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Strokes of Genius

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MAKEUP ARTIST KEVYN AUCOIN knows a thing or two about women whose faces are their fortunes: He can tell you that Dolly Parton puts on full makeup even when she’s about to be redone for a photo session (“What if I’m in a car wreck?” she said), that as a poverty-stricken teenager model Paulina Porizkova removed her makeup with butter and that eyebrow-tweezing causes Roseanne to howl. He has seen Elizabeth Taylor’s delicate freckles (and covered them with concealer) and can swear that Barbra Streisand has skin so perfect that, at 52, she needs no foundation.

The man of the moment in the world of maquillage, Aucoin, 32, has also penned The Art of Makeup (HarperCollins)—a glossy how-to-cum-portrait collection including everything from Susan Saran-don’s preferred eye-shadow shades (terra-cotta and beige) to makeup tips for less-than-famous faces. (Among his suggestions: always curl your lashes.) A master of every look from superglam to barely there, the Louisiana-born Aucoin is, according to Linda Wells, Allure magazine’s editor in chief, “a surgeon with brushes. He picks out the good stuff and hides the bad stuff.”

Based in Manhattan, where he lives in a southwestern-style two-bedroom Chelsea duplex with boyfriend Eric Sakas, 30, the co-creator of a Japanese makeup line with Aucoin, he counts as clients—and close pals—Liza Minnelli (“She has the most incredibly long eyelashes”) and Janet Jackson (“I use warm, gold tones on her”). But he insists he’s no star-chaser. “I always let them make the first approach toward friendship,” he says. And usually they do, whether he’s painting their faces for an album cover or a Hollywood premiere. “Not only does he make the most beautiful faces,” says Mary Tyler Moore, “he’s also fun to be with.”

But Aucoin’s life hasn’t always been so charmed. The first of four children adopted by Isidore, now retired as a South Central Bell manager, and Thelma, a homemaker, Aucoin suffered through a childhood marred by constant taunts from classmates in Lafayette, La. “It wasn’t like I was wearing nail polish, but I was effeminate,” says Aucoin, who realized he was gay at the age of 6 when he developed a crush on another boy. Encouraged by his mother to express himself creatively—he dressed in lime-green patent-leather loafers—Aucoin nonetheless kept his sexuality a secret. “From everything I had learned about homosexuals from my priest and my teachers, I was ashamed,” he says. With rocks and bottles routinely thrown at him by his peers, Aucoin took refuge in the fantasy world of makeup. From the age of 11—when he daubed his mother’s orange lipstick on little sister Carla, then 6—Aucoin delighted in poring over fashion magazines and painting the faces of his female friends. “The vicarious thrill of seeing someone look in the mirror and feel good about themselves was so exciting,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe one day/could feel that good too.’ ”

In his sophomore year, Aucoin dropped out of Lafayette High School and enrolled at a local beauty school. He moved in with his first boyfriend, a freshman at a nearby college, and finally told his parents that he was gay. They were surprised, but supportive. “We were perfectly okay with it,” remembers Thelma, who, with her husband, is an active member of the southern Louisiana chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). “But I feared for him because at that time gays were not being treated very gently.”

Those fears weren’t unfounded. Living in Baton Rouge (where he worked selling makeup at various shops) in 1982, Aucoin and two gay friends were stripped and badly beaten by department store security guards after they were spotted experimenting with makeup testers. Aucoin says that he went to the local police, who refused to investigate. “I left,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going to survive in Louisiana—I was going to be killed or kill myself.”

Heading to New York City with his then-boyfriend Jed Root (now Aucoin’s agent), he scraped by on savings and did free makeup on models in order to build a portfolio. “We were so poor we nearly starved to death,” says Aucoin. But within eight months, an editor at Vogue was impressed enough to hire him for a photo shoot with Meg Tilly. He has worked nonstop ever since. “I cried for two days when I got that first job,” remembers Aucoin. “I can barely remember actually doing it because I was so nervous.”

These days, Aucoin spends as much time as he can with his family—including his birth parents, whom he located through a private investigator two years ago. Being aware since childhood that he was adopted, he said, “created real feelings of abandonment.” Currently on a seven-city tour to promote his book, Aucoin has little time for favorite diversions including watching movies (“anything with Gena Rowlands”), hosting barbecues in his spectacular (by Manhattan standards) backyard or playing with his two Shih-Tzus, Nikki and Alex. Still, Aucoin admits he has no reason to complain. “I can’t believe it’s all real,” he says, getting a bit misty. “Every dream I’ve ever had has come true.”

JANICE MIN in New York City