WHEN Helen Berkun was a young girl growing up in Mariupol, a city in Ukraine, her world was full of color. Her family was comprised of painters, photographers, and designers.
But when Berkun and family emigrated to the United States in 1990 when she was just nine years old, her parents hoped she would choose a more traditional path to the American dream—become a doctor, an attorney, or a high-powered woman in business.
“My Mom and Dad were both so creative,” Berkun says. “It was my Dad who actually taught me how to develop my own photographs from film. When I went to college, I wanted to study photography. My parents were skeptical about how I was going to turn this into a career. But I had this fire in me to make it happen.”
It was a surprise to no one that Berkun took the fashion industry by storm. After receiving a Fine Arts degree with a photography emphasis from Columbia College Chicago, she quickly made a name for herself with her keen eye for composition and lighting and her ability to art direct. Her photos were published worldwide— beautifully capturing subjects with boldness and whimsy.
It wasn’t long before Berkun’s talents were in demand, by brands and celebrities alike.
“It was so exciting,” Berkun says. “I was flying all over the country— all over the world—styling celebrities, building relationships with brands, taking photos, and hosting.” But after giving birth to her third child, Berkun knew something had to change.
“I was spending long days in hotel rooms, and on sets, and flying back and forth between LA and New York,” she explains. “I knew this wasn’t the way I wanted to be a mom and I could also tell that the industry was changing—that print photography and traditional advertising was taking a backseat to social media.”
And then Covid hit and the whole world was forced to pivot— Berkun included.
“I feel so lucky that I was already starting to create some of my own content and sharing on my Instagram account when the pandemic started,” she says. “I noticed all of these influencers doing things from their homes because that’s all they could do. So, I started sharing what I was cooking, how I was doing school at home with my kids, and I really started to gain a following.”
With her husband’s encouragement, Berkun left the agency who had represented her for years and jumped into influencing full-time.
“It’s so funny to think that ‘influencing’ is even a career,” Berkun says. “But I guess it makes sense that people want to hear about fashion, beauty, travel, and lifestyle from people they trust. I started going ‘live’ on IG [Instagram] and selling items right from my closet and I couldn’t believe how successful these were,” she says. “Then when the world started opening up again and my audience had grown quite a bit, I began reaching out to boutiques to partner with and then ultimately the large brands I’m working with today.” Today, Berkun has more than 65,000 followers on this platform and works with luxe brands like Neiman Marcus, Cusp, Guess, Decades LA, Coach, Kate Spade, Furla, Thompson Hotel, and many more.
What Berkun loves most about her new life as an “influencer” is how well it melds with her life as a married mom to three busy kids (ages X, X, and X) living in Riverwoods.
“I make my own schedule. I get the kids off to school, workout, and then I work on my brand until the kids’ activities begin after school,” Berkun adds. “I’m such a visual person and I’m still using all those skills I honed when I was a photographer and an art director. I have my own mini publishing company.”
Berkun’s platform has also allowed her to help her friends and family who have suffered because of the war in Ukraine through a non-profit fund she founded called “Berkun Aid.”
“We’ve raised more than $20,000 to support families living through this war and to help some refugees with essentials who were able to escape,” she says. “When the war first began, I was glued to the news and almost paralyzed by what I heard. But now, thinking about how we can help those dealing with all the hardship caused by the war is part of my everyday life.”
As Berkun’s success continues to grow, she still finds herself batting down the assumption that an influencer just takes selfies all day long.
“I tell people that I’m a jack of all trades and a master of all of them,” she says with a laugh. “I know that by being honest and true to myself, I will find my tribe—my people—and I’ll be their jam. There is enough room for everyone in this world to create their own brand and that’s just what I’m doing.”
To learn more about Helen Berkun, visit helenberkun.com or follow her on Instagram @helen_berkun.