Feminism, self-worth, and gender dynamics in Hollywood

Guest: Jeanne Yang
After having a visibly successful career styling some of the biggest names in the industry, Jeanne Yang is now one of the top men's celebrity stylists. Her path to success didn't come without redefining feminism and her self-worth within Hollywood. But to whom does she attribute her success? To her Korean mother who scraped through job after job to provide for her family in a foreign country. In this episode, we explore how a young, first-generation American found her path, her confidence, and her voice in a cut throat industry; and how she is working to pave a healthier path for the next generation of women just like her mother did for her. Jeanne shares her thoughts on the superficial scrutiny that women face in American culture, the power dynamics she's faced in Hollywood, as well as how it's taken her into her 50's to redefine feminism.
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Jeanne Yang Transcript

Sabrina Merage Naim
All right, we had the immense pleasure of having such a great conversation with top celebrity stylist Jean Yang, who styles, the likes of Keanu Reeves for 20 years, George Clooney, Jason Momoa, John Cho, and many, many more. But we really focused the conversation on her journey through her career as a woman, as an Asian American, as a first generation American, to immigrant parents.

Kassia Binkowski
She's just such an inspiring woman, her whole story, man, it's not every guest can drop ‘That one time when I was on the set of Ocean's 11….' And yet her story is about her mother. It's about strong female role models, it's about being a role model for her daughters, who are now embarking into the professional world. And, and I think there's a ton to learn, but it's also just really inspiring to speak to somebody at the pinnacle of success, at the pinnacle of her career, and hear such humility and such wisdom.

Sabrina Merage Naim
And she really dropped so much knowledge on us and brought anecdotes that I think are important for us all to appreciate, to internalize. And it was just an incredible conversation. So please enjoy. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jeanne Yang
Thank you for inviting me.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Absolutely such a pleasure. And we're very excited about this conversation, which may be a bit different than what you're accustomed to as one of the foremost celebrity stylists in Hollywood. Because as much as we would love to dish about how great Keanu is, we’re really interested in your journey as a woman in your career and as a first generation American. And so we want to hear about how you have shattered glass ceilings along the way to reach the heights that you are enjoying today. And we'd like to start with why your parents came to the United States, what is the story of them leaving Korea and settling in the US?

Jeanne Yang
So speaking of breaking the glass, I think one of the main reasons why I am who I am is because my mother. My father came here to study and my mother shortly followed him. And she didn't speak any English. So she decided to take whatever job she could, she came here with $20, she started cleaning houses, drove an 18 Wheeler, and in addition, ended up working at a canning factory. She basically worked a 22 hour day. I mean, apparently, pregnant with me shortly thereafter, she worked up until I was born. And then I think like a day after went straight back to work. I've never known her not to be working. And it's interesting having daughters who've gone to women's schools and myself having gone to a woman's school, I recently heard something that said, If you want your children to be successful, there's studies that have shown that a working mom is one of the biggest, clearest examples of making sure that that happens. And they've just done these studies. And I realized, ‘Wow, that's so true.’ You just learn to work. And there's a reason why. When I think of Clinton and Obama, you know, two presidents, who got to the point of being leaders of the free world, based on the fact that they had single moms who worked. I think that you're never alone. When you break the glass. It's always because there's someone ahead of you who's helped to maybe make those first cracks, and I attribute it to my mother 100%.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So your your mom really paved the way for you as an immigrant who came to a country where she didn't speak the language. She didn't have family here. And having that example as a young girl must have changed everything for you.

