How Kristin Ess Went From Working at a Mall Salon to Being a Superstar Celebrity Stylist

Kristen Ess

In our series Behind the CurtainTM, we get the scoop on the routines, careers, and more of those working so hard behind the scenes to make celebrities look stunning. Here we feature Kristin Ess, celebrity stylist, colorist, and brand founder.

When scrolling through her Pinterest® page, or swiping through her feed — viewing hairstyle after hairstyle, on bold-faced name after more-bold-faced name — you’ll notice that every last cut by Kristin Ess oozes glamour laced with modernity. Thank goodness all she ever wanted to do was be a hairstylist. 

“I honestly never wanted to do anything else,” says the celebrity hairstylist and colorist. “I started cutting my siblings’ and neighbors’ hair when I was quite young, maybe 9 or 10 years old. I was obsessed with making and selling hair bows and custom clips. I would hoard any styling tool that I was given or could find at a yard sale.” By the time she hit her teens, she was practically a pro. Everyone in her town outside of Los Angeles knew that Kristin was the one they wanted to book for an upcoming dance, prom, competition, or picture day. 

At 16, she packed her bags and left her hometown of Bakersfield to get closer to the action. After being hired as an apprentice at a salon in Century City, she rose up the ranks to become an assistant, then, in her early twenties became a stylist in her own right. And that was when supermodel Amber Valletta walked into the Santa Monica salon where Ess was cutting and coloring. Valletta loved the new stylist’s work so much, she returned again and again, including hiring her for Vanity Fair’s® Oscar® party.

A few years later, now at the Warren-Tricomi® salon, Lauren Conrad plopped into her chair during (no, like, literally, during) the filming of an episode of The Hills. And the world as she knew it sort of ended. Conrad became a perma-client, and shortly after, Ess cut her long locks into a lob (long bob), which would inspire women around the world to get a similar cut. A few months later, the lob was shorn to a bob, prompting the hashtag #cleartheshoulders. “I honestly didn’t see that kind of response coming,” laughs Ess at the memory.

Ess schooled herself in the world of celebrity clients (by, essentially, realizing that they really are just like us), and then used her growing platform in the most altruistic way possible: education. In 2011, she co-created The Beauty Department®, a website where she could share her knowledge with those who didn’t live near enough to sit in her chair. Videos offered trade tricks from start to finish, putting the power in viewers’ hands. But there was one glitch: Viewers would notice the pricey products she was using and lament that they’d never fork over thirty bucks for a hairspray. “After less than a year of posting there, I realized there was a massive hole in the haircare market,” Ess explains. “Those readers needed affordable luxury and it just didn’t exist, sadly.”

So one could call it kismet that Target® came knocking. Ess couldn’t say yes fast enough. As a longtime fan of the superstore, she got their ethos and they got hers. “I didn’t think I’d ever have the kind of money it would take to start a line, and I never knew where I would even begin,” she admits. “It wasn’t until I started The Beauty Department that I even had the desire.”  She tapped every white-space need she had and developed formulas that addressed them. Her ideas were soon packaged into bottles, tubes, and cans designed so elegantly that one would not balk if they saw a $30 price tag. Luckily for us, the most expensive potion is $14. 

Calling the brand a hit is not an understatement. Her The OneTM Signature Shampoo ($10) and Conditioner ($10), as well as her Signature Hair Glosses ($14) can hardly stay on the shelves, and, while she is reticent to share what’s next and when, she divulges that two categories will be involved. “They’re what people who follow the brand really closely have been asking me to add,” she says. “I can say I’ll feel complete when I add these next two collections.”

With her almond eyes and signature flow of auburn locks, Ess looks like she could be a relative of Lindsay Lohan, Emma Stone, or celebrity esthetician Joanna Vargas. Her social media content is a mélange of insider eye candy, her adorable rescue dogs, and styling education.My focus has always been hair education, and I don’t think I’ve ever strayed from that since I started using Instagram® in 2010 or 2011,” she says. “I would, however, say I post less right now because I’m trying to create meaningful content versus contributing to the noise. I’m not into the whole ‘race to stay on top’ of the algorithm thing.” Here, Ess shares more about her collection and business savvy, career advice for burgeoning stylists, and her favorite beauty products.

Spotlyte: How did you get into hair? Is it in your blood? Or did it happen by chance? Were there hairstylists who inspired you? 

Kristin Ess: To be honest, I didn’t draw my inspiration from other people early on. I was too young. I had no internet access and no clue about who was who in the hair world. My first salon job was in a mall, and when I think back, we were all so young and just kind of figuring things out as we went along. I was a know-it-all ‘90s kid who wanted to get her hands dirty and see how everything worked. 

However, later on, in my twenties, I discovered (and could finally afford) expensive fashion magazines that led me to some iconic hair stylists, like Eugene Souleiman, Odile Gilbert, and Julien d’Ys. They changed the way I thought about hair forever. 

Spotlyte: How did you break into the business? Was hair always the goal? 

KE: I moved to LA in 1996 just before I turned 16 to live with extended family in the Valley. I begged and pleaded for a job at a Beverly Hills salon as an apprentice while I was still attending high school. An apprenticeship was the only alternative to beauty school, and I took that opportunity because there was no way I could possibly pay for it at 15 or 16. So, every day after school, I took four buses from the Valley to Beverly Hills. I graduated from both high school and my apprenticeship around the same time. Then I became an official hairstylist at 17. 

Spotlyte: What do you love about your work? 

KE: I love seeing someone come alive from a great haircut or color. Don’t get me wrong — self-love has nothing to do with your outer appearance, but confidence is most definitely linked to it. I love seeing someone stand a little taller because they’re feeling confident about their look. 

