“Perfection is boring. If a face doesn’t have mistakes, it’s nothing.”
This refreshing, unexpected quote from Kevyn Aucoin represents the central struggle and triumph in this makeup innovator’s tragically short life.
Kevin Aucoin’s childhood and early adulthood were marked by rejection and violence. Yet rather than give in to self-pity, he survived incessant bullying, moved to New York and eventually became one of the most sought-after makeup artists of our time. Celebrities so respected his work that he earned as much as $10,000 for a single magazine shoot. He published several gorgeous best-selling guides on makeup, and his own line of cosmetics thrives past his death, in 2002, of painkillers he took to cope with a rare pituitary tumor. Yet this “rags-to-riches” life story is more than just one of wild success – it’s also about vision, passion and drive.
Makeup was always a central focus in Kevyn Aucoin’s life. As a child, he frequently did his sisters’ makeup and recorded the results with a Polaroid camera. (He continued this habit throughout his life; the inside covers of his best-selling book Making Faces features dozens of these Polaroids from throughout Aucoin’s career.) His childhood home of Lafayette, La., wasn’t very tolerant of Kevin Aucoin’s unusual preferences for gentle activities over more traditional male hobbies. At the age of six, Aucoin realized that he was gay, and the bullying began in earnest.
Reading about Kevyn Aucoin’s bullying experience causes a person to cringe. He once had his bare buttocks spanked by a teacher in class – this was such a traumatic event that Aucoin considered it sexual abuse. Classmates bullied him throughout grade school; he dropped out after some of his high school classmates chased him with a truck.
After leaving high school, Aucoin decided to enroll in beauty school but soon realized that he knew more about makeup than his instructors. He got a job at a beauty counter in an exclusive department store in Lafayette, but women were unwilling to let a man do their makeup, despite the fact that lessons were just $30. Not finding much success in his hometown, Aucoin decided to move to Baton Rouge to kick-start his makeup career.
What followed is one of the most tragic stories in Kevyn Aucoin’s life story. Aucoin and a few friends were checking out new cosmetics in a Godchaux’s department store, when security guards approached and gave the group two unsavory choices: Go upstairs (to the security office) or downtown (to the police station). Having opted to go to the security office, Aucoin and his friends were beaten by the store’s guards. Kevyn Aucoin moved yet again, this time out of fear for his life.
Aucoin finally found recognition and acceptance in his new home, New York. After only a short stint of free portfolio-building work, Vogue magazine’s editors found him. He completed eighteen shoots for Vogue over next three years, and at one point in the late eighties Aucoin did the makeup for nine Vogue covers in a row. His fame was growing.
Over the next decade, Aucoin designed the innovative Ultima II line for Revlon, wrote several bestselling books on makeup and appeared on numerous television shows, including a Sex and the City episode in which he played himself. He also launched his own line of Kevyn Aucoin cosmetics. Gwyneth Paltrow, Janet Jackson and Cher were among the many celebrities who wanted their faces done by Kevyn Aucoin.
Sadly, Aucoin’s life was cut short in 2002, when he was 40 years old, by liver failure. He died from acetaminophen toxicity, stemming from an addiction to painkillers. Aucoin took copious amounts of acetaminophen to mask the pain of a rare pituitary gland tumor, which wasn’t diagnosed until 2001 but had been causing acromegaly (a growth hormone disorder) for most of his life.
The fascinating story of Kevyn Aucoin’s time on Earth has potent morals: Every human is beautiful. What others see as “flaws” can actually be assets. As Aucoin said, “Beauty is about perception…. Knowing and liking oneself.” These were the beliefs that allowed Kevyn Aucoin to triumph on his own terms. Although he didn’t fit idea of the “perfection” others expected, he stayed true to himself and helped other women discover their own beauty. Kevyn Aucoin’s passion and courage continue to inspire countless women around the world.
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