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.
In cult documentaries, the followers always describe the moment they first met the leader with an absurdist sort of reverence. They'll say things like, "It was just something about his eyes," or, "He had such instant magnetism, it was impossible not to be drawn to him." Now, I watch a lot of cult documentaries, and I'm always baffled by how these people could possibly be overcome with such feelings upon first sight of someone. And then, on a recent press trip to the dreamy Amangiri spa in Utah for Ole Henrisken, the successful beauty brand, I was introduced to Ole Henrisken, the man, skin-care expert, esthetician, former trapeze artist, entrepreneur and radiant ball of pure energy, positivity and all that is good in the world. And, I sort of understood.
To be clear: No, Henriksen isn't a cult leader. But he certainly has the charisma and charm to have made that a viable career choice at one point in his life. And he does have his own way of looking at the world: a ceaselessly upbeat perspective, a tendency to see the beauty in everyone and everything — and it seems like he wouldn't mind if that caught on.
At 67, Henriksen is easily one of the most energetic people in the room (no matter who else is in the room with him), with a youthfulness — in both his appearance and personality — that seems to defy the laws of science. He lavishes compliments on those around him, preaches the importance of prioritizing health — something he certainly practices, as well — and seems to have a deep, unfaltering gratitude for every moment of his day. In person, not one word of Henriksen's rings hollow. And it's infectious. After spending a few days with Henriksen on the trip, all I wanted to know was: How?
How does he balance an incredibly busy and demanding career — running his eponymous, Kendo-owned skin-care brand — with being so present, mindful, health-focused, grateful and impossibly nice? Where does all of that energy and natural passion for life come from? I sat down with Henriksen during the trip — and then again on the phone for another hour a few weeks later — to find out.
As it turns out, even before the Denmark transplant (who has now lived in California for nearly half of is life) lent his name to one of Sephora's most-beloved and successful skin-care brands, he'd already gone on quite the professional journey. And his career all began with a stint as a circus performer.
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Your upbringing in Denmark feeds into your personal philosophy and is interwoven into so much of what the Ole Henriksen brand preaches. How did growing up in that environment influence you to pursue a career in skin care?
Growing up in the Danish countryside in the early '50s and '60s, it was beautiful and idyllic. We lived on the waterfront in Jutland, the part of Denmark connected to Germany. I'm the oldest of three sons, and my mom had me at a very young age. She was very focused on the care of our skin, partly because of the cold weather conditions and the harsh elements during the winter.
My mom worked in the pharmacy filling prescriptions. She got her hands on some of the wonderful ointments and she always made sure that my skin was protected. She knew that our fair-complected skin needed protection against the elements. I didn't know that skin care would be come my vocation. I really dreamt of becoming a trapeze artist.
A trapeze artist?
[Laughs] My dad was great at gymnastics — he was a wild guy, climbing trees and all of that fun stuff. The trees in my village were hundreds of years old, and I would climb to the top, create my own trapeze and do my own practicing. Every summer, my female cousin Hanne and I had a circus in my village where we charged the kids to watch us perform. A dear girlfriend of my mother's wound up to becoming a trapeze artist, traveling around Europe. I was fascinated.
At what point did you eventually start to see the potential for a career in skin care?
Skin care happened by coincidence, and I'm very grateful for that. I also did competitive ballroom dancing; I began dancing when I was six and my partner was, again, my cousin Hanne. Dancing was something I pursued continuously and something we incorporate [into the brand] to this very day.
In my 20s, I became a show dancer in Indonesia, and my diet changed drastically from the sort of simple diet I had in Denmark; I began eating a lot of sweets. I began drinking a lot of rum and Coke when I'd go out to the night clubs. I developed cystic acne. I was really shocked that it happened that fast.
A dear girlfriend named Lagita had a skin-care clinic in her home, a beautiful professional setup. She basically said, "Ole, your skin looks like shit. I can help you." I had no idea that her background was so extensive; she'd been educated in Japan. She began treating my skin and I was mesmerized by the improvements I began seeing in the overall texture and clarity. She also planted a seed about the importance of nutrition.
So, she was the one who first introduced you to the idea of skin care as a profession?
Yes, she and another friend named Isabelle from London [who worked in the beauty industry there] said, "Ole, you belong in the beauty business, I can tell." She was right on the mark. I couldn't go on kicking my legs high forever; I needed a career of substance. I'd been fascinated by Lagita, her healing touch, and obviously the transformational powers of skin when it's treated properly. So, Isabel said, "Whenever you're ready, there's a school [in London you should attend]."
I moved to London. In school, I studied cosmetic chemistry, face and body work, manicure and pedicures, theatrical makeup, fashion makeup — we covered it all. Cosmetic chemistry classes you were in the lab; you learned to make products from scratch.
I immediately loved my new vocation because, aside from just being fascinated by the skin as an organ and the powers of how skin functions, I also quickly learned there that skin concerns are more than skin deep. Often, if there's rosacea and acne, people may feel insecure or less worthy. It was always about learning to listen to their concerns, which is something I do to this very day.
What was your first career step after you graduated from school?
In order to move forward in life, you have to make people aware of you. Three months before graduating, I began sending out letters to the top cosmetic houses in London. I had three solid job offers, and then I wound up working for Helena Rubenstein as a rep that traveled to the retailers in London — Harvey Nichols, Selfridge's, Harrod's — doing in-store appearances.
How did you decide to move to the U.S., and what was it that drew you?
I read in Harper's Bazaar about [a skin-care spa called] Fabulous Faces in San Francisco, and I sent out a letter of intro to the owner. He wrote back and said, "I want an interview with you as soon as you're on U.S. soil." He offered me a job immediately.
