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The Man with the Painter Hands: A Look at Kevyn Aucoin’s Inspirations and Influence

Published April 28, 2024
Published April 28, 2024
Kevyn Aucoin

“The most extraordinary experience that I can have with another person is to show them their beauty because someway, somehow, showing someone else their beauty, you see the beauty in yourself,” Kevyn Aucoin once said. A man dubbed the original celebrity makeup artist, a 6′4″ cosmetics legend who sculpted the faces of the biggest supermodels and celebrities in the ’80s and ’90s, Aucoin has left a legacy that is still alive and thriving today. Makeup artists used to be kept behind the camera; today they are celebrities in their own right.

Before there were the MUAs of today, there was Kevyn Aucoin. Long before the selfie or live stream was invented, Aucoin was busy filming hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes footage on a handheld camera. Over two decades after founding his own makeup line, the Kevyn Aucoin Beauty range is still going strong, showing that timeless, inclusive, and high-quality formulas and colorways have no expiration date. In fact, in 2024 the power of makeup is stronger than ever, from before-and-after pictures on Instagram to live on-air makeovers and reality television shows like Glow Up and Instant Influencer. If anything, the more time passes since Aucoin’s heyday, the more we are all waking up to exactly how groundbreaking his work truly was.

BeautyMatter spoke to brand founders and makeup artists Fiona Stiles and Jillian Dempsey, as well as Head Brand Ambassador and MUA at Kevyn Aucoin Beauty Drita Paljevic, about the makeup artist’s influence.

An Inspiration to All

“Kevyn was iconic in his approach to beauty by really understanding how critical lighting is for the end results. He knew about contour and highlighting so well and exactly how to create his signature style. He was well respected in our beauty industry for his kindness and his art form,” Dempsey says. “I was lucky enough to know him and also found him to be humorous and supportive of other makeup artists. He designed some brilliant products I still use in my kit and personal life today.”

Behind the glamorous imagery, there was the story of a small-town boy looking to escape the homophobia and rejection of his suburban and religious upbringing. By the time he passed away at the tender age of 40, Aucoin had left an indelible mark. Aucoin’s story has become the subject matter of two documentaries: Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & the Beast in Me (2017), directed by Lori Kaye, and Larger than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story (2017), directed by Tiffany Bartok. His artistic eye and techniques are immortalized in three publications: Face Forward (2000), Making Faces (1997), and The Art of Makeup (1994). In 1994 he became the first makeup artist to win a CFDA Award. Aside from his own career, he has inspired countless others to pursue the same art form.

“When I first got into makeup, I purchased Making Faces. That book is pretty much Instagram before Instagram because this is how we learned makeup. That's where I learned the tips, tricks, and techniques,” Paljevic adds. “I was never into rules when it comes to makeup. Kevin Aucoin Beauty is a true legacy brand. It is a trendsetter. He was ahead of his time and to this day, every look that comes out, it’s like one of his looks. Every time we want to come up with a product we always go back to his books [for inspiration].”

Making Faces was a key touchstone at the beginning of Stiles’ career in makeup as well. “His story was so remarkable and he was so generous with sharing his story that you felt a deep connection to him from afar. And then there was the makeup. Transformative, fueled by his fantasy of what a woman could look like, impeccable and beautiful. The early ’90s were defined by his looks. I challenge anyone who says otherwise,” she says. Stiles sees the teachings in Aucoin’s books as paving the way for the popular tutorials of today, and the looks he taught as truly timeless. “Trends ebb and flow, but there will never be a time in history where women don’t want to look refined or beautiful, and so his work is evergreen because his aesthetic was always glamour first,” she adds.

“Trends ebb and flow, but there will never be a time in history where women don’t want to look refined or beautiful, and so his work is evergreen because his aesthetic was always glamour first.”
By Fiona Stiles, Makeup Artist

The Kevyn Aucoin Beauty Universe

The makeup line he started in 2001 continues to garner a loyal fan base, whether it’s the bestselling The Sensual Skin Enhancer and The Sculpting Contour Powder, to the newest release, Face Forward Color Corrector. In the past year, the company has reported a growth in US sales by 16% and an increase in online sales of 30%, partially driven by the revival in not only ’90s makeup looks but also makeup contouring. The Kevyn Aucoin Beauty team hopes to keep his legacy alive while still maintaining the core philosophy of his makeup approach. Instead of weekly launches and a rainbow assortment of shades, each SKU is tailored towards those who want to look and feel glamorous, but still be able to navigate their daily lives without looking too over-the-top. Think a 3D prismatic lip gloss (Glass Glow Lip) with a dark taupe smoky eye look (courtesy of The Contour Eyeshadow Palette). There’s glow, there’s polish, but it still feels attainable for the everyday makeup user.

Stiles notes that a plethora of trends can be traced back to Aucoin’s work, from a sculpted face to bleached brows, polished skin, and tawny, warm monochromatic looks. “He followed in the footsteps of Way Bandy, and both of those artists regularly created such memorable looks that they defined the times,” she states. Some of those memorable looks include high-fashion creations like the clear glossy lids and burgundy lips on Cher; Gwyneth Paltrow’s flushed, all-American meets red-carpet glamour look consisting of rosy cheeks, fluttery Bambi lashes, and a peachy-pink lip to complement her pastel-pink Ralph Lauren dress when winning the Best Actress Academy Award in 1999; and a plethora of Fashion Week looks (supermodel Naomi Campbell famously said she wouldn’t let anyone other than Aucoin do her face for a show).