Jeanne Yang
Absolutely. I mean, she was in a business and has always ended up not only doing very well, but then becoming a leader herself, you know, being the president of whatever Association she was a part of. She was sewing contractor. So a Korean woman, being the president of the Korean garment manufacturers association. Well, she just wanted and always knew what she was important and was very outspoken. And because of it, I kind of didn't know any different. I just thought well, that's, of course what you do. And then I think when you have a mother like that, you tend to not be as afraid of speaking out. And one of the most amazing examples that I'm seeing right now is my daughter's used to always get on me about how ‘feminist this' and ‘women's that’ my daughter's it's so funny that being a girl school, they speak out. They’ve always talked, they've always gone for office hours, they've never felt afraid. When I was looking at their school, one of the biggest selling points to me, which of course I was so unconscious of even though I've gone to a girl school, what they said, When young girls are in junior high, they tend to be afraid, they want to make sure they're right before they speak out. When you're in a mixed gendered environment. When you're in a single sex environment at that age, and you have no fear, you tend to speak out more, and you tend to develop a sense of confidence. My mother was that person for me. And I had this incredible sense that was normal.

Kassia Binkowski
So having come up in a single sex education yourself, and now your daughters have, what are the most lasting impacts that you've seen from that environment? I mean, those are such formative years. And you now have, you know, the blessing of decades behind that. So what does that look like? What are the lasting effects that you've noticed?

Jeanne Yang
So I think the most significant effect is the lack of fear, or I guess, there's no acknowledgement that you shouldn't do anything any differently. If you have a baseline, where speaking out is not considered strange or abnormal, then of course, you're going to if you see something strange. You develop a lens. I'd like to think my filter is ‘that is unjust,’ or ‘that is not right’ or ‘did you realize what that person just said.’ When I first started out in the business, I will never forget, I just recently remembered. I had an incident where I did something on a very big music video. And it was a scene where everybody on the set, you have a set of like 150 people, everybody was talking about it. I was 23 or 24, young Asian girl. And the director, I want to say was in the 60’s, male. I was in a van. Every single person was male, except for me. And he made a comment where he said, ‘Gosh, I haven't had this much fun since I was killing in Vietnam.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that was for me. He's pissed off.’ Because everybody on set was talking about this 23 year old who rescued the job. And it was a sort of like, ‘Let's push you down, shut up.’ And it was like, ‘let's quiet you down.’ And I remember, for two seconds, thinking, I'm in a van filled with men. I’m pretty much the youngest person here. And I kind of remember being upset by it. But also thinking, ‘Fuck you.' You know, I don't think if I hadn't been brought up in a single sex education, I might have been crushed. And quieted by that. It was instead, ‘Fuck you.’ How dare you try and get all the other guys to come up and go ‘Let's shut this little girl down. Let's make her be quiet.' If anything, it was kind of like, ‘No, I really don't care.’ I never worked with them again. I was an assistant on the job, but I remember telling the woman that I worked for what happened. It was her big client. And she said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You'll never have to work on another job with him’ and I was like, I wouldn't anyway.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So that actually leads me to a question that I have around coming up in your career. Were there barriers that you experienced professionally that may have been a product of your gender or ethnicity, certain things that were targeted towards you? Or barriers that you faced either as being a woman or as an Asian American?

Jeanne Yang
Well, the industry has been typically filled with mainly mainly women, mainly because a lot of stylists and editors. So I have to say, to a certain extent, being a woman or being an Asian woman did not put me in a disadvantage. But I do think one of the things that's interesting is that as a woman, you generally tend to be much more empathetic, tend to be somebody who may happen to listen more. I didn't have an agenda. So one of the things that I've always, I think it's just inherent in how I was raised was to be aware of everybody around us. I tend to be a servicing person. So when I would work on jobs, rather than looking at the person as, ‘Hey, this is my avenue to be successful’ it was instead ‘how do I make this person the best that they can be?’ So I wouldn't show up with an agenda and say, This is what's cool with what's going on, because I would realize their picture is this big and my name is this big. If I make them look better, than that's my goal. I was working on Ocean's 12. For big photoshoot, it was like, you have 20 minutes to get George, Matt, Brad, Andy, Scott, Casey Affleck, and all those guys - you had 20 minutes to get everybody dressed. And each of them in five outfits, I didn't have time to sit there and go, ‘Well, I want to put my agenda out there and make them look this certain way so I become famous.' They're not going to hire me again if I do that. And I like to think that it's something being inherently female.

