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Makeup Breakup

Celebrity stylist Kevyn Aucoin was adored by just about everyone he touched. Actresses, models, lovers, and former lovers -- all became part of his eccentric extended family, but none was able to stop the downward spiral of drugs he took to deal with chronic pain. A story of love, death, and makeup.


Kevyn Aucoin and partner Jeremy Antunes.  

A week before he died, Kevyn Aucoin sat on the bed he shared with Jeremy Antunes, the man he called his husband, at their farm in Middletown, New York, and listened as Antunes delivered an ultimatum.

"I love you," Antunes told him, "but I can't watch you destroy yourself. You made a promise to me in Arizona that you wouldn't do this anymore, and I'm not going to sit here and watch you kill yourself."

This was a discussion that had been going on for some time. Aucoin, by far the most celebrated makeup artist of his time and the author of several best-selling books on beauty, suffered from a condition called acromegaly -- a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes the brain to keep secreting growth hormone. In the last five years of his life, Aucoin, tall to begin with, grew two inches and went up two shoe and ring sizes. To relieve the constant headaches, joint pain, and insomnia associated with his long-undiagnosed disease, Aucoin had been taking fistfuls of prescription medications -- Vicodin, Lorcet, Xanax, Soma. In the past year, this had spiraled into a dangerous addiction. At times, he seemed incoherent, "spacy and slow, like someone who was really, really drunk," Antunes says. Sometimes, like during the shoot for Cher's video "Song for the Lonely" in December, he would pass out completely. By the end of the shoot, Cher says, "I grabbed him and hugged him and I said, 'You have got to do something.' "

Antunes wouldn't whitewash the issue. Three months before, at a treatment center outside Phoenix where the two had gone for a week of intensive couples therapy, Antunes told Aucoin that he would leave if Aucoin didn't take steps to deal with his addiction. Aucoin took it seriously, and made progress -- which didn't last.

In fact, he got worse. A couple of days before the ultimatum, Aucoin had passed out for two hours in the middle of the day. Model Joanne Russell, whom Aucoin called his "best friend and muse" in his January column for Allure magazine, was one of several people who tried to wake him, and couldn't.

"The last eight months of our relationship was us fighting about this issue," says Russell. "One time, I tried to take the pills away from him, and he got angry and said, 'You're not my mother!' But I had no idea -- it would never have occurred to me in a million years -- that Kevyn would die."

On the bed that morning, Antunes told Aucoin that he was going away for a week to get some perspective on the situation. He chose Paris because he knew it was a place Aucoin hated, so he wouldn't want to go. "We were crying, and he was saying, 'I don't want you to go; promise me you'll be faithful.' But he also said he understood."

Antunes says he had a conversation with Samantha, the 15-year-old daughter of Aucoin's sister Carla, who had been living with the couple since last August. "I told her I didn't know what was going to happen, but we'd figure it all out when I got back."

The next time Antunes saw Aucoin was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a ventilator. Four days later, he was dead.

Then, two weeks ago, Antunes learned that he'd been locked out of the Middletown farm and their duplex apartment on 23rd Street in Chelsea at the behest of Aucoin's Lafayette, Louisiana, family. "I'm not saying I have the most pain," says Antunes. "I just don't understand why I'm homeless."

Kevyn Aucoin was one of those charmed individuals whose talent arrives early and unmistakably -- at age 11, he'd make up and pose 6-year-old Carla, with near-professional results -- accompanied by a singular gift for making people feel special. "I could pontificate for hours on the vast talent, versatility, and genius of Kevyn, but instead, I shall simply say that the best thing about having him do your makeup is that it allows you to spend time with him," Gwyneth Paltrow once said of her friend.

From the time he arrived in New York in 1983 to his death, he'd styled just about every model and actress of any significance, for magazines, fashion shows, videos, events like the Oscars, and for three best-selling books. But he was as likely to focus his high-wattage smile on the counter girl at Bergdorf Goodman or on his next-door neighbor as on his good friend Tina Turner. "My favorite Kevyn memory is of him giving makeup tips to these 16-year-old drag queens," says Bari Mattes, the board chair at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which aids homeless gay youth, "telling them how beautiful they were." He spoke the language of New Age optimism -- "life energy" was a favorite phrase -- that's so popular in Hollywood and the fashion world. But Aucoin put the jargon into practice, using his powers, almost magically, to bring out the best in people. Mary Tyler Moore sums it up: "There were three men in my life I met who had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the world just by looking at you, just with their eyes: One was Sinatra, the other was the current pope, and the third was Kevyn."

When Aucoin died, in Westchester Medical Center on May 7, his death was reported to be the result of "complications" from his pituitary condition. The celebrities he worked with seemed genuinely undone. "Losing him is like losing a piece of nature," says Sharon Stone. "It's hard to breathe without him here."

Of course, no one is more devastated than Aucoin's family. But in the case of Kevyn Aucoin, both "family" and "complications" were complicated indeed.

"Right now, at night, is when I miss him the most," says Aucoin's father, Isidore, a 72-year-old phone-company retiree, from his home in Lafayette. "I have dreams about him, though. Good dreams. We never turned our backs on him -- love is not like a light switch you turn on and off. At first we were in denial -- I can't speak for Mrs. Aucoin -- but I said it couldn't be that he was a homosexual. Around Louisiana, it was something never spoken about in the open. But I realized -- when he was a little baby, I loved him at that time, so how could I turn my back on him now?"

Thelma and Isidore Aucoin started the Lafayette chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and have been working with the organization for fifteen years. "I never missed a meeting," Isidore says proudly. "Marriage is between a man and a woman, according to Webster's dictionary, but I feel that there should be a law so that same-sex people could make a commitment recognized by the government. I looked at Kevyn's boyfriends exactly the way I look at my other children's spouses, just like a married couple. My whole family looked at them that way -- up through Eric."

Eric Sakas was Aucoin's boyfriend before Antunes and is now the president and creative director of Kevyn Aucoin Beauty, the company Aucoin set up to release his makeup line -- for which he had completed the formulas and packaging just before his death.

I tell Mr. Aucoin I take it that he has some problems with Jeremy Antunes. His soft Cajun drawl swiftly hardens.

"You take it any way you want."

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