Jenny Cho on Her Career, The Role of Beauty in Chaos, and *That* SAG Awards Look She Created with HoYeon Jung

In honor of APAHM month, we're revisiting some of our favorite interviews with Asian American creatives in the beauty industry.


Jennifer Lawrence’s worldwide Hunger Games promotional tours. Emilia Clarke’s awards show circuit throughout her turn as Daenerys Targaryen. Lucy Boynton’s rise as a red-carpet star during Bohemian Rhapsody. And most recently, HoYeon Jung’s meteoric ascent in America following the success of Squid Game. During these pivotal moments in each of these actresses’ careers, they shared a common denominator: Jenny Cho, a Los Angeles based celebrity hairstylist of over 20 years and member of the R+Co collective.

Spend even just a half hour with Cho and you can see why people might want to keep someone like her nearby during those high-pressured moments. That she’s a talented stylist goes without saying (again, see her extensive portfolio), but there’s something else she possesses that explains the breadth and depth of her relationships with her A-list clientele. She has a steadfastness that makes you feel calmer and truly cared for when you’re in her presence.

“I think that comes from growing up and experiencing so many different things at an early age,” she tells me. “You can't help but to become conscious of your surroundings and aware of how you speak to others and how you treat other people when you grow up in these ever-changing environments.”

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Let’s start there, Jenny. Tell us about your childhood.

I grew up in Jongno sam ga, which was the electronic district in Seoul. It was a busy area where there were lots of little alleyways and canals, and tons of mom-and-pop shops. My dad had a record shop there. I spent a lot of time wandering those alleyways as a kid. It was my playground.

Looking back, I see that I grew up with two worlds in front of me: the old Korea and the new one. In front of our high-rise apartment building, just across the street, there was an old palace that my grandmother would take me and my brother to every morning with my grandfather. We would hike through the area and my grandmother would carry giant bags for us to collect acorns in, and we’d go home, and she’d make mook (acorn jelly) with them.

My grandparents basically raised me because my parents were so busy. My dad left for America when I was five, which was five years before we joined him, so my mom needed help caring for me and my little brother. In the years since, my mom has told me how difficult that time was.

We would only see my dad once a year, so whenever my mom missed him, she would take us to the airport. I have a lot of those melancholy memories from my past mixed in with the happy times of just being a kid, of being so loved by my grandparents.

What was it like coming to America as a kid?

My very first impression of America was K-town (Koreatown, Los Angeles), which was not at all what I imagined the States to be like. I expected the images I saw in pamphlets—you know with rolling grass hills and little houses with white fences. K-town was nothing like that.

Shortly after, we moved to Gardena, which was a very diverse city. Our family lived in a two-bedroom apartment, where my brother and I shared a room. My mom’s first job here was at Weinerschnitzel making fries and hot dogs and my dad painted houses.

From an early age I understood how difficult it was to come here and what it took for my parents to make a life here. There were a lot of struggles for us as a family in those days, and so I think that’s where my drive comes from.

When my dad had saved enough money to open up a small car radio store in town, he didn’t have enough to keep inventory around, so he kept empty boxes of car stereos on display and whenever a customer came and requested a particular stereo system, he would run out and get it. That’s how he got the business started. He did a lot of other odd end jobs during that time as well, fixing TVs, fixing refrigerators and painting houses.

Someone who worked for him started doing these car stereo system competitions and they started winning awards at them. That somehow led to them working with N.W.A. My dad came home one day and was like “Hey, do you know these people?” referring to Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, because they all went to my dad to get stereo systems put into their cars.

Much later, when Straight Outta Compton came out, I asked my dad who was the nicest out of all of them. His answer? “Andrew was the kindest.” Andrew, as in Dr. Dre.

The success of that business eventually led to our family moving to Torrance and my parents kept growing from there.

After all of the different experiences you had early on in your life, and now, you’re often put in these fancy situations for work, does it ever feel surreal?

Oh my gosh. I’ll be the first to admit I definitely work in a bubble. I am in a lot of fancy situations and I’m grateful for my life, for these experiences. Sometimes, I think to myself, “How is this my life?” because at the beginning of my career, this was not my goal to end up here. I came up in a salon environment and I worked very hard, but this path that I’ve been on of celebrity styling, it happened naturally over time.

When I really sit with it, I think, OK, I have a bigger purpose here. What does that mean? I recently taught a class in Portland for R+Co, and afterwards, so many girls came up to me and said how amazing it was to see a woman, an Asian woman stylist, doing what I’m doing. That it gave them permission to see this as a viable career path for themselves.

