As a kind of interesting comparison show to the exhibition about Dutch fashion designer and drag aficionado Max Heymans at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, Berlin’s Schwules Museum currently hosts “The Art of Appearances - Drag star, Make-up artist, collector of lipsticks and charity activist: A homage at René Koch’s 70th birthday.” Koch knows them all, the (German) divas from film and television, opera, theater and politics – he offered them guidance, applied their makeup and quite often became their friend.
Koch learned the art of beautiful appearance from scratch. He was his own model, which brings visitors of the exhibition right back to the beginning, when he performed as a drag star in the Sixties. He kept the pictures of him in glitter dress and in his curly wig, which he now presents to the public for the very first time. He performed at gay bars, parties and fancy-dress balls. Back then, taking a cab, all dressed up, was quite daring, because wearing female clothes, one was immediately identified as a “Fummeltante.”
Role models, at that time, were women like Mae West, Bette Davies or Marlene Dietrich, but Koch loved the extraordinary, the larger than life types, and the ones that were not at all like “mommy.” Boas, made of crêpe paper, and home-made long eyelashes were mandatory. He was singing along to chansons by Zarah Leander and Helen Vita. The audience at the former Kleist Casino had a great time.
This was a school for life, where one could learn the essentials of what makes a great performance. Those evenings could end abruptly after an unheralded raid by the police, when the guests ended up at police headquarters, where they were registered on the infamous “Pink Lists,” since homosexuality was still illegal for all ages in Germany under the notorious Paragraph 175.
After a while, Koch grew weary of the nightlife and started working in a grocer’s store to finance an apprenticeship as a cosmetician and makeup artist. When the American cosmetics company Charles of the Ritz became aware of him, they became his sponsor and educator.
Koch remained faithful to the company for twenty-one years (1969–1990) and was promoted head make-up artist, a position he later on also held at Yves Saint Laurent. He worked in Paris, London, New York, Zurich and Berlin.
In the late seventies Koch got to know Hildegard Knef at the legendary “Tuntenball” at the ICC. He became her closest beauty-confidant. René Koch was not only responsible for her make-up, but also advised her in questions of life and fashion. This is shown in a special part of the exhibition. The list of his customers is long and exclusive, from Joan Collins to Claudia Schiffer to Brigitte Nielsen.
After a long career René Koch is an honorary member in many organizations. He is also involved in the advisory board of the Berlin AIDS-Hilfe and remembers the beginnings, when, while collecting donations with Judy Winters, he was spat at during the World Aids Day in front of the Europa-Center. For his charity activities, he was awarded the “Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” (medal of honor) in 2002 and in 2013 he received the “Verdienstorden des Landes Berlin” from the hands of Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Koch also won numerous awards in the cosmetics industry. Since 2006, he has been presenting his own cosmetics label “Cosmetic de Luxe” on TV. Koch is the author of many books about beauty, he draws and also writes poetry. His many television appearances are an indication of his popularity, which is also demonstrated by the fact that the press reports extensively about him. In short, René Koch is quite famous.
The Schwules Museum honors René Koch also as a museum founder, since he established his own museum in 2008: the “Lipstick Museum.” The Schwules Museum exhibits objects that represent “The Art of Appearances”: Precious powder compacts with integrated lipsticks, jewelry, posters, curious stuff, the latest fad of cosmetics, color palettes from pink to crimson, prints of lips with dedications from his most famous clients and various beauty aids from the time of both capitalism and socialism in Germany.
The exhibition “The Art of Appearances” takes the visitors on a journey through his self-confident gay life, and is on display until March 14, 2016.