HAIR TALK: Jen Atkin and Clariss Rubenstein
What happens when a salon owner and an international traveler get together? Mane Addicts founder Jen Atkin had a chance to sit down with Gloss Salon Beverly Hills owner, Clariss Rubenstein to talk about the makings of a career in the beauty industry. You’ll never guess which 90’s music video made Jen move to LA and who Clariss’s first celebrity client was (hint: let’s just say it was someone you’ll know from the White House!). Read on to be a fly on the wall during a chat between LA movers and shakers.
CLARISS: I’m so excited to do this. I have to tell you, I’m just so over the moon. Thank you so much for doing this with me.
JEN: OMG Shut up! I’m so excited to finally chat with you! I love your work as well- I love what you do with Mindy [Kaling].
CLARISS: Oh thank you so much! She’s amazing. I love her.
JEN: Isn’t she so fun?
CLARISS: She’s so fun and she’s a smarty! I love a fun, smart chick. It’s right up my alley.
JEN: So how often are you in the salon?
CLARISS: Well we’re open Tues-Sat and I just kind of do my own thing. I just started with The Wall Group, they’re the first agency I’ve signed with, so I’m always just kind of rearranging everything to balance it all. I have more clients in the salon then I do at The Wall Group and I’m not really in the position yet to only be freelancing certain days, so I just do what I can to make it all work.
JEN: Do you find that most of your clients are pretty understanding about it?
CLARISS: They are. A lot of them that are from LA understand that a lot of people do what I’m doing. Some of them get annoyed that I have to reschedule all the time. I’ve definitely lost some clients, but I’ve also gained clients at the same time.
JEN: I think it’s so smart that you’re doing both. Some hairstylists get anxious about being a freelance hairstylist and just drop everything else. I love doing both!
CLARISS: I do too! I adore some of these women. I love seeing them and catching up with everyone. I also do color, and I would really miss that side of the industry if I wasn’t in the salon.
JEN: You do color and cut?
CLARISS: I do. I actually assisted Johnny Ramirez for 6 months when I first moved to LA. When I lived in DC I never assisted anyone, which I kind of regret. After moving to LA I just wanted to get in somewhere and I had the opportunity to work for him at Chris McMillan Salon. I think I’m a bit too controlling over my life to just have one thing. I like to have a lot going on. That’s when I feel the most myself.
JEN: Yeah I know what you mean. It’s a nice balance to have. Or maybe it is and it isn’t. Sometimes I’ll finally have one day off, but then I’ll be in the salon that day instead. It can be hard.
CLARISS: I get that. Did you always know you wanted to do hair?
JEN: I had no idea. In high school I was obsessed with Natalie Imbruglia’s hair in the Torn music video, so I started cutting my friends’ hair. I love the makeover aspect of hair. I was always into movies with makeover scenes and shopping montages, but I never realized it was something I could do. I grew up in Utah and was never intrigued by the idea of working in a salon there. I moved to LA when I was 19 with my best friend. All I had was $300 and a Honda Civic Hatchback- I was fearless. I got a job as a receptionist at a salon. I was so naïve. I had never even met a gay guy in my entire life, and I just thought it was so amazing- beautiful men that just want to hang out and didn’t want anything from you but to do your hair and make you pretty! So that was it, I’ve been doing hair since then.
CLARISS: That’s awesome. When you decided to make it happen was it just a spur of the moment decision or did you plan it a lot?
JEN: I just up and did it. It was hard for my parents because they just wanted me to go to business school, meet someone, get married, and have a bunch of babies. That just didn’t appeal to me. I always had something in me that really wanted to be in LA or NY and I just needed to see what else was out there. I never in a million years thought I’d be doing what I am now. I feel like we’re all just living these ‘pinch-me’ moments. I still think it’s amazing that I get paid to do what I do. I feel really blessed. Whenever I have problems, or I’m tired on the road, I always just try to remember where I started and to be grateful. The problems I have now are the types of problems so many people would love to have.
CLARISS: When you started were your goals even close to where they are today? Did you have something specific in mind?
