This interview series in partnership with @barbiestyle is dedicated to celebrating women who believe that anything is possible. These are women who have created independent and uniquely modern careers and have blazed their own paths toward success. They did not follow a road map or climb a corporate ladder. Instead, they believed that their unique vision could a fill a void to empower themselves and those around them.
From humble odd jobs in New York City to a career-launching appearance on reality TV, Emily Henderson has become an interior design maven renowned for her approachable brand aesthetic and genuine connection with her 1M+ fans across social media. Raised in Oregon, Emily moved to New York City in 2001 and worked as a bartender and dog-walker before landing a job with Jonathan Adler and eventually as a stylist. After seeing an ad on Craigslist for reality TV contest HGTV Design Star, Emily applied and won—which catapulted her into the career she has today. Following her Design Star victory, Emily went on to host her own show, Secrets from a Stylist, growing her blog (and fan base) in the meantime. She has since developed her platform into a prominent style and inspiration source with a rapidly growing audience, is the New York Times Best Selling Author of Styled, was named a 2017 Forbes Top Influencer, and is a Target Home Style Ambassador. Emily shared with us her approach to standing out on the internet, what being a ‘yes’ person means to her, and why there is room for all of us to be successful.
“My first memories of styling are going thrifting, long before it was cool. My parents were both teachers and had six kids, so thrifting was a necessity. I loved it and gravitated towards retro costumes—anything that was funky or wacky. I didn’t know that shopping and styling was a career option, let alone blogging. It was the 90s—my siblings and I would fight over our only-just-invented Commodore 64 to play ‘typing tutor/play computer’—yes, a typing game.
Back in those days, I definitely dressed a Barbie or two. I had no rules with my own clothes, and I took that same lack of expertise and clothed my Barbies in what I remember as being ‘edgy’ or totally cuckoo. I played with Barbie all over our house—on boxes, dressers, whatever I could find. To this day I love miniature furniture and accessories more than I love life-size. A tiny chair GETS ME. So you betcha that I designed some furniture for my Barbie ladies. When I was seven I got the pink convertible car for Christmas and I remember vividly how happy it made me. That same year that I got a matching pink sweatsuit and pretty much all my fantasies came true.
Growing up in a small town I thought my career options were teacher, lawyer, or doctor. I chose ‘teacher’ because of my parents. I spent a lot of time journaling, making things and doing DIY projects. I studied English and History in college, then moved to New York. I landed a retail job at Jonathan Adler (before he became who he is today) and badgered my way into assisting one of the amazing stylists that we worked with. Thus my styling career began. We moved to LA just as the recession hit and I had little work, so I started my design blog. It was around this time that I saw a Craigslist ad for the reality show HGTV Design Star. I auditioned, then went on to win.
This was a pivotal moment in my career and a huge catalyst for where I am today.
It led me to hosting and producing my own show, Secrets from a Stylist, for a number of years. The whole time I was working on Secrets from a Stylist, I continued to focus on building my blog, and it began building traction.
Auditioning for HGTV Design Star was a bold move for me. If you were to meet me you’d think I was a fairly normal person who wouldn’t do that type of thing. It’s precisely why I won, because I didn’t try to be anything other than myself, which I believe is relevant to the work I do now. I’m sure that there are far better designers, stylists and writers out there, but I’m able to write about design and style in a distinct way that helps people feel empowered to decorate their home. Being raised by teachers, I gleaned how to explain and teach concepts in a way that is approachable and not intimidating. After the show ended, I put everything I had financially back into the blog, hiring good photographers and splurging on flowers. For years, I felt like I was throwing money into this blog without it actually profiting, but stuck with it.
That choice to stick with the blog has resulted in what my job is today: creating compelling digital content in the home and style world, both for companies, clients and my own personal projects. It means that my team is constantly brainstorming, creating, producing and amplifying original work—and we have to move fast! My day-to-day work varies, but I’m always writing, shopping, styling and thinking about social media and how to stay innovative.
Innovation is so important because the internet is boiling over with people trying to stand out.
The only way to successfully do this is to harness what is unique about you. I always say that you either need to be unique with a universal voice, or you need to have a universal product with a unique voice. The companies and people I love and who are successful have mastered that, and that’s what we strive to do every day when we create content. As someone with a creative career you have to see a version of the finished product before you can begin it. I always think about the ‘look and feel’ of the room before I consider specific pieces. I have to imagine the way that I want it to feel, without knowing anything else.
Being the fourth child out of six helped me become extremely independent at an early age. My parents are the most optimistic people in the world, and that instilled a positive attitude deep into my psyche. Being raised by ‘yes’ people turned me into a ‘yes’ person, where anything now seems possible—which makes it easier to put myself out there. I truly believe that fear is the number one enemy to success.
While it was ingrained in me to be positive and optimistic, it is still a choice.
I’m extremely proud of the fact that I’ve turned the blog into a full-blown company, as well as my partnership with Target. It was a fantastic job to land, and now in our fourth year we’re creating great content and telling stories that are valuable to consumers. I’m also proud that I can provide good salaries, health insurance and paid vacations for my team.
When I think of my role models, I think of my mom: She is the most productive person on the planet, unable to sit down, multitasking in her sleep. That certainly rubbed off on me! I also had a great boss in my 20s as a stylist who taught me how to push it creatively every day. If I were to give advice to a young woman who wanted to follow a similar path, I would say to put yourself out there, be persistent, be yourself, be willing to assist and learn for years, and to create the thing that you want to buy. Get any and all digital skills. Use your social media as daily marketing for yourself. I think we need to be generous with information, help and advice. Life is not a competition and treating it like it is does a disservice to all of us. There is room for all of us to be successful, and the more we promote and celebrate other women’s work, the more successful all women will become.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2017
Photographed by Tessa Neustadt and Zlata Kusnoor