Podcast Ep 07 – Amber Jean Rowan, Founder, Amber Jean

A Pivotal Moment Podcast E07 - Amber Jean Rowan
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Podcast Episode Transcript – Amber Jean Rowan, Founder, Amber Jean

Mark Cahalane 

Hello and welcome to “A Pivotal Moment,” a podcast series about ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions in both their business and personal lives. In this episode, I’ll be talking to Amber Rohan, who developed alopecia at the age of 15. As you would expect for any teen, this had a huge emotional impact. However, Amber went on to become a successful model, actress, and entrepreneur. In this episode, I talked to her about the determination that led to her ultimate success. Amber, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast. Perhaps as we start off, you might tell me a little bit about your background, family, school, and your childhood. 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Well, thank you very much for having me on. It’s been wonderful to be able to share my story. I am an Irish girl, born and bred. I grew up in the same house that my family still lives in today. We live by the sea, which I never actually took full advantage of when I used to live in Dublin. When I go back, it’s the first place I go. I go for a walk in the dunes with my dog, who only has three legs, which is a bit sad. My partner and I, as soon as we get back to Dublin, we walk down to the beach and to the dunes and get my cup of coffee. He may jump in the sea, but I don’t. I’m terrified. I went to school in town. I have one brother, one sister, a beautiful mother, and a fantastic father, and we were a really close-knit family. Even though I’ve been living in London now for 10 years, we’re still very close. I think that’s one great thing about this day and age; they never feel too far away. I’m now actually working with my dad, so we’re chatting to each other nearly every single day about personal and work stuff. So we still have our fantastic bonding, even though I’m not back home in Ireland. But as I mentioned, I adore Ireland, and who knows, maybe one day I might move back. For now, I just love being able to go home within an hour and a half away from London, and it’s just great to be able to be centered and reset. Whatever you do when I go back to Dublin. So it’s a blessing to be able to do that. 

Mark Cahalane 

You paint a picture of an incredibly close-knit family and obviously a happy childhood. Amber, can you think back to your childhood? Had you an early sense of what you were interested in doing as a career? Was there any driving thought in your childhood and early teens? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Yes, it’s you’re right in that I’m really lucky my family are extremely loving and incredibly supportive, and I really feel that’s helped me today in what I do and who I am. I always was growing up in the belief that I could do anything and as long as I put my mind to and I worked hard that you know the world was literally my oyster. I think that is the biggest and most amazing gift to be able to give to your kids, and I believe that even though some of that belief may not always come true in life, it’s important to grow up with that mindset. Life isn’t always the oasis you hope it to be, but that was the premise and the thought that my family always instilled in me, and it was a really amazing thing to grow up with. As far back as I can remember, my family had that belief. 

You know, I always ask my Nana when she talks about me, and she always says, “Amber came out of the womb singing and dancing and performing.” And showing off. I remember from a really young age, my mom always shared classical films with me, and I became obsessed with the Hollywood movie stars and the glamour of it all. When I was really young, I did gymnastics for a very long time, which I loved. I enjoyed the physical element of gymnastics, and it also involved performing in certain elements. Through my gymnastics experience, I got the opportunity to be an extra in a film that was shooting in Ireland in the 90s called “Reign of Fire”. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it features a dragon. 

Mark Cahalane 

I do remember, yeah. 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, and they basically needed little 10-year-olds to be able to jump up on the backs of the men running through the fire. So they just needed a girl who would be fine for themselves around physically, and so I got an opportunity to get on to that set, and I just remember leaving, thinking, “God, that was the most fun I’ve ever had.” There were fake dragons there, fire, people with so much personality around me, and a buzz. When I came home that day, I just said to Mum, “If that’s acting, if that’s showbiz. Whatever that is. I just want to be a part of it.” And from that day forward, I really just became, I guess you could say, obsessed with the idea of being in amongst that world. Yeah, I always loved this as long as I can remember. 

Mark Cahalane 

Amber, we’ll talk in a moment about the extraordinary success you’ve had in both acting and modelling, which in themselves are obviously really difficult careers to break into. You talked about coming out of the womb, singing and dancing. You obviously wanted and enjoyed attention. Tell us about that day when you were 15, when you discovered the bald patch on your head. 

