Last week, we reviewed Dale Sherman’s KISS FAQ: ALL THAT’S LEFT TO KNOW ABOUT THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE LAND. Today, we offer this excerpt from the Backbeat Books release, dedicated to the one element that really set the band apart: the makeup.
Makeup and costumes were one of the first things they worked on, with Simmons, Stanley, and Criss showcasing for Epic in 1973 in whiteface and rather generic rock-’n’-roll outfits (if one can call the rented sailor suit Simmons is wearing “rock-’n’-roll”). By the time Ace Frehley joined, the four rejected the whiteface and went for a look that was more derived from the New York Dolls (whose look came from other bands like the Rolling Stones for their “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” picture sleeve single).
This was the look—a bit of eye shadow and feminine clothing, although Criss looks like he stepped straight out of a Hello People gig—that was seen in the early photo of the four many fans finally saw of the band when it popped up in the 1980s, as well as one that proves Simmons’s assertion that they couldn’t carry off the look the way the Dolls did. Realizing that they had to go in another direction, they took their cue from bands like the Hello People and attempts by artists like the Stones, Roy Wood, and Todd Rundgren to use makeup to make their appearances unique instead of just covering up the face. There were some stumbles along the way, with Stanley being the most indecisive of the four on what worked best for him, but by the time the first album was released, the characters’ makeup was set in stone. Only minor adjustments would occur after that.
Gene Simmons seemed to get the general idea of his makeup the quickest, moving from black around his eyes to give a skull-like texture to his face, on to the widow’s peak and the flaming black mask around his eyes that gave the appearance of batwings. From there, the makeup would firm up, with black lines up and down the nose to define the “wings” a bit more. Although he would vary the thickness lines every so often in the years since, by 1974 he was set on the makeup for his persona.
Ace Frehley was the second member to get a handle on his makeup; already settling into the blast-out starlight silver look that made him resemble an alien before midyear in 1973; yet for many months he went without whiteface underneath the silver and only later added black lipstick, thus taking a bit more time to fall in line with the others who had begun using whiteface as a base by then. He would begin soon enough, however, and by the time they were signed with Casablanca that fall, there was a uniform look to the four with the whiteface makeup. Eventually he found that he had an allergic reaction to the silver around his eyes and switched to a pale blue eye shadow to complete the look. From there, Frehley had his character for the duration of his stay in KISS.
Peter Criss was next in line in getting his makeup settled, although he fiddled with it a bit more over 1973–1974 due to the complexity of various colors and styling necessary to get the cat look the way he wanted. By midsummer 1973, he had the general look down, with a cat nose (changing from silver to black and then back to silver again), a pair of whiskers across the each cheek, and elevated makeup around his eyes that would reach a point like cat ears (although he would round these off and have points off toward his temples for a time as well). In 1976, he added green makeup around his eyes, a final touch that would cement his look for the rest of his makeup days in the band.
Paul Stanley first attempted something that looked similar to Alice Cooper’s spider eyes from the early Cooper period before attempting a star over the right eye. He then moved on to a circle over one eye that everyone teased him about as making him look like Pete the Dog from the old Little Rascals shorts. From there he attempted a look that fans typically call the “Lone Ranger mask,” which covered both eyes as the Lone Ranger’s mask did. He would flirt with this style straight into 1974 and even be photographed in staged color photos in the early part of 1974 while also going back and wearing his star makeup. It was then that he decided to stick with the star from that point on.
When Eric Carr joined, he found himself in the unique position of having to create his own makeup for the band, after others had decided that his new character would be based on an animal to show a lineage with Criss’s cat. It was decided to make Carr a hawk, and although he had skill in drawing, the makeup would never quite come into sync—Carr’s contention was that if it looked like a bird from the front, it would not from the side and vice-versa. When a costume arrived with yellow-orange feathers that he felt made him look like a giant chicken, the hawk concept was trash-canned. Instead, at a very late point in time, he hit upon a fox concept that he felt fit him personally, more than the hawk makeup anyway (seeing himself as small and cunning like a fox). Because the process was rushed—the Australian tour book for 1980 when he joined showed a badly airbrushed picture of the band with someone who looked more like a drunk attempting to imitate a French Charlie Chaplin from outer space than a fox—Carr worked on it more after they played their first show with him in makeup. The silver outline soon disappeared, leaving red makeup around the eyes with black around it that went up in points like fox’s ears (although one could rarely see this through his hair) along with silver on the tip of his nose. He would finalize the makeup so that the silver was gone, and instead a line of whiteface went down his nose until the tip, whereupon black was added to give the makeup an even greater fox look.
Vinnie Vincent was the last performer in KISS to need a makeup persona, and his was one that, as Carr’s riffed off of Criss’s, so too would Vincent’s be a cousin to Frehley’s. This was accomplished by keeping the design simplistic yet otherworldly, with a golden Ankh on his face—the arms and head of which were stationed above his eyes and the staff going down to the tip of his nose. Vincent would wear the makeup for a period lasting from the Creatures of the Night tour until the makeup came off for all of the members of KISS by the time of Lick It Up. Interestingly, fans have for years speculated what Mark St. John and Bruce Kulick would have worn if the band had continued with the makeup, showing that the fans never quite gave up on the idea even if the band did. As for Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer, they too would eventually wear makeup with the band, but their story is one for another chapter.
Surprisingly, for a band that had just washed off the greasepaint, there sure did seem to be a lot of makeup going on the faces of the four when it was time to go “naked” for the cameras and the stage shows. Actually, the band was a bit more restrained on television, but onstage, the harsh lighting of flash photography during shows brought out the heavy, caked makeup of the three men upfront. It was as if they had been dealing with clown white for so long that they had no concept of how to appear onstage without something covering their faces. Simmons and Stanley began to tone that down over the tour and into the next, although Simmons then had the misfortune to have to wear a wig to offset his short hair, which had been cut for the Runaway film he was making before the Animalize tour. This was held on by a headband, which may have kept it good and snug, but also was like a neon halo around his head saying, “Look at this wig!” On the positive side, it did give the band a head start (no pun intended) in looking into proper hairpieces for subsequent tours (although Simmons went overboard when it came to the Asylum tour, with enough frizzy hair on his head to give Eric Carr a run for “biggest hair” on that tour).
Makeup and hair stayed pretty tame for the next few years, but for the 1992 Revenge tour Simmons decided to go with a Van Dyke beard that would stay with him up until the 1996 Reunion tour announcement (and which he sometimes reverts to during periods where he is not needed in makeup). Simmons was not alone there, however, as all of the other members tried a little of the same during those years, but only he really stuck with the look for the entire period.
In 1996, the band returned to the stage in full makeup as they had from 1974 to 1980. Since then, there have been minor variations made to the makeup, especially when Eric Singer took over for Peter Criss and Tommy Thayer for Ace Frehley and needed to redesign the makeup for their faces. Nevertheless, after nearly four decades, the makeup personas have remained recognizably the same since they were cemented in place back in late 1973. — Dale Sherman