the world of celebrity hairstyling, which was known at the time for being secretive, highly competitive, and extremely male-dominated. And yet, there Atkin was, happy to extoll the hard-earned lessons she’d learned from climbing her way up, first as an assistant to Madonna’s hairstylist Andy Lecompte to personal stylist and close friend to Chrissy Teigen, Hailey Bieber, Bella and Gigi Hadid—and, of course, the Kardashian-Jenners. “I’d rather be collaborative and help other people learn what I have,” I can still picture her telling the room. “As women, we have to help each other out, right?”
Five years later, trying to explain the influence Atkin has had on the hair industry is like trying to describe the Kardashians’ impact on pop culture. Her DNA is so ingrained in the trends we covet and the conversations we have on Instagram, it’s impossible to imagine what the world of hair would be like without her. She’s gone beyond being the most sought-after hairstylist to becoming a bonafide business mogul as the founder of Ouai, a hair care staple in Insta-girls’ shower caddies, and Mane Addicts, a community for hairstylists and enthusiasts.
So it’s tough to think her fateful breakthrough almost didn’t happen had not she not listened to her instincts.
“I had an agent who highly advised me to not work with the Kardashians because they were reality stars, and everyone kind of turned their nose up at that back then,” she says of her early days working with the famous family. “I was just starting out and didn’t have the grounds to be telling my agent at that point [who I wanted to work with], but I really enjoyed working with them and said I’d like to continue on their projects.”
It’s not hard to see why she had such an instant connection to Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé. In many ways, it almost felt like Atkin was a sixth sister of the Kar-Jenner clan—obviously in that she had the hair (her signature perfectly imperfect beach waves), but also in her personable, tell-it-like-it-is candor that will have you hanging on her every word. She’s as honest about the demanding work that goes into building a business as she is about her own beauty routine (yes, she’s had eyebrow implants and a nose job, and, yes, she’s talked about them on Instagram).
Now, at 40, she’s on to her next chapter: as author of Blowing My Way to the Top: How to Break the Rules, Find Your Purpose, and Create the Life and Career You Deserve, a part-autobiography, part self-help guide that officially hits shelves today, December 8. In it, she leaves no topic untouched or filtered: money, power, or the facade of “balancing it all,” which she says she’s still learning to take her own advice on.