A little bakery in Brooklyn, a tatted up culinary artist with a totally infectious smile and demeanor, a portfolio of cheeky, expertly decorated cakes and treats — you’d have no idea that the journey to the present-day life of this sugar monster involved being tirelessly overworked as a model, a modest dose of failure, and a completely inspiring amount of gumption along the way. Meet Ashley Holt, the baker and artist behind Sugar Monster, and the amazing creative who I have the honor of profiling in today’s edition of Creative Crushin’.
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co, and one of Holt’s many superfans here at Brit HQ. After filming our brand spankin’ new Cake Decorating class, Holt and I had a few moments (and email threads) to catch up and let me tell you, her story is insanely motivating. You might not even know what your dreams are at this point, but I can assure you reading all about her journey will inspire you to put a stake in the ground and follow your passion, or at the very least, figure out what it might be.
Brit + Co: First, let’s start with the basics. Where did you grow up, what did you study in college, where are you based now, what’s your family sitch like? Give us the deets.
Ashley Holt: Hi! I grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, GA. A place where no one really gave me the time of day until after I graduated and they finally could see — hey, this girl is doing some cool sh*t with her life. Right after high school I went to NYC to model, which was so absurd because I was the awkward punk girl with gauged ears and hair every color of the rainbow. That brought me to a career in Japan, and then I found myself in Miami, LA, and then Louisville, KY of all places. The fashion industry had its grip on me and nothing about it was healthy or productive for me. I left to pursue what made me happiest — which was baking. A relationship led me to Louisville which allowed me to enroll in Sullivan University, which I attended for about nine months before the stress of paying tuition hit hard. I was completely broke at that time, and I couldn’t get a co-signer. I had no option but to quit and learn on my own. I took every job I could get, learned what I could, and then moved on to the next stepping stone. It’s amazing what we’re able to accomplish when we’re put in a position of fight or flight. Nothing in my life was handed to me. I’ve worked tirelessly through blood sweat and tears to get every opportunity and experience I’ve ever had. We truly are our own best resource.
My family situation now is that of a new mom!! I have a 6 1/2-month-old named Chloe Grace. I’m engaged and lucky to have literally the BEST partner and baby daddy a girl could ask for. Once Chloe can start feeding herself we’ll get back to planning a wedding — the whole "arrival of a human into our lives" thing kinda threw us off track.
B+C: Did you always know that you wanted to be a baker/culinary artist/sugar monster?
AH: Never!! Life has such a funny way of surprising you. I went through a period of not knowing what I wanted at all in life to being very passionate about doing hair for the longest time. It wasn’t until I felt forced to find direction in life that I landed on cake and pastry. It was really a thing where I felt at home. It felt so natural. I didn’t hardly know a thing about it, but I had the determination that could fight a bull. I was so afraid yet so fearless. It’s like I instinctively knew my goals without properly even realizing them. I didn’t understand my worth or what I was capable of but knew I wanted to be great. I’m not there — not even close — but I’m headed in a direction that I’m so incredibly proud of. I’m following my dreams — dreams that exceed anything I’ve ever known. That’s the incredible thing about life — when you just do you… the rest just falls into place. And it’s f*cking awesome.
B+C: What did your career path look like before you found your calling?
AH: My modeling career before this was sooo incredibly fun, exciting, and eye-opening, yet it lacked any true substance. I had the opportunity to work with the industry’s leading designers, wear the best clothes, and shoot with the best photographers, but so what? I would end my day feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I would ALWAYS question myself and my worth based 100 percent on physical attributes. It brought me to a place where I developed this intense fire of "F you." I truly think it’s all of the "no’s" I’ve received in life that have subconsciously pushed me to accomplish all that I have so far. Being successful is doing what you love, and I love cakes and baking so, so much.
B+C: What was the turning point like when you realized you wanted to go all in on cakes? Were you able to switch careers just like that or did you have to juggle a few things at first?
AH: When I was modeling, I would come home after a long day and bake cookies to just "let it all go," It wasn’t until I realized what truly made me happy that I felt free. As a model, I realized I was choosing to be entrapped in an industry that was shallow beyond comprehension and no matter who you were as a person, it was never good enough. The turning point for me was after I returned from three very hard months in Japan, where I worked essentially every single day — I only had two days off. After making the agency so much money on that trip, I (completely unrelated) decided to get a tattoo, and because of that, they wouldn’t have me back. Listen, I understand there can be cultural differences, but it was really just the end of the line for me. Where I was just fed up and said, "f*ck it and f*ck this." After that, I was done. Done with all the shallow, self-deprecating, insecure BS. I decided to live my life in a way I wanted and in a way that made me happy.
