You may not know his name, but you know his work. Anyone who has seen Janet Jackson in the “Scream” video or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar speech knows the art of Kevyn Aucoin, one of the most sought-after make-up artists in history.
Aucoin grew up with adoptive parents in Louisiana. He grew up fascinated by make-up before moving to New York to live as a cosmetologist and out-gay man. By the 1990s, he’d become the go-to make-up man for stars such as Cher, Tina Turner, Courtney Love, Liza Minnelli and Vanessa Williams. He also helped start chapters of PFLAG and encouraging celebrities to offer positive messages to queer youth–a practice much less commonplace at the time.
A rare disease coupled with painkiller dependence cut short Kevyn’s life in 2002. He died at age 40.
Documentary filmmaker Lori Kaye (Joe Millionaire, The Ride) refused to let Aucoin’s legacy fall by the wayside, bringing her Emmy-winning biopic Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty and the Beast in Me to Netflix January 1. With interviews from his celebrity clients, Kaye utilizes hundreds of hours of footage shot by Kevyn himself uncover the man behind the make-up, and a handsome queer hero often overlooked.
Lori Kaye took a few minutes to chat with Queerty about Kevyn and the film.
I see that you actually had wanted to do a film about Kevyn before you even knew about this home video footage.
It’s funny you should say that. Initially, I came to this because I had a history with fashion documentaries. I spent a lot of time with Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera and people like that, and Kevyn was one of them. I went with him to Louisiana and I met his family. So my initial thought was to do a scripted biopic. As I was just exploring that idea I had created a timeline of Kevyn’s life. And it’s 80 pages long. I knew every detail from having talked to a lot of people and from interviews I had done with him I knew a lot. And by the way, the interview [of Kevyn seen in the film] was my interview for that documentary series.
So at what point did the concept change to become a documentary?
When I was doing that research and honing the story, that’s when I found out about the footage. And of course, I certainly remembered him shooting me while I was shooting him. And I asked his father, ‘Can I have those tapes?’ And he said [she imitates a thick Cajun accent] ‘I mighta thrown ‘em out. You can find ‘em, you can use ‘em.’ They were in a storage closet—these two enormous boxes. We opened the lid, and you would have died. His camera was there and hundreds of Hi-8 tapes just labeled “Whitney,” or “Linda.” And there were a bunch of mini audio tapes in there. There were a bunch of DV tapes in there. So we decided we needed to see all of them.
That’s a hell of a time commitment.
I started to digitize them. And it would be like Disneyland, Disneyland…and then [mimicking the sound of static] it would get all static and gray. And all of the sudden, there’s Whitney Houston, and my heart would stop. So I realized I had to watch every tape to the end. So that’s where I began the process. And then, you’d find a tape that wasn’t labeled of him getting on a plane. Where are you going? Are you going to meet your birth mother? And sure enough…the hair on my arm is standing up right now!
It’s amazing he recorded so much.
That’s sort of how this journey began in essence. And it took a minute, and by a minute, I mean well over a decade to get the movie made. I think in some ways–and Amber Valletta says it–Kevyn would have loved that everybody was able to see the footage. Somewhere deep down he wanted to do this, he wanted to share his story. He wanted to share it. And I think he shot all that footage because he just couldn’t believe how far he’d come. He didn’t believe that he was standing there with Liza Minnelli or Tina Turner.
Labor of love.
It truly was. Though at a certain point, it felt like a responsibility because nobody really knows this exists. I remember showing Cindy Crawford some stuff, and she was like ‘I totally forgot about that.’ I knew there was something extraordinary in the footage. So I’m very excited about it now being able to be seen by a wider audience.
In assembling this, you have some astonishing access to some incredible interviewees—Cindy Crawford, Gwyneth Paltrow. Was anyone reluctant to appear on camera?
There were a few—I’d rather not say who they are. But what I’ll say about that: Yes, the people who I was fortunate enough to sit down and interview, they were all enormously candid. They loved him. They truly loved him, and they in many ways remain emotionally connected. For me, it was like, when I set out to do that I wanted to be very clear about the story I thought was important to tell. And if I was wrong about it, I was happy to hear it from them.
Kevyn, in knowing him, he talked a lot about growing up, and being gay, and being adopted. He was very much an activist for gay visibility. He was really adamant about that. I thought, for me, there had to be an answer to why did this life end so soon under circumstances so difficult to pinpoint? When I looked at the footage, something that happened immediately after was that they went to St. Anne’s to the hospital where his life began. I felt that his adoption was the thing that was his biggest motivation and the biggest challenge in his life.