Spotlyte: What about it drives you nuts? 

KE: Heavily marketed hair products that don’t do what they say they do. There, I said it! 

Spotlyte: What advice would you give someone who's interested in getting into hair as a career?

KE: I would address both the good and bad sides of being a hairstylist! The pros: doing hair is incredibly rewarding, inspiring, creative, social, and can also be very lucrative. There are also tons of great role models and mentors out there today. If you’re feeling inspired to get into hair, you absolutely should! 

The cons: it can be physically and mentally exhausting, and you can potentially struggle with self-confidence if you don’t think you’re learning fast enough or doing as well as someone else. The hair industry is still fairly competitive, sadly, and tuition isn’t cheap. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but knowing both sides is so important. I will say, if you feel a passion for it in your bones, it’s less of a challenge to overcome those cons. 

Spotlyte: What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own product line? 

KE: Don’t start a product line just to join the party, or because you think you might get rich. Start a product line because you want to make a difference in a particular market. What I know for sure is there’s already so much out there — so if you want to step into the ring, just make sure what you’re doing is meaningful and helpful. 

Spotlyte: Describe a typical work day. Is there such a thing for you these days? 

KE: Everyday is so different because I wear so many hats. On Mondays, I have a team meeting, then the rest of the week is pure insanity. It’s either clients in the salon, clients on set, days in the lab for product development, writing copy for new products, research, product shoot days, tutorial shoot days, and trying to stay organized between all of it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spotlyte: Do you have a favorite makeup artist you like to work with because you love his or her way with makeup? 

KE: Well, Kelsey Deenihan is one of my best friends. We met working with Lucy [Hale]. The thing I love most about her work is that not only does she have a special touch with skin and giving it a gorgeous glow, but she also makes everyone look incredibly glamorous without trying too hard. I’m constantly gasping at her work — but not because she uses some crazy color for shock value. 

In the world of freelance beauty, you always feel like you really need to have a big “moment” with every client and do something people will notice. But she’s special in a reserved way and doesn’t often do makeup just for the ‘gram. She’s so talented and could do anything, but she does makeup for the client, and I really appreciate that about her. She’s also just really fun to be around. 

Spotlyte: What’s your favorite beauty tip? 

KE: One of my all-time favorite beauty tips is using eyebrow powder to fill in the hairline where you may have weaker spots. It makes all the difference and I do it often. I like to use brow powder specifically because it tends to be more ashy in tone, which matches most people’s natural root color best. 

Spotlyte: What's been the most remarkable boost/link/connection that Instagram created for you? 

KE: Just the one between me and my community. I feel so fortunate to be able to connect with everyone the way I do. I have been conversing with people about what they want and need since I started The Beauty Department, and Instagram just made it 10 times easier and 100 times faster. 

Spotlyte: How do you like to relax? 

KE: The most luxurious thing I can do in this world is lay around my backyard with my dogs and do nothing but dip my feet in the pool. There’s not a spa treatment in this world that tops that for me. 

Spotlyte: What's your favorite hairstyle to create? 

KE: Old Hollywood Waves, for sure. The day I learned how to properly set hair was one of the greatest days of my career! 

Spotlyte: What styles or cuts do you wish more women did? 

KE: Modern shag and super short bobs, like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks short. Also, I still meet a lot of women who don’t think they can embrace their natural hair texture, and I wish they would. It’s easier said than done, but I hope to see more of that in the coming years. 

Spotlyte: What styles or cuts do you think should take a break for a while?  

KE: None. Everything is cool right now and I love that! We’re living in a time that feels almost trendless in the hair world. We can talk about bobs, lobs, curls, accessories, braids, and try to make things seem trendy, but honestly, it’s about doing whatever makes you feel good right now. I’m loving every minute of the non-trend-trend. 

Spotlyte: Who cuts your hair? 

KE: Me!

Spotlyte: Cruel question, but do you have a favorite product of yours that you're currently really into?

KE: Totally loaded question that definitely changes week to week. The Style Reviving Dry Conditioner ($14) is something I’m using a lot right now. It’s a dry spray that softens, detangles, protects from heat, and adds subtle shine when your hair is looking a little meh but you’re not ready to wash it yet. I wash my hair every three to four days, so by day three, my hair needs a little revamp from middle to ends. It’s a style extender, really. And then I have two new favorite products that I cannot set down, but they’re not out yet, so more on that soon!

Spotlyte: Tell us about the skincare and makeup products you love.

KE: I use very little for someone in this industry. For starters, I don’t wash my face, ever. I use Dior® Cleansing Water to remove all my makeup and then wipe my face with a warm damp towel after. I moisturize with Kiehl’s® Creme D’Elegance on my face, neck, chest, and hands. I use Bobbi Brown® BB CreamTM on my face every day, and IT Cosmetics® Tightline® at the base of my fake-ass lashes. Then I use Tom Ford® Bronzer in Terra on my cheeks and neck, and NYX® Powder Puff Lippie in Squad GoalsTM every day. If I’m feeling fancy, I use MilkTM Cosmetics Lipstick in Name DropTM for a perfect red lip along with the Too Faced® Better Than SexTM Liquid Liner Pen to get a razor-sharp wing. 

Spotlyte: Would you be willing to share any beauty, makeup, or skincare tips or hacks you love, or ones you’ve gotten from your friends, like Lauren Conrad, Lucy Hale, or Jenna Dewan?

KE: I would say the number one thing I’ve learned from all of them is that eating healthy foods and drinking a ton of water are by far the most important things you can do for your hair and skin. They didn’t “teach” me that per sé, but it’s a commonality with all of them.

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