In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
If you're not on the West Coast or don't happen to be particularly well versed in the world of skin care, you may not know Shani Darden's name. But you've certainly seen her work. The Los Angeles-based celebrity aesthetician runs her own highly in-demand facial business and counts the likes of Jessica Alba, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Sophia Bush, Kelly Rowland, Molly Sims, Chrissy Teigen, Shay Mitchell, Emmy Rossum, January Jones, Estelle, Suki Waterhouse and Amanda Seyfried as clients. Fashion and beauty industry professionals are also among her devotees (see: hairstylist Jen Atkin, model Lily Aldridge, InStyle EIC Laura Brown and blogger Marianna Hewitt) — a telltale sign that she knows her craft.
Darden's path to Hollywood skin-care stardom was a fairly roundabout one; she actually began her career as a model and backup dancer in music videos for Destiny's Child and LL Cool J before realizing her passion and talent for making beautiful faces even more beautiful. I caught up with the complexion-wrangling master over the phone just before she jetted off for a vacation with client-turned-BFF Alba.
Can you tell me about your personal background and how you first became interested in skin care?
I'm originally from upstate New York, and I've liked skin care since I was pretty young; I had an obsession with making masks at the age of 11 maybe. I was pretty young. I remember doing egg masks on my friends, I remember I really wanted to go to the dermatologist. In the town I'm from there isn't a dermatologist, so I had to go to Burlington, Vermont, to get an appointment. I remember it taking a month to even get in to this person because it was the only dermatologist in the area. I had skin issues when I was younger — I used to have weird rashes.
So how did you get your career in LA going?
I actually started out as a model, and I was modeling in Montreal and upstate New York, and somebody found me in Montreal and wanted to sign me in LA. So that's when I came here and I was like, 'Oh my God, my dreams have come true.' And then I came here and all I got cast for was music videos.
For quite a few years that I was doing that. I was in the Destiny's Child 'No No No' video, and I did some for LL Cool J and The Goo Goo Dolls. I did a bunch of them but it was for sure not my jam at all. I was not trying to be in music videos — I can't dance! I probably was just not model material; I wasn't tall enough. But music videos? That wasn't the plan.
So how did you officially make the jump into becoming a facialist?
I kind of knew that I wanted to work in a spa kind of setting, but I didn't know exactly what it was that I wanted to do. I went to school first to be a massage therapist, and I was not good at that. At the time I was already working at a spa out here, and that's when I realized skin care is my thing. So then I went to school for that right after. A friend of mine got me a job at a dermatologist's office, and I was really lucky because it's so hard to get that out of school.
I worked for a woman named Dr. [Erma] Benitez — she's really brilliant with acne and skin-care issues. She's not the person you go to for laser treatments, but she can fix a problem. I remember having a panic attack because she just had me just jump in. I started working on people immediately. These were people that had really bad acne or skin conditions, so I just learned all about them. I'd give them a facial, and Dr. Benitez would come into the room and prescribe medications. When you work at a spa, you don't get to learn about all of those things. There are still a lot of things that I can't just fix on my own, you need some sort of topical medication. So I got to learn about that, and even now, if someone comes to me and has horrible acne, I'll send them to Dr. B. I honestly wouldn't be here without all of the knowledge that I got from her because it makes such a difference. I always say even now I wish I could go back for a few days because you just learn so much.
When did you decide to open your own spa?
It was totally accidental. I had an office in the back of my house, and I wasn't using it. I was working for a wellness center really close by, and I was pregnant with my second daughter, so I could barely move. My friend — I think it was Jessica [Alba] — was like, 'Why don't you just do clients in your back?' And so I started doing that but I wasn't really trying to make it like a thing, and then after I had my daughter, a couple of my clients were like, I don't really want to go back to the other place.
How did you go about building your business and your clientele in the beginning?
I didn't know anyone, it's really weird. I'm still confused about how it all happened. The first person that ever talked about me [in a magazine interview] was Jessica, and I think it all stemmed from that. She came into the spa I was working at and we actually didn't talk much at all. But then she became pregnant and I was also pregnant, and when she was [taking a break from the spa] to have Honor, and I was like, 'Well, by the way, I'm going to also be having a baby, so I won't be here when you get back,' and then that was basically all I had to say because Jessica loves kids and family. So after that she'd invite me to baby groups, and our kids kind of grew up together. She's just always been so good and awesome.
She's one of the most loyal friends ever and really tries to help people. She talked about me on Twitter and then in Allure magazine, which really led to more press and then more clients. There would be a makeup artist that would hear that I'd helped somebody else out and then it kind of went from there.
Now I've been doing it on my own for probably a little over five years. It's not in my house anymore, I have a studio — but I still have a house feel that's really private, so I'm not working in a store front, and I hope to always keep it that way. It's private, it's easy.
And now you also have your own skin-care line happening. What was it like launching your first product?
I've been obsessed with retinol forever, and that's probably all from working in the dermatologist's office. I've seen people in their 60s that don't have wrinkles, and they've been on Retin-A their whole life, so I just had an obsession.
How is your retinol different from others?
Prescription retinol is very harsh and hard to use, so I would say that mine's just not as harsh; it's easier to use more often without having the dryness and redness. There are other ingredients in there to buffer it. I'm obsessed with mine. When I run out I can see it on my skin.
Do you have plans to expand the line?
I'm going to launch a few more products January of next year, and then this year — as of now it'll be in September — I'm changing the packaging and possibly putting out another retinol.
What other skin products do you love?
I have a lot of obsessions — I try a lot of things, but my obsessions have pretty much stayed the same. I love Is Clinical, I would say it's my favorite brand. I think that they have some great products and they're really on it. I love Dr. Dennis Gross — the Alpha Beta Peel is an obsession for sure. Active Serum by IS Clinical is amazing. Those are things I for sure can't live without, and then retinol.
Are there any skin-care treatments or products you don't believe in?
It's different for everyone, but I don't like a lot of things that are too aggressive. I don't use a lot of microdermabrasion. It depends on the skin type, but I'm not going to do that to someone all the time. I think people have to be really careful with laser treatments, as far as who you go to and how often you're doing it. Especially for Los Angeles, I think people do a lot, and I think that's where we all have to be careful. I love laser treatments, but I know some people that do it, like, monthly, and you can actually cause a lot of pigmentation later. It's such a hard thing for me, because I have melasma and I see Dr. Ourian, and it's not cheap, but he really just knows what he's talking about.
What do you think is the biggest skin-care misconception most people have?
That everyone can use the same products. I think the biggest mistake that everyone makes is that they use the wrong products for their skin type. People will come to me that have really bad acne, we'll fix the acne, and then they're using some heavy moisturizer. Oh, and also the idea that you don't need sunscreen. People say, 'I'm not in the sun, I don't need it.' I hear that so much, and I'm like, 'You're just going to regret it!' People are still confused, but you're going to get wrinkles and you're going to be upset.
Do you have any plans to expand your product line or services? What's up next for you, professionally?
I don't want to make a huge line. I want to just put out individual products that are new and really interesting and really active. But I'd maybe collaborate with people, where I'm just doing a specialty product with them.
Do you think you'll ever collaborate with Jessica Alba and The Honest Co.?
I ask Jessica every day [laughs]. That would be amazing, I would love to do that. It would be so fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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