How Kevyn Aucoin started a makeup revolution

Kevyn Aucoin with Hilary Swank and Gwyneth Paltrow at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards in 2001

American makeup artist, photographer and author Kevyn Aucoin passed away in 2002. But as a new documentary portraying his life and work reveals, his beauty techniques and philosophy have left a lasting legacy. Here’s how he changed the beauty world forever. By BRONWYN COSGRAVE


He was the supermodels’ go-to guy

Swiftly after arriving in New York from his hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1982, Kevyn Aucoin became renowned for beautifying the models who became known as the Supers – Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. “I was not going to go to any other person but Kevyn’s chair,” remembers Campbell of working with him backstage during New York Fashion Week. Of collaborating with Aucoin on shoots with Steven Meisel, Irving Penn and Francesco Scavullo, Evangelista explained: “Magic didn’t happen on the set – it happened in the dressing room, in front of the mirror, with Kevyn.”

He was the first celebrity makeup artist

Aucoin began to divide his time between New York and Los Angeles, shaping the beauty looks of an incredible roster of entertainment-world talent: Cher, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Isabella Rossellini, Barbara Streisand and Tina Turner. “Kevyn was ahead of his time – [he] somehow gravitated toward celebrities,” explained hairstylist Orlando Pita of the makeup artist’s game-changing instinct to build relationships with Hollywood icons and pioneer the industry’s red-carpet culture.

He championed diversity

Decades before diversity was a prevalent issue, Aucoin utilized his position to challenge society’s expectations of gender and race, inventing products that enhanced everyone. In his best-selling books and his editorials for Allure magazine, he featured women, men and transgender people, plus his mother, Thelma, and his sisters, Carla and Kim. Of his own belief in celebrating individuality, Aucoin said: “I don’t believe that one person [] should be able to say, ‘This is the new look and everyone has to wear that.’”

The MUA worked with many celebrity clients, including Cindy Crawford, Janet Jackson, Susan Sarandon and Cher

He made his own rules

Who needs brushes? Aucoin used his hands. He was a risk-taker who defied the traditional notions that governed the beauty industry, and played an essential role in popularizing contouring, the technique that later helped elevate Kim Kardashian to beauty-icon status. When the fashion industry promoted glamour, Kevyn invented the more natural “naked” face. When grunge eclipsed glamour, Kevyn made Swarovski crystals a signature, painstakingly adorning shimmering shards to Cher and Jennifer Lopez.

Aucoin eschewed brushes and instead used his fingertips, as with Linda Evangelista at an Isaac Mizrahi fashion show in 1995

He empowered his contemporaries

Famous for being booked months in advance and for commanding the industry’s highest fees, Aucoin also received the first CFDA Award ever bestowed on a makeup artist (Pat McGrath nabbed the second). Aucoin’s star status elevated his profession and, ultimately, his success helped to empower makeup artists to launch their own beauty brands. “I remember we went into Make Up Forever and [] it was like Brad Pitt walked in,” recalled pop powerhouse Cher of Kevyn’s notoriety. “These girls were everywhere and asking him everything and telling him how much he inspired them.”

Director Tiffany Bartok’s Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story is available on iTunes and Amazon now

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.