Byline: Kerry Diamond

NEW YORK — Makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin is one of beauty’s certified stars, but engaging in shop talk isn’t exactly his idea of a good time.
In fact, he would rather talk about almost anything else. Like Cher. Or Tori Amos in concert. Or Kate Bush lyrics. Or his upcoming Oprah appearance. Or his family’s New Year’s Eve trip to Hawaii. Or the lack of black and Asian models on magazine covers. Or the difficulties he encountered growing up gay and poor in a racist, homophobic town in Louisiana.
Even if you ask him about the signature cosmetics collection he plans to launch in fall 2001 — something he is clearly excited about — he manages to change the subject.
Aucoin has been in the news lately because of the recent release of his third book, “Face Forward.” In it, he transforms many of his favorite celebrities — and non-celebs, like his mom Thelma — into famous characters. There’s Tina Turner as Cleopatra, Gwyneth Paltrow as James Dean and Calista Flockhart as Audrey Hepburn. Some of the transformations are so stunning they seem unbelievable, such as Martha Stewart morphed into a steamy Veronica Lake, but Aucoin insists the only retouching was for minor things, like covering up pimples and blurring the hairline in cases where a wig was used.
On face value, “Face Forward” is a beauty book, but those who take the time to read the copy will find that Aucoin has treated it as part biography, part social commentary. “Remember, conservative means withholding and liberal means generosity,” he says in the introduction. On another page, he writes, “I know the words makeup and male mix about as well as Charlton Heston and common sense.”
“This is my most political book yet. I felt I had an opportunity and a responsibility to talk about certain issues that other people won’t,” said Aucoin, sitting on the couch in his Chelsea apartment for a three-hour interview during which he was charming, entertaining and quite candid. Aucoin’s home is a surprisingly modest place, filled with Mission furniture, candles, framed photographs of family and friends and a dozen floral arrangements and potted orchids sent by those wishing him well upon the publication of “Face Forward.” He keeps the apartment as cold as a meat locker, but the temperature doesn’t seem to phase him.
Anyone who has read Aucoin’s columns in Allure or on knows that he is a makeup artist with a message. Of course, he talks about cosmetics and the art of applying them, but he isn’t shy about veering into non-beauty territory. Not all of his readers, however, share his liberal views — a critical comment about the National Rifle Association in an Allure column resulted in lots of angry letters to the editor — but the positive letters outweigh the negative ones, he said.
Because he has been so open about the difficult aspects of his life — dropping out of high school in the ninth grade, searching for his birth mother, dealing with his mother’s addictions, coping with family members’ suicides — he is bombarded with letters from those who relate to his struggles, especially gay teenagers and women with low self-esteem. They thank him for giving them the courage to come out, move on, be accepting of themselves.
The hundreds of e-mails he receives each month come via, the e-tailer for whom Aucoin pens a monthly column. The Web site launched last November, so it is coming up on its one-year anniversary. “It’s been an incredible experience,” said Aucoin, even though has had a bumpy year. The company has failed to secure big brands like Estee Lauder, Clinique, Lancome, Chanel or Clarins; founder Roger Barnett is no longer involved with the Web site on a day-to-day basis; vice president and general manager Heidi Manheimer recently departed for Shiseido; and the stock of its new parent company,, plummeted after Drugstore acquired in January.
Aucoin, like many others in the dot-com game, thought the value of his options could set him for life, but with’s stock hovering around 2 7/8 as of press time — down from 31 around the time of the acquisition — that’s not the case right now.
But there is another project that could take care of Aucoin financially — his makeup line. He plans to launch it himself in fall 2001, without the backing of a major cosmetics company. “I want to do something revolutionary,” he said. “It’s going to be so unique. I’m not counting on my name to sell the products.”
Although he was short on specifics, Aucoin described the line as “prestige-mass” and said it would be priced on the lower end of the class scale. “I want it to be obtainable for everyone,” said Aucoin, who as an aspiring makeup artist in his teens shoplifted the products he couldn’t afford. “But because of the quality, certain products will be expensive.”
