The unmistakable sound and style of the rock band Kiss has excited fans for over 40 years. Ever since the group first burst onto the music scene in the early 1970s, audiences have been wowed by their unique makeup and costume combos. You may not even know a single song, but you certainly know the look.
Yet for one of the legendary band’s members, rock and roll stardom and all its excesses probably couldn’t have seemed more unlikely in his younger days. After experiencing a childhood filled with ridicule due to a birth defect, he might have said goodbye to any dreams of a career in music.
But for Paul Stanley – also known as Kiss’ Starchild – a youth spent as a social outcast provided him with determination in later life. In fact, the experience gave Stanley motivation for daubing the now-famous star on his face and the desire to doggedly pursue fame and fortune. As the performer told AXS TV in April 2019, he wanted to “push it in people’s faces.” He wanted to be vindicated.
In true rock and roll underdog style, then, this deformity and the disdain that it brought in the young boy’s direction sparked a desire to prove the doubters wrong. And Kiss’ Starchild will now be remembered in rock and roll history as the co-frontman of one of a select number of acts to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an achievement that the band secured in 2014.
It’s fair to say that the honor was just reward for the group. Hits such as “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “Detroit Rock City” among many other Kiss tracks remain staples of rock radio stations around the world, after all. Plus, the band’s personae have become synonymous with the glam, excess and debauchery that have been woven into the very fabric of rock ’n’ roll.
In fact, generations of kids have grown up with the rock and roll dream that’s brought to life by the band. And iconic frontmen Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley – a.k.a. The Demon and The Starchild, whose names derive from their outrageous costumes and now-patented makeup designs – have probably best embodied the mystique and individuality of Kiss.
Simmons in particular needs little introduction. With tales of promiscuity, outrageous stage antics and a number of controversial incidents under his belt, the band’s bassist and co-lead singer is perhaps the most well-known of the troupe’s members. Yet Paul Stanley – the enigmatic Starchild – is equally as important to the group’s story.
Being the only two original members left in the band as well as the group’s major songwriting contributors and the men who defined Kiss’ visual style, Stanley and Simmons are a rock double-act in the mold of Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. One without the other would certainly have led to a very different band, and one can only wonder if the same level of success would have been achieved.
Kiss’ status in the rock pantheon has been cemented by nominations for Grammy and MTV Video Music Awards, as well as millions of record sales globally. Fine achievements indeed, and yet the music alone will never satisfactorily define the band. That’s because their essence is all about the act: the wacky outfits, stage personae and notorious antics.
Formed in New York in the early ’70s, the band have always been easily identifiable – most of all by their makeup. So, where did it come from? “At the same time that we were forming in New York, there was a very big glitter scene, where boys were basically acting like girls and putting on makeup,” Simmons told Porkchops & Applesauce magazine in 1996.
“[In] the very first pictures we took when the band first got together, we looked like drag queens. But we knew we wanted to get outlandish,” Simmons added. “Getting up onstage was almost a holy place for us – like church. So, being onstage looking like a bum wasn’t my idea of respect. That’s where the makeup and dressing up came in.”
And the band’s look wasn’t premeditated, either. “I just remember being in a loft in downtown New York and looking in the mirror and just starting to draw. It was very stream-of-consciousness. What you see is really what just happened,” Simmons revealed. But that’s not all Kiss are about: there are the onstage antics, too, which Simmons in particular took to a whole new level.
Spitting blood? Check. Breathing out fire? Check. Setting your own hair alight? Check, check, check! In fact, Simmons is purported to have burned his hair on stage on numerous occasions, often having a nearby stagehand at the ready to extinguish the fire just in case. And it all adds up to a band with few rivals in the on-stage entertainment stakes.
But that’s far from all the group are famous for. There was a time when they were immortalized by Marvel comics, for instance, first appearing in an issue of Howard the Duck back in 1977. A rumor even went round that the band had contributed their blood to the ink that the Kiss stories were drawn in!
While few bands are able to boast comic book appearances, even fewer can claim to sell merchandise as eclectic as Kiss’. From figurines and dolls to lunchboxes and pencil cases, the quartet hit new heights of notoriety when they produced a Kiss coffin in 2001. The ‘Kiss Kasket,’ which is rumored to have been used by Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell after his tragic death in 2004, provoked the following quote from Simmons, according to NME: “I love livin’, but this makes the alternative look pretty damn good.”
And then there are the frequent stories linking the band to Satanism, which, despite not being based on fact, have nonetheless become part of the legend. “Misinformation about the band began to spread in the southern Bible Belt states, including a rumor that the name Kiss stood for Knights in Satan’s Service and that the four of us were devil worshipers,” Simmons’ autobiography revealed.
The band never actively sought to deny the rumors, however. “When I was asked whether I worshipped the devil, I simply refused to answer for a number of reasons: the first reason, of course, was that it was good press. Let people wonder,” he wrote. “The other reason was my complete disregard for the people who were asking.”
The fact that Kiss wore outlandish black outfits, were covered in makeup and had a co-lead singer called The Demon who spat blood and fire obviously didn’t help quash the fears of concerned parents who saw their children mimicking their heroes. But the other band members’ nicknames were far less connected to the dark side of life.
Ace Frehley, who is the band’s original lead guitarist, was known as The Spaceman, although the role has since been taken over by Tommy Thayer – or Space Ace. Original drummer Peter Criss, whose spot is now filled by Eric Singer, meanwhile, took on the persona of The Catman. And of course, the singers’ makeup matched these monikers. Subsequent additions to the troupe Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent were known as The Fox and The Ankh Warrior, respectively.
