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Woman helps the stars look their best

Toni Kennedy, youngest of nine children, had a vision of meeting stars and going places. What she didn't know was that her ticket was in a makeup case.

Even as a girl, Toni Kennedy dreamed of walking among the stars. It was mundane stuff, like going fishing with Elvis Presley. Grocery shopping with Pavarotti. It was getting to know folks, not behaving like a fan.

She never forgot the vision, and finally it came true.

Kennedy works inches away from the stars these days. Works on them, really. She is a makeup artist whose current steady client is singer Whitney Houston.

With daughter Paige, 7, and son Wyatt, 5, Kennedy was able to spend some time in her Lakewood apartment after Houston recently ended a United States tour.

Kennedy and the children left Tuesday for a few days in New York before Houston's entourage _ Kennedy included _ departs for a European tour that may be extended to China and will end late this fall.

Born in St. Petersburg 35 years ago next Monday, Kennedy will spend part of her birthday at a party Houston is throwing for Michael Jackson and Diahann Carroll.

She has a plastic card with an attached chain so it can be worn around the neck. It's like a press card, only better. "WHITNEY," say the big capital letters. In smaller type are the words, "All access world tour." The card's reverse side notes the degree of access the pass allows: "Anywhere I want to go."

It is an exciting life for a woman who years ago helped one of her big sisters sell St. Petersburg's afternoon newspaper in Williams Park.

Kennedy was the youngest of nine children. She spent some of her youth in Jordan Park, the city's oldest public housing project, "two doors down from Angela Bassett," an actor who also grew up in St. Petersburg.

The nearby 20th Street Church of Christ was a big part of Kennedy's childhood. At St. Petersburg High, she said, she wasn't considered especially popular. "Aloof. Skinny and flat-chested" is how she described herself.

Kennedy tried modeling as a teenager. She sang with a local band called Stevie and the Hotheads. "My big song was Proud Mary," she said.

She experimented with makeup in the '70s, using various techniques and equipment. "I'd take out my magazines and try to imitate what I saw," she said.

But she didn't get serious about makeup until two years ago. She broke in by being bold.

Coming off a divorce, in debt, and supporting herself and the children working as a hairdresser in New York, Kennedy said, she used to talk to her workmates about being a makeup artist.

One day a brochure advertising a class came in the mail. The teacher was Bert Roth, a longtime network television makeup maven. Kennedy signed up.

"Bert's advice was if you wanted to be a makeup artist, you call your local TV station and tell them their people look awful."

Kennedy said she didn't even watch TV. But she worked up the nerve to call a station in the Catskills.

"I said it. "Your people look awful.' And I'm thinking, this is ridiculous. This is some way to start a career. I had just taken a five-day class."

But who knew? The station hired her.

"I was so happy. They were paying me $100 a week for making up four newscasters."

Thirty days later, she joined the makeup artists' union. The producer at the Catskills station moved on to a cable network, and Kennedy caught on there, too, now earning $100 a day.

Next, she began making up actors for media events in which journalists are given interview and photo access to several stars in the same location. Tom Selleck and Susan Sarandon were among her clients. Word about her talent got around.

Even now, the series of breaks astonishes her.

"You were looking at a person who was doing it without a clue. Anyone who said anything to me (about working with makeup), I would rush out and do it."

One such piece of advice suggested using the antacid Maalox as a facial foundation. It turned out to be a substance useful in getting Houston ready for a show. The Maalox doubles as a skin sealant, and Houston perspires heavily, Kennedy said.

Another curiously strong element in Kennedy's makeup toolbox is a metal container of Altoids. They, however, are used for the usual thing. Close-in work and spicy lunches make the peppermint tablets imperative, Kennedy said.

Working with Houston is like being with a sister, Kennedy said.

"She's very religious, very nurturing. The type of person who'd give you the shirt off her back. She prays when she gets up in the morning. She prays over meals. She prays when she goes to bed. She talks to you as if you were a loved one."

And she is, said Kennedy, easy to make up because she has so much natural beauty. "The most beautiful features of anyone I've ever worked with. Her lips are so perfect."

Kennedy has had the chance to learn about other stars up close.

Paul Newman's startling blue eyes get help from some special drops from France, she confided.

Wes Craven, the horror film director, "is the most fun person I've ever met," because of his conversation and antics. "He started out writing love stories and failed miserably at it."

Robert Di Niro doesn't use makeup. "Not even powder."

With Susan Sarandon, "We were just two moms talking about kids."

Knowing Bert Roth led to Kennedy's meeting with Houston.

He put Kennedy in touch with Toy Russell, Eddie Murphy's makeup artist. Russell asked Kennedy to help during a filming. A while later, somewhere in the neighborhood, Houston was doing a commercial when her regular artist couldn't be available. Kennedy was able to fill in.

That was in April, and Kennedy has been on tour most of the time since. Now she earns about $2,100 per makeup session.

Said Kennedy: "It's really happened fast, but I think I'm old enough so that it's not heady."

She can handle the pressure, in other words, and not be influenced by the celebratory sex-drugs-rock-'n'-roll ambience that can be a part of the entertainment industry.

To help put perspective on being close to the famous, Kennedy said she always remembers this: "As soon as Whitney Houston checks out of that hotel, you're nobody."

Kennedy is, however, always her family's breadwinner. That role can bump up against the job demands.

"You try to balance it. It's exciting, but it's a sacrifice, too," Kennedy said, referring to time away from her children.

Paige and Wyatt stay with their grandmother Lillian Kennedy when Mom is on the road. They will enter Admiral Farragut Academy when the fall term begins.

"You have guilt. You have excitement. I realize I'm very fortunate," Kennedy said. "But then there's always that mother's guilt. I used to experience that when I went to the hair salon. I guess there's no getting around it."

She gives her makeup career five, maybe 10 years before life on the road perhaps becomes too much. She has ideas about a permanent return to St. Petersburg, and thoughts of opening a day-care center where parents can drop children just long enough to, say, buy groceries or keep a doctor's appointment.

She thinks she'll do it because, she said, she takes "a Babe Ruth approach to life." That is, she'll call her shot and then come through with it, however long it takes.

"I was," she observed, "an old chick when I started doing this," referring to her close contact with famous entertainers, the stuff of her dreams.

"I've seen people who use their starting points as an excuse why their finishing point is so low."

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