Nowadays, celebrities going makeup-free for the camera lens is an everyday Instagram occurrence. But 35 years ago, when greasepainted rock gods KISS bared their faces on live television, it was a shocker. On Sept. 18, 1983, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and relatively new band members Vinnie Vincent and the late Eric Carr took it all off for a Sunday evening MTV press conference — and against all odds, the makeunder actually revitalized their flagging career.
Up until that fateful night, the ‘80s had not been kind to KISS. Within the decade’s first two years, original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss had left the group. A previous attempt to change with the times, with the ambitious but laughably misguided 1981 concept album Music From “The Elder,” was a commercial disaster. Ten years after their formation, KISS had fallen out of favor — replaced by MTV darlings who wore makeup in an entirely different way, like Boy George and Duran Duran. Perhaps that is why MTV execs stuck KISS’s press conference in the graveyard timeslot of 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, or why the event transpired with such a surprising lack of on-camera fanfare.
Looking back at the footage now, this “really big moment” in KISStory, as host J.J. Jackson somewhat unconvincingly worded it, seems anticlimactic, even downright awkward. There were no splashy graphics, no screaming in-studio audience, no background music. As glamour shots of the band members’ previously painted faces dissolved into closeups of their new looks — their clawfooted dragon-boots, leather linebacker shoulders, and superhero visages now replaced by standard-issue Sunset Strip attire — the set was eerily silent, save for the faint hum of the studio’s electricity and Jackson’s calm, resonant voiceover. (“There’s no question MTV chose J.J. to be at the helm, as he was MTV’s anchor of rock ’n’ roll knowledge,” Jackson’s co-worker, fellow original VJ Martha Quinn, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I adore the moment he tosses out ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,’ a reference to the Traffic album.”)
So, there was ex-”Ankh Warrior” Vincent, glazed-eyed in a red blazer that seems pulled from Loverboy’s closet; pretty-faced former “Fox” Carr, rocking some earth-toned “Hungry Like the Wolf” safari-wear; Stanley, the onetime “Starchild,” in lavender leather trousers and a popped-collar teal vest that could’ve come from the Summer 1983 Members Only capsule collection; and, finally, a less demonic “Demon,” Simmons, sporting poodle hair and an uncomfortable stare. (The usually overconfident God of Thunder later confessed in his autobiography that he was “scared stiff” during the reveal.) The brief presentation was low-key, even by primitive early-MTV standards, and was especially off-brand for a gang of “fire-breathing, blood-spitting monsters” famous for flying on wires and detonating piles of pyro at their over-the-top stadium shows.
Quinn has amusing memories of the scene. “I remember jamming into the packed MTV control room to watch the unmasking,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Everybody on the staff grew up for the most part in the ’70s, and KISS was in our rock ’n’ roll DNA. It’s hard to remember now, but the reveal of what the guys in KISS looked like under their makeup was historic. It’s funny, the production was so bare bones. You can really see the low-budget early MTV — in many ways, the MTV that today is so missed.”
At the time, Simmons insisted to Jackson and MTV’s late-night viewers that “KISS [was] still KISS” and that the band felt “very, very comfortable” with their new image. “We’ve always contended from the beginning that the makeup was just sort of a stage manifestation of who we are … the makeup was just an extension of our personalities,” he said on the air. “[We still have] the same sort of energy and drive and commitment to doing everything, short of killing ourselves, to give people the best show in the world.” Stanley coolly concurred: “Nothing really changes, because we only know one way to perform. The makeup never had anything to do with the bombs or doing splits or whatever we’re doing onstage. It comes from us. Taking the makeup off doesn’t change how we feel.” (Vincent — who would leave the band a year later — and Carr said pretty much nothing.)
However, speaking to the fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce in 1995 to promote the all-star tribute album Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved, Simmons admitted, “Everybody hated it. It was exciting to finally see us, but people were disappointed. They didn’t want the paint to come off. But you know what? Tough. It had to happen. You want your heroes to stay the same forever, but then the consequence of that is you get bored with them.”
Despite any initial backlash, KISS’s unmasking proved to be a shrewd career move, at least in the short term. Of course, the image update did nothing to earn the respect of music critics. (“Readers of early-’80s rock magazines may recall many bizarre interviews with Paul and Gene where they were asked if it would be difficult for them to record music without the greasepaint, thereby suggesting that many reporters somehow assumed KISS wore makeup in the studio,” writer Chuck Klosterman amusingly noted in Grantland.) But KISS fit right in with the commercial metal that would soon come to dominate Headbanger’s Ball-era MTV, and their first two no-makeup albums, Lick It Up and Animalize, went platinum (something their previous three albums had failed to do).
In the mid-‘80s, they scored respectable rock hits with “Heaven’s on Fire,” “Tears Are Falling,” and “Crazy Crazy Nights,” and they featured prominently in the 1988 metal documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II (which also starred Poison, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Faster Pussycat). Ironically, in the early ’70s, KISS had crafted their image as a response to the glam-rock scene (“The very first pictures we took when we first got together, we looked like drag queens,” Simmons joked to Porkchops & Applesauce), and now they had assimilated into the 1980s glam-metal revival by taking the makeup off.
