The image maker

Tiffany Bartok on Isabella Rossellini, Tori Amos and Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Tori Amos on ‪Kevyn Aucoin‬, the famous makeup artist of the '80s and '90s: "Some of us were addicted to him making us beautiful and he was addicted to making us beautiful."
Tori Amos on ‪Kevyn Aucoin‬, the famous makeup artist of the '80s and '90s: "Some of us were addicted to him making us beautiful and he was addicted to making us beautiful."

Tiffany Bartok's Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, with remembrances from Paulina Porizkova, Kate Moss, Brooke Shields, Cher, Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell, Tori Amos, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Isaac Mizrahi, Carol Alt, Cindy Crawford, Veronica Webb, and Linda Wells had its UK première at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In our conversation at Lincoln Center the director discussed with me Kevyn Aucoin's need to share and that his favourite film was David Lynch's The Elephant Man. Isabella Rossellini's incarnation into becoming Maria Callas, comparing Kristin Scott Thomas's look in Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives to Charlize Theron's in Patty Jenkins' Monster, an Aucoin bullying interview with Dan Hunt, the outspokenness of Tori Amos, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, make-up for the red carpet, and the diversity of ultimate beauty are uncovered.

‪Tiffany Bartok‬ with Anne-Katrin Titze at Lincoln Center on Kevyn Aucoin and Isabella Rossellini: "That was the ideal client. The one who can act a story out and not just be submissive."
‪Tiffany Bartok‬ with Anne-Katrin Titze at Lincoln Center on Kevyn Aucoin and Isabella Rossellini: "That was the ideal client. The one who can act a story out and not just be submissive." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Kevyn Aucoin's maxim that by showing someone else their beauty, you find the beauty in yourself, is alluringly illustrated by Bartok's documentary on the famous make-up artist's life and legacy. 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.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Kevyn Aucoin captures ultimate beauty, or rather ultimate possible beauties. I am thinking, for example, of Isabella Rossellini's different incarnations.

Tiffany Bartok: Isn't it amazing? She's incredible.

AKT: Did you see Kate Novack's The Gospel According to André, the André Leon Talley documentary?

TB: Not yet.

AKT: In it André visits Rossellini at her farm with her two pigs and it's hilarious. She describes very well in your interview with her on Kevyn, how to get to a Maria Callas mouth. It's a totally different mouth, but she is performing it.

TB: That was the ideal client. The one who can act a story out and not just be submissive.

AKT: Tori Amos is one of the most outspoken ones in the way she is talking about the industry. She is using the first person plural a lot. The others don't. She says "He knew everything about us." Bulimia, Botox and then later on, she says, "We" let him down. The inclusiveness is very interesting.

Paulina Porizkova on meeting Kevyn Aucoin in 1983: "We did all of these sort of like punky shots."
Paulina Porizkova on meeting Kevyn Aucoin in 1983: "We did all of these sort of like punky shots."

TB: She decided that. Do you remember that era, VH1 was doing the divas shows, you know, with Mariah Carey?

AKT: Not really.

TB: This was a trend at that time. He [Kevyn] wanted them all to love each other. Listen to each other's music and share. So she [Tori] feels that they should have been there for him. I want to tell her, there's nothing that's your fault here. Obviously, you know, nobody did anything wrong.

AKT: It's very powerful the way she says it.

TB: She's such an amazing person, amazing, really extraordinary. You can feel it physically, being in the room.

AKT: It's also great to see them all now.

TB: Yes! And they all look great.

AKT: All different, all in their own way grown up. And they all said yes to be interviewed! Paulina Porizkova, Carol Alt ...

TB: They all said yes. A model doesn't get to talk that often. Christy [Turlington] does obviously, she's always fundraising. But nobody wants to hear what they have to say. It's the saddest thing.

Kate Moss on Kevyn Aucoin's intangible qualities: "It's hard to put your finger on it."
Kate Moss on Kevyn Aucoin's intangible qualities: "It's hard to put your finger on it."

I think these women are so intelligent, so surprisingly funny, they have so much to say. You can't have a stereotype about them after this movie. You see they were creating art every day and not just vanity. These girls worked really hard.

AKT: Let's talk about the bullying story in Kevyn's childhood - in South West Louisiana in what has to be the late Sixties, early Seventies, a teacher pulled down his pants in front of the class and spanked him?

TB: I knew this story from his biography. Kerry Diamond and Eric Sakas wrote the biography [Kevyn Aucoin: A Beautiful Life]. And the story was in there because it was pulled from an interview he did with Dan Hunt. Every time it plays, people just gasp. I mean can you believe it?

AKT: No. At the same time, if you look at the world right now, it's not that surprising.

TB: He had a terrible time. Chased with pickup trucks, he was accused of shoplifting and chained and they roughed him up in Baton Rouge, him and his friends. He just had to get the hell out of there.

Cher on missing Kevyn Aucoin: "My life would be much richer if he were still alive. He inspired so many people."
Cher on missing Kevyn Aucoin: "My life would be much richer if he were still alive. He inspired so many people."

AKT: And also, which is heartbreaking, he had this Jekyll and Hyde idea. That he would one day wake up and turn into Mr. Hyde. He, the bullied child, was in fear to become the bully overnight.

TB: The mom - she's an amazing woman - but she planted that seed to protect him, to try to wish that he ...

AKT: … that he was straight?

TB: Yeah. I think when the acromegaly signs were showing, somewhere he thought, is this happening?

AKT: Oh gosh, I didn't even get that. I did not put the two together.

TB: Isn't that nuts? His favourite film was The Elephant Man. He had tons of copies of it.

AKT: David Lynch's The Elephant Man?

TB: Yes. We watched it again recently when we were making the movie, editing it. I think he thought that this disease would turn him into an ugly freak.

Naomi Campbell: "I was not going to go to any other person but Kevyn."
Naomi Campbell: "I was not going to go to any other person but Kevyn."

AKT: I saw that you were working with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, his charity of choice. How was that collaboration?

TB: Amazing. We wanted a charity partner. So we went to Hetrick-Martin; my husband [producer Jayce Bartok] went in on the day that Trump was elected. And they had this amazing emotional meeting.

We decided to give them some proceeds of the film in the contract and then they gave the Emery award to him [Aucoin], the first posthumous Emery award. So we had that in November. Jeremy [Antunes], Kevyn's husband, accepted the award. And Tori gave a presentation.

AKT: That's great. The diversity he has been championing from the beginning.

TB: Exhausted! There's outtakes where Cindi Berger is like "Hi Kevyn!" And then she's like "Don't go into politics! I only want to talk about Liza!" He is so mad, because he wants them to ask him something important.

AKT: The first time he worked with Brooke Shields he made her up as a boy for the cover of Paper magazine. You see the diversity in everything he does and his emphasis on all different kinds of beauty. And anybody who has eyes to see will see that this is all beautiful.

Isabella Rossellini: "Kevyn painted my lips to look like Maria Callas."
Isabella Rossellini: "Kevyn painted my lips to look like Maria Callas."

TB: Today, you do have diversity - I am talking about like Instagram, men they wear whatever they want to wear - but it's the same makeup. It's this template. And Kevyn addressed it each day, for each person.

AKT: Before talking to you, I was digging out my copy of Making Faces and looking through it, I remembered how freeing it was, looking at the images - even if you had no idea how to do that makeup yourself. It was the revelation of the possibility in transformation. And you don't have to fit into a mold. That was the main message, and I don't think that's the message effectively promoted now.

TB: No. It's like, I can show you how to fit in the mold!

AKT: If you buy this and that and click here and there, you'll get closer to the mold. Plus you're so busy with your physical flaws that you won't think about the world at large. You mentioned earlier that you are fascinated with impostors and the Anna Delvey aka Anna Sorokin story.

TB: There's two things that fascinate me, impostors and the apology. Like, the art of the apology. Why do we forgive some people and we don't forgive other people? It'll be interesting to see if she's [Anna Delvey aka Anna Sorokin] forgiven. How will she go to remake herself? She took out a line of credit and paid everyone in cash and that hooked everyone in.

Anne-Katrin Titze at The Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York, Kevyn Aucoin's charity of choice.
Anne-Katrin Titze at The Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York, Kevyn Aucoin's charity of choice. Photo: Ed Bahlman

They just wanted to be friends with this rich girl. And then when it came to anything on the credit card, because she had proven she had cash, they would put it on their credit card and then she wouldn't reimburse. Trips to Morocco, staying in a hotel for three months - and then it all fell apart. $ 275,000 - it's nuts!

AKT: What would you do if you could make a film on her?

TB: I'd like to talk to her.

AKT: As a documentary. The other project is a fiction film?

TB: Yes, The Prince of SoHo. My husband and I take turns. I make the documentaries and he makes narratives and then I produce that. This one is about - he grew up in SoHo in real life, Jayce did, and his mom passed away. So it's about that. In the movie, they come up with an art heist. They find a Basquiat in brick and want to extract it to pay the rent.

AKT: In your work as a makeup artist, you touch people's faces. Do you break through the screen?

TB: Yes. I see people at their most vulnerable. The thing that happens, especially with celebrities, your'e spending maybe an hour and a half together and you're doing the makeup for the red carpet. And then they look in the mirror and they hear the cars downstairs or a publicist will come and pick them up.

Kevyn Aucoin with husband Jeremy Antunes
Kevyn Aucoin with husband Jeremy Antunes Photo: Eric Sakas Archive

And all of a sudden they go back to 8th grade and their first date - you know, what worked. "Did you put some more bronzer on?" It's a fascinating thing. One bride took out her brown lipstick from like the Nineties. Isn't it amazing?

AKT: Security blanket makeup.

TB: I always wonder, is it going to happen?

AKT: Why is that?

TB: I don't know. I do it myself. When I have a really big thing coming up, I do this damn look, this Winona Ryder crutch look from the Nineties with the wine-colored lipstick and the matte white face. It's a Kevyn look, actually, that I remember doing my whole life. And when I don't do it, thats when people say, "Oh my god, you look amazing."

AKT: It has a lot to do with personal associations, I think. Sometimes when people do your face and you realise, I do not like this at all. They are making me look like someone that I am not.

TB: This person is not in me at all. Kevyn was like, "This person's in you." You are faced with two decisions. Do you convince this person that it is in them? Or, I always say, "What don't you recognise?Show me a picture where you feel on top of the world!" And it's always a picture at an event and you can tell in their smile.

Isaac Mizrahi on hitting it off with Kevyn Aucoin: "Kevyn had this flamboyance and kind of image about women which was just exactly my vision."
Isaac Mizrahi on hitting it off with Kevyn Aucoin: "Kevyn had this flamboyance and kind of image about women which was just exactly my vision."

AKT: I am thinking how much film makeup creates character. Do you remember Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives?

TB: I haven't seen it. It's amazing? She's amazing.

AKT: She is unrecognisable! She looks like Donatella Versace at her worst.

TB: Isn't that exciting! Like Monster with Charlize Theron.

Read what Tiffany Bartok had to say on Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, the spirit of Kevyn Aucoin, and the personal footage by Eric Sakas in Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story.

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 Tiffany Bartok and producer Jayce Bartok presenting the documentary.

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