To queer boys of the ’90s, Kevyn Aucoin was living the life. The handsome makeup artist lived in a glamorous Manhattan apartment, hung out with A-list models, actresses, and pop stars, and traveled the world painting their faces to absolute perfection.
Aucoin — a fixture on MTV’s House of Style and Oprah’s eponymous talk show — was also one of the few out celebrities of the time and one who never minimized the importance of visibility.
“Tolerance and acceptance are not enough for me — it’s celebration I’m aiming for,” Aucoin told The Advocate in November 1994. “Being out is the key to everything. If you feel shame about being gay, how can you feel good about anything else in your life?”
Aucoin’s apparent strength made it all the harder to reconcile his gradual withdrawal from public life in the late ’90s and early 2000s, his changing appearance, and then, his shocking death in May 2002 at the age of 40. Few details of what really happened to Aucoin were released at the time, but out director Lori Kaye finally answers the questions surrounding his health and provides context for his complicated life in Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & the Beast in Me, premiering Thursday night on Logo.
A writer and producer, Kaye met Aucoin in 2000 while working on a TV documentary on the fashion industry. Like so many women, Kaye quickly took to the warm, open artist.
“I remember going to his apartment in Chelsea to have our initial meeting prior to filming,” Kaye remembers. “I remember lying on his daybed because that’s how he was; very personal. Everything was very personal with him.”
Kaye was just as shocked by Aucoin’s passing as those who never knew him. “I was thinking, This person can’t be dead — he's too vital, too meaningful, too alive, So when that happened, I immediately thought I had to tell Kevyn’s story.”
Kaye traveled to Aucoin’s childhood home in Lafayette, La., where she purchased his life rights from Isidore Aucoin, Kevyn’s adoptive father. Initially Kaye had no idea that Isidore was sitting on a gold mine.
“Someone said to me, ‘You know, Kevyn videotaped everything,’” Kaye says. “I remembered when I was shooting him, he was shooting [me].”
Isidore couldn’t remember what became of the tapes, initially telling Kaye he might have thrown them out. Digging through a storage unit, Kaye discovered hundreds of tapes that Aucoin recorded over the course of his life. Haphazardly labeled, the tapes included never-before-seen footage of Aucoin talking and goofing off with some of the biggest celebrities in the world — intimate scenes with women like Whitney Houston, Christy Turlington, Liza Minnelli, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Andie MacDowell, Tina Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Valletta, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, and Cher.
It took years for Kaye to go through and edit all the footage, but it was much easier to get some of the women on the tapes to agree to be in the documentary. Campbell, Crawford, Paltrow, Porizkova, MacDowell, and Valletta all took part in Beauty & the Beast in Me; even Houston’s longtime manager and friend Robyn Crawford makes an appearance.
“[Robyn] loved Kevyn and Whitney loved Kevyn,” Kaye says.
Aucoin’s close friendships with the world’s most famous women — who loved not only the man, but his incredible talent in making them into otherworldly goddesses — appear genuine in Beauty & the Beast in Me, though Kaye does insinuate that Aucoin’s lifelong search for a mother figure may have influenced them.
Like the horrific antigay bullying Aucoin endured as a child, his birth mother’s decision to give him up for adoption haunted him his entire life. When Aucoin finally met his birth mother in the early ’90s, the moment was captured on videotape, making it all the more poignant when it’s covered in Kaye’s film. It also makes it all the more heartbreaking when Aucoin’s devoutly Christian birth mother, Nelda, rejects him when he comes out to her.
“I asked Nelda if she had any regrets,” Kaye says. “She said, ‘The only regret I have is that Kevyn was gay.’”
While Aucoin’s birth mother mostly turned her back on her son, the artist’s adoptive family grew to embrace his status as a gay celebrity. Isidore Aucoin, along with Kevyn’s adoptive mother, Thelma, started the Lafayette chapter of PFLAG; Thelma eventually became the regional director of the organization’s south Louisiana chapters. Aucoin would follow his parents’ lead and become deeply involved with the Hetrick-Martin Institue in New York, which provides services to LGBT youth.
But as Kaye shows viewers in the film, acceptance from his adoptive family and growing success in the ’90s were not enough. Aucoin was deeply insecure about his appearance, thinking his features too gangly and his height — a sturdy 6 feet 4 inches — too distracting. Things only got worse when he began developing frequent headaches and body aches, his facial features began changing, and he started growing — in his 30s.
A doctor on set at one of Aucoin's photo shoots instantly identified the problem — Aucoin had acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary gland in which tumors form and lead to excessive growth. Aucoin would later have surgery to remove a tumor, but the pain continued and so did his reliance on prescription drugs. The makeup artist became more reclusive and more difficult to work with, took fewer jobs, and often retreated to his second home in upstate New York.
“No one wants to say he died from a drug overdose — the end,” Kaye says of the initial silence surrounding his death. “Initially, no one wanted to say that he died from an overdose of Vicodin, which led to Tylenol toxicity, which shut his liver down. There’s certainly more complexity, certainly to Kevyn’s story.”
Thanks to Kaye, there is finally more context to Aucoin’s dramatic life, which swung between incredible highs and lows. So much of his ambition stemmed from an attempt to repair his incredibly painful childhood, a desire that propelled him to the highest levels of fashion and fame as an out gay man.
“Kevyn’s relationship with his birth mother was deeply psychologically painful for him; if she kept him and not allowed him to be adopted, who would he be?” Kaye says. “He’d be a little boy growing up in the back country of Louisiana and not have had the life he did or fulfilled the dreams he had.”
Kevin Aucoin: Beauty & the Beast in Me premieres Thursday on Logo at 9 p.m. Eastern.