Before YouTube tutorials and social media, there was Kevyn Aucoin—the first true celebrity makeup artist, whose life is celebrated in Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast In Me, a documentary that aired Thursday night on Logo.
The details of Aucoin’s early life are as follows: he was the adopted son of Isidore and Thelma Aucoin, and was raised in Lafayette, Louisiana. Nelda, Aucoin’s birth mother, explains her reasons for giving up her child: she was pregnant at a very young age, faking her way through her period by putting squirrel blood on a Kotex pad, and knew that there was no real way she could keep him. Later on in the film, Nelda and Kevyn finally reunite, and the abandonment that Kevyn initially felt returns: Nelda tells the camera in a soft Southern accent that Kevyn’s sexuality and chosen profession would not have flown in her home. It’s a marked contrast to his adoptive parents, both of whom understood that their son needed a different life from the one he was living in Lafayette. They were initially reluctant to send him to beauty school—not because they didn’t want him to go, but because they were worried that a beauty school in 1970s Louisiana wouldn’t readily accept a man.
“It was scary in Louisiana, because the police put you in the bayou in a brick of cement and nobody finds you,” Aucoin says at one point, in archival footage from an interview on E!. “I don’t want to be one of those people.” In 1982, he moved to New York City with Jed Root, one of the many former boyfriends featured; once there, he started his career by doing photo shoots for free for his portfolio. In an age before the star-making machine that is Instagram, Aucoin’s hustle and talent propelled him to the top. His work with supermodels and celebrities like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, Whitney Houston, Liza Minnelli, and Tori Amos made him a star, though his shining personality and appreciation for a more natural sort of beauty certainly helped.
As is sometimes inevitable among the immensely talented and famous, the documentary charts they way Aucoin’s fame started to go to his head. One of his former lovers recounts a story about how the artist refused to leave his bedroom on a shoot in the South of France, claiming that he could not do his work on the model provided because it was simply too hot. It’s at this point in the documentary when Aucoin’s story takes a turn for the tragic. Diagnosed with acromegaly—a brain condition where a tumor on the pituitary gland causes the brain to secrete growth hormones—Aucoin used a heady mix of prescription medications to manage the pain that came along with his disease, and he eventually died from complications relating to that tumor and his drug use on May 7, 2002.
His legacy, of course, lives on in his eponymous makeup line, which is an accurate reflection of his makeup philosophy. An Aucoin face highlights bone structure and skin texture. It’s soft and never harsh. Brows are sculpted but still natural. Unlike the “no makeup makeup” tutorials that proliferate YouTube and Instagram, wherein earnest teenagers pat layers layers of foundation into their already-clear skin, it’s all very subtle. The products are minimal and meant to conceal what “needs” to be concealed while enhancing what’s already there.
The prevailing sentiment from every person featured in the documentary is that Aucoin was capable of seeing what a person truly wants to look like—the way they feel they look when they’re looking their best—and make it happen. “When he did makeup, it was kind of magical,” Nicole Kidman told The New York Times in 2002, after Aucoin’s death. “He would look at you and say, ‘Oh, I know exactly what to do,’ and in the space of five minutes he’d give you red lips and put a tiny smudge around the eyes, and pat something on your nose and cheeks, and you’d be transformed. You’d think, ‘Can I do this?’ and of course you couldn’t. So after that, it would always have to be Kevyn.’’
Pre-Aucoin, doing makeup for a living didn’t have the kind of cultural cachet it does now. Stila creator Jeanine Lobell pointed out to the Times that while Bobbi Brown and Max Factor are known names, that’s only because they have product lines that served as their vehicle to fame. “Kevyn was the first to become a household name without positioning himself as a household brand,” Lobell told the Times in 2002. “He did not do it with packaging. He built his fame with just his two hands.”
Many makeup artists who’ve made a name for themselves by working with celebrities owe a great debt to Aucoin and are, in a perverse way, carrying on his legacy. It’s pointless to speculate on what he would think of the current state of the beauty industry, driven as it is by social media influencers and their ability to influence the products that companies are making, but Aucoin’s influence still resonates throughout the industry in smaller ways. In 1983, he was named Creative Director of Ultima II, a Revlon brand that launched The Nakeds, a line of nude shades that were more inclusive than anything else on the market at that time, designed specifically with all skin tones in mind. Inclusivity in the beauty industry is an issue that is still being worked out, some 30 years after the fact, championed with breathless incredulity every time someone deigns to make foundation that’s appropriate for brown or black skin.
Aucoin’s worldview is laid out most clearly in two beautiful coffee-table books, Making Faces and Face Forward. The former is a bible for the Aucoin look, with an emphasis on soft, natural makeup and real women. There are clear instructions, guides and Aucoin’s friendly, confessional tone, meant to make the art of putting on your face less intimidating and more fun. Contouring, a trend that is often attributed to Kim Kardashian, was a huge part of Aucoin’s aesthetic. In Making Faces, contouring isn’t the song and dance it is now—it’s just an option for another subtle enhancement, to bring out a person’s inner beauty.
Aside from Aucoin’s artistic and aesthetic legacy—present in every new nude makeup palette or blotted matte lip we see today—what’s most striking about the documentary is his incessant need for documentation. The hours and hours of VHS footage Aucoin left behind after his death is used masterfully here, and is a thrill to watch—it’s natural, messy and completely organic. Consider the multitude of product reviews and haul vlogs scattered across the internet, in which fully-made up influencers fuss with ring lights and autofocus before settling in for a tightly edited, “casual” video meant to convey the idea of authenticity.
The difference is clear, if not a teensy bit obvious—Aucoin lived and documented his life as if driven by the need to control his legacy, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be around long enough to see it through.