Before every waking minute of a celebrity’s life was documented for posterity, there was makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. “He was way ahead of his time,” says supermodel Amber Valletta in Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast in Me, a documentary directed and produced by Lori Kaye, dropping September 14th on Logo. “Just the way we do now with selfies and Snapchat and Facebook — he would have put the little Instagram kids to shame!” The runway regular is talking about the late face painter’s personal archive of hundreds of tapes (yes, actual VHS tapes — i.e., rectangular blocks that recorded footage far before iPhones were practically attached to every person’s hand) that were unearthed after his passing at only 40-years-old on May 7, 2002. Aucoin was a legend — and he chronicled the many legends he loved and painted with his camcorder, providing a rare glimpse into the secret world of stars like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Paulina Porizkova, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, and Cher, just to name a handful of A-list members in the makeup maestro’s fan club.
“The thing that really convinced me to sit down and talk to you was that you said that you had video footage that Kevyn himself had shot. And the second you said that, it reminded me, and I could see Kevyn — he had big hands — holding a little camera. It reminded me, he was always filming,” Crawford says in the film. “And it was at a time when nobody was shooting behind the scenes, so then I was like, Ok, I want to see what’s in there.” The film company is banking on the fact that the supermodel isn’t the only one who is curious about this collection that was, at one point, meant for Aucoin’s eyes only. Think of these tapes like the beauty version of Watergate — minus all the scandal and politics, of course. “They weren’t the moments people remember because they weren’t the Vogue covers, they were the moments in-between the Vogue covers or the Cosmo cover,” added Crawford. “It’s like a time capsule.”
In the documentary, viewers get to see Paltrow wrapped in a terrycloth robe getting glammed up by Aucoin prior to the 1999 Oscars, where she accepted the award for Best Actress in that now-iconic pink Ralph Lauren gown. They’ll see a bare-faced Evangelista with her hair in rollers, as well as a young and naïve Crawford on her first (and Aucoin’s first) Vogue cover shoot with Richard Avedon in 1986. There’s also Janet Jackson on the set of “Scream,” Cher with lids painstakingly encrusted with tiny Swarovski crystals, Lauren Hutton wrestling alligators, and a dramatic moment with Andie MacDowell where inky black mascara streams down her porcelain face. “He was good at making moments be moments,” notes Paltrow. While vacillating between models and celebrities seems commonplace today, Aucoin was perhaps the first makeup pro to successfully slide seamlessly between fashion and entertainment, explains Valletta. “Kevyn crossed over and was able to marry the two,” the model said of the two distinct and separate worlds. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”
And it’s true, Aucoin changed the face of beauty, and the way women — celebrity or otherwise — felt about themselves. From his eponymous cosmetic line to his New York Times best-selling guidebooks (The Art of Makeup, Face Forward, and Making Faces), the face painter left his signature stamp on the world. Transforming how people felt inside was just as important to Aucoin as what they looked like on the surface: “I didn’t care if someone said, ‘Oh, that lip color looks pretty on me,’ I cared if someone said, ‘I feel good now.’ It’s how they felt that mattered,” he said in an interview with E! Entertainment Television. Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana in the 60s and 70s, Aucoin — a gay man who dropped out of high school in his sophomore year after two of his classmates tried to run him over in the pick-up truck — offered compassion and a haven for those who felt equally ostracized by the primarily white, heteronormative, Christian community, particularly black women. After blazing through beauty school and proving naysayers, including his own father, Isidore Aucoin, wrong, he made his mark selling makeup at Holmes department store. “A lot of African American women came into the store to have their makeup done and all of the other girls at the counter would not work with them. They would send them to me, which I was thrilled about because these women had real need,” explained Aucoin. Ultimately, he was fired because customers weren’t comfortable with a man doing makeup, but Aucoin would translate those lessons he learned at the makeup counter onto supermodels like Campbell, who was still “fighting to get accepted” when the two first met. “Kevyn was very instrumental. I say that because when people make black skin up they think you just put one foundation all over the skin — it’s not the way,” explains Campbell of her early days in the makeup chair. “He just knew that. He did black skin so well.”