When I first got into the baking industry, I was working like a dog. At that time, I was in school and working two jobs. I would wake up at 6am and be done with school at 2pm. Work from 2:30-6pm then work from 7pm-12am. It was so intense, and I’ll never forget waking up crying because I was so tired. I would come home and cherish the 20-minute nap I would get before I had to get to my first job. But no matter how hard it was — or how hard it ever got since then — I’ve ALWAYS told myself… this is the time where I’ll look back and say "all of the hard work was worth it." I’ve been telling myself that for 11 years, and it is absolutely paying off.
B+C: What’s the most challenging part about making such a dramatic career shift?
AH: The fear of not knowing. You are comfortable with these benefits and this pay and all of these things, and it’s the giant UNKNOWN in your world that freaks you out so bad. You couldn’t imagine how many times I’ve talked myself out of things… out of THIS, because I was SO TERRIFIED. You’re paralyzed by the unknown. By the thought of what if — but what if not? I got to the point of knowing — it’s just money. I can get a great job if I fail. I’m willing to risk everything because I have something to fall back on. And to be honest, that something was NEVER EVER confirmed. It was me with my rose-colored glasses on with a bank account that was not so stable. I took a leap of faith and spent literally every single penny I had to follow my dream.
B+C: What advice do you have for people who want to make a big career change?
AH: Have patience, have a plan, have goals. It’s crazy how much "reality" can take a toll on you. You can go into a project with your ENTIRE heart poured into it, but reality sets in. It’s not as easy to just "start a business." Be aware of your obstacles and your weaknesses and have realistic expectations of yourself and what you can accomplish.
B+C: Now, back to CAKES and SUGAR. What is it about baking that drew you in?
AH: What about it DOESN’T draw me in?! I’m able to be a core part of such a memorable celebration between our clients that it’s hard to not be drawn into that. We get to work with some of the COOLEST clients around, and the projects we are able to create for them are such remarkable points of our careers. It’s not just about the baking — it’s the creating that really makes this unforgettable.
B+C: Tell us about the name Sugar Monster! :)
AH: I came up with Sugar Monster when I was in the shower eight years ago. I knew Cakes by Ashley would never suffice. All of a sudden, it hit me — this is it!!! It represents so perfectly what I’ve always been about in life. To not conform to those around you and to be your own person. Do what makes you happy, and forget everything else. Life is too short to stress about the small stuff — eat sugar for breakfast, drink wine for lunch. Whatever makes you happy.
B+C: Part of what’s so unique about your cakes and sweets is that, not only are they expertly baked and decorated, but also somehow your personality shines through in each of your creations. How did you land on your signature aesthetic?
AH: Thank you!! It took a LONG time. I’ve always had the vision of being able to walk into a room and being able to spot an SM cake from afar. But even then, I still didn’t understand "our" style. I wanted it so badly, to have that recognition, but I didn’t know what our "signature style" was yet. It just happened to develop it on its own. Now knowing that strangers could show up to a party and recognize our cake — that’s a big deal to me. That’s a small sense of "we made it"... for now.
B+C: What gets you out of bed each morning? What is that north star/driving force/intangible feeling that pushes you forward?
AH: For now, it’s my shop and this strange feeling embedded from who knows where that I still have to keep trying harder because what I’m doing isn’t good enough. It’s weird because when I take a moment to just chill out and appreciate the moment — I realize how epically cool everything is. But I do appreciate the feelings of wanting to continuously push myself because while we all do cool sh*t in our life, we should never stop there. That should be a baseline to just keep going and keep creating awesomeness. I would never imagine the fact that I would have my own storefront bakery in Brooklyn. But it happened. It was a complete fluke, but we’ve kept it open for over a year and business is doubling from last year, and it’s so awesome.
B+C: Tell me more about opening your own bakery. What have been the best parts and the most challenging ones of owning your own retail business?
AH: This truly came as a chance coincidence. I was a week away from being homeless with Sugar Monster before we came across a colleague who was selling her bakery. Before this opportunity, I was renting kitchen space and then turned my old apartment into my creative studio. When I realized she was selling her lease and everything under the roof, I knew it was my time to act. I made her an offer that I was uncomfortable with because I didn’t have that kind of money, but I believed in myself. Sure — irresponsible but driven.
The week we came to an agreement, I found out I was pregnant and everything changed. How was I supposed to afford this new debt and afford this new child? I backed out of the deal immediately because that was the right thing to do — I could no longer afford it. My dreams were crushed and while I was so eagerly expecting my first child, I was mourning the "what could have been" of my business. It took a few months of renting while the owner attempted to sell everything but no one took the bait. We offered a much lower price, and she accepted it. To us — that was the moment where we said, “Holy sh*t. We did it.” I just paid off our last bill for our space and equipment last month, and we are proudly 100 percent owners of the space, and it’s so surreal and incredible. Even though I’m not there because of other work obligations right now, I know that my little Brooklyn cake shop has a place in this world and it is thriving.
