At this year’s Met Gala, all eyes were on Ezra Miller. Wearing a custom Burberry suit, the queer American actor walked the camp-themed red carpet with five realistic eyes painted onto his face. The effect was kaleidoscopic, trippy and unmistakably the work of Vancouver makeup artist Mimi Choi. “The whole look came about spontaneously at 4 in the morning,” Choi says. “He trusted me completely.” For his part, Miller was fully engaged throughout the five-hour application. Choi says that he didn’t even look at his phone once.
It’s easy to be mesmerized by Choi. Born in Macau, she moved to Vancouver with her family when she was 11. With a knack for cosmetics, she would often do her friends’ makeup for special occasions but never considered it as a career option. She ended up working as a preschool teacher at a Montessori school, a job that she enjoyed but left her creatively unfulfilled. “I would go home and paint little details on my nails as a way to release stress,” she says. Eventually, her mother sat her down and suggested she look into a career as a makeup artist. “She knew I wasn’t completely happy. Moms know everything.”
Choi quit her teaching job and, at 28, enrolled at the Blanche Macdonald Centre, a college known for its makeup artistry program. “I was so scared! That was the biggest jump of my life,” she says. Makeup program director Tracey Payne says that Choi’s passion and attention to detail made her immediately stand out from her peers. “You could see that she put heart into it. You’d always get an emotion from her work,” Payne says. “I knew that there was something very special about her.”
It was during a special effects module that Choi had her a-ha moment. “It made me realize that makeup is so much more than beauty,” she says. Choi began experimenting with optical illusion makeup, where she uses paint to trick the eye, as a way to work on her skills overall, documenting her progress on Instagram. In 2016, her account went viral, taking off when pro makeup company Nyx reposted one of her photos, in which she’d made her face look like a torn piece of paper. Choi would wake up in the morning to thousands of likes from around the world; today, her account @mimles has 1.2 million followers.
Over the six years she’s been doing makeup, Choi’s optical illusions have included everything from multiple facial features, a signature of hers, to motifs such as butterflies, animals, food and doors. They each take about two to three hours to complete, although Choi says she can work for as long as 10 hours. While she has no training in fine arts, her surreal imagery follows in the footsteps of Picasso, Dali and Escher, and she makes a point of visiting art galleries and museums on her travels.
Choi’s biggest source of inspiration, however, is sleep paralysis, a condition where one is temporarily unable to move or speak while waking or falling asleep. Choi has experienced sleep paralysis frequently since she was about 4 years old and says it manifests as terrifying hallucinations that always take place in her bedroom. “I’ve seen people looking at me and splitting into 10 and coming back into one – that’s why I paint a lot of multiples. I’ve seen people with many, many arms and eyes, chopped up or with holes all over their face and body.” Makeup has become a tool for healing, as once Choi paints out the characters from her nightmares, they never return. “I’m grateful for these hallucinations because they help me create things no one has seen.”
Following the rich images of her dreams means that Choi rarely looks at the work of other makeup artists. “It’s not because I think my work is superior. I try to stay away from makeup styles that have been done before,” she explains. Ultimately, this artist is in it for herself. “I’m never happy, I always want to beat myself and do better.”
That drive for perfection has led Choi back to the world of teaching. In 2016, she was hired by her alma matter as an instructor in its global makeup artistry program. Payne says that Choi’s energy and enthusiasm as well as her unconventional path to success inspire the students to pursue their own personal passions. “The students find that very inspiring. She’s an amazing teacher,” Payne says. Choi also travels the world presenting her work at high-profile events such as the International Makeup Trade Show and teaching master classes to other makeup artists.
Through teaching and sharing her work on Instagram, Choi hopes she can encourage a sense of creativity in others. “A lot of us are blocked by fear of judgment and that’s why people are afraid to be creative,” she says. “Whenever you’re uncomfortable or trying something new, you are learning. I always say, there are no mistakes in art.”