Today is the 60th birthday of the author and artist Kevyn Aucoin. His book “Making Faces” exemplifies his talent and vision. He was able to see the angles of a face and recreate an iconic look on a current celebrity. The world is a better place because he is in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Kevyn James Aucoin
OCCUPATION: Makeup artist, photographer, author
BIRTH DATE: February 14, 1962
DEATH DATE: May 7, 2002
PLACE OF BIRTH: Shreveport, Louisiana
PLACE OF DEATH: Valhalla, New York
REMAINS: Holy Mary Mother of God Cemetery
BEST KNOWN FOR: American make-up artist, photographer and author.
Aucoin was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, to parents Isidore Adrian Aucoin and Thelma Suzanne Melancon, who adopted him as an infant through Catholic Charities of Alexandria, Louisiana. He had three siblings, Carla, Kim, and Keith, all of whom were adopted as well.
Aucoin was interested in makeup from the time he was a child, and frequently did his sisters’ makeup and photographed the results with a Polaroid camera—something he’d do throughout his career. Afraid to buy makeup, he would shoplift it. The guilt of stealing and fear of getting caught made him stop.
He realized he was gay at age six, and was frequently bullied at school. His parents were initially in denial of their son’s emerging sexual orientation; his mother later said, “I didn’t think Kevyn was a sissy; I just thought he was a gentle child.” In one instance, he had a teacher spank his bare buttocks in class, which Aucoin later regarded as sexual abuse. The bullying continued in high school, and he dropped out after being chased by several classmates in a truck. He enrolled in beauty school and had hoped to learn more about applying makeup, but ended up teaching the class instead.
At 18, Aucoin worked in a small corner of an exclusive women’s store in Lafayette. But the women were uncomfortable with a man doing their makeup. Thelma Aucoin recalled, “It was $30 for a makeup lesson, and these were women who paid $3,000 for a dress, but they’d never let him.”
In 1982, Aucoin moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hoping to start a career as a makeup artist. While in Baton Rouge, he was assaulted by a security guard at Godchaux’s, a local department store. He was there with male friends to check out new makeup, when the guard approached them and said “upstairs or downtown,” meaning they could be taken to the store’s security office or be arrested. Aucoin and his friends opted for the security office, where they were beaten by security personnel. Fearing for his life, he decided to move to New York City with his then-boyfriend Jed Root (who sometimes posed as his manager) to begin his career.
When he first arrived in New York, Aucoin was putting makeup on test models for free to build up his portfolio before he was discovered by Vogue. For the next year and a half, he worked daily with Vogue photographer Steven Meisel. In the three years following his first Vogue shoot, he did a total of 18 more. In 1984, he collaborated on Revlon’s Nakeds line, the first line based solely on skin tones. However, his Vogue cover shoot with supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1986 took his career in a new direction. During 1987-89, he did nine Vogue covers in a row, and an additional seven Cosmopolitan covers. At his peak, he would often be booked months in advance and could command as much as $6,000 for a makeup session.
His motto was that it was far more important to help a woman feel beautiful no matter what, and that makeup was simply his tool for helping her discover herself. A proponent of the philosophy that every woman is beautiful within, he was one of the best-paid celebrity make-up artists in history. He began writing a column for Allure. A comment he made in a 2000 column, calling members of the National Rifle Association “morons” drew a record amount of mail for the column and a few death threats. He would refuse to do the make-up of models he felt were too young.
Aucoin worked with hundreds of celebrities including Cher, Liza Minnelli, Janet Jackson (Aucoin also shot the cover for Jackson’s 1993 album janet.), Tina Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lisa Marie Presley, Courtney Love and Vanessa L. Williams. He began publishing his work in books: The Art of Makeup, Making Faces, and Face Forward, two of which became Time magazine best sellers; Making Faces debuted at number one. The books featured celebrities, as well as everyday men and women, including his mother, in makeup and costume (and sometimes prosthetics) designed to make them look like other celebrities or historical figures. He transformed Tori Amos into Mary, Queen of Scots, Celine Dion into Maria Callas, Lisa Marie Presley into Marilyn Monroe, Christina Ricci into Édith Piaf, Hilary Swank into Raquel Welch, Winona Ryder into Elizabeth Taylor, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins into Josephine Baker and Martha Stewart into Veronica Lake, among others.
Aucoin made appearances on Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He also appeared as himself in an episode of Sex and the City called “The Real Me” (Season 4, Episode 2), doing Carrie Bradshaw’s makeup for a fashion show during New York Fashion Week.
Aucoin also appeared as an interview subject (along with dancer Bill T. Jones and explorer Ann Bancroft) in Oliver Button is a Star!, a video reinterpretation of Tomie dePaola’s children’s book “Oliver Button Is a Sissy.”
In September 2001, Aucoin was diagnosed with a rare pituitary tumor. He had been suffering from acromegaly resulting from the tumor for much of his life, but it had gone undiagnosed.
Aucoin began taking increasing amounts of prescription and non-prescription painkillers to ease his physical and mental suffering. Antunes implored Aucoin to get help, and while Aucoin tried to recover, he could not stop the drug use entirely. Antunes went to Paris for a week to be alone, and in that time, Aucoin became ill and was hospitalized. Antunes’ leaving Aucoin for what became the last week of his life created animosity between Aucoin’s family and Antunes, resulting in Antunes being locked out of the home he shared with Aucoin.
Aucoin died on May 7, 2002 at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York of kidney and liver failure due to acetaminophen toxicity, caused by prescription painkillers. Despite his instructions that his ashes be scattered in Hawaii where he was married, Aucoin’s remains are buried with his mother in Louisiana.