Making up is hard to do

Tiffany Bartok on Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

by Anne-Katrin Titze

‪Tiffany Bartok‬ at Lincoln Center on Kevyn Aucoin when he worked with performers that included Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston: "Each person was reflected in him."
‪Tiffany Bartok‬ at Lincoln Center on Kevyn Aucoin when he worked with performers that included Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston: "Each person was reflected in him." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the first installment of my conversation with Tiffany Bartok, the director of Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, (executive produced by Jack Turner, Jay Peterson, and Todd Lubin of Nancy Buirski's The Rape Of Recy Taylor) we start out with her fascination for impostors, the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and how each person was reflected in Kevyn Aucoin and "when there was no one left, then he had to just look at himself."

Bartok's revelatory documentary on the famous make-up artist's life and legacy is alluringly illustrated through interviews with Brooke Shields, Cher, Tori Amos, Paulina Porizkova, Carol Alt, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Veronica Webb, Isaac Mizrahi, and the footage shot by Eric Sakas.

Isabella Rossellini in ‪Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story‬: "What is it in the essence of Maria Callas that we liked, or Barbra Streisand?"
Isabella Rossellini in ‪Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story‬: "What is it in the essence of Maria Callas that we liked, or Barbra Streisand?"

Isabella Rossellini sings Aucoin's praises and we can see for ourselves that Liza Minnelli never looked as good as she does after he worked his magic. Linda Wells explains how, to launch his career, he installed himself in the lobby at Vogue and ultimately "changed the face of makeup."

Bullied while growing up in Louisiana in the Sixties, Aucoin's early years were split between a world that put a target on his back, and one where he made up his sister and friends, listening to Barbra Streisand. That the destabilising power of transformation and the never-ending striving for beauty can feed a dangerous game is best summed up by Tori Amos: "Some of us were addicted to him making us beautiful and he was addicted to making us beautiful."

Fickle fashion meets shifting loyalties, painkillers and what seems to be fearlessness. Kevyn Aucoin's wisdom about beauty as the ultimate uplifter remains with his maxim that by showing someone else their beauty, you find the beauty in yourself.

On our way walking over to have coffee in the cafe at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Tiffany tells me how fascinated she is by the Anna Delvey aka Anna Sorokin story and mentions that Shonda Rhimes had just acquired the rights to the New York magazine article about her.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What is it about her story that interests you so much?

Isabella Rossellini on Making Faces: "Kevyn understood that he could define his art in his books … It could be tools of playfulness."
Isabella Rossellini on Making Faces: "Kevyn understood that he could define his art in his books … It could be tools of playfulness." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Tiffany Bartok: I think impostors are super fascinating.

AKT: Impostors?

TB: Yeah. Why do we believe them? You know what I mean? We just want to.

AKT: Cinderella was an impostor.

TB: So true! The people that have the thing you want - and you know what they want from you. And you supply that somehow and you're in.

AKT: Do you think this is especially a phenomenon of the now?

TB: I think it's totally of the now. All we care about is perception. That's why so many people are killing themselves?

AKT: You are talking about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain?

TB: And did you hear about Heather Locklear?

AKT: No! When?

TB: Yesterday [June 18]. She attempted. It's a serious problem.

AKT: What do you mean by perception in this context?

TB: Every day we're posting the best. I mean, this is not a new idea. We're posting the best and you see the best. We're not posting sad news. Also, we think the bullies are winning in our country. So people who are fighting, they're just surrendering now. We marched, we did this, we did that, and now we're right back where we were.

AKT: I noticed looking at your film how beautifully imperfect some of the captured moments are. The backyard on Prince Street with Kevyn Aucoin and his friends [including Andie MacDowell and David Duchovny]. It's beautiful and alive and a moment of the past. That's not where we are now. Did you feel that way putting the footage together?