That certainly comes across in the film. Initially, in that segment when he meets his birth parents, it’s a beautiful thing until it comes to his sexuality. In discussing their relationship with Kevyn—or their opinions about his sexuality—were his birth parents at all hesitant to discuss what happened?
Here’s the thing. I’ve talked to Nelda a lot since. She said ‘a lot of people are going to be really mad at me, but that’s the way I felt.’ When I went to meet her, and I’d many phone calls before to get to know her, I went in there to try and get what I thought was the heart of the story. That was ‘If I had raised you, you wouldn’t be gay.’ That was the quote that I knew that I had heard and that I needed to get. And in going there, to the backwoods of Louisiana, and in meeting this person, what I thought was important was to hear her story. This is who she is, this is where she grew up. I had to understand her story, and for her, she longed for that baby that she had lost. She longed for him.
And this was key for Kevyn to understand himself.
Kevyn, his entire life, wanted to know where did I come from? And then they met, and you meet with all that expectation. And the truth is, she wanted that baby, and here was Kevyn. And he wanted answers, and here was Nelda who was a product of her environment and her religion and everything that had been around her. What she said to me was ‘I wanted him to go to Heaven.’ So it’s not a black and white issue. I think that means a lot.
It’s easy to write off a statement like that. But, in an odd way, that gets to the crux of the film and the essence of who Kevyn was. Here’s this guy looking for love and validation and security and comfort, and it’s so evident from the women he worked with that he did that with his life, with his work, his activism.
Yes, there was all this love around him. He created all this beauty around him. He was very challenged about his own physicality. He didn’t like his looks. Then his looks started to change as his rare disease began to take hold. His features began to change. So here he is trying to make the world more beautiful, and not being able to see the beauty in himself. He was looking for mother figures everywhere…Tina Turner was like a mother to him, he said so many times.
If he only could have gotten over those hurdles at that time, and was here today to be able to explore those things more deeply for himself. It just seemed like there was a lot more drama in that period.
Do you think Nelda’s opinions have changed?
I don’t think so. You know, when Kevyn died—and I had this in the film but had to cut it out at one point—she said ‘I dreamed that I died and Kevyn was looking at my coffin the night before he died.” But when I asked her, ‘do you have any regrets?’ She said, ‘only that Kevyn was gay.’ She liked the film, and she really appreciated it and felt her portrayal was fair and honest.
The women interviewed have astute insight and wisdom from knowing this man—and, I suspect—a certain confidence. What is it about Kevyn’s work that put so many people at ease?
I think it was a couple things. He certainly knew how to bring out the beauty in those women, and he would put them at ease and help them relax enough to just be themselves. But he brought to them his southern boy charm, his artistic gifts, which, if they had differences, he enhanced them to be something fabulous. He’d say ‘this doesn’t make you ugly, it makes you more beautiful.’ His loved Barbra Streisand was because she was different because he was different.
I was fortunate in that everyone I had an opportunity to speak to really, you know, is psychologically connected. They know what’s happening inside. I don’t know if all supermodels have that, but I know they were certainly able to help me fulfill those ideas about love and adoption and insecurity and pain.
Did he ever try to get treatment for his drug addiction?
He did. He had been in rehab a couple times. You know, for whatever reason—and the trick is, when someone has pain, how much is too much? In terms of your pain threshold? In terms of the pills, you’re taking to alleviate that physically and psychologically? Vicodin is an addictive opioid, and he was struggling emotionally. He did go to rehab not too long before the end.
Were his former boyfriends easy to talk to about how he was in private?
I was fortunate. I certainly knew in many ways what each of his relationships was like. They each were pretty open. If you’re going to be with someone like Kevyn Aucoin, I think you need to have a certain sense of being open. I was lucky to be able to speak to them.
Speaking of being creative: On this movie, your producer was your life partner Leslie Thomas…
Oh yes. Our matching Emmys are sitting right here.
Were you nervous about working on a project with someone so close to you on something so personal?
No, because Leslie is really, really smart and an amazing storyteller. We trust each other.
How does Leslie challenge you as an artist?
In every possible way. She insists on clarity, and if something is vague, and certainly because I was so close to it, having her eye to say ‘this may or may not make sense; I need it to be clear.’ She’s great at that. I’m fortunate and really lucky that we can talk about projects together.
For me, the one idea is that Kevyn’s life ended in tragic circumstances, to say the least. But if it inspires one LGBTQ kid out there who feels different, who is odd, who is ostracized to follow his dreams then we’ve done an amazing then by sharing his story. So anyone who sees this, do it, try it. Make it happen.
Kevin Aucoin: Beauty and the Beast in Me hits Netflix January 1.