Who Is She? The Dystopian Vision of Makeup Artist Mimi Choi
Ezra Miller’s Met Gala MUA on her vivid creations, articulating her hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
Mimi Choi @mimles
When Mimi Choi gave up her career as a Montessori pre-school teacher in Vancouver and enrolled into makeup classes on the advice of her mother, her only goal was to do something that made her happy. Blanche MacDonald Centre offered traditional and editorial makeup, but Choi gravitated towards the things she was learning in her special effects classes.
“It was Halloween 2013 and I was a month into my course. I typed in #halloweenmakeup into Instagram and I saw a girl whose face looked like it was broken into pieces,” explained Choi. “I had never done creative makeup before and I recreated it in my parents’ bathroom using two eyeliners, posted on Instagram for the first time, and tagged the girl who I was inspired by. She re-posted my look, saying that I did it better than her. That motivated me. I wanted to explore and wanted to find out more about this style.”
Experimenting on her own face, she began to explore the macabre imagery that permeated her mind during her frequent bouts of sleep paralysis, which she has suffered since childhood. Her initial post on Instagram was a sign of things to come.
Now, five years later, she has over one million followers, and was even summoned by actor Ezra Miller to collaborate on his makeup look for this year’s Met Gala. The actor’s publicist introduced him to her work and Miller went through Choi’s Instagram and fell in love with the kaleidoscopic eyes she did on herself in 2018.
“I was thinking about doing eyes on him anyways because most of my illusions are angle-dependent but eyes are impactful from different angles,” Choi explained.
She ended up doing an iteration of the original kaleidoscope eyes for Miller’s Met Gala red carpet. Because the fitting for his suit took longer than expected, Choi didn’t have time to do a trial run of the look so she “spontaneously painted that look (on Miller) at four in the morning on the Met Gala day.”
GARAGE talked to Choi about how she found a way to articulate her dreams through her art, and the impact of social media on her career.
Can you walk us through your career path to becoming a makeup artist?
I was a preschool Montessori teacher for three years and I thought my life was set but I always felt like my creativity was being suppressed. My mom asked me if I would be happy being a teacher my whole life and that made me think. And I realized I wasn’t 100 percent happy. So I decided to pursue something artistic. I thought it’d be fine arts. I always had an appreciation for art but I didn’t have an art background. My mom suggested makeup because I do makeup on myself and other people, and that’s how I decided to choose makeup school.
Why did you pick a school that provided all-around training versus a theater or film school that focused on special effects?
I was interested in beauty, fashion, and special effects. After I graduated, I tried different types of work but I didn’t really have a clear path until I discovered illusion makeup. It made me happy but at the time, there was no market for it. That genre didn’t really exist five years ago. It was something I was playing with but I followed my heart and my happiness, and the universe created a path just for me.
Prior to finding your niche as an illusion specialist, what kind of makeup gigs did you book?
I was working at Chanel when I was a student. I got hired to do demos there. After work, I’d go home and paint creative stuff on my face. I would have been content just working doing demos or cosmetic retailing. I thought that was maybe the path. I didn’t think that illusion makeup would ever have a demand. But, posting my work on Instagram definitely has helped my work spread and go viral.
You’ve often said your sleep paralysis inspires your work. How do the visions from these episodes find their way into your art?
I’ve had sleep paralysis since I was four but I didn’t really know what it was when I was young. My mom has it and she always told me we were haunted. I have a really severe case of sleep paralysis —I think when a lot of people go through it, they just fall asleep and they struggle to wake up but when I struggle, I actually see things happening in my room. My eyes are closed [but I am seeing the things in my room], and when I wake up I get really confused because it’s exactly the same room [that was just in my dream] where I’d see a hundred spiders walking in and out trying to suffocate me, people with no faces, people chopped up, one person splitting into 10 and then coming back into one, those kinds of things. I’ve had this for most of my life but I never really understood how to get over it. I was constantly living in fear until I started doing makeup.
How has painting your visions been therapeutic?
A few years ago, I started to paint a spider on my face that was inspired by the spiders I saw in my hallucinations. I realized that when I paint them out, I didn’t see them anymore. Like it literally healed me. I haven’t dreamt about spiders since I painted them. I still go through panic when I go through sleep paralysis but I feel like it’s a blessing in disguise—it helps me create looks that no one has ever seen before because it’s all in my head.
What triggers these hallucinations?
I look at my surroundings and I subconsciously absorb things that I see around me, then [they appear] in my hallucinations but it’s always a surreal version of what I’ve seen. Like if I’m in a zoo and I see animals, I will most likely hallucinate about animals with like five eyes or colorful hair. My art doesn’t just come my sleep paralysis but many different sources too but the episodes definitely contribute and it’s what makes my art unique.
Your work references Surrealist visual elements, is that a conscious choice?
I have no background in art and I never studied art history. I was just doing whatever made me happy. Ever since I started doing makeup, I've been really drawn to artists like Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher. Now when I travel, I like to go to museums. I try to take inspiration from anything other than make up like old paintings, architecture, or patterns of clothing.
Your transformations are bridging the gap between traditional makeup and art-inspired illusions. How has social platforms been important to you and what does it mean for you to be able to your own creative director without the influence of corporate branding dictating how you do your makeup?
Instagram has been very useful for launching my career. I’ve only been doing makeup for five years. And to have a career, travel the world to teach classes, and do shoots is a dream come true. I never thought there would be a demand for illusion makeup. My point of posting on Instagram–even now—is to keep track of my progress, and that’s the measure of my success [not to] go viral. I’m really grateful for the opportunities it has given me.