Amber Jean Rowan 

So, from a very young age like I mentioned, acting and modeling, that whole world was something that I knew I wanted to be a part of. I always knew it was going to be a challenge, but I never wanted to let that challenge stop me. And, as you can imagine, your looks are a big part of this, especially back in the noughties when I was modeling, there was a certain look that was accepted, and being the girl who was losing her hair was not that look. As you can imagine, when I was 15 in school and I went to class and another friend of mine, Ally, saw a little patch at the back of my head, I didn’t believe her at first. It was so bizarre and alien that it just didn’t make any sense. But once the fear at the very beginning of realizing that I had alopecia set in, it was really just more confusion than anything else, to be honest. 

After that moment, my family and I went on the journey of figuring out what was going on because we were really confused, and honestly scared. For a while, we weren’t sure what was happening. So, we went to the doctors and they said it was alopecia, but they didn’t think we needed to worry about it. They said it was very common for girls going through adolescence and that it should be fine and wouldn’t go anywhere. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and the other patches started getting worse and worse. It got to a point about a year later where I couldn’t hide it anymore. I had been able to disguise it by closing up the patches with eyeshadow or wearing a hairband or tying my hair up in certain ways, but after a certain point, I couldn’t hide it anymore. And as you can imagine, being 15, you’re not trying to stand out, you’re trying to be the sheep and just be amongst your peers and not be noticed in that way, for sure. 

Anyway, I really just wanted to be a normal teenage girl and when that happened, it was absolutely devastating. My alopecia taught me, in an unhealthy way, to not really deal with how bad of a feeling and how hurt I actually was. From that point on, I learned how to suppress and push down emotion, and I didn’t actually feel for a very long time. It wasn’t until only a few years ago that I really began to realize who I was and be able to feel my emotions because, for a very long time, I believe due to my alopecia, I was too scared to feel the pain of those foundational years. If anything did happen, it was easier to block things out, and I think that was my coping mechanism. It was my only way as a young girl to deal with this, and I wasn’t ready to deep dive into it. I just put up some walls, withstood the pain, and carried on. 

Mark Cahalane 

You talk about the vulnerability, and you can clearly feel you’re still in touch with the emotions you’re feeling at the time. Did you feel you had to hide yourself, your inner landscape, and your outer appearance in some ways?  

Amber Jean Rowan 

Yeah, two things you should know: whenever this was happening to me, I was a 15-year-old girl. So when you think back, no one knows. I was, you know, 15, so it was really a little bit of a mess. My emotional landscape, for sure, at that time was just all a bit jumbled, and I really didn’t know who or what or where I was. One good thing about my ambition, and I remember one time I did this TV show back in Ireland called “The Model” years ago, nearly 15 years ago, and I remember the judge was saying to me, “God, she has a steely ambition.” And I think during that really, really difficult time, as much as I didn’t think I was going to be able to model and act, I still believed somewhere in me that I could, and that belief and passion for that outward thing, that career, was the thing that made me think that everything was going to be OK. And was the driving force to keep going, pushing and moving forward.  

When you have alopecia, when it is falling out, of course, you know, I didn’t want anyone to know, especially for the first… I’ve had alopecia for 15 years. I canreally say, with my hand on my heart, for the first 10 years, I wasn’t comfortable with anyone knowing. So, you do tend to live your life kind of… I think it’s much harder to find your authentic self when you’re not honest with yourself for sure. That was a big part of my life, being nervous people will find out. But in saying that, and in turn, it does force you to find your sense of self somewhere else because we use our hair as so much a part of our identity, so much in our life. But when you lose your hair, you lose a big part of you. You have to stop and find the “you” in you somewhere. So, what I do think it allowed me to do is find myself in my own way, and perhaps later on in life, for sure. 

Mark Cahalane 

Amber, hair was to become obviously part of your ultimate success. Why is hair so important for confidence? So, you know, I’m thinking as I talked to you about way back to Julius Caesar, the laurel wreath he used to wear to disguise his baldness. That’s in a man. But why is hair so important in terms of confidence and identity? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Yeah, it’s a topic that I’m just so utterly fascinated by. What you’re saying, from back since day dot, haiur has just meant so much to us. For men and for women, back in the days, an identifier of who is a man, who is a woman, who is wealthy, who is not, who is a plebeian, who is a patrician, it just made everything. And throughout the decades, you have skinheads. There’s just so many different elements of it.  