‪Tiffany Bartok‬ on Kevyn Aucoin: "He could sense any fear. I know Linda Evangelista, he made her feel like 'You got this!' You know, 'I got you, you got this.' Because it's scary to be that vulnerable."
‪Tiffany Bartok‬ on Kevyn Aucoin: "He could sense any fear. I know Linda Evangelista, he made her feel like 'You got this!' You know, 'I got you, you got this.' Because it's scary to be that vulnerable." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

TB: I connected to Christy Turlington's talking about how he really wanted all of it to come together - family, beauty. He could cosmetically improve his life but he wasn't ashamed of where he came from in any way. All the family was with him at all times for good and bad. We still go to all the film festivals with his siblings. That spirit is still very much there.

AKT: You had total access to everything?

TB: Not everything.

AKT: Who had the scrapbooks?

TB: His dad. We didn't have the rights to all the estate. It's complicated. Also boyfriends, they all gave their pictures and stuff to us. Eric Sakas gave us so much of the films he took when he was with Kevyn. Because Kevyn demanded that everything be documented at all times.

AKT: Already he is of the future.

TB: Totally.

AKT: He is foreshadowing things to come. Someone in your film talks about the switch from models on the covers to celebrities.

TB: Yes. Linda Wells says it. He was ahead of it. What's next? People always say he would have been amazing on social media now. But I tend to think that he would be onto whatever's next. Something we haven't seen.

AKT: Or he would just be rejecting it.

TB: I think so too! When everybody is doing it, what fun is that?

‪Tiffany Bartok‬ on Kevyn Aucoin at work: "You're in someone else's clothes and people expect so much. He didn't expect anything of anyone. He just let them be."
‪Tiffany Bartok‬ on Kevyn Aucoin at work: "You're in someone else's clothes and people expect so much. He didn't expect anything of anyone. He just let them be."

AKT: All the sameness that is out there. So much is available now fashion-wise, why do people look so much alike? Why do they pick such boring, tasteless stuff?

TB: I agree! Isn't that funny? There's no club kids. Nobody out with color. No Betsey Johnsons.

AKT: I just notice the uniformity. My theory is that the culprit is online shopping.

TB: That's a good theory.

AKT: People buy stuff. They don't try it on. They don't return the experiments that don't look good on them. Then they play it safe. And end up back with the boring stuff.

TB: I would agree with that.

AKT: I love the quote you start your documentary with. I think that is my favorite quote by Aucoin. "By showing someone else their beauty, you see the beauty in yourself."

TB: People say like, why did he have to do all these people so compulsively? I think when he did Janet, he was Janet. And when he did Tina, he was Tina. And I think in the end there was a mirror that he had to hold up to himself. You know?

AKT: I get it.

TB: Each person was reflected in him. And when there was no one left, then he had to just look at himself. When you're making someone else beautiful, you see the beauty in yourself. If that's the only way, then you can't see it without doing that.

‪Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story‬ poster
‪Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story‬ poster

AKT: How do you feel about that? You are also a makeup artist. Do you have moments where it feels that way?

TB: Not me, no. I see it as taking care of people. How I always feel emotionally doing makeup is like - everybody is kind of mean to the model and think they have it so great. Maybe the photographer, they're all mumbling, like, "Ach, the model, oh she's got it so easy, she just does this …" I don't know, but I'm so close to their face and I can sense, they're kind of lost souls sometimes. Not always.

And I always just want to take care of them. Make them feel like - "You don't have to worry about anything right now. We're going to make you look amazing and get your confidence going so that you can go out there." He [Kevyn Aucoin] was very much that.

He could sense any fear. I know Linda Evangelista, he made her feel like "You got this!" You know, "I got you, you got this." Because it's scary to be that vulnerable. You're in someone else's clothes and people expect so much. He didn't expect anything of anyone. He just let them be.

AKT: He helped them.

TB: Yes. And that's so rare.

Coming up - Tiffany Bartok on the diversity of ultimate beauty, Isabella Rossellini's incarnation into becoming Maria Callas, the outspokenness of Tori Amos, makeup for the red carpet, a bullying interview with Dan Hunt, Kristin Scott Thomas's look in Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, Kevyn Aucoin's need to share, and his favorite film being David Lynch's The Elephant Man.

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story International Premiere during the Edinburgh International Film Festival will take place on June 29 at 8:45pm with a second screening on June 30 at 6:00pm - Cineworld

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story will have a screening in New York at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn on July 31 at 7:00pm with the director presenting the documentary.

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