It’s made me realize that maybe I don’t have to be loud or try so hard to set a specific example. I can just continue to do what I do, and that alone can give hope to younger generations who want to pursue this type of work.

There’s so much going on in the world right now and lately I grapple with this question of what the purpose of our work in beauty is in the larger context of suffering and life. How do you make sense of it?

This is really, really difficult to answer in a sentence or two, but I think there’s a bit of yin and yang at play here. Beauty and chaos. Art and chaos. The two always coexist. The act of showing care for yourself amid all the darkness in the world is important. But in all honesty, it’s hard for me to make sense of sometimes, too.

When the whole pandemic happened, my mom, who owns a beauty store, said the products were selling like crazy because people were trying to take care of themselves somehow.

You know, it can be a healing process, putting on the products, taking time to make yourself look better to feel better…it helps. Yes, healing comes from within, but at the same time, sometimes you need to shift things around to help facilitate that healing, and maybe that’s when you approach things from the outside, in.

You have worked with everyone from Sandra Oh to Kristen Bell To Hoyeon Jung. What has that experience been like for you?

I love being behind all these incredibly smart, charming, talented women and I’m honored to have played even the smallest part in their lives and in their work.

Sandra and I have been working together since she was in Grey's Anatomy. We did a beautiful shoot for our first job together. It was a spread for Nuvo. She had a Korean hanbok designer do this beautiful hanbok series, which was Sandra's idea. It was such a fun shoot and we connected over it, and we've been working together ever since.

As for HoYeon, she has such a special place in my heart because immediately, she was so open and so giving and warm. We have such good times together and there are moments when we’re all in the room together—me, her and makeup artist Nina Park—and we're just looking at each other going I can't believe this. How did we all end up here together? From where we all started in Korea to being here in America getting ready for the SAG Awards. It’s a magical, powerful moment.

It’s the same feeling I get whenever I see other Asian actors meeting each other for the first time at awards shows, you know? Like when I saw Greta Lee, who I love, and HoYeon and Sandra hugging each other at the SAG Awards I was in tears. Here’s the legendary Sandra Oh, and these younger girls who have been looking up to her for many years, and they’re all in the same room together, celebrating each other in this moment in time.

Speaking of the SAG Awards, I loved the braids you did on Hoyeon for the evening. What is the process like when you're creating looks for her? Where are you drawing inspiration from?

From the very beginning, she knew she wanted to wear a look that would pay tribute to our heritage. She had just committed to working with Louis Vuitton, and the dress she was wearing showcased traditional Korean embroidery work, so we started exploring different hair ideas to go with the dress. We decided on doing a modern version of the sleek braids that are worn with hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and adding daeng gi to her hair. It played nicely with her dress, which reminded me of my grandparent’s furniture. Shiny black lacquer abalone pieces. That’s what her dress looked like to me. Putting the daeng gi in her hair was one of the most emotional moments of my career—and it’s one that I will never forget.

How do you feel about the widespread popularity of Korean culture over the past few years?

I hope that it's not just a passing trend and the impact lasts beyond this moment. I hope that we become more connected somehow through it.

I also think that for many Koreans and Korean Americans, it's been healing for us. I grew up with so much shame around being Korean in a way because we were always second or third to other Asian countries. We were the forgotten country, the middle child of Asia. For our younger generations to not ever have to carry the burden of not feeling like enough is so incredible.

It’s been a difficult couple of years with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. When your non-AAPI friends ask how they can help, what do you say to them?

You know, I had an incident that happened recently coming home from a job in London. I was at the Heathrow airport sitting with a makeup artist in the lounge and this woman blurted out, “Chinese people should go back home.” At first, I froze because that’s how I react to things. That’s my default. But then, I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Sometimes when I think back to that moment, I wish I could have said something better. I wish I fired back, but I’ve also come to realize that she's a product of her environment. So, if I could say anything to other communities, it's to have conversations with your elders and the people around you, to speak out whenever you see or hear racism being projected in your own circles. I think that’s a really good place to start.

What gives you hope these days?

I look at my son. I look at all the children he goes to school with. They’re all so smart and they know how to express their feelings in ways we didn’t growing up. I see my friends and how they're teaching their children to be kind and accepting of others, and it all makes me very hopeful.

What mark do you hope to leave on the industry?

I hope that by showing up and doing this work, it somehow opens up a broader spectrum of options and opportunities for Asian Americans, for minorities, to have a place in this world that was once so difficult to break into not all that long ago.

Who are some AAPI creatives you want to shine a light on?

Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...