LARGER THAN LIFE: THE KEVYN AUCOIN STORY — Remembering An Artist Who Redefined How We View (And Do) Beauty

Naomi Campbell. Julia Roberts. Tina Turner. Kate Moss. Whitney Houston. Jennifer Lopez. Gwyneth Paltrow. Oprah Winfrey. Nicole Kidman. Cher. These beloved superstars are rightfully renowned by fashionistas and pop culture followers for their talents, but thanks to the brilliance of the late makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, their beauty has become just as iconic.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Aucoin confronted relentless homophobia in his youth before he left his hometown of nearby Lafayette to develop his makeup talents in New York and Hollywood. Aucoin’s groundbreaking design techniques transformed the world of high-end cosmetics. However, as director Tiffany Bartok’s award-winning documentary Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story reveals, Aucoin’s legacy was about more than making celebrities look and feel beautiful.

Honored for his impassioned activism for the LGBTQ community, Aucoin lived a magical yet complicated life until his untimely passing in 2002. Over 15 years after Aucoin’s death, Bartok explores the designer’s successes and struggles through previously unseen archival footage, plus engrossing interviews with friends, family, colleagues and celebrity clients of the legendary designer.

In addition to commentary from Aucoin’s star clients — Moss, Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and others — Larger Than Life also features recollections of Aucoin from celebrity makeup artist/Aucoin mentee and assistant Troy Surratt, and famed fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Tiffany and her husband, actor/filmmaker Jayce Bartok, also produced the film with Surratt and Bronwyn Cosgrave.

Larger Than Life has received raves from audiences and critics across the country — including the state where Aucoin first started his astounding journey. The film’s April screening at the Louisiana International Film Festival (LIFF) in Baton Rouge brought Louisiana moviegoers a compelling portrait of a homegrown fashion innovator who transformed the makeup design industry as much as he transformed the recognizable faces of the famous women he worked with.

As Bartok’s first directorial effort for a feature-length documentary film, Larger Than Life won LIFF’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. For a talented filmmaker like Bartok, the heartfelt praise that her film earned from the festival’s attendees helped to make the successful performance of Larger Than Life worth all the difficulties of the four years it took to produce this rich tribute to Aucoin himself.

Herself experienced in makeup design, Bartok also had a memorable meeting with Aucoin as he did a cameo appearance on a 2001 episode of HBO’s classic sitcom Sex And The City. Though Bartok still cherishes that moment, her admiration of Aucoin and his artistry were what convinced her to examine Aucoin’s fascinating story in Larger Than Life.

L-R: Model Chandra North and legendary makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. Photo courtesy Eric Sakas.

Besides Kevyn’s life and career, what (and/or who) inspired you to make the movie?

Tiffany Bartok, director — Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story That is really all it took: As a makeup artist myself, I had followed Kevyn like a stalker — of course — and when Jayce and I were deciding what to do next, I said, “maybe now is the time to look into making Kevyn.” It was a no-brainer.

What was it like meeting Kevyn, as you did when he was on the set of Sex And The City in 2001?

TB: It was an unforgettable moment. I was so young, and the moment is tattooed in my brain forever. Just as everyone feels when they have that experience with Kevyn, you feel (you’re) like the only person in the room. He is absolutely spellbinding.

Larger Than Life is your solo feature-length directorial debut, after spending time producing and directing several shorts and features. How has your work on those projects helped to prepare you for the challenges of directing this film?

TB: My previous work prepared me for any disaster. I mean, anything. There is literally nothing that could make me give up or retreat. On one short that I produced, I showed up with a cast and crew of 20 and we were suddenly denied access to our shooting location. We found another one in an hour.

It also provided me with my amazing team, who I could never do anything without. I would do anything for my crew. They never questioned me when I would call and say, “so, can you shoot Naomi in a couple hours? Meet me at the Carlyle with the equipment.”

Talk about how Kevyn, as well as his work and legacy in makeup design, has inspired you as a makeup artist, and how it inspired you to tell his story through Larger Than Life.

TB: There is one quote from Kevyn that I remember all the time, and it really affected the way I always did makeup. He said “if someone is complimenting the makeup, I didn’t do my job.” He meant that people should say “you look amazing” and not “your makeup looks great”. Makeup should not be the star of the night. You should.

More than anything else, I want people to know that he saw makeup as an extension of (who) you are already are and (what you) want to express yourself as. He thought each and every person on the planet deserved to feel absolutely gorgeous as long as they possessed a kind heart, and he was there to show you how.

What was the research/interview process like for this film, and how were you able to secure the interviews with those Kevyn worked with?

TB: Everyone was more than generous who I was lucky enough to interview. Jayce Bartok, Troy Surratt and I simply called in every single favor and asked anyone who ever met Kevyn for an interview. I tend to do things backward, and ask general questions until something keeps coming up.

For me, I realized that we all wanted to explore why Kevyn had to keep moving with such fervor, why nothing was ever enough, why he constantly pushed higher and higher whereas another person might say “okay, I’m good, that’s enough.”

My biggest regret is to not have been able to put every person and every story in the film, but doing that many interviews helped me to understand every nook and cranny of Kevyn in order to present him as a whole person to the audience.

L-R: North and Aucoin. Photo courtesy Eric Sakas.

What were some of the most interesting things that you learned about Kevyn, his life and his work?

TB: Learning about Kevyn’s advocacy was wonderful. He did more than anyone can imagine. I also loved hearing story after story of his prankster skills, watching his zany skits that he performed with his friends, and hearing all the stories of his hilarious stunts on sets. (Vogue magazine fashion photographer/Aucoin collaborator) Michael Thompson revealed that when (legendary photographer) Irving Penn wasn’t looking, he (Kevyn) would secretly tweak the lighting!

What was the production process like for Larger Than Life?

TB: Extremely long. Doing the interviews was so incredibly wonderful. To sit and learn about your idol all day from those who knew him best? It was a dream come true in the most literal sense. Post was a living nightmare, of course. There is never enough money, (and) there was an entire country full of material to sift through — all of it incredible! It was a knife in my heart to ever cut anything. I learned enough to last a lifetime about decision making in the edit room. It was a rollercoaster of epic emotional proportions.

Recently, Larger Than Life screened at the Louisiana International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. Since it’s about a makeup design legend born and raised in Louisiana, how has that factor — and the film’s presence on this year’s LIFF program — helped to benefit the film itself, while illustrating the need to tell good stories of local historical figures in Louisiana?

TB: Being able to premiere the film in Louisiana was so incredibly fulfilling. It felt like a completely full circle and like a moment that Kevyn completely set up himself. I was really grateful to have that moment of hearing all of the Lafayette locals and Kevyn’s family and friends remembering moments in the film that made them so happy.

How has the overall support that LIFF and the Louisiana Film Society has given you helped to benefit not only Larger Than Life, but also you as a filmmaker?

TB: It was wonderful to feel the support and love for him at the film festival. I fell very respected and cared for, and that is one of the little things that helps to make any struggles worthwhile. There is nothing better than watching your film be enjoyed by people from all different parts of the world.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing Larger Than Life, and what are your hopes for how it will bring new awareness of Kevyn’s work and legacy?

TB: I always say this, but I do hope people will realize that Kevyn was more than just makeup. I hope they see parts of themselves in him, and I hope that they feel “seen” after experience the film. Kevyn would love to know that this film strengthens people’s sense of self and helps them to see beauty everywhere — even in flaws.

For more information on Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, visit the film’s web site:

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV