When KISS guitarist/frontman Paul Stanley began painting in 2001, he never expected anyone to even see, let alone purchase, his finished artwork. He took up the hobby upon the recommendation of a concerned friend, as a form of therapy, when he was “going through some tough personal times” due to his divorce from his first wife, actress Pamela Bowen. “Painting was a good outlet,” Stanley tells Yahoo Entertainment, speaking via Zoom from his art studio. “It didn't solve everything — but it beat screaming in the shower.”
More than two decades later, Stanley, who remarried in 2005, still paints almost every day, and his pieces now hang in galleries all over the country — the latest being his Black Series, on black canvases, in four Wentworth Gallery locations in the Florida and D.C. areas. And he’s still “shocked” that people want to buy his art. But it’s not like the man had zero artistic experience before picking up a paintbrush in the early aughts. He co-designed, with then-bandmate Ace Frehley, the KISS logo — one of the most recognizable band insignias of all time — and of course, he became quite adept at another type of painting during the past 50 years since KISS first applied their makeup. So, it makes sense that the famous facepainter's first work on canvas “was a self-portrait — and lo and behold, people knew it was me.”
Ironically, Stanley’s one-eyed Starchild makeup design appears to the simplest of KISS’s four original faces; however, from an artist’s point of view, Stanley explains, “It's not quite so simple, because you're painting a flat object on a 3D face.” But interestingly, for “about a month” in the early ‘70s, he wore a different face — as the Bandit. Little evidence exists from this era, as there was one only official photo shoot, by renowned portrait photographer and Andy Warhol associate Raeanne Rubenstein. But the legend of the Bandit still circulates online to this day and inspires bootleg album covers, Bandit makeup tutorials, fan art, and even handmade dolls and marionettes.
According to the fan site KISS Timeline, Stanley’s first public show as the Bandit was on New Year’s Eve 1973, and the second was at a Casablanca Records-hosted industry event at the Fillmore East on Jan. 8, 1974. “I know the photos of us signing with Neil, I think we took these pictures at the Fillmore East when we did a press show there, and I had the Bandit makeup there,” Stanley recalls vaguely. “But then I just went, ‘No, I don't want to do this. It has nothing to do with me. What's the Bandit?’” The Bandit character made only one more appearance, at New York’s Academy of Music on Jan. 26, 1974, before being retired for good.
Stanley is referring to Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart, who, incredibly, was never fond of KISS’s cosmetics in the first place. “When he signed us, he wanted us to take off the makeup,” Stanley reveals. “When Neil heard us before he ever saw us — ‘Strutter’ and ‘Deuce’ and ‘Watching You’ and ‘She,’ I think, were on the demo — he wanted to sign us, and then he saw us, and it was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ you know? And it was like, ‘Well, this is us. This is who we are. It's either you take it or leave it. It's our way or the highway.’ … At some point, when it came down to ‘I'll sign you, if you take off the makeup,’ you say, ‘Well, then, you're not going to sign us.”
Bogart relented, but the (very short-lived) compromise was that Stanley the Starchild would get a masculine makeover. “[Bogart] early on said to me, ‘Well, you know, [the Starchild character] is kind of swishy. It's kind of feminine.’ He also wasn't crazy about the way I moved around onstage. He thought, ‘You should be more macho.’ And I thought, ‘OK, I'll be a sport and at least try some of this.’ So, I just came up with this Lone Ranger ‘Bandit,’ as it became known, and it lasted maybe a month. But I just went, ‘You know what? My gig, my face, my makeup.’ And I just went back to [the Starchild look]. So, a lot of people believe that [the Bandit character] came first, but it actually didn't.”
Stanley remembers with a chuckle another time that Bogart made an unreasonable request back in KISS’s early days. Although KISS would eventually become one of the most successful and iconic hard rock acts of all time, their success as Casablanca’s first signing was hardly overnight. It wasn’t until they released their concert album (and fourth album overall), Alive!, which finally captured what they did best, that they exploded — pyro and all — into the mainstream. Before that, KISS “went from clubs around the country and us being in a station wagon, to us being third on the bill in theaters, to second on the bill.” When KISS showed up to these smaller and/or lower-billed gigs in all their fire-breathing, blood-spitting glory, many of the night’s supposed headliners were understandably less than thrilled. And Bogart’s solution to this growing problem was not one that sat very well with KISS.
