Women in FRAME
Jen Atkin doesn’t see her 2.6 million Instagram followers as “followers” but rather as a dynamic community of like-minded hair-obsessives. They’re the readers of the in-demand stylist’s online magazine, Mane Addicts, and the inspiration behind her haircare line OUAI. Atkin has spent years carving out this dynamic social media space, which functions not only as an informal focus group and fan base, but as a powerful motivator for Atkin, who is a firm believer that beauty should be accessible to everyone. Atkin breaks down how her strong instincts, social media savvy, and pure determination propelled her from cold-calling salons to global hair guru.
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You first came to Los Angeles at age 19 with $300 in your pocket. What inspired you to leave Utah behind?
I was fearless because I had nothing to lose. When I moved here 18 years ago I didn’t know anyone. I called all the salons in Allure’s beauty directory until finally someone returned my call and I started working as a receptionist at Estilo Salon in Beverly Hills. I remember running out to feed meters for Bette Midler and I was so excited and thought, “I could move back home now; that was enough for me.”
What made you want to create a brand like OUAI?
I knew what was missing in haircare. I’d been listening to my clients and followers for years and they all have the same complaints — they wanted easy, effortless hairstyles and they had a lack of time. I wanted to build a socially-connected, digital-native hair care brand that asked their customers what they wanted instead of telling them. No more unrealistic hair campaigns, just multi-purpose products that cut styling time and nourish hair.
How do you distinguish OUAI from other beauty brands on the market?
It felt very odd to me that there are a lot of men in boardrooms making decisions about what women want for their hair. I wanted the initial product line to be something a community helped create, that promotes a realistic lifestyle and feels inclusive. It was important for me to have a group of women talking to other women about their hair care needs. I think that more brands are trying to empower women, but I want to go further in business and beauty. I want to stop making the conversation about women only being pretty and start celebrating the spirit and power of being a woman.
What have been the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of running your own business?
I think making women’s lives and hair easier to deal with is the most rewarding aspect. I love getting tagged in pictures and having DM convos with my followers and fans of Mane Addicts and OUAI. The most challenging aspect is finding the time for everything. I don’t believe in balance but I do believe in hiring a good team. You’re only as good as your team.
You’re an avid social media user. What’s the first social platform you check when you wake up?
I check the news on Twitter, I read Women’s Wear Daily and Business of Fashion, and then I go to Instagram and YouTube.
Serge Normant told me not to be threatened by your peers, but be inspired by them.
How has your digital savvy community shaped OUAI’s brand?
OUAI is this amazing community. It’s its own entity with its own vibe. My name is not on the bottle because OUAI isn’t about me, it’s about our community. What we really wanted to create was a cool vibe and inspiration board for our girl. We get a lot of images from our followers that we repost.I think the beauty industry has the opportunity to connect directly to their audience now, especially through integrated content or collaborations with celebrities, bloggers, and digital platforms. I’m a tech nerd first, creative second.
Where do you draw the line between how much of your real life you’ll put on social versus what you keep private? Do you ever disconnect?
It’s hard for me to truly disconnect! I have always been an over-sharer so social media comes very naturally to me. I really post like nobody’s watching. I’ve never been weird about it. I think being a stylist and sharing my life with clients every day made it easier to jump onto social channels and continue the conversation. I appreciate authenticity in people I follow and hope my followers appreciate my authenticity as well.
People often joke that getting a haircut is like free therapy. Who do you turn to when you need advice?
I say all the time I should have my therapist license after talking to people for 15 years! I am lucky to have so many amazing girlbosses in my life that I can turn to for advice. I’ve gotten so many pep talks from them throughout the years.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received along the way?
Serge Normant said not to be threatened by your peers, but be inspired by them. I truly believe there is enough work for all of us to go around and we should support and encourage each other. Tracey Cunningham also said to me once “Rejection is God’s protection” and it is so true.
You emphasize teaching your clients how to create looks themselves. Why is that?
I always want to give them a cut that works with their natural texture. I believe in showing clients how to do their own hair because if they look good they’re a walking billboard for my work!
Who cuts your hair?
Ahn Co Tran from Ramirez Tran Salon in Los Angeles gave me my current cut and took my hair from medium length to short. It’s seriously changed my life and he is so talented.
It felt very odd to me that there were a lot of men in boardrooms making decisions about what women want for their hair.
You’re a busy woman. How do you manage the pressure and expectations of managing businesses, personal clients, and traveling?
Luckily I have a wonderful team that not only understands our customers but me and my insane schedule. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to get as much done as we do; we cover a lot of ground! I also know that I’m going to drop some balls here and there so I just try my best and try to not to be hard on myself.
What are your on-the-go beauty essentials?
Dr. Denis Gross ‘Peel Pads’ to clean my face pre-flight. I love Summer Fridays’ ‘Jet Lag Mask’ because it rehydrates my skin to another level. I’m obsessed. I apply it on planes and on days where I need to look alive. I use the KNC eye masks to help reduce any puffiness and fine lines. I also swear by Dr. Ourian Epione ‘Firm & Fade.’ I always have coconut oil by KOPARI.
How do you relax?
Lounging on the couch with my husband after walking to our neighborhood coffee and bagel shop. We just finished our backyard so we’ve been taking full advantage of our days off. Plus that’s my only time to see my friends.
OUAI is all about the “off-duty” look - what’s yours?
I usually wash my hair at night and use the Dyson Airwrap firm smoothing brush to quickly dry & style my hair. It gets a bend in my sleep & I go with it by using OUAI ‘Wave Spray,’ ‘Air Dry Foam,’ or ‘Matte Pomade.’
Who are your beauty icons?
I have a few mood boards I reference a lot. They’ve got a ton of Kate Moss (Queen of Effortlessness), Bianca Jagger (Queen of Cool), Sade (an icon in every sense), Pam Anderson from the ‘90s (best updos and texture ever). I follow a ton of ‘90s model throwback accounts like @voguexiconic, @2000sbabe, @90sanxiety.
What’s one moment that changed your life?
Getting married! I never wanted to, but it’s the best thing I’ve done. And launching OUAI. I wanted my own line for so long, and it felt so good to share the result of two and a half years of hard work with the world.
The New York Times claims that you are the most influential hair stylist in the world. What does success look like to you?
When we think of success in business, we usually think of money. To me, business is creating something that makes people’s lives better. As I’m promoting my work, I’m also trying to lead and ask, ‘What I can do for other people? What I can create that will make people’s lives better?’ That’s what business should be about.