The fall months should have been a bonanza for beauty trends as global fashion weeks set the aesthetic of the season in dramatic runway gestures. But arguably the most influential hair arbiter of our time was nowhere near the fog of hair spray that clouds the backstage areas.
Rather, you were more likely to find her, a brunette waif from Los Angeles named Jen Atkin, breathing the rarefied air of celebrity hotel rooms.
On a bright fall day, she was holed up in the Trump hotel in SoHo, wrapping up work on two of her famous clients: Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian. Earlier, she had tended to Kim Kardashian and her daughter, North, and after a week of curling, teasing and smoothing the tresses of the entire sisterly crew (she styles the sides of their hair while her assistants work on the back), Atkin was exhausted.
“I maybe have two years left in me of this,” she said, flopping down on a hotel banquette.
That’s because in a relatively short time (it was about five years ago when she first did Kim’s hair for a Cosmopolitan magazine shoot), Atkin’s star has played out like a hot new TV show. Her work – along with the Kardashians, her clients include Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara and Katy Perry – has been disseminated via traditional and social media to hundreds of millions of followers. She herself now has some 900,000 followers on Instagram, and she admits that she has become as known for her social media prowess as for her talent with hair.
“I’m very good at marketing myself,” Atkin said. “I do what I do, and I’m good for what I do, but I’m not the best hairstylist.” (WWD and Variety would beg to differ: The publications are jointly honoring her with a Stylemaker of the Year award this week.)
Whatever her hair skills, Atkin knows what women want. The beachy waves that continue to appeal long after summer is past? You can thank Atkin for her oft-imitated version, which has become a Khloé Kardashian signature. Or the tousled short bob: See Atkin’s recent cut on Jenna Dewan Tatum.
Her sway is such that she now employs 20 people to help run her growing empire, which along with her celebrity clientele, includes ManeAddicts.com, a hair content site; Mane University, professional hairstyling classes with lauded stylists like Rita Hazan; and a hair-care line called Ouai scheduled to be introduced next spring.
Atkin credits the rise of celebrity influence (and thus her own) to realistic circumstances.
“I love that ‘80s structured hair, but we are never going to go back to there,” she said, adding that her trademark is “undone hair.” Women simply don’t have the time to imitate those coifs. “Especially in America, we barely have 30 minutes to go to Drybar,” she said.
And even if the celebrities and off-duty models who have become the default totems are not realistic icons, their looks are more approachable than the super-crimped or plastered-down catwalk styles.
“The runway looks just aren’t attainable,” Atkin said.
In the hair world, this viewpoint may seem like old news, but Atkin stands out in other ways – namely, her drive and discretion. As much as she has benefited from the celebrity wattage, she hasn’t been blinded by the klieg lights. Her Mormon upbringing, she said, has kept her grounded.
In 2000, she landed a job as a receptionist at the prestigious Estilo salon.
“I was, like, feeding Stevie Nicks and Bette Midler’s meters for about two years,” she said. It was also where she saw talented stylists crash and burn from drugs and overspending. “It was people who had a lot of clothes in the closet, no money in the bank,” she said. “They thought they were the celebrities, that this would never end.”
Atkin eventually worked (and networked) her way up, assisting the hairstylist Andy Lecompte on Madonna’s 2006 “Confessions” tour, and for five years she was the personal hair stylist for John Galliano. She worked hard and steered clear of gossip. In fact, despite what may seem like a predilection for oversharing on social media, Atkin doesn’t divulge much about her clients beyond what’s already out there. That’s one reason Khloé Kardashian favors Atkin over other celebrity hairstylists.
“You don’t know who knows who in this industry,” Kardashian said. “I can’t tell you how many times, when I’m in the chair, the stylist or makeup artist is speaking crap about somebody. They often do it because they think they’re getting an ‘in' with us because they’re telling us the inside drama. For me, it only makes me wonder, ‘What are they saying about me when I’m not there?’”
Also, the intimate nature of celebrity hairstyling (Kardashian sees Atkin nearly every day, often in the crotchety early-morning hours) requires an easygoing demeanor.
“I genuinely love Jen’s personality.” Kardashian said. “She’s snarky and witty and has phenomenal one-liners. She’s become one of my best friends.”
More important, just because the two have become close, Atkin has not taken advantage of her position.
“It’s knowing that I could hang out and get drunk with you and you'll never take advantage,” Kardashian said. “Some people, you give them an inch and they take a mile. Jen is always on time in the morning.”