Vancouver-based makeup artist Mimi Choi is well-known for her hyperreal optical illusion art. Her vivid, visually striking looks mind-bend and trick you into thinking you’re seeing things that aren’t actually there—with no ounce of photoshop used. Most of her looks are inspired by her hallucinations during her sleep paralysis.
Along with over one million followers on Instagram, Choi’s illusion makeup art has debuted on celebrities—namely Shay Mitchell and Ezra Miller’s makeup look at the 2019 Met Gala.
I got to speak with Choi about her beginnings, inspiration and behind the Met Gala look.
MM: What introduced you to the makeup industry?
MC: I was a preschool teacher for three years and I actually changed my career at age 28. I was feeling quite burnt out and I love children—I still do—but my creativity was suppressed in a way. One day my mom asked me if I was going to be happy being a preschool teacher for the rest of my life, and that question made me think and I decided to look at other options.
I wanted to take a year off to explore my other passions, so I quit my job and went to school [at Blanche Macdonald] in less than seven days. I changed my whole life in less than seven days. It was scary but as soon as I started picking up brushes and doing makeup I realized it opened up another side of my brain that I didn’t know existed before. I didn’t know I could ever be that creative, I had no art background at all. Doing makeup throughout the year and learning different fundamentals and techniques kind of got me interested in doing illusion makeup. That started in Halloween 2013 when I started exploring creative makeup.
I did a cracked face look using two different eye liners. I posted it on social media and it kind of went viral and people starting pinning it on Pinterest and recreating it. It motivated me to keep exploring the style and if I use more eyeshadow next time, maybe blend the edges a bit more, trying to improve from my last piece. Every time I do a look, all I want to do is progress and improve as an artist.
If I can do illusion makeup, then I can do any beauty or fashion or glam makeup easily because illusion makeup is difficult. It was a hobby and as I started posting these looks on social media, [my looks] went viral. I didn’t know people would embrace and love this style. As I kept exploring, I got invited to do magazine cover shoots or work on different models and clients. Later, I got invited to teach master classes overseas. I’m grateful that I got to turn a hobby of mine into a job.
MM: So you didn’t expect this level of success it would become?
MC: Yes. I feel thankful that it did. Everything I did was never for fame, money or success, it’s a bonus. Every piece that I do comes from the heart—I don’t think about if people like it. If I get satisfaction from it, I feel like the world will adapt to it just because people see that it comes from within.
I think that’s how people get inspired because they can see how I could change my path at age 28. I’m 34 now and in only five years it could progress into something like this, it’s possible for a lot of people. You only live once. It doesn’t hurt to try something new.
MM: How long does each look take?
MC: Average is about five hours. The least an illusion would take would be two hours, the most would be around ten hours. It depends on what kind of look at how intricate things are.
MM: What else inspires your looks?
MC: It comes from everything—paintings, architecture, music, photoshopped art—and I think to myself can I replicate this in makeup?
I’ve had sleep paralysis since I was four and I hallucinate in my sleep paralysis. [It’s like] you’re trapped in your sleeping body. Your mind is awake and your body is asleep and you can’t move. I see a lot of scary visions- people with no faces, lots of eyes, trying to suffocate me, shadows standing by the door, hovering over me, and chopped faces.
It wasn’t until a few years ago I remember I saw spiders crawling all over my room during my hallucination. It was hundreds of spiders and I knew it was not real. When I see it, I see the details vividly and for some reason, I had this idea to paint the spider on my lips when I woke up.
I’m going to face my fear and paint it out because I see it so clearly. As I painted it out I realized I don’t dream about them anymore, that makeup kind of heals me. I use my fear now as a motivation. Every class that I teach, people always say how do you sound so confident? No, it’s still scary for me.
Doing this as a career now is very scary, but I search for fear in everything that I do because fear means I’m progressing as a human. Fear is definitely a factor that motivates me and my sleep paralysis adds to my art, and it happens for a reason. That’s what makes me the unique person that I am today.
MM: What was your inspiration for Ezra Miller’s makeup look at this year’s Met Gala?
MC: When Ezra called me, he talked about his concept and that he was going to have a prosthetic mask and wanted to show the different layers of his personality of himself for the Camp theme and he brought up the idea that he liked eyes, and brought up a look—the kaleidoscope face—which was exactly the same vision that I had for him prior to our conversation. It was cool that our visions aligned because we didn’t have time for a trial.
I changed up the patterns of the eyes and we decided to take out the lines. We actually changed the idea at two in the morning, the morning of the Met Gala.
MM: Which celebrity or artist would you love to collaborate with?
MC: I’d love to work with Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Rihanna, or Beyonce. I like to work with people that are very open-minded and being able to work with Ezra was cool because he’s down-to-earth, creative, open-minded, and we just clicked right off the bat.
MM: What are you hoping the reactions are when people see your work for the first time?
MC: I don’t really think about reactions. I hope it inspires some to be more like themselves. People are very fearful of revealing their true selves and afraid of people judging them. I hope that by showcasing my artwork, my alter-egos, and different sides of myself, I allow people to keep exploring their passions and try something new. You only live once and I feel that a lot of people are blocked by their fear and their living their life according to other people’s expectations.