“I think bands that had to follow us knew that they were screwed initially. They didn't know that. Certainly there were some bands who, when they would see us, would start chuckling. They weren't chuckling after we played,” Stanley says. “Also, what we were doing was so new back then that we could get away with things that you can't do anymore because the headliner doesn't let you [contractually]. … I mean, there were headliners who would go on with a KISS sign hanging behind them! You know, we just put up the KISS sign and didn't take it down. All the pyro — nobody thought ahead to say, ‘Well, is that band going to use pyro, and do they have a sign and this and that?’ It was all uncharted territory. So, we basically did what we wanted to, and we quickly got a reputation that made it difficult to find gigs.
“It got to a point where Neil Bogart had us come into his office in Los Angeles, and so help me, he said, ‘It's becoming impossible to get you on any shows. Could you possibly play, you know, worse? Could you, you know, not play the way you do?’” Stanley laughingly continues. “We looked at each other — and that was the weirdest thing. It was like, ‘Um, you want us to, like, suck?’” KISS of course once again refused to comply with Bogart’s ask, and that, thankfully, ultimately led to the Alive! breakthrough. And after that, they’d never have to open for anyone again. “That [live album] was a lifesaver for us, because it really had become almost impossible to find bands that would let us open for them,” says Stanley.
And now, five decades later, the Starchild and his bandmates — even non-original KISS members Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer, who respectively replicate Peter Criss’s Catman and Ace Frehley’s Spaceman looks — still apply their own stage makeup. And of course, Stanley is still in change of painting his famous 3D star. “I can't imagine anything else. It's a rite of passage. It's prepping for the match. It’s putting on your battle gear. It's a transformation, not just in terms of appearance, but in terms of how you're thinking. So, to sit in a chair and have somebody do my makeup — no way. It’s part of me, and I want it to be done by me,” asserts Stanley.
(Side note: As for why KISS never thought to recycle/revive Stanley’s abandoned Bandit look when new members like Singer, Thayer, Vinnie Vincent, or Eric Carr came into the lineup, Stanley admits it’s a “good question,” but says Vincent and Carr’s new characters, the Ankh Warrior and the Fox, “never really worked, and once we did the reunion with Ace and Peter, we said, ‘Well, we've spent a good part of our lives and busted our asses to make these four characters,’ so to get rid of them again and come up with something else, it wasn't going to happen.”)
And also five decades later, KISS are still headlining epic live shows — although their long-running, COVID-delayed End of the Road farewell tour will soon truly come to an end. “It is the last of any kind of regular shows or touring. It’s just time,” Stanley, who turns 71 this week, insists. “Physically, it's grueling to do what we do. Hell, if I could go out onstage in my jeans and a T-shirt, I’d do this another 10, 15 years, easily. But what we do is a whole different sport. I mean, we're athletes, running around with 30, 40, 50 pounds of gear, and it's not possible to do it that much longer. We're not like other bands.
“So, will we do more one-offs? I really have no idea. But this is a real clear mindset: that the touring days and doing those kind of shows is over. …The end is in sight, more so than some people know,” Stanley continues. While he won’t reveal exactly when or where the final KISS show will take place, he says the band will “have an announcement about that in the not-too-distant future. … It would only make sense for us to play [our last show] in the States, and I think it would make sense that we would end where we started.”
Wherever and whenever that show happens, Stanley knows it will be an emotional experience when he puts on his Starchild makeup for the last time. “There's going be some tears shed, for sure,” he says. “You’ve got to remember that Gene [Simmons] and I started this together when I was 17 and he was 20, 21. … It's a big part of who we are. It's a big part of our lives. So that that final show, yeah, that's momentous. And it's going to hit harder than I think we know.”
In the meantime, Stanley’s Black Series Wentworth Gallery fine art shows, with Stanley in attendance, will take place Feb. 3 in Hollywood, Fla; Feb. 4 in Boca Raton, Fla.; Feb. 24 in Bethesda, Md.; and Feb. 25 in McLean, Va. For more details, click here. And watch Stanley’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview above for more about his art career, KISS’s decisions to remove their makeup in 1983 and put it back on in 1996, how he flourished in the makeup-free '80s, and why one of his biggest regrets is never having the above-mentioned Andy Warhol paint his portrait.
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