For Kevyn Aucoin, Beauty Was An Escape — & An Addiction
Kevyn Aucoin, the famed makeup artist who died in 2002, spent his career celebrating the unique beauty in everyone — but failed to see it in himself.
In 1983, when Kevyn Aucoin was in his early 20s, he boarded a bus from his native Louisiana to New York City because he had a dream: He wanted to paint the faces of the models in Vogue. The aspiring makeup artist went straight to the Condé Nast offices, plopped his bag down on the couch, and waited. He hadn’t set up a meeting. He hadn’t made any calls. The only recent work in his portfolio was from Cheri, a porn magazine.
After a while, a few assistants noticed the lanky Southern kid in the lobby, and took enough pity on him to finally get him a meeting with an assistant editor. They thought they were just throwing him a bone, but that meeting jumpstarted his unpredictable career — one that ultimately shook the foundation of the fashion world.
This month, Aucoin’s legacy is being remembered in the new documentary Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story. Between the home videos and A-list cameos (from Naomi Campbell to Cher), it becomes abundantly clear that Aucoin was many years ahead of his time — pushing for inclusivity in an industry that had long excluded anyone who wasn’t tall, white, thin, perfectly symmetrical, and cisgender. "I have been working towards acceptance of diversity in this business," Aucoin says in an interview shown in the documentary. "I don't believe one person at Vogue magazine should be able to say, 'This is the look, and everyone has to wear that.'”
Aucoin rallied for more Black models in his photoshoots and runway shows. He cast people of various sizes, genders, ages, and races in his series of popular makeup books. "He knew that one of the ways that people felt marginalized was through the way they looked," Linda Wells, the founding editor of Allure who worked with Aucoin throughout his career, told Refinery29.
Aucoin was actively championing for body positivity before the phrase "body positivity" was even a thing. "The world views of beauty were slowly changing, and they needed a leader to shine a light on the fact that it needed to change faster,” makeup artist Troy Surratt, one of Aucoin's close friends and producers of the documentary, told Refinery29. “Kevyn was that person.”
His motivation to celebrate all forms of beauty stemmed from his own traumatic childhood. Bullied and mocked due to his sexuality and flamboyance by his peers in Lafayette, Louisiana, a young Aucoin found solace in magazines, reveling in the beauty of those whose looks were under-appreciated. Pictures of his idol, Barbra Streisand, covered almost every inch of Aucoin's childhood bedroom.
As Aucoin pursued a career in makeup, he always saw it as a vehicle to enhance — rather than to cover. "My approach to makeup... really has been to accentuate and enlarge imperfection," Aucoin says in the documentary. His earliest muses were women in his own family, and he would recreate the makeup looks from Vogue covers right onto his sister and mother's faces.
After the Vogue meeting, Aucoin went on to do makeup for runway shows, ad campaigns, magazine spreads, music videos, and major fashion magazine covers from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar. Revlon brought him on as creative director for a new line in the 1980s, and he eventually launched an eponymous makeup brand which still lives on today. He became a celebrity unto himself and would regularly appear on TV programs like House of Style on MTV.
At the height of his fame, his client list still reflected how fiercely devoted he was to women who didn’t fit the industry's narrow margins of beauty at the time. Liza Minnelli, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Peele, Martha Stewart, Cher, Janet Jackson, and Streisand herself were among his fans. "He believed that what made us different — like a scar or a crooked nose — made us truly unique and beautiful," Surratt says.
I think that by including everyone, he was trying to learn to love himself more.
Aucoin’s insistence on upending the industry also sparked makeup trends you can thank (or not thank) him for. In the early '90s, when full brows reigned supreme, he plucked the arches of models like Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and Naomi Campbell into razor-thin arcs. Their careers skyrocketed afterward. At an Isaac Mizrahi show also in the early '90s, he glued individual lashes on all the models, which was unheard of at the time, and caused a sensation. For a Paper magazine cover in 1990, he challenged gender norms by turning Brooke Shields into a man — complete with five o'clock shadow, which Wells says was “sacrilege” at the time.
For Aucoin, the makeup chair provided not just a creative release, but a sense of comfort. “The most extraordinary experience I could possibly have with another person is to show them their beauty because someway, somehow, in showing someone else their beauty you see the beauty in yourself," Aucoin says early in the documentary. "You understand your own uniqueness."
But his desire for everyone to realize their own beauty was often lost on himself. “I think that by including everyone, he was trying to learn to love himself more," Surratt says. "In helping other people see their own beauty, he could see his own." But it was an ongoing struggle for the young artist. "I think there were moments when he [realized his beauty] and dark moments when he didn’t," Wells says.
Aucoin would give himself makeovers, dye his hair, and change his facial hair repeatedly in an effort to like the person he saw looking back at him in the mirror. "He always struggled with that sense of how he appeared and he always was playing with his look," Wells says. "There were times when I would see him and wouldn't recognize him. He even wrote about feeling ugly and what it was like to feel unattractive."
As time went on, that feeling worsened. Toward the end of his life, Aucoin's jaw, feet, and body started to grow as a result of acromegaly, a hormonal disease that develops when your pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone during adulthood. According to friends and family, Aucoin grew from 6’1” to 6’9” between 1983 and 2002, and his shoe size shot up two sizes.
He felt so different than everyone around him, and that gave him this enormous drive to find a place to belong. Also, a drive to create a place where other people belonged.
This not only added to Aucoin's intense feelings of insecurity, but also resulted in extreme body aches and pain. He coped with an array of painkillers and prescription medications — Vicoden, Xanax, and Soma among them — which resulted in mood swings, which led to clients dropping him and work slowing down during his final years. Aucoin died at just 40 years old as a result of kidney and liver failure due to acetaminophen toxicity.
Sixteen years following his death, the beauty industry has just now started to catch up to the change Aucoin was trying to create. "He felt so different than everyone around him, and that gave him this enormous drive to find a place to belong," Wells says. "Also, a drive to create a place where other people belonged."
Now, you see more people of different sizes, genders, races, ages, and backgrounds being celebrated in campaigns, magazine covers and runways. Cellulite and scars aren't always Photoshopped out the way they used to be. People of various gender expressions and identities are routinely the stars of their own beauty campaigns. Countless makeup brands are now launching with more inclusive foundation shade ranges.
Aucoin also believed in the kind of democratization of beauty that the internet brought us years later. He was Instagramming before Instagram, always taking videos of himself working and filling scrapbooks with his own polaroids and memories, which he'd readily share with anyone interested. He wrote books in an effort to unveil makeup artist secrets, which is now commonplace among makeup bloggers, because he believed that beauty shouldn't be an exclusive club — but a place for everyone to belong.
“I think that he’s somewhere feeling really proud and happy,” Surratt says. “I always say that beauty culture as we know it today is a hangover from Kevyn Aucoin.”
Larger Than Life: The Story of Kevyn Aucoin will be available On Digital and On Demand July 31st. You can preorder it here.