Waxing Pioneering: Kevyn Aucoin

The first time I read about Kevyn Aucoin was in the early 90s, when he was an established high fashion makeup artist and I was in my early teens and just discovering makeup. Once a starving aspiring artist, he was on his way to becoming the highest paid makeup artist of his time, on the heels of doing a series of Vogue covers in the mid- to late 1980s. He was also one of the first makeup artists to gain celebrity in their own right.

The thing that caught my attention the most: He had a different message than anyone I'd read about before. He called attention to highlighting our uniqueness with makeup, rather than trying to mask it. Today it's a fairly common message, but 20 years ago, it was revolutionary. No one else in the fashion or makeup industry was saying it or had said it before with such clarity.

Because I was exposed to Aucoin at a time when my own self-image was shaping, this had a huge impact on me and continues to in my approach to makeup.

He was also memorable physically: Towering, athletically built, with huge lips (a feature that may have stemmed from a disease that was discovered later). He also had an accessible, genuine, and kind persona that was rare in industry where the personalities are often removed and unattainable. Janet Jackson was quoted once as saying he was proof that someone could come from a place of deep pain and become a kinder, more gentle spirit because of it. Despite his size, his voice was memorably soft with a slight lisp.

Aucoin was adopted and raised in Louisiana in the 1960s: He dabbled in his mother's makeup as a young boy, putting it on his sisters and taking photos that resembled the fashion magazine images. It soon became clear he wasn't like the other kids. Growing up gay in the deep South, he faced severe discrimination and hate crimes. He escaped to New York City as a young man, where he first offered his services for free but quickly established relationships with makeup giants, Revlon and Shiseido. Revlon would later commission him to develop the Ultima II Nakeds line, which furthered his name and distinguished him in a time immediately following 80s excess.

On Sept. 11, 2001 (yep, that day of all days), Aucoin was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that would kill him the following year. In the later stages of his career, he put out three books, Making Faces, The Art of Makeup, and Face Forward. If you are too young to remember Aucoin or never knew of him when he was alive, I would strongly recommend purchasing one of his books to expose yourself not only to his techniques as an artist, but also his message that all of us are beautiful and need to appreciate our individuality. For Aucoin, it wasn't just the message he built his career on: It was the way he lived.


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