Distribution issues have yet to be worked out, but Aucoin would like to open boutiques in Los Angeles and New York. Don’t expect him to join the parade of beauty brands in SoHo. “That is so cliched at this point,” he said. “Everyone’s moving in.”
For years, one of the biggest beauty industry mysteries has been why Aucoin, the best-known working makeup artist around, did not have his own line of cosmetics.
“I’ve been offered my own line by every cosmetics company in the world,” he said. “You sit down in a meeting and they talk down to you because you’re a makeup artist and they don’t want to pay you what you’re worth. My name would be on the packaging and they want to give me 5 percent. That’s not only unfair, it’s insulting.”
Because of this, he was willing to sit on the sidelines as the makeup artist trend exploded in the mid-Nineties. “Everyone was pressuring me to do a line at that point,” he recalled. Aucoin said it didn’t bother him as one makeup artist after another launched his or her own line and that he was happy when artists he admires, like Vincent Longo and Laura Mercier, introduced cosmetics collections. “Some people developed products that have helped my work and there are better products for women of color as a result of some of the new lines,” he said.
Although he is best known for his editorial work, Aucoin is no stranger to the product development side of the business. In 1984, he helped create the shades for The Nakeds, the groundbreaking neutral color collection launched by Ultima II and copied by many. In 1992, Aucoin signed a contract to work on the relaunch of Inoui, the cult cosmetics line introduced by Shiseido in 1977 and sold only in Japan. He helped direct the product and packaging development, advertising efforts and beauty adviser training.
According to Aucoin, after Inoui was relaunched, Shiseido made him an incredible offer. They would let him continue to work on Inoui, but he would also take over the creative helm of the core Shiseido line and develop his own line. Negotiations fell apart when the two parties could not come to an agreement over the contract, noted Aucoin and a Shiseido spokeswoman.
Although Aucoin seems disappointed over the outcome, he clearly relished his time at the creative helm of Inoui and he still talks about the brand the way others talk about a particularly memorable high school sweetheart. “I love Inoui,” he said. “There are a lot of lines I respect and love, like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Chanel, Kiehl’s, Fresh, Bulgari. Shu Uemura is brilliant. Iman has great products. But, I still think Inoui is the best line on the market.”
He suddenly jumped off the couch, went over to the cabinet where he keeps a fresh supply of Inoui products and returned with a bottle of Pre-Base Luminous Veil. He spread the shimmery liquid over the back of his hand and held it up to the light. “See how pretty this is?” he asked. “A little bit of this on your face before you go out is beautiful.”
Aucoin’s Inoui experience will serve him well as he spends the next year developing his line. “With Inoui, I went to the factory and learned everything about creating products. You don’t get better than Asian companies like Shiseido or Kanebo” when it comes to things like product development and new technology, he said. “They are leading the way in product innovation.”
Aucoin isn’t sure how his cosmetics company will evolve beyond makeup, but if his apartment is any indication, there will probably be a fragrance component one day. Diptyque candles are scattered around each room and his bathroom could double as a perfumerie. The countertop is filled with dozens of bottles of fragrance and scented soaps. “That’s nothing,” he said, opening his medicine cabinet to reveal even more bottles, plus an entire shelf devoted to Kiehl’s essential oils. “I do love fragrance.”
Whatever he winds up doing, a Kevyn Aucoin line of products has the potential to be a hit.
“His name is very well known in the industry and he’s very charismatic,” said Rita Mangan, senior vice president of cosmetics and fragrances at the Federated Merchandising division of Federated Department Stores. “The customer is always looking for newness and he’ll probably do very well, but it will really depend on his positioning, how different his line is from other makeup artist lines out there and to what level he will be involved.”
Aucoin will be signing copies of “Face Forward” at Henri Bendel next Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Bendel’s will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Aucoin’s favorite charity, the Hetrick Martin Institute, the oldest and largest nonprofit organization serving gays, lesbians and bisexual youth.