Stylist’s beauty writer Hanna Ibraheem reveals why the new documentary on influential make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin needs to be at the top of your “to-watch” list.
When you hear the words “larger than life”, your mind might automatically revert to the Backstreet Boys’ classic. But it’s also the name of a documentary that’s on Stylist’s must-watch list for all beauty fans. After its initial July release in the US, Kevyn Aucoin: Larger Than Life is now available to watch in the UK – and it surpassed all of my expectations.
The documentary chronicles Aucoin’s life, a whirlwind journey filled with fairytale-like highs, heart-breaking lows and everything else in-between (including a veritable feast of celebrities). Once I got past the revelation that I’ve been mispronouncing the make-up legend’s name wrong all this time – it’s pronounced ‘O-kwan’ – I was hooked from the moment his face filled the screen. It’s instantly clear that his charisma was matched only by his ambition. Which makes it all the more devastating when the film’s journey comes to his tragic death in 2002, aged 40, caused by a rare pituitary tumour and an addition to painkillers to deal with chronic pain.
Aucoin was adopted as a baby and grew up in Louisiana during the Sixties. Throughout childhood, he was acutely aware that he preferred doing stereotypically “girly” things and openly idolised Barbra Streisand, traits that led to him being the subject of relentless violence from the ages of five to 15.
But despite the challenges, Aucoin grew into an aspiring make-up artist, using his younger sister as his first model. He pounded the pavements of New York, where he planted himself in the Vogue office with his portfolio until he got a meeting and secured his first job. As the years went on, he cemented his status as an artist and painted the faces of top supermodels, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Linda Evangelista. He fast became friends with the biggest stars in Hollywood, too, and eventually became one himself.
In one of the film’s many anecdotes, Cher recalls the time the two went shopping (ironically for make-up), where Aucoin was hounded, “like he was Brad Pitt”. And when the make-up star released his first book, The Art of Makeup in 1994, the launch event was compared to a presidential inauguration bash with long queues out of the building and stars like Ru Paul and Janet Jackson in attendance.
But aside from his impressive list of clients and status, what struck me most was how Aucoin was responsible for many of the biggest make-up trends we’ve seen and still see today. He introduced the technique of facial contouring to high fashion - in fact, Mario Dedivonic, the man who is known for his contouring skills on Kim Kardashian, makes an appearance on the film to say, “I get asked about contouring on a daily basis, but what a lot of people don’t know is that Kevyn was the one who put that out there.”
Aucoin was also behind natural skin, bold eyes and lips and, most notably, the rise of the skinny Nineties brow. In a rare on-screen appearance, Kate Moss humorously remembers the time that Aucoin made her sit in a “dentist-style” chair, recounting, “He pinned me down and plucked out all my eyebrows.”
The make-up artist also gave the skinny brow treatment to Cindy Crawford. The supermodel remembers, “You know, you’re getting your hair done [at a photo shoot] and there’s people coming in and out, so you’re not really paying attention. And I went home, washed my face, and I had no eyebrows left.”
Designer Isaac Mizrahi adds that Crawford’s management team were not impressed. He says, “She was freaked out because her agent saw her and was like, ‘What have you done?’ It was a real crisis for Cindy’s career and then literally overnight, somehow, it just changed and she started getting more bookings because she had skinny eyebrows. And then everyone started tweezing their eyebrows.” Soon after, thin brows became the trend of the decade and Aucoin’s celebrity clients like Drew Barrymore and Gwyneth Paltrow jumped on the bandwagon, too.
In retrospect, the fact that Aucoin recognised a trend so early and turned it into a global phenomenon is a testament to the reputation and power that surrounded his career. Many of the notable figures comment throughout that Aucoin was more than just make-up, he was a creative, intelligent and unique artist.
Yet, it also highlights the strong man behind the iconic make-up brand and name. A man who suffered violence because his sexual orientation, a man who struggled with addiction because he was in chronic pain, a man who genuinely believed that all women were beautiful no matter what and set out to showcase that. As singer Tori Amos poignantly says, “Some of us were addicted to him making us beautiful, and he was addicted to making us beautiful.” The documentary successfully peels away all of the layers of Aucoin, in a way that makes you realise just how much of an influential powerhouse he really was.
In one of the most moving moments of the film, when accepting the first-ever CFDA award given to a make-up artist in 1994, Aucoin tells the audience, “I know to some people, winning an award for doing make-up may seem silly. But in the context of my life, it means that I not only survived my past but that I somehow succeeded.”
That he most definitely did.
Kevyn Aucoin: Larger Than Life is available on iTunes now.
Main image: Getty