Hair is also a way to express yourself. It’s a way to show the world who you are. We build whole facades around hair color, so you have the typical idea of what you think the blonde will be, what a redhead will be, what is with black hair with the ball but bangs, you name it. We have all these ideas around hair and what that means. And throughout history and to this current day, women, through no fault of our own, I think it’s just history and time and also media, that hair is our source of, well, it’s said to be our source of femininity and sexuality. And long, luscious hair also, it was kind of like a sign to the world that we’re almost fertile in a way. Without us realizing it, we’re more attracted and drawn to these long, luscious locks because we read so much into those things.  

And also, in the way to shield, right, you know. I have absolutely no hair in my head. There’s nowhere to hide. And I truly believe that hair can be, and for me, for a huge chunk of my life, my hairpieces and my wigs, they become your shield. And whether you have hair or no hair, you wear wigs or not, hair is a way to express who you are, to hide elements of yourself you don’t want to, and yet there are so many facets to it. When one loses it, it can be a huge, huge, huge sadness and grief and loss, loss of sense as you say, loss of identity, and you really have to do some deep work of trying to find yourself outside of your hair, you know. 

Mark Cahalane 

You talk about hair free days. Moving on, I’m just wondering your ambition became to empower women to live their hair and beauty dreams without compromise. I’m interested in how that ambition took shape, and as you look at yourself, do your hair free days and your days where you are wearing a wig, does that enable you almost to take on different personas? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

You know my relationship with who I am, which is a woman who is hair free and wears hairpieces. I’ve been on a huge evolution… revolution, or whatever you want to call it. It’s taken me such a long time to be comfortable and confident in who I am today. I say to people who are on a hair free journey, you literally have to take it day by day, step by step. If you were to ask me… Even five years ago, would I be doing what I do now, I would have said hell no. I would never have wanted to be on any magazine covers being hair free. I never would have wanted to have put that out there to the universe because I was scared of being judged. I never would have walked down the street hair free, got on the bus or anything like that. I was truly terrified of putting that out there to the universe because I was just nervous that I wouldn’t be accepted.  

It really took me a long, long time to get to the point that I’m at now. There were lots of pivotal moments within the past years that helped me. I did a yoga teacher training for like 3 or 4 weeks and refused to bring my wig with me. I just wanted to have a safe day for me to explore, find out who I am, and really just try and release and let go and not have my wig which was my safety blanket. Having those four weeks in a place where no one knew who I was, no friends around me, no nothing, and to my surprise, no one cared. I had a few dodgy looks from the odd person, but of course, I’m going to have looks because I do look different. And that’s okay. Becoming okay with that was a huge step, and finding real love, finding it in respect of being in a loving, respectful relationship and being with the man who loves me for truly who I am, who never wanted to change me. That was a huge, huge help so that coinciding with me, just on my own, that evolution in my own journey over the past 10 years. Taking baby steps really allowed me to get to the place where I am now, where I am comfortable being here free.  

But like I said, it took me a very long time. So it got to a point 5 years ago where I had lots of people contacting me who knew that I had alopecia on social media. They were asking me lots of different questions like how do I do my eyebrows, where do I get my wigs, my eyelashes. How do you have sex with wigs on? Your name it. Tons of different kinds of questions and I kind of though wouldn’t be really amazing to be able to put out all this information somewhere so I can save time replying back. But be able to put my all and my intimate thoughts, everything, so I can give really thorough answers and help to these women from tutorials to just written blogs. And put them all on the site and so people will be able to just take that information. And hopefully for it to be able to help.  

So, that was around five years ago, and what came to be was a platform called Hair Free. It’s really just a safe space for women in the community to ask those kinds of questions and watch those tutorials and just feel like you’re not alone. Because when the main and the scary things we were going through hair loss is it’s still a taboo. It seems to be shifting and is changing. But you feel like you’re alone, you feel you’re going through it alone, and you just want someone to be like, “Yeah, look, it’s shit, but I get you, and I’m here for you,  and you know what XY and Z can help you go through those times as well.” So, it was after Hair Free that I hadn’t modeled hair free up to that point, and I remember setting up this blog and website where I posted my first picture of me hair free. 

