The Face Painter of Modern Life: Makeup Artist Thrills ’Em at Bendel

When world-renowned makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin died in May 2002 of a pituitary tumor, many assumed it was curtains for his eponymous new cosmetics line. But Kevyn Aucoin Beauty has been flourishing nicely, thanks to the deft ministrations of one Craig Jessup, 22, a theater major at Marymount Manhattan College with a cherubic face and a 70’s glam-rock mullet. “He’s just a genius with the brush,” cooed Laura Saio, a senior buyer for cosmetics at Henri Bendel, where the brand’s numbers are on track to outsell Laura Mercier and Trish McEvoy. “He tells you, ‘You know, you don’t need a lot more makeup—you need less,’” said Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine, “and you’re like, ‘Thank you—I love you!’”

The Observer ’s intrepid cosmetics correspondent met this young pup of a makeup artist on a crisp Friday morning at Dylan’s Candy Bar, near his apartment. “It’s a total cliché, and as revolting as I feel saying it, I really do believe that Kevyn and I were kindred spirits in a lot of ways,” Mr. Jessup said, munching on a concoction of Lucky Charms and Marshmallow Fluff. He was wearing high-waisted, disco-era black pants, a pinstriped black shirt and a denim jacket with a Kerry-Edwards button. “Kevyn’s mission in life was to make women not feel threatened by beauty—to make it a fun thing where people looked at nothing as a flaw, but merely as a beauty mark that defines and individualizes you,” he continued. “There so much in cosmetics that involves human emotion. Makeup artists should almost be trained as therapists before we start.”

Like many members of his profession, Mr. Jessup has a colorful background. He’s the only child of two cabaret singers (a fan of theirs apparently paid his delivery expenses). His peripatetic parents brought their only child on tour throughout toddlerdom. Mr. Jessup claims that he didn’t know any children, other than a single cousin, until he entered kindergarten.

Mr. Jessup’s father had inherited a 13-acre orange ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, and the family eventually settled there, opening a country store. When Craig was 5 years old, he said, he sold $2,000 worth of handmade quilts and homemade jams to Star Trek actor William Shatner. Later that year, Anjelica Huston passed by and bought a scoop of orange ice cream; her then boyfriend, Jack Nicholson, was waiting in the car.

Our li’l entrepreneur began doing business off the shoulder of Highway 65, selling sprigs of mint and greeting cards decorated with paint flung from a salad spinner. His first foray into the world of cosmetics was a mud mask made of soil from the orange groves and liquid dish soap. It was priced at 25 cents.

At the age of 9, Craig was put in Catholic school, where he immersed himself in the fashion and beauty world to escape “the mean kids”: reading Vogue, religiously watching Style with Elsa Klensch with his grandmother (side by side in easy chairs), and mimicking Todd Oldham’s House of Style designs by using coffee filters on a Barbie doll.

When he was 13, Craig wrote Mr. Oldham a fan letter and got a handwritten note and a signed photo in return. After Mr. Jessup’s commendably progressive father took his son to Mr. Oldham’s perfume launch at the San Francisco Neiman Marcus, the designer invited the gangly teen to his fashion show in New York. “Every big model was in the show that year,” Mr. Jessup said reverently. He met Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Kristen McMenamy—and their favorite makeup artist, Kevyn Aucoin, who granted Craig an autograph that read “Big kisses, gorgeous! Love, Kevyn.”

“I just thought that was so New York and glamorous,” Mr. Jessup said.

A few years later, he wangled a job as a makeup artist at the Prescriptives counter in a San Francisco Macy’s. By the time his bosses discovered he was only 16 years old, he was already bringing in a 150 percent increase in profits, he said.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Jessup went to New York and got an apprenticeship with Darac, the flamboyant director of artistic development for the Prescriptives cosmetics at Bergdorf Goodman. “My first year with Darac, I aged about 10 years—in good and bad ways,” Mr. Jessup said. “I invested so much of my teenage life in this fantasy and came in and realized it was all a sham, which was slightly depressing: the ways the beauty and fashion industries take advantage of the emotional states of women and feed into women’s insecurities about their image, that moment where the hope turns into hopelessness and women think: ‘God, I wish I could look like that, but I never can.’ It can be like an abusive relationship.” He shook his head.

Still, when Mr. Aucoin floated the possibility of a job with his new line, Mr. Jessup jumped at the opportunity to work under the great makeup artist.

Six months later, Mr. Jessup was manning the counter at Bendel when Kevyn Aucoin business manager Margo Haynes-Fason called him into the corner. “Something terrible has happened,” she said. “Kevyn died.”

“I thought I was going to die,” Mr. Jessup said. “Everything seemed like it would just end immediately.”

But it didn’t.

At Henri Bendel and on editorial and private assignments, Mr. Jessup tends the faces of top models, actresses, political figures and royalty. He refuses to name his famous clients. “It embarrasses me,” he said. He calls it “shameless self-promotion” when unknown makeup artists try to raise their stock by attaching their names to celebrities. “You shouldn’t think about the makeup artist before you think about the person wearing the makeup,” he said. “Kevyn didn’t attach himself to celebrities; they attached themselves to him. He was so enjoyable, they always wanted him on their arm.”

Not that Mr. Jessup plans to remain in the shadows forever. The makeup artist is currently playing Judge Danforth in Marymount’s production of The Crucible and is developing a 1970’s-style variety show. After he graduates in May, he plans to find an agent to help him “horizontally integrate” his career. “It’s a privilege to work on people’s faces,” he said, “but at some point you want to be the one people are putting makeup on.”

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