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Style File

Beauty inside Kevyn Aucoin

'Cher, should I trust this guy?' 'With your life.'

Kevyn Aucoin created actress Gwyneth Paltrow's look at the 71st Academy Awards.  

By Gail O'Neill

(CNN) -- Kevyn Aucoin was the man behind Gwyneth Paltrow's look the night she won her Oscar, the man who handled Cindy Crawford for her first Vogue cover, and one of Oprah Winfrey's favorite makeup artists.

But on May 7, Aucoin died at age 40 of complications stemming from a metabolic disorder. This Style File is dedicated not only to Aucoin's memory, but also to his legacy.

At its core, the relationship between a woman and her makeup artist must be founded on trust. But before that trust is earned, there's a leap of faith. This was what Martha Stewart faced when she met Kevyn Aucoin.

The year was 1999 and Stewart was going to be photographed for Aucoin's book ,"Face Forward" (Little, Brown, October 2000). In it, this master of makeup planned to demonstrate the transforming power of foundation, contouring, shadows and blush by turning America's poster girl of domesticity into 1940s pin-up girl Veronica Lake.

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Some of the most striking women in the world already had signed on, including cover girls, movie stars and the queen of rock 'n' roll, Tina Turner. But Stewart was no fool. She hadn't come this far in life by following the crowd, and even as she sat down, she wondered what she'd gotten herself into.

"Martha was very wary," recalls Rebecca Arnold, who collaborated with Aucoin on the project. "But just before Kevyn got started, his cell phone rang. He picked up and it was Cher calling. When Martha realized who Kevyn was talking to, she snatched the phone from him and asked, 'Cher, should I trust this guy?' To which Cher replied: 'With your life.' "

That was the story of Aucoin's life.

"Kevyn had a gift. He was a talent to be reckoned with," says fellow makeup artist Giana. The New York-based Giana was a big fan of Aucoin. "He was one of the most versatile makeup artists I've ever known. In fact, no makeup artist [serious about his or her craft] could look at Kevyn's work without being inspired to push themselves to do better. Fortunately, Kevyn was given the freedom to execute on his talent. And when you are that good, you cannot be bottled up, held down or held back."

But the road to success was a rocky one for the Louisiana native.

Aucoin styled Martha Stewart as film legend Veronica Lake.  

Born in Shreveport on Valentine's Day in 1962, Kevyn was adopted a month later by Thelma and Isidore Aucoin. Although not a blood relation, Aucoin always described his mom as a kindred soul.

Indeed, it was Thelma who indulged her little boy's penchant for rearranging furniture every couple of days. And it was Thelma who instilled in her son the belief that he had something unique to offer -- which he later acknowledged "got him through some tough times in life."

"He was taunted and tormented, growing up gay in a small town" says Giana. "Leaving Louisiana was the best thing he could have done for himself."

Caroline Ellen, a fine-jewelry designer, agrees. "Kevyn was tall, effeminate and he really stood out in a crowd. I'm sure he had a hard time growing up. But people like him are perfect for the fashion business, where the only thing that matters is talent.

"Kevyn came to New York and on the merit of that talent alone, he could finally spread his wings and fly."

Ellen first met Aucoin in New York in the early 1980s when she was launching what would become a successful career as a model. It was a "summer of testing and a million 'go-sees' (model auditions) for the two of us," recalls Ellen. "But even then, he was so obviously going to make it. He was an artist. He had an eye for color. And even though makeup can really change you, Kevyn never did that. Instead, he would augment."

The cover image for Aucoin's third book, "Face Forward," featured models Kiara and Amber Valetta.  

And that ability, according to fashion photographer Fabrizio Ferri, is what separates the great makeup artists from the pack.

"When a model enters the studio, the makeup artist is the first person to put his 'stamp' on her. If he 'sees' who she is, the makeup will complement that understanding -- and she'll inevitably walk onto the set with confidence. But if there is a disconnect between who she is, and who the makeup artist has made her up to be, then that model can't be herself.

"This imbalance can completely derail a shoot, because once a model loses her center the first question she will ask the photographer is, 'How do you want me to be?' And that is the worst thing we can hear."

A master at maintaining balance, Aucoin had the technique to make women look beautiful on the outside -- and the heart to understand that what was skin deep meant nothing if they didn't feel beautiful on the inside.

"He challenged conventional stereotypes of beauty," says Amber Valetta, who shares the cover of "Face Forward" with fellow top model Kiara. "He thought that any woman had the right to stand up and say 'I'm gorgeous.' ... I just think that's more powerful than we can ever imagine."

As his former partner and one-time agent, Jed Root, put it: "Kevyn knew how to make people comfortable in their own skin. It was his personality to see the beauty inside everybody."

And that, in turn, is what ultimately allowed the rest of the world to see the beauty inside Kevyn Aucoin.

Eight months after moving to Manhattan (where he spent his first winter in an unheated Hell's Kitchen walk-up), Aucoin's big break came when he was booked for a Vogue magazine shoot with Steven Meisel.

Kevyn Aucoin died May 7 at age 40.  

Shortly afterward, the sittings editor Polly Mellen used him for a cover shoot. Over the next three years, Aucoin did the makeup for 18 American Vogue covers, including his second one with "this new girl who had a mole, Cindy Crawford."

Relatively speaking, the pay scale for editorial work is low ($150 per day), but the exposure it grants photographers, models and hair-and-makeup artists can be parlayed into top dollar for commercial bookings. Someone of Aucoin's caliber could easily command a day rate of $10,000.


Although Aucoin's rapid rise to stardom reads as a fairy tale to most, "It never occurred to Kevyn that there was another possibility," Root says.

"When he decided to move to New York, it was with the goal of being a success. Once his dreams came true, he found it all very satisfying, but never surprising."

Whether making up soccer moms or supermodels, Aucoin always approached his job with the same level of enthusiasm. What excited him most was not celebrity status, but the process.

Aucoin styled Valetta as both Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.  

"When Kevyn really got into it," remembers Arnold, "it was as if his hands were taken over by an outside force that surprised and delighted even him. He'd get giddy like a child and break into his little Kevyn dance. At times like those, I always had the impression that he was surprising himself as he went with the flow."




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