And I remember. Think was like a couple of weeks later, the lovely Tatler magazine in Ireland contacted me and they said that they’d love me to grace the covers of the front page of their magazine. And that was just an amazing moment, because when I had started modeling, started this podcast, the modeling industry wasn’t ready for that. And now we’re at a time in our life where people are being celebrated for who they are. There’s beauty in all different shapes, forms, you name it. It’s much, much more expensive now, which is, which is amazing, and I’m so grateful to be a part of that movement. And that was a big boost in confidence as well.  

And it was off the back of the hair free community that I was so sick and tired of, not only myself being treated really badly by wig companies. And anything from wig companies to buying scalp care. You name it. I was just so sick and tired of not being treated how I want to be treated. There was nothing lovely about the experience. Something glamorous about the experience of buying a wig. I felt it was medicalised, dreary, uninspiring. If anything, they took advantage. It just wasn’t good enough and I just felt like for a woman were going through such hard times why can we not just make their experience better and good? And safe? And inspiring? It was off the back of that over the past, you know, five years of learning from the hair free community that I thought that I needed to do something about it and know better woman to start a business out of everything that I didn’t get to have. I really just wanted to create a business selling beautiful products and holding women’s hands every single step along the way because I didn’t have it. And I know what these people need. These women need. What they need is to be supported and be made feel beautiful even though they’re going through such challenging and hard times.  

So, it’s been a real journey from when starting hair free, to that turning into the evolution of my business now, which is Amber Jean and the main premise of that is really just wanting to give the only peaceful, cool, modern beautiful products to women. But to be able to authentically hold their hand and know that they’re talking to someone on the other end of the phone who actually gets what they’re going through, which I think is extremely important. 

Mark Cahalane 

Amber Jean, just one or two more questions, if that’s OK. I’m thinking back to that moment. You’re a 15 year old and obviously it took a lot of experience, a lot of courage and a lot of determination to evolve into the person you are now and the success story that you are now. Do you think that happened because you had alopecia or in spite of it? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

That’s such a hard question to answer, and it’s a really good one. I genuinely do believe that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through alopecia.  

I think for a couple of reasons. I think it made me work that a little bit harder. It made me keep pushing against all odds in that way that I really just knew what I wanted. And I knew that I had this difference that perhaps wasn’t going to be accepted. But through me being… so grateful towards my family, who kept saying to me, you know, don’t let it stop you. You can’t let it stop you. And me really believing that. I think that was a really, really great thing to have.  

And I do believe when you go though something… like when anyone goes through something that’s kind of difficult. You become a little bit more empathetic. And I believe that that’s obviously a good trait to have in life. And I do believe that that hurdle has made me a little more empathetic to different people going through different life journeys. It’s definitely helped me now with the work that I’m doing now to be able to understand and hopefully help other women along similar journeys to me. 

Mark Cahalane 

Amber, you’ve spoken about the challenges of around seeing yourself as a business woman. As you look back now and you’ve built a brand, you’re a very successful model. You’ve had a successful acting career. As you look back, what are the key lessons you’ve learned about building a business? And a brand I should add. 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Well, a couple of things to note. I couldn’t have done it on my own. Especially when I was first starting. Thinking to myself that I wanted to do something about the issues that I had and knew that that would mean building a business. I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified. But I knew what I wanted to do. There was a need for it. Because I knew that there were so many other women out there who needed what I needed so I knew there was a demand for it. And I knew I had passion for it, so I had those two things. I knew there was a need for it. And I knew that I had a burning passion to do it. Not only because I want to do for the other women out there, but I also wanted good wigs. I wanted the closet full of amazing wigs that I could pop on every single day. So with those two driving factors. 

Also there’s another point to add. That you know for a very long time. For most of my life. Because I have been in the entertainment industry in that sense of modelling and acting. My career for a long time was kind of out in my hands and I knew I really wanted to be able to build something myself from scratch so no one could take it away from me. And that was a huge, big driver. Setting up a business.  