Sabrina Merage Naim
And you have been quoted before saying that one of the, you know, many reasons for your success is that you don't come within with an agenda, you don't come in and say, Okay, this is what's trendy. Now, this is what's cool now. And that's what I'm going to put on you. You really listen to your clients, know what they are wanting, what they're asking for, what's right for them. And I do think that that's inherently a female trait that you are able to, you know, really listen, and come forward with open ears with empathy, with an open mind, and look where that's gotten, you know, so let's rewind for a second, because you talk about how your mom was such an important role model for you growing up and now even still in your career. And she had a pretty versatile career herself. I can't imagine a Korean woman driving an eighteen wheeler. That's an amazing picture in my mind. But you also kind of had a versatile career as you started out. And you were, you know, trying to be a lawyer, you were in the magazines, you know, and I want to understand a little bit more about what motivated you to transition to where you are today.

Jeanne Yang
So what is interesting is that, when I first started out, I was positive I wanted to go into politics. I went to work at a law firm before deciding to go to Washington, DC. And because I thought, well, if you want to be a politician, you need to learn the law. I absolutely hated it. Talk about a male dominated, horrible situation, being in an office all day. I didn't want to be in an office all day where I felt as though laws did not grow, laws did not change, laws were ‘This is what you need to know.’ It was static. So it was scary. But I made the decision that rather than doing what I thought I should do, let's try doing something that I might like to do. So the only thing that I knew that existed was maybe becoming a buyer. So I went and worked in a buying program. They placed me in the lingerie department of a department store, which was miserable dealing with underwear all day. And then I basically was laid off, so I kind of had no choice. And I collected unemployment. I thought well, I need to now really think about what I want to do now that I have the choice. I interned at a magazine because I thought well, I like reading magazines, maybe I could actually work in one. I worked at one for two years, got us to the point where huge corporate raider came in and bought the magazine. But one of my problems was that the environment I was working in was incredibly toxic. And so a friend of mine had a clothing line. I thought well, I enjoy styling so maybe I can kind of work within the confines of a specific clothing line. We put one of the first few fashion websites ever in the world on the internet, because my friend's husband said, I think this might be big this thing called the internet, it was a thing where we thought this will be big and it was bigger than big. What happened though, was that being restricted by one single line that really didn't give me the ability with which to work with a whole bunch of different people was like, you only could work with this one line, it took six months before you developed it. So I thought, I'm going to rely on those resources from before work at the magazine and go out there and see if I can do this styling thing. And I took everything, you know - a nail polish campaign, an exercise camp, you know, I worked for Shape magazine, or Men's Health, Men's Journal, anything that would take me. I would take every job. And one of the things that led me to doing the 120 hour weeks was basically, as a self employed person, you get scared that you're not going to get another job. And so you take anything you possibly can. And because you don't know, next week, what you're doing. Ironically, right now, for the first time, I don't have an actual styling job next week. So it's funny to actually get to the point where I'm very comfortable and fine with that.

Kassia Binkowski
I mean, did you ever struggle with a sense of imposter syndrome when you were starting out? Transitioning from law into magazine into styling - what was your confidence level early in your career?

Jeanne Yang
I mean, are you kidding? Imposter syndrome every day. Every time I don't get a phone call back from my clients, I think they're never going to use me again. That was it, I screwed up, I totally messed up, people are going to finally realize I'm totally a failure. And then I'm, ‘it's all bullshit. And this is not real. And I don't care.' And one of the things that's interesting is that, for example, I have a gigantic, mega, huge client. And they chose not to wear something, maybe that I picked out. And I think, Oh my god, they're never gonna call me again, I screwed up. But instead of going and hearing that voice, it's interesting. And I know that sounds so crazy. But when you have dogs, you have a female dog, and I have a male dog, and the male dog, it's just the testosterone that pushes him forward, he doesn't care. It's like, I'm gonna just push you to the side. My female dog is kind of like, let me figure out how to get what I want. Because she's so she's very wily, and really smart about it. But the testosterone, I mean, I love him, he's the sweetest dog ever, but not so smart. I will watch her with a Kong and she goes and like gets on top of the bed, throws it from the highest point possible so the bone will get broken and comes out. The boy dog is like, I am going to fight with this thing until I get it out. And I realize my husband and I talk about this all the time, I tend to be more couched and careful. And I realize, okay, there's no imposter syndrome as much for a guy because it's kind of like, well, I'm just gonna do it, I'm gonna do it. I think of my dog. Like, I'm gonna go out there and do this. So, for example, I was scared that the client had one something that I wanted, I decided that I'm going to call them up and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I'd like to do the next thing. I told you, I want to do this. And I just am going to push forward and let them know. I'm not going to be afraid. I've got to be confident and know that if this didn't work, next thing is gonna work. No problem.’

