I can still vividly remember walking into Liza Minnelli’s apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side, just moments before she’d marry her husband, David Gest. I was the assistant to the legendary makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin who, alongside hair guru John Barrett and designer Bob Mackie, made up Ms. Minnelli’s glam pantheon for the occasion. There was so much to take in from that day — from the Andy Warhol artwork on the walls to Marisa Berenson and Elizabeth Taylor chatting idly amongst themselves. In the corner, a young boy named Evan was instructed by his mother, Diana Ross, to show off his dance moves for her dear friend, Michael Jackson. At one moment, after all the stars had gathered together like a constellation and left the room for the day’s festivities, another assistant and I locked eyes, grabbed each other’s arms, and recalled every single minute of the past couple of hours. It was as if we could hardly believe this was real life.
After all, my wildest dreams had just come true! I grew up on a farm in a town in Kansas that you can’t even really find on Google Maps, called Herkimer. Ever since I can remember, I was captivated by glamour, and quickly learned that I had to find my way out of Kansas to make a name for myself. I landed at the Fashion Institute of Technology as a student, and while I was there, I discovered a book called The Art of Makeup, authored, of course, by the artist Kevyn Aucoin. It was, in fact, all I requested for Christmas that year.
I was enamored with what Kevyn was able to accomplish in this book — how he would take Drew Barrymore and turn her into Marlene Dietrich, or transform Lisa Marie Presley into Marilyn Monroe. He shattered perceptions not just about who these women were, but also what they were capable of being. Through makeup and reinvention, he taught us that we’re all so much greater than one image. Clutching my pristine copy of his book, I waited outside of Saks Fifth Avenue with a gaggle of other college students and beauty devotees, hoping for my turn to get Kevyn’s autograph — to see him in person.
You see, Kevyn was a boy not entirely unlike me — he grew up in a small town called Lafayette, Louisiana, and somehow defied all odds imaginable to become the most famous makeup artist in the world. Through his career, he was a model of success for someone like me, who was ashamed — in the midst of all this glamour — of his origins. Kevyn never lost his small-town charm or his genuine care for others, and that was the secret to his success I cherished the most.
I was working at a beauty supply store on 19th Street called Alcone when my coworker dared me to cold call Kevyn’s agent and ask if he was looking for an assistant. I said I’d do anything to assist Kevyn. After one week of being an errand boy, I was finally called to accompany him on a shoot. I was told that an actress from In Living Color was releasing her debut album, and Sony had hired Kevyn to do test shots for the artwork. Once I arrived to the famed Industria Studios, I found myself face-to-face with Jennifer Lopez — the late Oribe Canales constructing her hair, and Kevyn perfecting the arch of her brow and the bow of her lip like only he could. I remember feeling the magnitude of her star power, and sensing that she was about to go places. I did my very best to contain every ounce of excitement inside of my body, and stood there very quietly.
At the end of the shoot, it was just Kevyn and I who were left to clean and pack up his kit. The song “Tear in Your Hand” by Tori Amos came on, and I lost just a little of my perfect-assistant composure. “My favorite lyric in this song is, ‘I know you, I know you well. Well, better than I used to,’” I told Kevyn.
And to my surprise, he responded, “The fact that you just said that to me is proof that you’re supposed to be in my life.” Then, he picked me up and gave me a big bear hug. (Kevyn was 6’5” — a gentle giant if there ever was one!)
I would end up flying back and forth across the country with Kevyn for the next few years, meeting and working with everyone from Courtney Love to Lisa Marie Presley and beyond. Immediately after the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all flights were grounded for at least a week, and Kevyn and I were stuck in Los Angeles, estranged from our loved ones. He asked me to accompany him to his friend Cher’s house in Malibu, where she had organized a meditation circle with a group of Buddhist monks. Together, we chanted for what felt like an hour — united in the conflicting emotions of kindness, compassion, and total fear.
I got to know so much about my hero, and relished the little things, like delivering him his morning fuel of Coca-Cola, which I affectionately called, “The breakfast of champions!” I delighted in his simple taste for food, which was almost childlike in its innocence — chicken strips, hamburgers, pasta with plain sauce. We’d spend hours watching old films (he was particularly fond of Grey Gardens) and reruns of Amy Sedaris’s Strangers with Candy. Little by little, I gained his trust both personally and professionally. I still remember the one day on set that I graduated to lip gloss, and I got to apply the lacquer under his careful supervision. The most important thing he taught me about makeup is that one must do it with gusto — if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and with a real sense of purpose.
But the truth was that Kevyn was in immense pain. A medical condition turned his relationship to painkillers into self-medication. In the wake of his death, I thought a lot about what it must have felt like to have such immense validation from the greatest stars or the general public — but also, just how empty that could feel. In remembering his story, I identify my own velvet rage, and the one that lives inside so many of us: that whatever we’re trying to fill up or validate, it will never be enough.
This is part of the reason I agreed to produce the film Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, directed by Tiffany Bartok. So much of Kevyn’s death had been confused or misinterpreted by the public since his passing, and I felt I owed it to my mentor to set the record straight and honor him properly. I wanted to tell the truth so that I could potentially set him free.
The reception of the film — and its impressive cast of characters, all friends of Kevyn’s — are a testament to his legacy. Kevyn accomplished everything with a sense of honesty and openness that’s not necessarily the norm for our industry. He invited everyone in, and created a place for all of us to be ourselves — long before it was cool or marketable to do so. Among all of us in his orbit — from the icons he painted to the assistants he mentored — he saw potential, possibility. And even after all these years of remembering, mourning, and honoring him, I am still forever changed because he saw something in me. —As told to Phillip Picardi.