So, I had two huge helpers when I was setting up the business, just to kind of bounce ideas off. My fiancé, Benjamin. He’s an entrepreneur himself. He set up a really successful co-living business. Being able to watch and observe him over the past five years of… even how he deals with people, his employees, the jargon that he uses. Even like the basic things like that, just being able to observe the man with the business that I that I really respected was a big teacher. 

And more than anything the main person who I really wouldn’t be here without is my dad. When I first started speaking out loud that I want to do this business and I had this idea for a brand. He was amazing. And he was there to really, you know, nurture that idea. Help me with that idea. Brainstorm that idea and really kind of put the jigsaw puzzles together. So, he was a huge, massive help in terms of that. So I wouldn’t be able to do without him.  

As I mentioned, my whole life was modelling and acting, and I thought to myself “what am I doing?!” I couldn’t be a business owner. And I remember at that time it was during COVID when we set up. IIt was 2020 and I hadn’t done counselling in a few years. And I thought maybe now would be a good time to delve back into that, because I did have a lot of things coming up around self-worth. I couldn’t do things and I really wanted to kind of get on top of that. So I had a few sessions with a with a wonderful life coach and we really kind of talked through those fears, which really helped at the beginning stages for sure. Massively. As much as I’m really proud of where we are today, but I always think that these things are a group effort. I’m very proud of where we are, where Amber Jean is at and I believe we’re making a difference, which is all anyone could ask for, really, in the work they do. For it to actually have meaning. And have true purpose. 

Mark Cahalane 

Amber Jean, your passion and determination comes through. And in this final question is probably threads of the answer in everything you’ve said. Change can come proactively; it can come reactively and perhaps for you it came reactively. And a crisis of confidence. If there was anyone listening who is thinking of making a change in their lives or in their careers, is has challenged around confidence, what advice would you offer them? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

One piece of advice that was given to me when I was starting up the business was take it day by day. Task by task. Issue by issue. You know business is just problem solving so take it day by day. So I would say that in terms of business side of things. 

In terms the emotional and self-side of things, you know, what really helped me through my darkest times was looking outside of myself. Having passion with something else. That could be anything from playing a game of tennis to going for a walk with your dog, to giving to charity. Having a passion was so important to me when I was going through my darkest times. It just took me out of that moment of dread and fear, and it really allowed me to just sink my teeth into something which was which was truly, truly important.  

I’m a big believer in looking after your mental health. Obviously, it’s something that’s just incredibly important. Find those things that really make you feel alive and make you feel useful from the inside. Because I really believe you’re looking after yourself and you feel good in yourself, that’s when confidence grows. When you when you’re really able to look at yourself and say, yeah, I’m happy with you and as cringy as that might be that, but to love yourself is a really, really great place to be. And I think a lot of confidence just comes oozing out of you when that’s the case. And when you’ve confidence, when you love yourself, that’s when I really believe that life kind of starts and life gets exciting. And when you are your best self in that form, yeah, then your world is seriously your oyster and it’s amazing what the universe can give back when you’re when you’re in that place within yourself. 

Mark Cahalane 

I think we’ve only scratched the surface, Amber Jean. We started talking about walks in the dunes with your dog, and you mentioned walking there again. As we finish up, I’m just curious, what’s your dog’s name? 

Amber Jean Rowan 

My dog’s name is Reggie, and he is a ridgeback. So my parents thought I was absolutely mad getting a big dog. But he is loves of our life. We love very much taking him for a big walk in the morning. And then he sleeps next to me all day. So he’s uh, he’s a terror but a joy all the same. 

Mark Cahalane 

I’m sure Reggie could not have a better owner given your own story. Someone to look after him. Amber Jean, thank you so much for your time. It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. 

Amber Jean Rowan 

Thank you so much, Mark. It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

Mark Cahalane 

You’ve been listening to a pivotal moment. My name is Mark Cahalane. I help businesses tell compelling stories to engage their stakeholders. I coach senior business leaders on systemic change and leadership. I partner business teams to help them drive high performance. And when business relationships go wrong, I help them all negotiate better ways of working together. You can find out more on my take on these topics at marteloleadership.com. 

 

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