I didn't grow up with much in the way of organized religion, but that doesn't mean I didn't have a Bible of sorts, or my own lineup of revered saints and icons. Only, in my case, that holy book was Kevyn Aucoin's Making Faces, and the apostles had names like Winona, Naomi, Gwyneth, and Janet. (Yes, as in Ryder, Campbell, Paltrow, and Jackson.) I was introduced to this book and Aucoin's work when I was a teenager; I hadn't yet started wearing much in the way of makeup, and what I did know about beauty was that it should be "natural"-looking, and that the best makeup was the kind that made it look like you weren't wearing any. This was the late '90s, after all, and minimalism was in. But that all changed with Making Faces.
Everyone who's ever picked up a fashion magazine knows the power of transformation and the ways in which the addition of certain clothes and accessories and makeup can change you from yourself into someone who is—externally, at least—different. It's not hard to understand why the potential for becoming someone wholly new is appealing for teenagers—or for anyone, really, who is struggling with their identity, who doesn't feel like their insides match their outsides. Aucoin, as he made clear in his lifetime (he died at the age of 40 in 2002), and as an illuminating, wonderful new documentary Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story also emphasizes, was someone who long felt like an outsider, before he grew up to become one of the most influential and adored members of the high fashion community.
In the introduction to Making Faces, Aucoin wrote, "Trying to conceal the fact that I was a gay, effeminate, hyperactive, adopted child with a serious lisp in southern Louisiana would have been like trying to hide Dolly Parton in a string bikini!" And while it's impossible not to smile at this image, it's similarly impossible not to think of the pain of having to sublimate who he was because he was scared of how he would be seen (on why he stopped shoplifting makeup: "I realized it was wrong, and I realized I couldn't keep doing this because, God knows, in Louisiana you don't want to be a boy caught stealing lipstick… they'll kill you"). And yet, Aucoin never stopped making his art, helping to create a more beautiful world, face by face, than the one in which he found himself; he practiced his makeup techniques on his family members and taught himself tricks of the trade. (I still shudder thinking about how a young Aucoin thought that he was supposed to pluck his eyelashes instead of eyebrows. Ouch.)
Beyond that, Making Faces was so powerful because it featured the most famous women in the world looking sometimes entirely unrecognizable as themselves. For a young girl who sometimes thought life would be a million times better if only she looked like Shalom Harlow instead of herself, Making Faces served as a reminder that makeup shouldn't be viewed as a way to banish imperfections, but rather to celebrate fantasy. Aucoin offered readers a chance to get to know their own faces more intimately, to figure out their contours (he was far ahead of the Kardashian contour craze), and to celebrate themselves, even if that meant changing themselves for a little while. It was a reminder that beauty could be fun and serious, fantastical and historically relevant. It was a generous work, a reflection of a man who spread hope in an industry often marked by cynicism.
And it's this spirit that's celebrated in Larger Than Life. Director Tiffany Bartok said that better understanding Aucoin's inner beauty was one of the most powerful things about making this film; she explains, "My journey was to make a film about one of my idols. So through 60 interviews and endless footage, I did come to understand and love my idol more than I ever thought possible—far beyond his unprecedented artistry… he has taught me to be a better person. Kevyn was more than makeup. He was also the guy who cleaned the barbecue grill himself, and that is stunningly beautiful."
The documentary took me back to those long-ago days when I'd pore over the pages of Making Faces with my friends, seeing how much potential there was to become whoever we wanted to be, marveling at the power we had to shape our own faces, and our own fates. Aucoin's life was filled with difficulty and triumph, pathos and unadulterated joy; and the world of possibility he opened up for so many of us was a true gift, and it's one he knew he was giving to people, and one he gave freely and with love. As he says in an old interview clip in the film, "You try to give back through what you do and what you know how to give, and, for me, it's… beauty."
Watch an exclusive clip of everyone from Kate Moss to Isabella Rossellini talking about what Aucoin meant to them, below.
Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story can be preordered on iTunes, here, and will air theatrically in L.A. on July 20.