Sun, 21 Dec 2003

Kevyn Aucoin: Makeup's wonder boy who drew beautiful faces

Bruce Emond, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Kevyn Aucoin's death at the age of 40 in April 2002 came as a complete shock to all but his inner circle. Although acquaintances noticed that he appeared thinner, he had continued to work up until his death; his last Vogue magazine cover, of Gwyneth Paltrow photographed by Herb Ritts, was done in the fall of 2001, and he also did the makeup for Liza Minnelli's infamous wedding to David Gest the month before he died.

With the death of an openly gay man, a world-famous makeup artist celebrated for creating the "natural" look and the man of choice for many celebrities, the assumption for many may have been that he was another victim of HIV (Ritts was to die of complications from AIDS in December 2001).

In fact, he had acromegaly, an extremely rare disorder in which the body produces too much growth hormone, usually because of a tumor on the pituitary gland. For years, according to Kevyn Aucoin: A Beautiful Life (Atria Books, 2003), a loving tribute put together by his friends, he had suffered from symptoms of the disease, including fatigue, vision disturbance, abnormal growth of hands and feet, and enlarged lips, nose and tongue.

Proof of how far this small-town boy from Lafayette, Louisiana, had come was that his obituary ran on the major wire services and was featured on entertainment programs. Aucoin had become as much a celebrity as the subjects of his makeup designs.

A Beautiful Life came from the outpouring of love that followed his death, from all the people whose lives he touched, from his younger sister, who he made up and took polaroids of when she was just a kid, his editor at the life-style magazine Allure, which featured his musings on various issues, and the one-name-only stars like Gwyneth, Tina and Sharon (the main writer, Kerry Diamond, also acknowledges that there was a fair share of venom spilled by homophobes overjoyed that such a prominent gay man was no more).

The story of his childhood in Lousiana, drawing the faces of his idols, like Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, is particularly poignant. He even persuaded his high school newspaper to do a gushing profile on him as "Barbara Streisand's number one fan", and permanently borrowed a book from the local library on makeup tips by legendary stylist Way Bandy (it was still with him when he died).

He knew that Lousiana was not the place to explore his love for fashion, and he moved up to New York City, accidentally running into Way on the street. It was a brief and unsuccessful move (he never mentioned that period in later biographies) and he returned home, this time to Baton Rouge to work as a department store salesman.

Yet, the Louisiana capital was no more an attractive or accepting city than his hometown, and he was soon back in New York City, building his portfolio by working at Vogue. He started the long climb to style stardom, however, when he made up Tina Turner -- in fishnet stockings and an oversize black shirt -- for a memorable October 1984 cover of Rolling Stone.

His career continued to take off in the late 1980s, but it was the following decade that marked his ascent into the sphere of celebrity. It was then that he came into contact with the women -- muses, if you will -- who would remain his faithful followers (with Turner the closet of all), and also when he branched out into doing the make-up for music videos and album covers. He did the Scream video for Michael and Janet Jackson, the latter becoming another favorite face of his.

His name recognition was such that he went on Oprah, selling a bundle of cosmetics to housewives in Middle America, wrote his own book, Face Forward, and even played himself on an episode of HBO's Sex and the City.

His aim was to make women as beautiful as possible even when he applied the blush a bit too liberally, as he did for Julia Roberts.

"Today I see beauty everywhere I go, in every face I see, in every single soul, and sometimes even in myself," he said shortly before he died.