Magic Touch: Linda Wells Traces the Rise of the Celebrity Makeup Artist

Magic Touch: Linda Wells Traces the Rise of the Celebrity Makeup Artist

From film set lackeys to superstars.

From film set lackeys to superstars.

True story: Kevyn Aucoin, the singular makeup artist, came to my apartment for the first time and the doorman asked him to take the service elevator. Kevyn laughed about it then, but I was mortified. He should have been greeted with rose petals and trumpets and carried into my living room on a throne. After all, movie stars and rock stars fought for his attention, so much so that he was jetting down his own path to fame. Some of those celebrities would soon be thanking him in their Oscar and Grammy speeches. But then, back in the early 1990s, makeup artists weren’t yet doormen-recognized famous.

Doormen may not care, but the history of makeup artists is a window into the role of beauty in our culture and the way women, in particular, want to see and be seen. And even though shocking, flamboyant effects always hog the attention, the finest makeup artists have an intimate sense of how to enhance the wearer’s natural, personal beauty. There was Max Factor from the 1910s to the late ’30s, Way Bandy in the ’70s and ’80s, Kevyn Aucoin in the ’90s and early 2000s, and François Nars and Pat McGrath from the ’90s until today. All these artists could paint faces with wild colors, no problem. But to coax out the beauty of the wearer so the makeup looks as if it bloomed from some inner source is a special, even rare, talent. The superstar makeup artists possess it, much in the way great modern painters possess a mastery of pure representation.


The paterfamilias of makeup artists was Max Factor, a real, live man before he was a brand of cosmetics. He became essential to the success of motion pictures and their male and female stars by tackling the unflattering aspects of early film and inventing products that endured under the hot lights. Factor also popularized the term “make-up” and much that the word defined. His mission, he said, was to tend to actors’ “individual needs by showing them how to enhance their good points and conceal the less good.” It was a modern idea, and one that still drives the best makeup artists and products today.

With his refined eye, his chemistry training, and his painterly skill, Factor created movie stars out of ordinary flesh. He was also a nonstop problem-solving machine. Early movie makeup was a thick, ghoulish paste, often concocted out of flour and Vaseline or lard. Factor replaced that with a thin, flexible cream in a multitude of shades. When the lip color melted under the studio lights, he slipped onto the set and pressed the pigment on with his thumb, first on each side of an actress’s upper lip and then once on her lower one, a look that came to be known as “beestung lips.” I’ve seen Pat McGrath execute the same motion on models before a fashion show, believing it was an entirely fresh technique. To me, it’s McGrath’s signature; turns out Max did it first.

Way Bandy, working in the ’70s and ’80s, seems to have inherited Factor’s makeup ESP. His technique involved a thorough coating of foundation that turned the face into a blank canvas onto which he built the features. It almost sounds like the makeup version of playing God, but Bandy did it gently and humbly. “He had a little bag with pencils in browns and grays, and he used them to chisel the face,” says Garren, who was starting his career as a hairstylist in the ’70s during Bandy’s reign. “It was contouring, but you didn’t notice the contour. He was really an artist creating dimension with shadow and light.”


From Way Bandy came Kevyn Aucoin, a kid living in Lafayette, Louisiana, who tore out Bandy’s Vogue covers and tried to duplicate them on his mother and little sister. When Aucoin moved to New York City in the early ’80s, he spotted Bandy on the street and followed him into a restaurant, fumbling for an autograph. Bandy begat Kevyn Aucoin, just as Max Factor made Way Bandy possible. “Way blanked out the faces and that was Kevyn’s approach, too,” says stylist Paul Cavaco. “Kevyn could fake a natural look by using beige, brown, or black tones, depending on your skin color. He drew over the lips with pencil to make them look bigger, then blended the line and put lip balm on top.” Aucoin also participated in the team led by photographer Steven Meisel that transformed models into supermodels. And in the process, through sheer force of will, Aucoin became super himself.

He snapped Polaroid pictures of every moment behind the scenes at shoots and fashion shows, putting together bulging notebooks that predated Instagram. They were selfies before the word existed: Kevyn and Julia Roberts, Kevyn and Janet Jackson, Kevyn and Gwyneth, Kevyn and Winona, Kevyn and Christy/Linda/Naomi/Cindy. In each photo, he gave himself equal billing with the celebrity. That said, I remember Kevyn telling me about the time an A-list actress asked him to do her cousin’s wedding makeup. Of course, Kevyn ended up doing the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom, the many bridesmaids, the flower girls, and anyone else who wandered into his room. The actress didn’t even think to pay him for his services, but she did give him a thank you present: a Pottery Barn candle. Kevyn kept that candle in a prominent place in his living room as a reminder that, no matter how cozy he was with his clients, he was still hired help.

Maybe to ensure that he’d never be asked to do weddings again, Kevyn moved away from any pretense of naturalism and turned to dramatic makeovers. He molded women’s and men’s faces with heavy, theatrical makeup, toupee tape, and rapid-fire tweezers, so that they resembled other celebrities. Martha Stewart became Veronica Lake, Gwyneth Paltrow became Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Christina Ricci was Edith Piaf. These were makeup stunts that showcased Kevyn’s skill if not his accessibility.


While Kevyn performed tricks, François Nars pared down the artifice, sometimes photographing women wearing no makeup at all. “Kevyn had a notion of idealized beauty, and François was more focused on the girl’s natural beauty,” says Cavaco. “I saw him walk up to the model on set and push her cheek with his thumb until it was rosy. And when that faded, he’d go back and push it again. He used so little makeup that you could probably fit it all in your purse.”

Pat McGrath’s makeup would not fit in anyone’s purse, not even Mary Poppins’s. She famously travels with as many as 85 suitcases filled with makeup, sequins, lashes, lace, leather, and art books. In that way, she is a descendent of Kevyn Aucoin. She also has a way with skin—not to mention those bee-stung lips—that stretches back to Max Factor. Her star power exceeds all who came before her. When McGrath made a personal appearance at a Sephora in New York City last year to introduce a new highlighter from her Pat McGrath Labs line, fans stood outside the store for hours to meet her. More than a few cried when they did.

Now, almost anyone with an Instagram account and a contour kit can become a makeup star, if not a bona fide artist. It’s a change that has moved makeup artists from the movie sets, photo studios, and fashion shows to bathrooms in Scottsdale and Indianapolis. The results combine intimacy with theatricality, bringing a whole new face—really, a whole variety of faces and styles—to the rich story of makeup.


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