I'd been to the U.S. before — I actually danced for a while at Carnegie Hall. I was fascinated by New York, as you can imagine a country kid landing in that amazing city. I was mesmerized by the culture, the spirit of the American people; I loved the theater, I loved the energy. So, I'd already had a taste of the USA, and I just knew that [I wanted to move to] California.
I will say, there's no doubt that America fosters people that are willing to work hard, that want to break new ground as far as their professional lives.
Tell me about opening your own spa.
Skin care in those days was a bit more like a fluff-and-fold: a good massage, some cream, a mud mask and out the door. I wanted to customize the treatment, so I set up shop in LA, and I did so quickly because no one wanted to hire me to work in beauty as a man. In 1975, on a shoestring budget, I opened what was called Ole Henriksen of Denmark Skin Care Center.
At that time, what products were you working with?
I'd make kitchen formulations and bring them on my bicycle to work in tupperware containers. In addition to that, I imported products from Israel and Germany. I also immediately began incorporating the dietary concepts and teaching about how it impacts your wellbeing and your skin. When I began treating acne, which became my specialty, I inquired about my clients' dietary habits.
How did you start building your clientele?
I began sending out letters of introduction to the media. Vogue featured me in my first year. Then I was sitting at a deli one day, and the man sitting in the booth next to me heard my accent and asked where I was from and what I do. He was a journalist for The Beverly Hills Currier, so he did a story.
I sent The Los Angeles Times magazine section a letter telling them about my holistic approach and how I made products in the kitchen. They said, "We have the assistant to the editor-in-chief who has very bad acne. If you can transform her skin in six weeks we'll do a feature story." When she came in, she had so many skin problems and poor self-image. Six weeks later, her skin was flawless. They did a feature story in color, and from that moment on, the phone rang for three days straight. I needed to hire help, train people. That got the ball rolling.
Were there celebrities immediately reaching out at that point?
Yes. A dear girlfriend of Barbra Streisand became my client, and after a couple of treatments, she was enamored by the improvements in her skin, so she sent Barbra to me. It became a long, longterm relationship.
Then Cher became a client — Kirk Douglas, Diana Ross, Sylvester Stallone and later Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Katy Perry, Charlize Theron, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, Mark Wahlberg, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman.... But our philosophy has been that everyone gets treated like a star.
What was the next extension of the Ole Henriksen brand?
I wrote my first book — Macmillan reached out and wanted to do my first book, Ole Henriken's Seven-Day Skin-Care Program: The Scandinavian Approach to Radiant Skin. It focused on healthy physical exfoliation, which was sort of new to a lot of women around America. It was all things you could make in your kitchen and it featured celebrity clients.
I wound up traveling the nation doing local TV, but Oprah was the one [show] I really wanted to get on. Macmillan reached out and they were turned down. I called, and just by luck, the talent coordinator picked up the phone. I had a few minutes to make a first impression; I told her my book was focused on making women become their own skin-care experts. She said, "I love it — can you be on the show next week?" Oprah made the book a best-seller.
Was it at that point that you decided to start formulating and selling products under the Ole Henriksen brand?
Yes, there was a sudden demand for my products. I got offers to go into retail. With the product development, I was at the forefront with two things: vitamin C and AHAs. To this very day, the philosophy of the brand is that continued healthy exfoliation — both chemical and physical — enables the skin to be more absorbent.
Once you started selling the range, were there any other big breaks, like that Oprah moment?
One was that Fred Segal became the hot retailer — they're the ones that started the apothecary setup. Then [buyers for] Henri Bendel discovered me. Then I got discovered by Harvey Nichols in London, then Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. I took every opportunity; my business grew. We opened corporate offices. I broadened my manufacturing. Then there was the Scandinavian market, we couldn't ignore — I love my native country, so [I launched the brand] over there, as well.
How did your relationships with Sephora and Kendo come about?
When Sephora entered the scene, I was mesmerized immediately. I sent a package to [the company headquarters] in San Francisco, a big box [of products] and a cover letter. I didn't hear from them. Months later, they wanted to meet with me. I loved the Sephora model — they were groundbreaking. There were no cosmetic counters, which allowed the clients to explore on their own. I loved the energy, the music and the fact that they emphasize education.
I decided to be loyal with Sephora. David Suliteanu started Kendo in 2010 while he was the CEO of Sephora Americas and in 2014, he joined Kendo to work fulltime as its CEO and the company became independent of Sephora. Kendo selected brands to incubate and grow, like Kat Von D, Marc Jacobs, Bite and now the amazing Fenty. I'd loved my relationship with Sephora and Kendo and grown the brand abroad; I felt ripe for the picking.
After time negotiating, we struck a deal that everyone was happy with, and seven years into this relationship, it's a marriage made in heaven. I feel beyond blessed. I now get to focus on what I'm best at and being respected as the founder. I'm still involved in all of the production and development. Every success is a collaborative effort.
How do you maintain such a positive outlook, and how does it play into the brand?
I turned 67 in May, and I've gotten to fulfill all of my dreams. I get to be challenged every day with new, exciting ventures, which I think is important in life. I love that my partners at Kendo are so open to innovation. I can't sit still in life. What I love is the way beauty has become globalized because of the internet. I think that's fabulous. I also love the fact that beauty comes in every shape and size and form; there's beauty to be brought out in everyone. It's so important for us at the brand to help build women's self-confidence and celebrate natural beauty and walk tall and proud. We're very authentic, and we're sticking closely to what we're best at.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Disclosure: I attended a press trip paid for by the Ole Henriksen brand, during which I conducted a portion of this interview.
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