JEN: I never really set goals. I was just very professional. I always had a very strong work ethic. My parents instilled those values on me from a young age. I always worked, my mom always worked, she was the best mom in the world, but she managed to still keep a career. I just kept following my gut and intuition. I always surrounded myself with good people. Hairstylists are notorious for having a lot of clothes in the closet and no money in the bank. I saw a lot of artists that were coming from the 90’s with extravagant lifestyles and I just wanted to make sure I always stayed focused on my career. It’s so weird because now people are always congratulating me on what I’m doing, but I still feel like I’m just starting and that there’s so much I still want to do.
CLARISS: That makes total sense and that resonates so much.
JEN: I heard Larry David give an interview once where everyone was asking him if he felt proud with Seinfeld and his career, making so much money, etc. and he said something like, “No, I don’t ever gloat or feel boastful at all because it just feels like more pressure.” Sometimes I feel like that too.
CLARISS: I totally get what you’re saying. That’s true. People always ask me what the next step is and I feel like there could be so many different next steps. I’m just trying to be open and work really hard.
JEN: Don’t you just wake up sometimes and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this?’
CLARISS: I totally do! There’s never been a day where I’ve wished I wasn’t where I am, no matter what job. Some people feel like that every day and I couldn’t imagine a life like that.
JEN: We’re so lucky to have that. I never dread going to work. It’s so cool that we get to provide for ourselves doing something artistic.
CLARISS: From start to now, how did you balance working in the salon with freelance and how did that change over time?
JEN: I started working in the salon. I love working in the salon. For me, it feels like an outlet to practice my craft and keep my finger on the pulse with hair. They are just such different roles. There are days where I’m on set and it feels like groundhog day, so I like to mix it up, talk to my salon clients, find out what troubles they are having with their hair, etc. I always wanted to make sure I was still a salon stylist even though I was working with celebrities. They are both really rewarding and are both really hard. The hard part for me is working on the days that I should have off, because those are the days that I usually work in the salon. I really struggle to take time for myself to regroup, because no one wants to be around someone who is running on empty. So when I first started, my freelance career just started growing and I was in the salon less and less. I honestly don’t know how I still have clients. My girls have been so enthusiastic. They’ll come in so excited that they saw me in a magazine- they’re like my little cheerleaders! I appreciate them so much because I’m not the type of person that can hold out for a beauty service, but they wait until they can see me!
CLARISS: Is there a city or part of the world that you feel your beauty aesthetic connects with the most?
JEN: Now that I’m in the salon in Dubai, it’s been so amazing to just see how different the world of beauty is there versus here. The women there have such amazing beautiful, healthy hair and they’ve been raised from a young age to really take care of themselves. I love learning how their beauty routines vary from ours and how we can put it all together. But I also love Paris. It’s funny because I was just talking to Yahoo Beauty about this. I feel like with fashion and style, most of the world looks to Paris for fashion inspiration, but when it comes to hair inspiration, everyone looks to LA. So I feel very lucky because the model off duty relaxed hair that everyone sees in Paris, is really LA girl hair. We’re the only city that has good weather year round and we’re where cool girl, surfer hair originated. In Paris, the girls will have super relaxed hair and be dressed head to toe in Celine. I get really inspired when I’m there.
CLARISS: That’s awesome. I would have said the same thing. What are your favorite trends in beauty right now?
JEN: I feel like the power lob is just holding on for dear life, I love it! I thought ombre would have been gone by now, but I love that it’s still popular. I love the new terms everyone’s using like bronde and sombre. It’s funny, somebody showed me a picture of this girl that had done her highlights at home and it said, “I call it hombre!” People always ask what the new trends are with hair, but when it comes to hair there are so many things. You look through magazines now and everyone has short hair- no one has hair past their chest anymore. I love the cool heavy bangs that were in the St. Laurent ads last year. I definitely have been cutting more people’s hair off this year.
CLARISS: Yeah, me too. What inspires you?
JEN: Bethenny Frankel!
CLARISS: Haha, I love that answer!
JEN: I love that there is no shame in her game, haha! I was just watching the show last night. I’m so inspired by women that have kids and still manage a career. Women like Jessica Alba, Rachel Zoe, and Brooke Wall. It’s so hard as women to balance everything. I remember when I first started in the industry I thought there was no way I could get far because I was a girl. There are so many charismatic, gorgeous, gay men that have ruled the hair industry for so long. Sally Hershberger was really the only female hairdresser that I had as a role model. That used to bum me out, but I love that the industry has changed over the years. Now, there are so many more women that have made a name for themselves in the industry, that have stuck it out, proved that you can have a career, you can have kids, and you can do it all.