Kassia Binkowski
So let's fast forward. You are a really - very clearly - strong, confident woman. You invest the time, you’re building this career, you're saying yes to all the things. At what point coming from such a feminist lens and a strong mother at what point do you decide male styling is going to be your niche?

Jeanne Yang
I think ironically, you know, there's a woman named Christina Binkley. You guys should talk to her. She's a fantastic journalist. She wrote an article years ago on how women should shop more like men. And one of the reasons why is that it was about investing in really fantastic pieces, quality items, and creating a uniform. I used to spend so much time and I think it was wasted time to certain extent going back and forth. And you know, on any given day, I felt like I'm more of a Samantha than, you know, a Carry. And it was interesting, because I felt like one of the things I was able to do with men - I thin it was Ocean’s - I was like, okay, this is Brad’s style. I could define and classify one guy and it's not to say that guys don't have that vacillation, they just have tend to have a narrow range. So for me, it was easier to nail that down. And then like George has this really classic, elegant old school style. So I could do that. You know, Jason has this eclectic, fine bohemian style. But I can go ahead and write it in and give him this little like twist where there's this upscale like Fendi, the pink tuxedo. So with the women I worked with, it was very hard. And I hate to say it, but in Hollywood, on any given day, for a woman, you can be too old, too young, too skinny, too fat, too pretty, not pretty enough. And I think the back and forth, it causes so many things to change, that for me, it was easier with what I did, to go out there and go into that that niche. And also it didn't exist for men, there was nobody who was doing men's. So for me, it was like, I'm gonna just slowly slip into that lane.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So you found your whitespace. And it's something that's been working for you very well. And you speak about how celebrity styling is a predominantly female industry, however, you found your niche in men's styling. And what I'm curious about is over the years, you know, today we're kind of elbow deep in #metoo, and #timesup movements. And those largely originated in Hollywood and have rippled outward to other industries. But as a men's stylist, have there ever been any inappropriate instances that you've had to navigate? And if so, how, what did you do?

Jeanne Yang
So, you know, there was when I was assisting, and I think that I see this, especially now with young daughters. And one of the things that my daughters and I talked about, and this was a shocking incident. When one of them was I think she was 12 or 13, we had a dog that showed up at our door, we had to at last minute go and get some stuff for it. At the pet store, she decided to walk it around to socialize, it left me at the counter to collect things. And she came back and a guy went running out and I thought what happened? Are you okay? And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, he was using grooming behavior.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘I was sitting on a bench in the back of the store, he came and sat right next to me asked me if I was with my mom. Or if I was by myself. How old was I? He never asked about the dog. So I knew immediately, he was probably going to try and touch me or do something inappropriate.’ It scared the crap out of me. And I thought, Oh, my God, both of them have been so hyper aware of grooming behavior. And I realized I was subjected to it when I was younger, if you are not telling your daughters at an early age, or even your son's at an early age, predators, or people who are bullies, and basically don't have good intentions, look specifically for somebody who may be naive, unaware and young. And I think that I definitely went through that when I was younger, when I was an assistant. If you walk around unknowing and naive, you become somebodies target. And so I did have one incident where somebody went after me, that made a huge difference in terms of the way I dressed. Not that it mattered. But I just kind of whenever I go into fitting, I actually have a manifesto, where I tell my girls, or guys that I'm working with, this is the way we comport ourselves. This is the way we dress, it's a business environment, make sure that you don't even leave a crack in the door.