Favorite Quote: “Being successful is doing what you love.”
Trivia About You: “I’m a competitive eater”
Go-to Karaoke Song: “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Doggy Dogg
Favorite Baking Tool: Turntable
Late Night Snack: Ample Hills Ice Cream
Currently Reading: The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck
B+C: You recently joined the TODAY show team for a six-month stint leading the food team. Tell us more about that. How do you balance that and being a business-owner?
AH: Joining the TODAY Food team has been beyond. Since working here, my cookbook collection has grown exponentially and the experiences that I’ve had are unforgettable. The caliber of chefs that come through these doors is nothing short of inspiring. My job at TODAY involves mapping out the segment of our guests and making sure their food looks beautiful. I craft our guests’ recipes into a segment that is friendly for three minutes of live television and oversee the food team to ensure execution is nothing but perfect. I was extremely lucky inheriting the food team that I did — they’d made the transition of this job very pleasant, and I’m so grateful for them all!
B+C: You also just filmed a class here at Brit HQ (psst, you can take Cake Decorating with Ashley Holt right here!). Tell us more about how you started teaching.
AH: I’ve taught some at the various cake shows and private classes I’ve done over the years. I never thought of myself as a natural teacher until people kept asking me to teach them! From there I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone and opened myself up to teaching. It’s strange — I teach my team, I teach our interns, but it’s different when it’s actual Sugar Monster fans wanting a lesson. The pressure is on!! I’m so excited to gift you with this class and show you all of my tricks and techniques that I’ve acquired over the years.
B+C: I’m obsessed with your baby shower cake/AKA maternity self-portrait in the form of a cake. How has motherhood changed your approach to your work?
AH: Motherhood has broadened my horizons in every possible way. There was a cake that was taking the internet by storm — the fat unicorn cake. At this point, I was SO over unicorns and SO pregnant I became inspired: I’m going to put my big, fat, pregnant self on top of the cake instead of this mythical unicorn. The response was overwhelming and incredible. It’s so awesome seeing a group of complete strangers understand you and get where you’re coming from. My approach to work has surprisingly changed drastically. I would work 14 hours without blinking an eye before. Now, I know that’s not how it’s going to happen. I’ve worked in this industry in every single aspect for the past 11 years, and I’ve let most jobs take advantage of me. Because you don’t know — you don’t understand your worth. I realized it a while ago, but it’s not until I became a working mom that I finally, truly understood the power and strength I had to offer.
B+C: Being a founder/hustler/artist /mama can mean that a lot of people depend on you. What does your support system look like?
AH: I would be lost without my support system. Okay, that’s dramatic but Greg, my rock — my foundation. he is my everything. My Chloe Bear — every single thing is for her. It’s hard to balance time for everyone and unfortunately, someone ends up losing the attention but all you can do — and all I can do — is try my best. There’s never enough time for everyone, but hopefully, the time that is available is appreciated and loved.
B+C: When you’re feeling burnt out, what do you do/where do you go?
AH: Just take me to the movies. Let’s smoke a joint, eat some popcorn, and snack on some chocolate that we snuck in. Just forget that a bazillion responsibilities are surrounding you and just be present while being careless.
B+C: What words of wisdom would you share with your 17-year-old self?
AH: This is striking a bone! Just let it go. Don’t listen to anyone besides yourself and your mom. You are beautiful and valuable and you are loved. Whatever shitty feelings you are experiencing — feel them but know that they will pass!
B+C: And finally, what’s coming up next in the adventures of Ashley the Sugar Monster?!
AH: Who knows what’s next!? This past year has been such a surprise; it’s been a life that I never even expected. I have yearly goals for myself but allow everything to just stay open and in flux because you can’t just plan life out. Have your goals — do everything you can do to achieve them and the rest just falls into place.
B+C: Anything else?
AH: Be a nice person.
Alright girlfriends — you ready to crush your dreams and say "peace out" to anything in your life that makes you feel like crap? Let's DO this. You can follow all things Sugar Monster at @sugar_monsterr on Instagram, and if you feel like making your own epic cake, be sure to check out Holt's Cake Decorating Class here on Brit + Co.
Know of a creative hustler our readers should know about? DM us @BritandCo and we'll add your crush to our list! In the meantime, stay tuned for our next edition of Creative Crushin', and stay weird ;)
Author: Anjelika Temple (Photography by Brittany Griffin and courtesy of Ashley Holt)