Inventive, creative, bold and uncompromising, the Louisiana native, who died on May 7, 2002, from kidney and liver failure, after years of drug abuse and health problems, remains an industry icon. Stars wax poetic about his charisma, his kindness, his vision and most of all, how he made every single person he worked on feel so very beautiful. Here, stars and makeup artists share their memories of Aucoin with Yahoo Beauty.
“He was amazing. I was lucky because right when I came to New York and my star was rising, so to speak, it was parallel with Kevyn. I’d work with him maybe three days a week. I was fortunate to work with him a lot. We became friends. In terms of his makeup, his process was really different. When you’re sitting in front of the mirror, he started with the foundation. He would literally create a blank canvas and then he would build it back in. The eyebrows were perfection. He could draw an expression your face. It was the type of makeup you washed off before you walked home. It was a full face. It wasn’t like today’s makeup. We didn’t retouch then. Kevyn did the retouching with the makeup. His art happened to be makeup. He wasn’t someone who did makeup. His medium was his makeup. He was just totally flamboyant and totally focused. He was intense when he was working. The way he would look at you, and tilt your head. We both shared stories of coming from small towns and moving to New York.
When he first came to New York, he would order a cup of hot water from a diner and get ketchup and make tomato soup. He was destined to do what he did. He loved makeup. It was his passion. He wanted it enough to drink tomato soup made from ketchup and water. Kevyn was a master of his generation. It’s who he was as a person, and his involvement with PFLAG and bringing his parents around to accepting his life – he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He loved music. He dictated the stereo at every shoot. He always picked the music. He had a huge heart. He had huge hands. He always had a camcorder. People didn’t have video cameras back then. He would carry that around and do behind the scenes footage before that even existed. He would do selfies with Polaroids. He would have loved social media. He would have loved being able to connect with young people who didn’t feel accepted. Here’s a Kevyn story for you. One time, he wanted to bleach my eyebrows. It looked amazing for the shoot and he drew them back in. When I got home that night, I had no eyebrows left. But he would do that because he had a vision and he wanted it the way he saw it in his mind.”
Susan Sarandon “He was a sweetheart. He’s the only person who made you lie down to put your makeup on. I guess there was something about painting the face lying down. At that point, that many years ago, it didn’t change that much when I sat up. Bette Davis had a very wide and very high forehead, which I don’t have. He used a skullcap to do that look.”
Isabella Rossellini: “When I first met Kevyn, he told me I was responsible for sending him to jail. When I asked defensively how I caused this, he explained that one day, while visiting a department store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (where he grew up) he tried on the makeup I advertised as a model. He loved my ads and he couldn’t resist trying the make up, but the manager of the department store, shocked, called the police, who arrested him. Kevyn told many stories that were at once tragic and funny. He made me laugh a lot and also think and reflect a lot, especially about the condition of being a young gay guy in our country. He had a very sharp eye, his observations and humor are reflected in his work — like in the photo he took of me looking exactly like Barbra Streisand. I asked him, ‘Did you always think I looked like Streisand,’ because I never saw the resemblance. He said, ‘Of course, it’s all in the nose. The nose is what makes Barbra and you!’ Kevyn was a makeup artist with ARTIST the word written in huge capital letters. I miss him. I miss laughing and playing with him.”
“The women who loved him loved him so dearly. He made them feel a particular way. Kevyn would have his huge hands holding a model’s face, when we were told to only use brushes and not touch anyone.”
“There were so many layers to it. I understood makeup and the art of makeup growing up as a child. The transformational quality of his work was what cemented him in the lexicon. What I remember so well about him besides the size of his hands was his kindness and his love for what he was doing. I bought his book in San Francisco. He transcended the fashion world and the celebrity world. He brought that transformational quality to the public in that particular way. He had muses. He loved women. He saw things in women that they didn’t see in themselves. To me he was a god. I loved a lot of the women that he loved. I loved Tori Amos. He created these images with her that were emblazoned into my consciousness. He was an artist himself. He was a generous man with a generous spirit. His passion was contagious. I choose muses. My goal is to be an artist. I love the art of collaboration. I gravitate towards his work because he understood that language and brought things out in women they didn’t know they had in them through makeup. I feel lucky to have cultivated those relationships.
The women who loved him loved him so dearly. He made them feel a particular way. Kevyn would have his huge hands holding a model’s face, when we were told to only use brushes and not touch anyone. We’re in a privileged and sacred and private space with women. He made women feel so safe and I try to create that energy too. I like women who like themselves. During Kevyn’s time, we relied a lot more heavily on retouching and camera lighting. He did a lot of work of contouring. He would erase you and put you back the way he wanted you. It was dazzling. Times have changed. Lighting has changed. The art of transformation will always be there and he loved to have fun with that. He never had to deal with Instagram. He was the first one to discuss contouring openly and show how it was done properly for the time – he did it beautifully. There was a time and place where you needed it and you don’t need it anymore. It was meant for studio lighting.”
“He was the first celebrity makeup artist. That’s the thing. He glamorized being a makeup artist. He really transformed people, going above and beyond putting on lipstick and mascara. He wanted women to feel beautiful. That was his thing. He turned someone into Marilyn Monroe. Suddenly being a makeup artist was so exciting. He paved the way for the technique of using your hands. He showcased contouring and highlighting and now, people have taken it to a whole new level. His contouring was genius. With a finger or brush, he could give you bones and lift your eyes and lift your brows in a way that is natural and beautiful. I still have his books. It’s the true, authentic art of makeup. He did Elizabeth Taylor and he was so nervous – I read that somewhere. It was nice to hear that someone at his level got nervous. It’s so inspiring. When I was a teenager, my wall was plastered with models made up by Kevyn Aucoin. He’s a legend. He was the first makeup artist to demand crazy rates and he got paid. He had the highest day rate in the world. People would pay it because he was that brilliant. He understood skin tones and understood that some people were yellow-based or pink-based. He saw the diversity of women.”
“When I was young and starting out in New York, he loomed large in so many ways. I assisted him a few times. I got to do some shows with him. He was larger than life. I spent an entire day gluing eyelashes for a show. I had to make giant flutter lashes. I remember being in his studio and I sat on the floor and glued lashes the whole day. I was so nervous that I would get it wrong. He was the artist who made working with celebrities and being that person who did fashion and celebrity – he made that cool and aspirational. Before Kevyn, you didn’t know who the Hollywood makeup people were. And he was a force of nature, who crossed that line between fashion and Hollywood. His aura was big. And his hands were big. They were so massive. It was incredible to watch those giant hands so delicately stroke a face. This generation of makeup artists who think they discovered contouring – they have forgotten or haven’t done their homework. Kevyn was the master of contouring the face to perfection. He used those techniques in the most beautiful and refined way. He was magic. And he was a guy who could do beautiful natural makeup. He would turn around and do the most whisper-soft looks, naked makeup. His reach and flexibility were so enviable. I am in awe of his ability to cross all those boundaries and do it so seamlessly. Some of these youTube/Instagram ‘makeup artists’ need to buy his books and get out of their own screen.”
“I met Kevyn Aucoin by writing him a letter to ask to assist him while in my last year of college. He reached out to book me to assist him for major NYC fashion shows. I learned so much on the job and from the opportunities. He was the makeup artist of that era that was also in front of the scene, not just behind the scene and really helped gain respect for our industry. In my business, there’s a hierarchy and usually ‘the makeup people’ are kinda at the bottom but he really helped put our job on the forefront and with that we also got more respect. He was also more than just a makeup artist — he consulted with brands and created beautiful make up lines (even before his own line and before other make up artists had their own brands). His career really paved the way and showed us we can do much, much more. You don’t have to just be on set putting make up on faces.”
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