“Pucker up, Buttercup. It’s VIVA GLAM time. MAC VIVA GLAM time.”~ RuPaul1
The famed drag artist RuPaul opened the 1995 Canadian AIDS fundraiser, Fashion Cares, by descending a long, winding staircase flanked by two human-size red lipsticks. Strutting down the runway to the tune of his song, “House of Love,” wearing his signature red bustier, red thigh-high stiletto boots, and long blonde wig, RuPaul coyly surveyed his audience before announcing, “My name is RuPaul, the first face of MAC Cosmetics.” Indeed, this seven-foot black drag queen was the new model for MAC VIVA GLAM lipstick. This lipstick, the first product the Canadian brand had ever advertised, raised funds for the brand’s newly formed AIDS charity. MAC has been called “the hippest thing to come out of Canada,” and with a drag queen as its first “MAC Girl,” it is not difficult to see why.2 MAC’s inventive new advertising challenged the cosmetic industry’s advertising conventions and narrow definitions of female beauty. It also spoke to AIDS with humor, whimsy, and even camp amidst the fear and despair that characterized the epidemic. RuPaul marked the beginning of an illustrious history of VIVA GLAM spokespeople and advertising by a brand that otherwise did not advertise.3
MAC’s original, and arguably most classic, ad with RuPaul arose from a unique historical moment. It was released just as several larger economic, cultural, creative, and political forces were converging, developing alongside shifts both in the cosmetics industry and the Toronto fashion industry that coincided with the AIDS epidemic. MAC was a very fashionable brand and a key player in the Toronto fashion scene. Starting in the 1980s, the Toronto fashion industry was the new centre for fashion in Canada-for both producers as well as consumers- and it was an unusually creative time for those in the cultural industries.4 The rise of the AIDS epidemic, however, greatly affected those working in these cultural industries, and the fashion industry in Toronto responded. This article chronicles the origin and rise of this “hip” Canadian cosmetics brand as it created the first cosmetic product to raise money for AIDS, and the innovative, irreverent, and original advertising campaign that promoted it.5
Toronto hairstylist Frank Angelo and makeup artist Frank Toskan began creating their own cosmetics in the early 1980s because Toskan could not find the right colors, intensities, textures, and tools for his work.6 “The Franks,” as they were called, felt that the cosmetics industry did not offer color cosmetics that suited their own specific needs for the type of photography and beauty work they were doing. Enlisting the help of chemistry student (and Toskan’s future brother-inlaw) Victor Casale, the Franks began developing a diverse range of products, and MAC was officially born in 1984. The Franks made cosmetics with intense colors using rich pigments that were appropriate for the variety of skin colors, particularly darker skin tones, that they encountered in their daily fashion work in multicultural Toronto. Toskan recalled that: “[v]ery few companies were addressing the issue of color or different ethnic backgrounds or the needs of the photographer and the makeup artist on set.”7 MAC’s colors were notable because of the unusual flat, nonreflective matte. They also developed a more imaginative range of neutral shades, instead of the pinks and purples that seemed to dominate other mass market and prestige cosmetics lines. Toskan said it bothered him that everything from the major cosmetics houses looked the same: “I hate it when you can get every shade of frosted shadow possible when all you want is a matte. I hate it when somebody has 30 lipsticks in their line, but they all look alike-either all corals, or all reads, or all pinks.” This, he felt, did not respect anyone’s personal choice or sense of individuality.
The Franks strategically positioned MAC as a professional cosmetics line created by a makeup artist, for a makeup artist-a completely new approach at the time. Toskan was soon asked by makeup artist friends to make products for...