Mills loved to talk. “We used to call him the big mouth,” says Lizzette Kattan, the former editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar Italy. “One night we were in Rome, working until 2 or 3 a.m.,” she says. “He’d go to bed and then the next day, I knocked on his door and he continued the same conversation we left off that night. I said, ‘No, Joey let me have my cappuccino first!’ I found it really fun to be with him.”

Friends recall Mills as social. He liked to hit Studio 54, though Thomas says he wasn’t the best dancer. He didn’t have a long-term partner, which some chalk up to living through the AIDS crisis. :All he did was work for 20 years straight,” hairstylist Gary Evans says. “He never had time for a lover. He joked that he wanted to marry Nelson Mandela when he came home from jail.”

By the end of the 1980s, Mills slowed his breakneck editorial and runway show pace, deciding to focus on private clients. A new generation of makeup artists was coming up. The disco glamour he loved was out, grunge was in. But friends say that throughout his life, Mills kept any personal disappointments to himself.

When he was diagnosed with lymphoma about 10 years before his death, Mills used to say it was “the same disease Jackie O had,” as if he were in good (and, to use his favorite word, “fabulous”) company, according to his friend Vanessa Noel, a shoe designer.

At Thanksgiving, Noel would drop off a turkey for Mills and friends. “I’d have to carry it,” Evans says. “Joey would say, ‘I’m a blonde. I can’t carry that!’ [I’d say], ‘We adore you, but really, pick this turkey up.'”

“He had a generosity of heart,” Thomas says. And an indefatigable spirit. Mills died in New York during the pandemic, and Noel recalls her last Zoom with him in his hospital room; she went makeup-free. “I told him I was a mess, but he was so excited to see me, and said that I was pretty.” Later that evening, he died at the age of 80.

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.

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