For his part, Paul Stanley adopted the name The Starchild and can always be seen on stage with a black star covering one eye. And for a short period in the band’s early days, he was also known as The Bandit. But from where did this celestial nickname originate? “Each of us wears something that reflects who we are. I always loved stars and always identified with them. So, when it came time to put something on my face, I knew it would be a star,” Stanley told Guitar World in 1996.
What’s more, Stanley has admitted that it’s difficult to compare his own persona and that of The Starchild. “You behave differently in different situations,” he told the New York Post in March 2019. “When I’m at dinner, I don’t stand on the table and yell for people to pass the salt. When I’m in an arena, it’s a different situation.”
“But I’m never wearing a disguise,” Stanley added, mind you. “This is never a masquerade. It’s so much a part of me that whether it’s on my face or in my blood, it’s always there… So, whether I ever put it on again or not, it’s part of me. The tattoo is on the inside, also.”
Nonetheless, it seems that there was a time when the on-stage persona of a sex-crazed rebel wasn’t a far cry from the truth. Stanley had a string of romantic liaisons back in the day, for instance. Plus, he told Classic Rock in 2017, “I used to enjoy just pushing my parents’ buttons to let them know I’m living a life they would be aghast at.” But these rock and roll clichés were all a long way from Stanley’s humble beginnings.
That’s because all of this success and the tales that have gone down in rock ’n’ roll legend would never have been possible if the band – and Stanley in particular – hadn’t overcome considerable obstacles to climb the rungs of stardom. And in Stanley’s case, in fact, the odds were stacked against him from the very moment that he arrived in the world.
You see, Stanley was born with a physical deformity that had developed as the result of a birth defect. But what was this abnormality that would be such a hindrance on the star’s formative years? Well, as the man himself told AXS TV, “I was born deaf on my right side, and I had a birth defect. I had what’s called a microtia, which is basically not having an ear – having a crumpled mass of cartilage.”
Stanley revealed this startling fact on The Big interview with Dan Rather. “I wasn’t very socially adept,” the frontman continued. “And when you have something physical that sets you apart from people, it makes you really a target of unrelenting scrutiny and sometimes ridicule.”
This presumably came as a major surprise to all those people who had witnessed the confident displays of the Kiss member on stage. But of course, Stanley is far from the only performer to have adopted a persona while in the limelight, and it appears that the rocker used his formative experiences to help him grow as an individual.
“Quite honestly, the idea of becoming famous was a way to push it in people’s faces and go, ‘You see, you should have been nicer to me,’” Stanley admitted. So, it seems that revenge was a strong motivating factor for the young man to pursue dreams of rock stardom. He wanted to hit back at those childhood bullies who had made his life so hard.
However, getting his own back wasn’t quite so simple. As many others have indeed found, stardom in itself isn’t necessarily a solution for life’s hardships. “‘I was fortunate enough to have success come to me and realize that didn’t change anything,” Stanley added.
“So, I was really blessed because at that point in your life, it’s either a disappointment, because it’s not a remedy, and you either put a needle in your arm, a gun in your mouth, or you live life as a victim,” Stanley explained. “And I’m not cut out of that.”
Instead, Stanley used his challenges as further inspiration, fighting in the manner that had seen him prosper despite his medical condition. “So, I decided that I would spend my life and my time on self-exploration and trying to make myself a better person and seeing where that was going to take me,” he said.
And as well as that mindset taking Stanley to the heights professionally, he’s also established a happy home life. The guitarist wed his partner of many years, Erin Sutton, in a California ceremony back in 2005. Plus, the couple have since had three children together: Emily Grace, who is seven, ten-year-old Sarah Brianna and Colin, who is 12. Stanley also has an older son, Evan, meanwhile, from an earlier marriage.
But what exactly is microtia, the defect with which Stanley was born? According to the website of the Children’s National Health System, microtia is “the medical term for an incompletely formed ear. It can range in severity from a partially formed ear to a lump of tissue. Sometimes, the ear canal is very narrow or missing altogether.”
There are different levels of severity and varying ways in which hearing can be affected by this birth defect, then. But as the Children’s National Health System site explains, “Beyond the apparent visual deformity of the ear, children with microtia often experience some hearing loss due to the closure or absence of the external ear canal. This hearing loss can affect how the child’s speech will develop.”
And as Stanley alluded to, the effects aren’t always just physical. “Even if a child doesn’t suffer hearing loss, feelings of self-consciousness may develop,” the website adds. “Children usually become aware of differences in their bodies around ages four or five. By the age of six or seven, children may tease other children who do not look ‘normal.’ The child with microtia may feel self-conscious and inadequate.”
This certainly seems to correspond with the recollections of Stanley, who went to the PS98 school in Inwood, Manhattan. But admirably, microtia didn’t hold the boy back, despite him being deaf in one ear. In fact, the young Stanley displayed a love of music from an early age.
Stanley’s parents were fans of classical music, and it was this genre that initially impacted on him. Beethoven, in particular, was a favorite of the soon-to-be rock star. It was far cry from the exuberant guitar music of Kiss, of course. But Stanley began to learn harmonies with his family – despite the hearing problems that had been caused as a result of his physical defect.
Stanley received his first guitar at the age of seven and later began to show an interest in the songs of performers such as Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. In subsequent years, he was to be influenced by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and although he also showed promise as an artist, Stanley began dreaming of a career in music.
The spark that was to launch Stanley’s dream of stardom into reality arrived when he became part of Gene Simmons’ band Wicked Lester in the early 1970s. It wasn’t long before the group were to incorporate new members, change their name to Kiss and set off on the road to fame and notoriety.
So, the dreams of the young Stanley came true. And although people strive to become famous for any number of reasons, The Starchild’s motivation is certainly one to which we can all relate. “I pursued fame as a way to compensate for a lot of insecurities,” the Kiss co-founder admitted during the Dan Rather interview. Lovers of music – and particularly fans of the band – are eternally grateful that he did.