When Gigi Hadid, Salma Hayek, or Laura Harrier need glamorous, bombshell waves or intricate braids for a major event, Jennifer Yepez is their first call. The stylist is known for her bold, feminine looks — and her Instagram is a montage of her glittery, jet-setting, red carpet-filled life.
But Yepez, who grew up in an Ecuadorian family, doesn't want anyone to think it was easy to get to where she is now. Before she was styling celebrities for premieres and galas in Hollywood, Yepez was braiding hair on her Staten Island stoop for $30 a head. She faced discrimination, family disapproval, and was even evicted from her apartment when she couldn't make rent. She’s now sharing her story of perseverance and determination, ahead. The following interview was told to Thatiana Diaz and edited for length and clarity.
Being Latina, you're taught to always have your hair done — it's just part of the culture. I used to do all my friends' hair in junior high and high school. We'd lay down on the carpet floor and get our hair pin-straight with a clothing iron, or sit on the stoop where I would braid it for $30. I got a job in retail at the mall, and I would leave for lunch breaks to braid hair in the back of the store.
When I was 16, my mother thought I should go to Ecuador to live with my grandparents for a bit. While I was there, I got my first job at a hair salon in Quito; I lied and said I was 21 so that I could get the job. But living in Ecuador didn't work out, especially with the challenges of going to school in a different language, so I returned to New York after a year.
My family didn't see hairstyling as a real career. There were a lot of conversations about becoming a lawyer, because a successful hairstylist career path did not exist back then. "We're going to pray for you now," they would say. They tried everything they could to stop me, but I just kept on going.
At 17, I went to cosmetology school and moved from Staten Island to the Bronx to be closer to Manhattan. I worked at the Empire State Building as an observatory guide while I was going to beauty school next door. Eventually, I landed a job at a salon on the Upper East Side. I will never forget that I wore my curly hair to work one day, and my former boss told me that I looked dirty and asked me to "fix" myself. I never wore my hair curly there again. I bought straightening, anti-frizz shampoos and all the girls on the product packaging were blonde with straight hair; that's what you thought beauty was.
I worked at the salon for a few years, and then I moved to freelance because I wanted to do fashion and celebrity work. I studied every single magazine without buying them because I couldn't afford to. I looked at the hairstyling credits in the magazines and decided who I wanted to work with: Guido Palau, Orlando Pita, and Luigi Murenu. I found out what agency they were with, and I called to inquire about jobs. Eventually, I worked with all of them as an assistant. At the age of 21, I would be on set with these stylists doing every single shoot, including Italian Vogue covers.
I assisted those hairstylists for eight years. I wanted to be able to walk into any job and get thrown whatever and know how to do it. Eventually, I had an advantage: I could do more than just sexy waves. At Fashion Week, I was always assigned the girls that were seen as having "difficult hair," which were the Black or Latina models. I saw girls crying with their hair fried and ruined because of stylists that didn't know what they were doing. I wanted to save their hair and make them feel good on the runway.
That's when I started to build relationships with models like Joan Smalls, who was starting her career at the time, and we bonded over being Latinas. I would tell these girls, "If you need your hair done for events, let me know, and I'll come and do your hair." Joan's career started blowing up, and I got to do shoot covers and more amazing things with her. That was a big break for me because I had something to show agencies.
But with freelance fashion jobs, you sometimes don't get paid until six or eight months after the job is completed, and I was earning $75 to $100 a day while paying for travel. There was one point where I hadn't gotten paid in six months and I got a call saying I had to go to Italy for an Italian Vogue shoot. I got evicted that day. They bolted my door, it was snowing outside, and I was crying. Guido's agent called, saying, "Where are you? You're late to the shoot." I told Guido about the eviction, so he personally called the office and told them, "She needs to get paid." They paid me right away.
At the time, my job seemed very glamorous — I was doing Vogue and all — but it just goes to show that it was super difficult. I spent years training with these hair pros and assisting them, but it was so well worth it in the end. I definitely cried many times, but you can't buy that experience.
After that, I wanted to work with celebrities more. So, I switched agencies and began to work with stars like Salma Hayek and Jessica Alba under The Wall Group. I got asked to go to Los Angeles to do Jessica Alba's hair using Honest Products for the Golden Globes in 2016. I had to do Jessica's hair for the first time, never having met her, with products I'd never used before, and then I had a meeting the next day with the company. I thought, Well, I better not mess this up. But I became the Honest brand ambassador in 2017, and started working and traveling with Jessica.
After that, I began working with Emily Ratajkowski a lot, and she landed a Kerastase brand deal. The brand saw us working together so much, and they asked me to be the celebrity hairstylist ambassador. That's how Emily and I got to do more looks, which I loved because she likes to play around with hair and we always have fun.
It feels amazing now to represent Latinas in my career. It's hard enough for women in this once male-dominated industry, but then to be Latina, you had to push the boundaries. Back then, I was told to take off my hoops or not to wear my hair curly. It was a huge thing not to look Latina, and now everybody wants to look Latina. Latinos have this incredible passion and energy, and that's what people book you for: your energy along with your talent. I hope aspiring Latina hairstylists see that and aren't afraid to be themselves.