Makeup Superstar Kevyn Aucoin Wows The World Again

“He made you want to be an artist, because he was such a huge artist."

What do Cindy Crawford, Andie McDowell, and Paulina Porizkova have in common? In the 1980s, they all became supermodels in collaboration with one makeup genius who burnished their natural beauty to perfection: Kevyn Aucoin.

“He made you want to be an artist, because he was such a huge artist,” said McDowell, remembering her friend and collaborator at the Outfest screening of Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty and the Beast in Me, the new Logo feature documentary premiering September 14.

He was also ahead of his time. Long before Facebook or Snapchat, Kevyn used his video camera to document every detail of his life, from goofing around on set with Tina Turner to sitting with his dog on a New York City park bench. Why did he film every minute? Maybe to convince himself that his fairy-tale life was real.

Kevyn achieved astronomical success as the confidante and artistic collaborator of Cher, Janet Jackson, Linda Evangelista, and many more. But that didn’t matter. He contended all his life with the scars of growing up gay and adopted in Lafayette, Louisiana.

“We talked about [his feelings of abandonment],” says Porizkova in the film, describing one of his trips back home. “How do you fill an empty cup?”

Kevyn’s meteoric journey ended when he was just 40, in a haze of prescription drug abuse that began with constant physical pain from the rare illness acromegaly, a glandular disorder that causes runaway growth and distorts facial features. It was the ultimate irony, as if the inner struggles of this supremely gifted Southern sissy boy played out on his face for all the world to see.

For Kevyn, the essential gay beacon of love and forgiveness turned out to be Lori Kaye, a lesbian producer and director who met him years ago when the two collaborated on a show for Style Network.

“I got to know Kevyn very well,” said Kaye. “When he passed, I was, like so many, moved—but I’m a storyteller, and I’m like, I have to tell his story.”

It was Kaye who remembered after Kevyn’s death that he had a persistent habit of videotaping his daily life. “When I was shooting him, he was always shooting me,” she said. With his family’s permission, Kaye and her life-and-creative partner, Leslie Thomas, opened up his storage unit in New York—and discovered a time capsule of an era.

“In the back of a closet, shoved behind a bunch of stuff, were these two huge boxes,” Kaye said. “When we opened them, it was like, Are you kidding? There were hundreds of tapes, just randomly tossed in there.”

It wasn’t just videotapes. There were piles of tiny audiotapes from Kevyn’s answering machine, yielding phone messages like “Kevyn, this is Liza, as in ‘Minnelli.’ ”

“We took them all home, and I began to slowly look at them,” Kaye said. “There I was in my little office, with this enormous stack of tapes, and I started to watch, and I was like, Oh my god, that’s Linda Evangelista eating a bagel, and, Oh my god, there’s Naomi Campbell. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

McDowell, a frequent collaborator who shared Kevyn’s pitch-black Southern sense of humor, was one of the first of his celebrity friends to participate in Kaye’s project. The actress remembered all their impromptu videos and wanted another look.

“We were so weird!” she said. “The great thing is, it was different back then. Now everybody’s doing videos, but they know [the footage] is going to go out, right? Everybody was just relaxed with Kevyn and chill with Kevyn, because it was like, these were his home videos. Nobody was thinking about anybody ever seeing it. It was just for us.”

From every point of view—fashion, LGBT rights, sex, drugs, and silliness—Kevyn’s tapes added up to a cultural treasure trove. Yet for almost ten years, Lori Kaye strove to find studios willing to help preserve his record of his life and times. (Full disclosure: Early in the process, I accompanied Lori to Lafayette, La., to meet Kevyn Aucoin’s adoptive father, who is a persuasive presence in the finished film.)

In the end, Kevyn’s gay community came through. Kevyn’s celebrity friends (all still beautiful themselves) showed up too. In on-camera interviews, Cindy Crawford, Amber Valetta, and Gwyneth Paltrow capture the fun of being with Kevyn and the pain of watching his decline. Even Kevyn’s birth mother appears (in a trip back to Louisiana that deserves its own spoiler alert).

But the film’s most surprising “get” may be Robyn Crawford, the close friend of Whitney Houston who was always rumored to be the star’s true love. Having refused interviews for most of her life, Crawford said yes to Lori Kaye.

What made the difference? According to Kaye, it was Kevyn himself. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this footage of Kevyn, and this is his legacy, and this is the way his story should be told.’ As soon as they knew that was what I was going to do, everybody jumped on board.”

Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast In Me premieres Thursday, September 14 at 9/8c on Logo.

Anne Stockwell is a journalist, filmmaker, and fierce cancer activist. A former editor-in-chief of The Advocate and three-time ovarian cancer survivor, she is the founder of Well Again, which helps survivors find new direction, confidence, and community.
@annewellagain