CLARISS: Well you are a huge leader in that. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this feature with you. I respect you so much as an artist, but it’s not only that. As women, there’s a misconception that you are a beauty shop operator because you didn’t have anything else to do or you didn’t do well in school, where men are seen in such a different light. I love that you have proved that women can go far with their careers. It’s impressive. I really admire that.
JEN: That is so sweet of you to say! I’m so inspired by women like you, Mara Roszak, Jenny Cho, there are so many great female artists out there. It’s funny because if anything, we, as women, understand hair in such a different way because we have it. We know what it’s like to identify with your hair and how it plays such a huge part in how we see ourselves. So when there’s a client in my chair, I’m not going to force her into any type of haircut to put my stamp on it. I understand that it’s an emotional thing. I know that if a client asks for a dramatic change, I have to ask her if she’s emotional right now, did she just have a breakup, etc?
CLARISS: Were there moments where you felt defeated and how did you deal with that?
JEN: Working freelance is a whole different ball game and it’s hard because there are so many factors involved. Sometimes you are up for a job, but then your agent tells you that you didn’t get it, and it can be frustrating. I always try to have the attitude that there is enough work out there for everyone. Don’t be jealous of your peers because that’s just their journey. You have to remind yourself that it is just the freelance blues: when you’re not working you feel bad about yourself, but then when you are working you’re exhausted. I try not to put too much pressure on myself. I think whatever is meant to be, will be. If you work hard and you aren’t a jerk, it will all be okay. In the beginning, my agent, Dana, was really helpful. She would remind be that if I didn’t get a certain job, another one would come around. She has been a great mentor for me because she reminded me early on that if something didn’t work out, it was because it just wasn’t meant to be. I just have always tried to keep that positive attitude.
CLARISS: I couldn’t agree with you more. I always tell the girls at my salon that you breathe energy. Good energy breathes more good energy. That’s the only thing that just keeps everything moving forward.
JEN: And don’t you feel like it’s not about us at the end of the day? We’re in the service industry! It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when a client will come in and tell me that they were weary of going to see someone for their hair because they didn’t know if they were in a good mood that day. You gotta just check it at the door because we are working for someone else.
CLARISS: Yeah exactly. There’s a difference between a client asking about your life and letting your hard times weigh on them- and you have to know the difference.
JEN: How did you start doing hair and how old were you?
CLARISS: Well, my mom really wanted me to go to college so I went to school for two years after high school and got my associates degree. I always knew I wanted a career where I had control over my life. I grew up with a single parent and that just motivated me. Growing up I loved hair, I was always the girl doing everyone’s hair. So I ended up dropping out of college and going to Vidal Sassoon in LA. It was an amazing foundation. Their style is nothing like what I do today, but considering that I never assisted anyone and nothing bad happened, it was okay! My mom was in politics and based in DC, where a girlfriend of mine managed a salon that did hair for the Whitehouse, so I moved to DC and started working there.
JEN: So what’s the big salon in DC?
CLARISS: It’s called Andre Chreky. The style is so different from LA, but it is so busy and there are a lot of really great people working there. Within three weeks of working there I was going to the Whitehouse to blow out Laura Bush’s hair- I was like 21 or 22 and had no idea what I was doing because at Vidal Sassoon no one ever touches a round brush, but she liked what I did, so I kept coming back! I ended up moving to another salon in DC called Prive, where I learned a lot but ended up needing to move on. I ended up moving to LA where a friend of mine was doing hair, and I’ve been here for 6 years now!
JEN: What advice would you give people that are stuck in the salon rut and maybe want to start a freelance career?
CLARISS: I am such a firm believer that you have to do everything to further yourself. Seeking out agencies, a willingness to assist, never thinking you’re too good for anything, a willingness to start from the bottom, because if you’re really good that probably won’t last very long anyways.
JEN: So knowing what it took to move from DC to LA, would you do it all over again?