No matter a person’s skin tone, however, Aucoin could create magic. “Kevyn, he was an artist,” said his proud father, whose bookshelves are lined with every magazine where his son’s work appeared — the same man who, at one point, believed spending $900 on beauty school was like dumping money into the sewer. “In other words, a lady or a girl to Kevyn was like an artist painting a picture.” Of his “blank canvas” approach, Crawford explains: “He would literally erase your face…It was like you were bionic, right, I’m going to tear you down, but I’m going to build you stronger, faster, more beautiful.” But no amount of pigment, powder, paint, or affection from those around him could convince Aucoin of his own beauty. “Kevyn was extremely insecure about his own looks,” said Jed Root, Aucoin’s former boyfriend and founder of a now very successful artist management agency. “He hated his nose, he hated his forehead, he hated the fact that he was starting to lose his hair, he thought his hands were too big, he thought he was too tall, he thought his lips were too thick.”
Adopted after his teenage mother gave him up in 1962, and rejected once again when she found out he was gay, the makeup artist struggled with abandonment issues his entire life. But his problems were also the impetus of his success, explains Eric Sakas, Aucoin’s former boyfriend and business manager. By befriending A-listers and making them feel pretty and safe, the makeup artist also filled a void within himself. And as Aucoin’s career and bank account swelled, so did his ego. “You were not the star, he was the star,” says MacDowell. Diva behavior aside (like walking out on a shoot with Turner in the South of France because they couldn’t air condition her backyard), the pro skated by on his raw talent unscathed. “The truth is, there’s no one more vain than a famous woman,” adds Paltrow. “I think, everyone would have endured him even if he was a jerk just to put their face in his hands.” But his A-list roster, circle of famous friends, and even his husband could only withstand so much. His battle with acromegaly (a disorder in which the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone) led to a prescription painkiller addiction that caused many of his clients to sever ties, and ultimately resulted in his death. “Here’s someone, who for a living, is a makeup artist who is trying to symmetrically balance someone’s face, which is crucial in beauty sometimes,” explains Sakas. “So that for him to see his own features change subtly all the time it must have been a real mind fuck.”
Celebrities, supermodels, countless magazine covers, and star-power aside, Aucoin was so much more than just a makeup artist. He was an activist who was just as passionate about educating and supporting LGBQT youth as he was about lipstick and eyeliner. “Kevyn was very involved with gay youth because he lived it,” said Rubin Singer, a designer and former boyfriend of Aucoin. “He used his success as a beacon of hope for so many young kids, because at the time when he was doing all of this, there was nobody who had such a high profile as he did doing what he was doing.” He proved that a gay boy from the south, who papered his walls with pictures of Barbara Streisand, could not only overcome, but thrive.
Thanks to this new documentary, a new generation — many of whom are growing up in an America that is frighteningly similar to Louisiana in the 60s and 70s — will see that building bridges between people, whether that’s a celeb or a member of your own family, is so much more fruitful than erecting walls and hiding behind them. Aucoin’s legacy continues, and while no one can be certain why the makeup maestro captured that secret archive of footage prior to the era of social media, influencers, and endless self-promotion, Paltrow has a good guess. “I think Kevyn could not believe that all the women he had been dreaming about, who got him through the pain of his childhood, were spending the day together on set, and leaving messages on his machine,” she said. “It was almost like he was taking evidence it for himself; he was doing it to sort of say to his eight-year-old self, it’s going to be OK, look where we’re going. We’re going to be with all these idols of yours and we’re going to be accepted and loved.” Aucoin never truly believed he was deserving or worthy of the massive outpouring of adoration, but here’s hoping anyone feeling isolated or inadequate because they are different can watch his story and see the beauty in what sets them apart.
Watch an exclusive clip from Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast in Me: