Vancouver-Based Illusionist Mimi Choi on the Magic of Transforming Fear Into Art

The makeup artist also drops her skincare routine. Because we know you were wondering.

Like any good piece of art, Vancouver-based makeup artist Mimi Choi’s illusionist looks inspire a myriad of reactions: admiration, fear, curiosity, disgust. A former pre-school teacher, the Blanche MacDonald grad started doing makeup professionally fives year ago. Since then, Choi’s surreal, borderline disturbing makeup looks—which transform her face into everything from a school of scaly fish to bowl of ramen to a giant gaping black hole—have helped her accumulate more than one million Instagram followers. Choi’s fantastically bizarre work found an even wider audience earlier this year, when the artist was asked to create a campy-creepy multi-eye look for actor Ezra Miller for his appearance at the Met Gala. (Miller, who revealed his six eyes on the pink carpet by removing a mask, stole the show.)

Needless to say, Choi has become even more in-demand since. Her schedule now includes appearances at makeup-artistry events around the world, including in Las Vegas, Moscow and Lima. When she’s home in Vancouver, however, she always makes time to experiment in front of the mirror. “I’d rather do a look than rest, which I realize is really unhealthy,” she says. Recently, following an event at her alma mater, Choi took the time to chat with Vanmag about frosty eyeshadow, waking up next to Slender Man and the hero products that prep her skin—a literal canvas—for the art she creates.

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What was your first experience with makeup? Were you comfortable with the craft before you started studying it and training in it?

The first makeup product I ever wore was a frosty white eyeshadow that I got when I was in the seventh grade. It was the only thing I wore for a while. Can you imagine? I don’t think it could’ve looked worse. I eventually started using lip gloss, concealer and everything else. I guess I became decent at doing makeup because during high school and university, people started asking me to do their graduation and bridal looks.

So I was very comfortable with makeup in a beauty sense, but I had never really explored it creatively. When I was a pre-school teacher, I had a Xanga blog, which I used the same way that I use Instagram now. I collected quotes and imagery and other artistic things on it that inspired me. After I began experimenting with my makeup, I shared one of my first creative makeup experiences on there. It was a look with thick eyeliner inspired by Lady Gaga, and people liked it and reposted it.

You were a pre-school teacher before you began doing makeup professionally five years ago. What led to the career switch and what drew you to illusionist makeup specifically?

I’ve always been into art. When I was feeling stressed out about my career [as a pre-school teacher] a few years ago, my mom said, “Why don’t you try something that makes you happy? Maybe something related to art?” I thought she was referring to visual or fine art, but then she suggested makeup and I was like, “Oh, that’s a career option?”

During my studies, I took a creative makeup class and liked it a lot. Creative or illusionist makeup is challenging and the possibilities are endless. Your only limit is your imagination. With beauty makeup, you can go pretty crazy but there’s always a limit. With creative makeup, you can turn yourself into an animal, into food, into a thousand pieces. You can give yourself three eyes. If you can draw something on a piece of paper, you can recreate it on your face.

You’ve created some wild and crazily intricate looks, transforming your face into a pile of books, a hamburger and more. How long does it typically take to create one of your illusions?

Sometimes I lose count of the hours. But the longest I’ve taken is probably close to 10 hours. I remember the shelf look, the wood carving look and the maze look all that long. Besides washroom breaks and coffee breaks, I’m typically working non-stop because I’m too eager to see the end result. I literally cannot wait. Once I’m done the look, the photo and video-taking process can add up to five hours. Taking the right photo with the right lighting at the right angle can be tough. And I do it all by myself with my iPhone—just me holding it, not even with a tripod or anything.

What products, tools or techniques are key in creating your illusionist looks?

I use products in a lot of neutral shades like brown, taupe and black. These are good for contouring, and white and creamy colours are good for highlighting, which, together, create the shadows. It’s important to work with someone’s skin tone to get their specific shade, too. 

In addition to makeup brushes, I use a lot of art brushes from Michaels. They’re those really thin ones that no one wants for some reason. Which is great for me, because I buy them all. A good setting spray is also key. I like Makeup Forever’s Mist and Fix hydrating setting spray, but if I really want to make a look last for a whole day or even longer—like the case with Ezra Miller’s Met Gala look—I use Studio F/X’s Green Marble SeLr Spray, which is a special-effects setting spray. I set my primer with it and then I’ll do the makeup and set that, so it’s like a Green Marble sandwich.

The skin is often described as a canvas, but yours is literally that for all the artistic looks you put together. How do you keep your skin clear and healthy?

I keep my skincare routine pretty simple because I find that the more I do to my skin, the more likely it is to get irritated. My skin is usually dry, so I use Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentre, which is this moisturizer with a milky-creamy texture that is very hydrating. I also use the Ordinary’s hyaluronic acid. I used to use oils, but I find that my skin takes hyaluronic acid a lot better for hydration. For makeup removal, I use the Original Makeup Eraser’s makeup removal cloth or Riversol’s microfibre makeup removal cloth, which I cannot live without. I’ll use one of those and then go in with a cleanser for a deeper clean. I don’t do a lot of facials or treatments. I know my skin, and it tends to freak out with those.

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You’ve mentioned in past interviews that doing illusionist makeup helps with the sleep paralysis you suffer from. How specifically does the art offer you relief?

I suffer from sleep paralysis but I also have a very active imagination and often have dreams that scare me. In my dreams, I see multiples of things—many hands, eyes. I’ve seen Slender Man. Sometimes, while I’m having these dreams, I’ll even feel someone’s weight beside me in my bed. I try to turn these fearful experiences into art because when I paint something that scares me, I don’t dream about it anymore. Painting it helps get rid of it from my mind and I end up dreaming about something else. So, in a way, it heals me.   

What’s the most memorable reaction to your work that you’ve received?

I love when people tell me that my makeup looks just as good in real life as it does on Instagram. Or when they say, “Oh, it looks even better in person”—that’s the biggest compliment. Because a lot of people think that I use Photoshop or that I digitally alter my images. But I spend a lot of time doing my looks. So to hear people say that—that it looks just as, if not better, in real life—means a lot.