“At the time, I felt like it was the guys in KISS, very astute businessmen, wanting to keep step with the times, with the bands they were seeing on MTV — like Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Ratt,” Quinn tells Yahoo Entertainment. “These bands were all embracing the big rock sound that KISS specialized in, all while looking like glam-but-gritty rockers. Maybe Paul and Gene wanted to shed the Starchild and Demon to show they could play that game too. Or maybe they just wanted to be recognized by their fans more often!”
By 1989, KISS were even back in the Billboard top 10 singles chart with the power ballad “Forever,” their biggest hit since 1976’s “Beth.” Of course, the fact that “Forever” was co-written by schmaltz king Michael Bolton probably didn’t restore KISS’s ’70s rock cred — but by that point, they’d at least won over plenty of new fans. “I plead completely guilty that at some point [in the ’80s], we did completely sell out, to the guys that held the checks in front of our faces,” Simmons told Porkchops & Applesauce. “I mean, once you become disgustingly well-off, it’s difficult! We started making real pop records, with synthesizers and girl singers and all that s***. … I don’t think KISS will ever regain whatever credibility we once had, but that’s OK.”
KISS soldiered on for 13 years sans makeup, and in 1991, the year of grunge, they were still big enough to have their cover of Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” serve as the theme song for fictional history-alternating band Wyld Stallyns in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. But by the irony-obsessed mid-’90s, ’70s nostalgia and kitsch were all the rage with Generation X — as evidenced by the above-mentioned Kiss My Ass, featuring covers of makeup-era KISS material by everyone from Garth Brooks and classical Japanese musician Yoshiki to alt-rock darlings Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dinosaur Jr., and the Lemonheads. And so, around this time, there was increasing public demand for KISS to return to their old facepainted ways. However, Simmons seemed surprisingly resistant to this “sellout” idea.
“To this day, a lot of original fans say we should do the makeup again, but then they say, ‘Remember, don’t sell out!’ But the truth is, if we did that again, we would be selling out. We’d just be going to the bank and putting out more s***loads of cash into our bank accounts,” Simmons told Porkchops & Applesauce. “There are bankers lined up now who say, ‘Do it and we’ll pay for the whole tour.’ I don’t negate the idea of doing it. But only if [we] feel like it.”
As it turns out, it didn’t take very long for Simmons and Stanley to “feel like it.” After the classic lineup of Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, and Criss reunited in August 1995 (without cosmetics) for a warmly received MTV Unplugged episode, they decided to kiss and make up, so to speak, and embark on their first tour together since 1979. And once again, KISS turned to live television to break the news — with all four original members making a bizarre surprise appearance, in full costume, alongside Tupac Shakur at the 1996 Grammy Awards. (“You know how the Grammys used to be, all straight-looking folks with suits. Everybody looking tired. No surprises. We tired of that! We need something different, something new! We need to shock the people. So, let’s shock the people!” Tupac proclaimed in his upbeat Grammy introduction.)
KISS’s full-facepaint reunion tour kicked off in June 1996, less than a year after Simmons’s assertion that reapplying the makeup would be a “sellout” move. And it was a sellout — in the sense that the band’s subsequent reunion tour sold out all over the country, grossing $143.7 million and becoming the most successful KISS tour to date.
Stanley, speaking to Loudersound in 2016 about KISS’s initial decision — actually initially proposed by Stanley — to go makeup-free, explained: “[The old look] had really run its course. It was no longer the original images. We had a fox and we had an Egyptian guy [Vincent, sometimes also known as “Egyptian Warrior” or “The Wiz”]. Maybe next we’d have ‘Turtle Boy.’ It was becoming farcical. We needed to take a stand. If we were good enough and viable enough as a band, we would survive. And if not, we would meet the extinction we deserved.”
Simmons expressed a similar sentiment to Porkchops & Applesauce. “We had to take [the makeup] off. It had run its course. New members were coming into the band, and then new characters were happening. It just wasn’t convincing to us anymore. We had always adhered to the philosophy that if Peter and Ace ever left, then KISS, at least in that form, would cease to be,” he said. “And I think instinctively, we did that. Without killing ourselves, without taking the Cobain way out, we simply killed off that version of KISS and decided to do a different version.”
However, when Frehley and Criss eventually left KISS again in the early 2000s, Simmons and Stanley — instead of re-removing their makeup or coming up with new characters — opted to have replacements (and current members) Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer respectively take on Frehley’s “Space Ace” and Criss’s “Catman” personas. That decision was perhaps even more polarizing than the group’s infamous MTV press conference. (“You’ve got a lot of push-back from some of the diehards. And that’s understandable. Hey, you know, if you lived in the ’70s and KISS was your favorite band, and that’s what you grew up with, and suddenly there’s another guy wearing that makeup, I can understand how some people, it might not have appealed to them as much,” Thayer told Rolling Stone in 2014.) But the controversial move, much like the makeup removal stunt of ’83, didn’t seem to derail KISS, who are now planning a massive (and possibly final) tour in 2019.
So, it looks like the makeup is here to stay. In fact, Stanley — who along with Simmons holds the ownership and licensing rights to the four original makeup designs — even recently suggested that KISS could theoretically continue indefinitely, without any original band members. It’s a proposal that longtime KISS manager Doc McGhee has supported, insisting that a new lineup could still rock stadiums and arenas “as long as these kids walk out there and they have that makeup and they have that attitude and they have a great f***ing visual show. … That’s what KISS is. KISS is a way of life.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.