Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I quickly discovered that this kind of gushing testimony is common when people talk about Henriksen, the founder of the eponymous line of skin care which you’ve likely seen, in all its orange-boxed glory, lining the shelves at Sephora. When you speak to Henriksen, he looks at you like it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever heard. He drops pronouncements that from anyone else — except maybe Oprah — would seem schlocky and overly sentimental, like "a happy face is a beautiful face." He can make even the most pragmatic of facial rituals ("a beautiful journey of exfoliation") sound like something out of Eat, Pray, Love.
It’s skin care as therapy, with a dash of wellness tossed in. "I’d rather find out a little bit about your life and about you the person before I’m going to sell you anything," Henriksen says. "I feel good as a skin care expert because hopefully I lifted your spirits and planted a little seed in your head you can take with you.
Henriksen is still involved in formulating products and is the face of the brand, though he sold it in 2011 to Kendo, the LVMH-owned beauty incubator company that also owns Kat Von D, Marc Jacobs Beauty, and lipstick-focused Bite Beauty. (Kendo will also be launching Rihanna’s highly anticipated makeup collection next fall. "I happen to love Rihanna. I hope I get to meet that gorgeous creature!" Henriksen enthuses. Same, Ole.) LVMH also, of course, owns Sephora, so the brand gets top booking in stores. Ole Henriksen Truth Serum Vitamin C Collagen Booster is the chain’s best-selling anti-aging product in all of North America.
Ole (pronounced like "hula" without the "h") Henriksen, 65, launched his products in 1978 in LA, though he’d already lived a pretty adventurous life up until that point. He was a dancer for many years, and continues to stay active now by doing high-level gymnastics in his backyard, where he had rings and parallel bars installed. He exercises an hour a day, which includes 300 push-ups, done in increments of 50. He tells a story of a group of "young, macho guys" visiting him at home once and trying out his equipment. "They made this funny, ‘Oof’ sound," he laughs. Presumably they did not stick the dismount.
Henriksen was born in Denmark in a tiny village that has been around since the 1400s. His mom, who worked at a local pharmacy making ointments, was his first contact with skin care. She would come home from work and make him and his two brothers put various concoctions on their skin. "We did it as a ritual, but sort of resisting a little," he says.
Henriksen left home in his late teens to become a dancer, and his career eventually took him to Indonesia, which he fell in love with. He promptly "jumped ship from my dance troupe and stayed on." While there, he developed cystic acne and met a local fashion boutique owner who did facials in a back room on the side.
"She said to me, ‘Ole, your skin looks like shit. I need to help you,’" Henriksen says. "She began treating me and I discovered the transformational powers of skin being treated correctly. I was very enamored. She used botanicals native to Indonesia."
Later on, he met a woman there who was the manager of the Max Factor Salon in London. He claims she told him that he was meant for the beauty industry. He decided to go to London in the early ‘70s, and she helped him get into the Christine Shore College of Beauty, where he was the only male student among 24 women. After graduating, he accepted a job as a traveling makeup and skin care expert for Helena Rubinstein.
After a stint in the UK, Henriksen moved to LA, where he approached skin care doyenne Aida Grey, who was treating Nancy Reagan and Cary Grant at the time, for a job. "She rejected me, but she was very nice. She said, ‘We can’t have a man seeing women topless,’" he says. So he rented a small room and started his own business as an aesthetician, mixing products in his kitchen with ingredients he purchased from Israel. He sent out press releases on his own to all the magazines and newspapers.
"I said, ‘Rita, you and I are going to have a love affair. I’m going to turn your skin to perfection and build your self-esteem.'"
His big break came in 1975 when the LA Times said that if he could successfully treat the assistant to the editor in chief in six weeks, the paper would feature him. The girl, named Rita, suffered from cystic acne. "She came in with poor posture, greasy hair, low self-esteem. I said, ‘Rita, you and I are going to have a love affair. I’m going to turn your skin to perfection and build your self-esteem,’" Henriksen says. "Six weeks later we did the after photos. The story came out a month later and it was several pages, in color. The phones rang off the hook."
Henriksen’s first famous Hollywood client was Barbra Streisand ("Sorry, I never discuss celebrities’ skin issues!") and then a steady flow of other stars from the era. His famous and loyal clients include Charlize Theron, Madonna, Daniel Craig, Halle Berry, Christy Turlington, and many others. Laura Dern, at the time she was prepping for the Oscars and filming the first Jurassic Park movie, is the one who came up with the brand’s current trademarked tagline, "The Ole Glow." When his product business really took off, he stopped seeing clients, though Ellen Degeneres was able to coax him out of retirement when she was prepping to host the Oscars for the first time.
"She said, ‘Please step in the room again for me.’ She’s been a client for twenty-plus years," he says. "I said, ‘I’ll do it for you, Ellen, if I can use it for PR. She said, ‘Of course you can!’ She’s very good at PR." Henriksen, who looks eternally youthful, is his own best brand PR right now.
The signature primary colored packaging and cheery citrus scents are Henriksen personified. "I have seen how it makes people come alive. They feel good, they feel energized," he says. "It’s a happiness aroma."
The brand just launched a fantastic three-step brightening system called Power Bright ($55) that was inspired by a power peel treatment at this spa. It includes a gentle scrub, a highly concentrated vitamin C treatment, then a cleansing balm. Thanks to the popularity of the brand’s Truth Serum, the Three Little Wonders set ($72) is Sephora’s best-selling skin care set in North America.
Henriksen is also launching a YouTube show soon, where he’ll cook healthy dishes and hang out with visiting friends. "A key as you get older is to always leave yourself open to learning new things," he says. "You can’t run away from your age but you can still look really darn good." With that, Henriksen smiled, complimented my bone structure, and floated off to talk to another admirer.