Photography courtesy of The Orchard

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story Premieres In Toronto

I bought my first Kevyn Aucoin books, Making Faces and Face Forward, at Costco (!!) in the late 90s/2000. It was the gateway to a world of makeup that left me in awe, in which I’d be flipping past pages of transformations that I would stare at and study at length. At the time, there was no makeup artist more seminal than him; he had a monthly column in Allure, did the makeup for every A-lister and he even had a cameo on Sex & The City. But it all came to an end when Aucoin died at the age of 40 in 2002 from kidney and liver failure due to acetaminophen toxicity; he had been taking the painkillers to deal with acromegaly, a tumour on the pituitary gland that continues to produce growth hormones throughout adulthood.

For anyone who either remembers him fondly or doesn’t know about him (and you should, if you consider yourself a beauty historian), you need to see Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, a documentary about his life that started making the rounds at festivals in the U.S. last fall. It’s finally premiering in Toronto at Inside Out, the city’s LGBT film festival this Saturday. We spoke to director Tiffany Bartok leading up to the screening.

One of things that prompted you to make this film was that during a production meeting for a different project, Kevyn’s name came up and a millennial didn’t know who he was.

That’s right. She was like ‘Who’s Kevyn?’ and I was like ‘Oh no, this is really happening? What are we going to do?’ I hear from makeup artists who have assistants who get on set and they say let’s do it like this Penn picture. And they don’t know what that means. They don’t know who Avedon is. But they know anything Kardashian related. Not their fault really, because it’s so well documented. Many people think Mario D invented contour. And I don’t blame them for thinking that but Mario himself credits Kevyn. He’s hell bent on people knowing where he got it from.

I was surprised to see Mario in the film. What’s this Kardashian guy doing in here? But how did you know he was a fan of Kevyn?

That was Kemi, our groomer on our set. She’s like 26. And she would always say, ‘you’ve got to get Mario in here or nobody’s going to watch. People need to hear these stories, but people our age.’ Troy (Surratt, Aucoin’s former assistant, now makeup artist and also producer on the film) and I were talking about it and we were like ‘should we do this?’ So finally I just emailed Mario and he was like ‘When and where? I would love to be part of this’.

I was blown away by the people you had interviews with. Was it fairly easy to get them on board?

It was Troy’s reputation and we have a reputation with the agents. I mean it wasn’t easy, since they have fierce gatekeepers. But everyone was excited to talk about Kevyn. It was just the scheduling that was a nightmare. We went to L.A. for a couple and we went to London for Kate Moss and we went to Nashville for a bunch.

Was there anyone that you wanted to include that you just couldn’t get?

Yeah, Winona Ryder. She probably has a restraining order on me. I wanted to talk to her so badly. She said no over and over. Some people are just uncomfortable. It’s hard to trust people. I’m not sure what the reason was but I was just really bummed. I tried everything. She just was not down.

One person I was glad to see, even though it was just for a tiny, tiny second, was Orlando Pita.

Oh my God, I know. Orlando was a huge get for me because it meant so much that he would trust me to talk to me. And Serge Normant as well. They both were interviewed. It was heartbreaking to cut anyone.

I noticed Kevyn talking about diversity in the film which I found so interesting since it’s a word you hear all the time now and here he was pushing for that like 20 years ago.

He spoke a tremendous amount about the lack of diversity. It was really a problem with him and that’s why Naomi Campbell loved him so much, and Karen Alexander and Veronica Webb. You know, he would advocate for these girls. Like, ‘Hi, put them in your show, put them on your cover,’ and certain magazines were compliant with that and certain magazines are scared of that. It was really, really a fight, but he fought hard.

There was also so much footage which was probably a goldmine for you. Like stuff of him on set and and other behind the scenes footage, that in an age before phones, you wouldn’t have expected to have been documented.

He documented every day of his life. He always had a huge camera with him and handed it to whoever had a free hand. People gave up their tapes and everyone was just excited to share. He just wanted every day to be completely solidified. He wanted to validate every day, just like we do with Instagram.

One thing that I remember about him is that he liked to put makeup on people when they were lying down. Obviously he wasn’t doing that all the time on set, but what do you know about that?

It would take so long that he would lay them down. There were certain clients that remember it clearly and certain clients that say I don’t know what people are talking about when we say lie down. I know Janet [Jackson] was often laid down. That was just like the ultimate luxury.

In the film, he talked about how he saw the beauty in everyone which makes it sounds like his approach would be to make people look like themselves but better. But at the same time, he was also incredible at transformations. So I feel like there’s a little bit of a dichotomy there too. Do you agree with that?

Oh completely. He had this saying that I always live by: if someone’s complimenting the makeup, I didn’t do my job. That’s because they should just be so taken aback with the face. However, he was an artist and given the opportunity to transform someone he was gonna take it. So the fact that he could do both is so rare. That’s what is so great about him.

Did anyone mention if he had any key techniques? What were his signature moves?

That’s such a funny question because in the editing room, that’s what we would look for. I did 60 interviews and no one can tell you what it was. We went through hours of transcripts and looked at who speaks to that, to the technique. The closest thing that we could find, to explain the entire process, was what Isabella Rosellini said where she describes the shoot word for word. It was truly magic, like it was an otherworldly thing, like no one can really say. A lot of people would talk about how he would use his fingers instead of brushes a lot. He was changing all the time. Cindy Crawford will say at first he erased your face, but not everyone says that. It’s really all over the place. Everything was customized to that person.

The film is a celebration of his life but you also don’t shy away from the darkness that he was dealing with. Why did you want to do that?

That’s just not going to help anybody and it was so important to me and his sister too. We wanted everyone to know how he died. A lot of people think it’s AIDS, a lot of people still think it’s all these different things. I just didn’t really want to make any judgment. I didn’t want to blame anybody. So I just wanted to change the narrative from what everybody else was carrying around with them about this story. I wanted to go straight to the source and play it out. It’s happening so much now that I know that Kevyn would want a cautionary tale. The importance of just really taking time for yourself and making sure you’re healthy and happy. Otherwise, it would all be for nothing if you didn’t really know what happened to him.

Based on what you know of his final months, do you think he knew that he was nearing the end or that he was in this really dark place and he wasn’t coming back?

I asked everybody that same question. I personally do. I don’t want to put what I think happened on anybody, but just from what I see and feel and how I would feel myself is that he had done every face. The only one left was his own. He couldn’t and didn’t want to look at his. I think he was just really tired and how do you get off that hamster wheel? I think that he did not know how to rest. If he wasn’t working, what was he? It was sad to see but this is like an addictive personality. This is a super high octane, emotional guy. There’s no ‘I’m gonna take it easy’. I think that he didn’t know how to do that. He would kind of slow down. Jeremy (Aucoin’s husband) would take him to rehab and he would try all these things but I don’t think he truly knew how to take a break.

What do you think Kevyn would have thought of Instagram makeup? He definitely was a fan of a lot of makeup but he did it in a way that is so different from what’s on Instagram. It really is awful.

(Laughs) I know, it basically is illustration. He would laugh. I think he would just keep going. I don’t know what he would say. I would die to know what he would say about all these things. Of course he was a fan of education. He wanted everyone to do it themselves.

What would he think of YouTubers? Or just people that decide they’re a makeup artist and are teaching people techniques that are not even appropriate for real life?

You know what it would be about for him? The intention. So if it was a 10-year-old kid who like nailed it, it’s about the intention. If he felt like it was for self promotion and stuff like that, I don’t know that he would like it. But if he thought it was truly celebrating life with makeup? That was what he loved.

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story premieres in Toronto on Saturday, June 2nd. Head here for tickets.