When the band KISS first emerged on the scene in the 1970s, they weren’t like the other popular acts of the time. “At the same time that we were forming in New York, there was a very big glitter scene, where boys were basically acting like girls and putting on makeup,” KISS frontman Gene Simmons told the fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce according to Yahoo! Entertainment. “Well, we were more like football players — all of us were over 6 feet tall — and it just wasn't convincing!”
However, the group eventually found their own take on the trend. They ended up using makeup too —but in a different way. Covering their faces with black-and-white paint, the band masked their own facades and taking on stage identities: vocalist and bassist Simmons was the Demon, guitarist and vocalist Paul Stanley became Star Child, guitarist Ace Frehley turned into Spaceman and drummer Peter Criss took on Catman.
And it worked. Even with multiple changes in their lineup, KISS has released 44 albums in the last four decades, selling more than 100 million albums worldwide and earning a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
While the makeup has become synonymous with KISS, one of the band’s biggest moments came when they revealed their natural faces in an MTV interview in 1983. But that momentous decision didn’t come easy.
The band struggled at first to find their look
During their early days in New York, the band experimented with their style. “The very first pictures we took when the band first got together, we looked like drag queens,” Simmons told the fanzine. “But we knew we wanted to get outlandish.”
To figure out what that meant for them, they had to really dig into their own personalities. “Getting up onstage was almost a holy place for us, like church, so being onstage looking like a bum wasn't my idea of respect,” he continued. “That's where the makeup and dressing up came in. It would have obviously been a lot easier to get up onstage in jeans and t-shirts and go, ‘Okay, here we are — we're the Ramones!’ And that would have been just as valid, but it would not have been honest.”
And that’s how the makeup looks came about — completely organically. "I just remember being in a loft in downtown New York and looking in the mirror and just starting to draw,” Simmons remembered. “It was very stream-of-consciousness. What you see is really what just happened. ... Nobody else was involved.”
They played their first official show on January 30, 1973, at the Queens nightclub Popcorn — and by the following year, they were signed to Casablanca Records and on a North American tour, gaining a reputation for their on-stage theatrics. They released their self-titled debut on February 18, 1974.
Simmons said it felt 'good' to reveal their paint-free faces
By the 1980s, things changed. In 1980, Criss left and was replaced by Eric Carr who took on a new character called The Fox, and two years later, Frehley went solo and Vinnie Vincent stepped in as an Egyptian ankh. While they still wore makeup throughout the release of the Unmasked album and their Brazil show in June 1983, things were about to change.
On September 18, 1983, the quartet appeared on MTV and shocked the world by revealing their makeup-free faces, along with a video for the first track off the new album, “Lick It Up.”
“It feels good,” Simmons said moments after the unveiling. “We've always been close to our fans. In fact, in a lot of the shows, we'd walk out into the crowd to get a feel of what everybody was feeling like and most often they really wouldn't know it was us, so we've always felt closer. I think it's time for them to notice a little bit more. It feels very, very comfortable. I hope it seems that way — I feel fine about it!”
“To me, it doesn't feel all that different because I've seen these guys more often without makeup than I have with makeup,” Stanley admitted.
Up until that point, they had never performed without makeup except “back in the hotel.”
“We thought about it for a while — we could give you all kinds of great answers, like that we went and saw a Swami, and we did do that too — but it just felt like the right time to do it,” Simmons said ahead of the release of their 18th record. “The band feels so strong, and it just felt like, do it.”
The public's reaction to the reveal was not all positive
The stunt paid off. Their success spiked and the album Lick It Up went platinum. Yet, the reaction to the new clean-cut look wasn’t all positive.
“Everybody hated it,” Simmons recalled according to Yahoo. “People didn't want the paint to come off, but you know what? Tough. It had to happen.”
To keep their longevity, they felt the new image had to emerge. “You want your heroes to stay the same forever, but then the consequence of that is you get bored with them,” he continued. “We had to take it off. It had run its course.”
For more than a decade, they remained fresh-faced — and reminded fans they were the same band no matter how they appeared. “Nothing really changes because we only know one way to perform,” Stanley said during the MTV interview. “The makeup never had anything to do with the [special effects smoke] bombs so or doing splits. Whatever we were doing on stage comes from us. Taking the makeup off doesn't change how we feel and we’re the same people.”
There is still controversy over the band's look today
In the mid-1990s, the slow road back to their original look began. First, in August 1995, Criss and Frehley returned for a mini-reunion of the founding members for an MTV performance, and on February 28, 1996, the original four made a surprise appearance at the Grammys — in full costume and makeup for the first time in 17 years.
They also went on an Alive Worldwide Reunion tour for 13 months with 200 shows in 26 countries, making it the year’s top-grossing tour.
As the new millennium began, KISS started their long goodbye, with the Farewell tour starting in 2000. But in 2001, Criss left and was replaced by Eric Singer — who also took over his Catman look. The following year, Frehley left again and was replaced by Tommy Thayer, taking on the Spaceman look.
That led to a new outrage for different people to take on those iconic personalities — to which Simmons simply told Rolling Stone: “Why wouldn’t we use the classic make up? We own it.”
“There’s always going to be five percent or 10 percent of people who were there at the beginning who will complain about anything,” he continued. “And listen, I think that’s valid from their point of view. But people get onto a train at different times.”
As he said during the initial MTV reveal, even though the band is known for their makeup — it was never the focus: “We always contended from the beginning that the makeup was just a sort of a stage manifestation of who we are... KISS is still KISS. The same energy and drive and commitment to doing everything short of killing ourselves to give people the best show in the world.”