By Lyndsey Parker
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.)