Sabrina Merage Naim
But doesn't it bother you that you had to change your dress in order to, you know, avoid those kinds of incidents?

Jeanne Yang
No, because this is the thing for me, it wasn't so much that I changed my dress so much as I got here on my own terms, I didn't do anything inappropriate to get to this point. The reason I have this roster of men is because it's actual work. And I know that some would say that's silly that you have to worry about that. But I think it was a big thing for me. Like, you know, my mom was in the same environment where it was like she worked around men. And I think she wanted to make it clear, like I wasn't doing anything other than working hard to get here. Now that I'm here, I'm like, yeah,I used to dress like a crazy person. And I always was really fearful on on Thursdays and Fridays, like, Oh, no, I don't want that tabloid to come out because I was a crazy dresser. But for work, it's just I don't I don't know. I mean, it wasn't changing myself. It was more like this is appropriate, this is what I want to put out as my face.

Kassia Binkowski
So in your role now where you've achieved the authority and the clout in the industry, and you're now mentoring women who are earlier in their careers, what is your advice to them? Have there been instances where you've, you know, stepped up on their behalf to mitigate situations? What does that look like now that you feel less threatened by some of those dynamics?

Jeanne Yang
I've never really had anything very strange. Because I kind of am very mother hen. Like, there's no funny business happening here at my office or with my people. And I don't know, I mean, I'm kind of very clear. I think I discuss it with the clients and with my assistants and the people that work around me. And I'm very aware, I mean, almost to the point where people are like, you're overly like, you're being going too far. And I'm like, I can't help it. If I see something weird, say something. It's just the way I was raised.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So today, your daughters have grown up in LA. And you have been surrounded by the perception of beauty that is portrayed in Hollywood. And I'm curious against the cultural pressure that girls face to be flawless, how have you instilled strength and resilience in your daughters?

Jeanne Yang
So the thing that's really interesting about having daughters is that I realize, and I need to be much more hyper aware of what I say about myself, you know, talking about my weight, talking about the way I look, and how they are just like sponges. They absorb everything. So if I talk about, 'Oh, I'm so chubby,’ or ‘I'm so this,’ that means that there's obviously a certain weight that you should be, and putting a mirror up and realizing every time I say that, that is going to come back to me and my kids. So the thing that's been really fascinating is that it drives me nuts that I see kids, so absorbed with taking selfies and looking at their face, and at the same time that I see the wonderful acceptance of who you are. I also see the sort of like, maybe I need to get my nose done, or maybe I need to do that. And or, you know, look at her skin. I've told my daughter for years, you know, growing up magazines have airbrushed and altered images so significantly, that was what we just knew and thought you had to be and but generally speaking, I always tell my daughters that you're always going to feel like maybe you're less than, but know that that is not something that should make you feel you need to change yourself. Because ultimately, being you is one of the most unique and wonderful things. There's no one else there out there like that. And to say that to twins, you can imagine how it must drive them crazy. They're like, 'Oh, please do you know how many people mistake me for my sister?’ And I say ‘No, seriously, there's no one else like you. You guys may look somewhat like to some people. But ultimately, you are distinctive, wonderful thing.’ It's just really hard for me, that I see that happen. And I think maybe that was also why it was hard for me to go in and work in Hollywood specifically with sometimes in the female worlds because you always felt so bad that it was like you were so skinny. The camera adds so much weight, it is so incredibly unfair, that you're trying to look a certain way, an ideal that it's going to switch tomorrow. You know, being that anorexic heroine chic is now out because now you’ve got to be curvy, and you know you're adding on or taking off. And ultimately, if you keep on that treadmill, all it's going to do is just make you feel never good about yourself. And know that ultimately on the inside, if you feel good, it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside.

Sabrina Merage Naim
What are the glass ceilings that you never thought you'd shatter?