CLARISS: Absolutely! I probably would have moved to LA sooner if I knew how it was all going to work out. I was comfy and cushy in DC, so it was hard to leave, but it was so worth it.
JEN: If you could sit down to dinner with any three stylists who would it be?
CLARISS: Vidal Sassoon definitely!
JEN: Oh did you see his documentary?
CLARISS: No I didn’t.
JEN: You have to! He was the original Bethany Frankel of hair, he was doing infomercials for exercise machines, he was amazing!
CLARISS: I know! He was all over the place! He totally transformed hair styling! He was so innovative for the industry.
JEN: Yeah, him and Chris McMillan, who again transformed the industry with cuts like ‘The Rachel’ in the 90’s.
CLARISS: That’s right! I worked with him shortly when I was assisting Johnny! I would love to sit down and talk to him as well because I know he’s transformed his own life amidst his personal struggles and it’s just so inspiring!
JEN: Absolutely, and that so many of his clients have stayed so loyal for so many years.
CLARISS: His aesthetic is so amazing, I love that his shapes are so soft and natural. So it would have to be him, Sassoon, and you. I would just love to pick your brain and have dinner with you.
JEN: That would be a really fun dinner! You, me, Chris McMillan, and Vidal Sassoon!
CLARISS: Let’s do it! Well unfortunately, not Vidal, but still!
JEN: Who is a style icon for you? Someone who inspired you to want to create and be a hairstylist?
CLARISS: It sounds generic, but Kate Moss for sure! She obviously is just the ultimate- and also she doesn’t have a ton of hair, but she was always still so on with what she was doing. I love that she plays with her hair a lot. So many celebrities just stick with what they know works for them, but I love that she was willing to have fun with it.
JEN: I feel like every woman from age 20-40 has had a Kate Moss obsession at one point in their lives.
CLARISS: I am definitely one of those people!
JEN: Have you had a nightmare client or day on the job and how do you handle it?
CLARISS: Yes! I had a boss that was extremely difficult! I did my job to the best of my abilities with a positive attitude until that was no longer possible, and that was it. I don’t believe in coming to work and not doing the best you can do and I worked for someone who just came down so hard, and was borderline abusive. That’s just so outdated and old school- I mean, I thought we were done with that in the 90’s.
JEN: So old school! Did you ever hear that story of the actress that came into Chris McMillan and threw a brush at somebody?
CLARISS: I think I did!
JEN: Yeah, like someone cancelled and she was mad and she literally threw a brush at someone!
CLARISS: So crazy! I did have a nightmare client who was really upset at one of the girls who works for me, who was doing nothing wrong. I usually don’t think of myself as a boss, but I guess I am, and I realized the woman was having a meltdown! So then I had to step in and manage that situation, trying to come across sweet, but still stand up for the girl who works for me.
JEN: With clients we just have to not take things personally, sometimes they’re dealing with their own problems and are looking for something we can’t fix.
What’s next for you this year?
CLARISS: Well, knowing you said you don’t really set goals makes me feel better about my answer, because I don’t really know! I’m just very open to what comes to me. I don’t know what direction that will take. I take intentional steps, like hiring new people, expanding my salon, taking new clients with the agency. So I hope there is a lot more in a lot of different directions.
JEN: I think people like us have to also remember that motto: Don’t be too busy that you forget to make a life.
CLARISS: That’s true! I took my first vacation in a long time a couple weeks ago and I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I ended up not having reception there, which I was kind of freaking out about, but it ended up being what I needed.
JEN: Totally! Long international flights are my favorite because there’s no wifi and I actually get to chill out for 12 hours.
CLARISS: Totally! Well I hope one day I am on as many international flights as you are! I think you’re amazing and I’m so glad we got to have this talk! I have like 1,000 more questions for you if you ever want to do a part 2. I feel like I barely scratched the surface!
JEN: I’m so glad we got to talk finally! We will have to hang out sometime in LA!
CLARISS: I know you are so busy but I would love to grab lunch or a coffee with you sometime! And anything you need with Mane Addicts, I’m happy to be a part of it!
JEN: Oh you are going to regret saying that! Tell Mindy I say hi next time you see her!
CLARISS: I will, thank you so much!