As broad as his looks ranged, from the more edgy and editorial to more subdued but equally elegant looks for the red carpet, a Kevyn Aucoin look was trademarked by each one's precision, harmony, and finesse. Dempsey adds that beyond contouring, Aucoin’s techniques were also trendsetting. “He knew his way around different faces for the scale and depth of tones on brows, cheeks, and lips. He was smart enough to know it is really about the application and use of brushes/fingers. He was a true artist,” she proclaims.

From Louisiana Outcast to Hollywood Star

Kevyn Aucoin was born as Scott Kevin on February 14, 1962, to Nelda Mae Williams, who was 15 years old at the time of his birth and sent to St. Anne’s Home for Unwed Mothers to live as a result. Kevyn was given up for adoption to the Aucoins: Isidore Adrian and Thelma. Realizing he was gay at the age of 6, at a time when being homosexual was still illegal, added a further challenge to his personal life. “I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t have any support. The only thing I really had was Cher and Barbara Streisand,” he once said. “I started doing makeup on my little sister when I was 11 because it gave me a sense of creativity, it made me feel like I had something to offer the world. It made me feel that I had a way out.”

Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana in the 1960s, drawing for hours on end, and listening to Barbara Streisand records (whom he would later have the opportunity to make up for a shoot), Aucoin was not your typical Southern boy. That unfortunately came with a price—he endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his teachers and classmates. He quit school in the 10th grade after receiving death threats and an attempt by school bullies to run him over with a pickup truck.

His escape into the world of glamour was a place of refuge, beginning by doing his sister Carla’s makeup and later progressing into a makeup artist position at a Baton Rouge department store under the name Kevin Scott. When other white makeup artists working with him would refuse to work with women of color who were coming into the store, Aucoin graciously came to their aid. He was later fired from his position due to customer complaints about a man doing makeup, but it is here where he met makeup artist Eddie Greene, who gifted him a copy of Designing Your Face by Way Bandy. Outside of his day job, Aucoin was an enthusiastic performer, dressing in drag with friends and filming parody news videos.

He enrolled at cosmetology school but was so advanced he ended up teaching the course. Moving to New York in 1982, he walked into the offices of Vogue to show off a portfolio of his work to an assistant editor in the hopes of getting a job. Polly Mellen, then editor of the publication, became one of his first champions. His first work opportunity for the magazine saw him paint a nude face on Meg Tilly for an editorial spread in the February 1984 issue, a radical antidote to the colorful makeup at the time. He went on to work with Steve Meisel on more than 18 Vogue shoots. He soon commanded a day rate of $6,000, a high amount for the time. Soon he was working on the makeup range Ultima II at only 21 years old. He later acted as the Creative Director for inoui by Shiseido. “ I loved Ultima II when I was in college and beyond,” Stiles enthuses. “It has the most remarkable nudes and the shades were very different from any other brand on the market at the time. Now those shades are ubiquitous, but at the time it felt like a revelation.”

His hands graced the faces of Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Jennifer Lopez, and Lisa Minelli. Isaac Mizrahi described him as “a completely brilliant experiment risk taker.” A testament to his celebrity, he even garnered a cameo on Sex and The City. “When he used to work on location with Whitney Houston and Cher, they all had the same thing to say about him: ‘When I walked down the street with Kevin, we couldn't walk down a block without getting stopped because Kevin was a celebrity.’ But he was so down to earth and treated everybody the same, he found beauty everywhere,” Paljevic remarks.

But for all his success, Aucoin also struggled behind the scenes: low self-esteem, physical insecurities, and problems with codependency as a result of being adopted; later a painkiller addiction to deal with the chronic pain brought on by a pituitary tumor brought on by undiagnosed acromegaly (a rare condition in which the body produces too many growth hormones). But through it all, his love of makeup, and deep care for those he worked with, continued to prevail.

Continuing Influence

The makeup world today is very different now compared to Aucoin’s decades when print publications reigned supreme and breaking into the industry had many more barriers. Today, social media has opened up several new avenues for aspiring MUAs. “Everyone's an expert [today], and everyone is a teacher. Aesthetic-wise, I feel like we’re in a time of anything goes. Trends fly through the ether at a breakneck pace, but myriad looks can be found in every corner of the internet, which I love and find fascinating. The world of makeup artistry has been blown wide open. There are wildly talented people out there who can show their amazing work without ever having to leave their town. I enjoy the leveling of that playing field,” Stiles adds.

It makes Aucoin’s rise to fame—a humble man coming from little means who confessed to surviving on canned tomato soup and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing during his early NYC days—all the more remarkable. He managed to scale to the top of the industry with talent, vision, and perseverance.

Aside from skill and vision, personality aided the success of makeup artists then and today, each creating their own unique brand identity and proverbial paint brush stroke, truly putting the “artist” in makeup artist. Aucoin is also a testament to the lifeblood that flows into a successful and authentic makeup brand empire: an audience isn’t just interested in the look, but the person behind that look, what they represent. His vivacious energy and warm smile, the impact he made on the lives of those he worked with, are proof of that. Whether it’s the creatives working in our industry today or that beauty shopper picking up a contour palette from his brand for the first time, his spirit lives on in a multitude of ways, always with the spirit of growth and experimentation. As Aucoin himself once said:  “I'm not saying that putting on makeup will change the world or even your life, but it can be a first step in learning things about yourself you may never have discovered otherwise. At worst, you could make a big mess and have a good laugh.”


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