Jeanne Yang
I think being an Asian American woman that people want to listen to. When I was growing up, you never saw an Asian face, let alone a brunette. I mean, on the cover of magazines, or in any place where people were looking to, not to mention just the standards of what was considered important was almost solely based on the way you looked. I feel like growing up, if you were a woman, it was all about your looks almost exclusively in terms of whether or not people would listen to you. And, to me, that substance has become important. And I've said this for quite some time. Now, it's not based on what you look like, it's maybe based on my 10,000 hours, I really spent many years doing this. And so I've developed a great deal of experience and wisdom in this world. And so I'd like to think it's nice to know that I kind of know what I'm doing in terms of this world where people are coming to me to ask my opinion. And it's nice to know that it doesn't matter that I'm a female. Doesn't matter that I'm Asian. It matters only based on my, my accomplishments.

Kassia Binkowski
Jeanne, what is your definition of femininity?

Jeanne Yang
It's interesting, the ideas of femininity. Just recently, I met a gentleman who's a jeweler, and he asked me if I wanted a piece of jewelry, and I'm always very like, Oh, no, I don't need anything. That's okay. I'm really good. But he was like, ‘Look, please let me make you something. Can you pick something from my pieces?’ And I picked a Medusa. And I then started getting really paranoid because I'm always super paranoid. I'm like, ‘What did I pick?’ Oh, my God, Medusa, she's the person who put everybody you know, she's a victim of the myth was of rape, and that she was so beautiful that Athena was angry at her and turned her into something that would make people stone. And it's interesting, because I've been really analyzing the ideas of femininity and the demystification of ideals of what women were in going back to certain, I mean, to a certain extent, what I was talking about how a woman was based on her beauty and her looks, rather than on her strength. And the reason I felt like I wanted the Medusa was because she's a badass, strong woman, she will turn you to stone. So to a certain extent, I'd like to think, ‘Mess with me and I will turn you to stone.’ On the other hand, I'm a very strong woman. And I feel like as women I am in particular, I tend to be very wary, like, I don't want to seem too strong, I don't want to go ahead and put my voice out there. But it's taken me to 52 to get to that point where I can feel like I can say that, how crazy is that? That I've always been scared of being too strong, or at but that I consciously picked this Medusa ring that was like, No, I'm gonna be comfortable with being strong. So for me, if I'd said years ago, being feminine was about being pretty and you know, girly. And, or lady like, and, and it was about using your feminine charms. I feel like in my 50s being feminine is about feeling very comfortable and not giving a shit about what other people think.

Sabrina Merage Naim
You know, my hope, my hope with this episode is that people who listen to this, particularly girls and women, will hear the journey of someone who was born of immigrant parents, to know had the mentorship of a strong mother, who paved the path in her career, and has come to a place in your life that you are comfortable, you are confident in who you are, you are unapologetic in that. And that's what is so important. And you're able to feel the rewards of you know, a being on the top of your career. And because of that, because, arguably, you now are so comfortable with who you are and how you work and who you work with that. You don't have to second guess yourself. And that's something that I think is such a lesson for all of us is, hopefully it doesn't take us all, until we're in our 50s to get there. But, you know, to hear the experiences of someone like you who has had this incredible journey. It's something that I think we all can run from.

Jeanne Yang
Well, I mean, honestly, that was one of the reasons why I think I wanted to be a part of this, but also why I've mentored so many people, because if there's a way in which I can show you how to do something easier, more efficient, just in a smarter manner. That is kind of the way I've always been. You know, I get the whole idea of leaning in, but for me it's not necessarily leaning in, how about helping out? How about helping up? How about just thinking that that is more important. If you can sit there in a circle of women, and discuss things and help each other out and say, You know what, you are so damn beautiful, you are amazing, you are smart, you're brilliant, you're genius. Look at how you kick ass, then that's kind of what I do with these guys. They feel just as insecure walking that red carpet. I mean, the team of people that make them feel good, makes it easier to go out there. So we should do that amongst ourselves. We should 100% be out there to help each other out. And if anything, it's like breaking glass doesn't happen all by itself. There's always somebody else starting that first crack. And I can be one of the cracks and you can be one of the cracks. You can be one of the cracks. Let me tell you that ceiling will crack so much faster.

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