Mimi Choi is obsessed with originality. The special effects makeup artist immigrated to Canada from Macau (a former Portuguese colony off the southeast coast of China) with her parents in the mid-’90s, and in 2013, quit her job as a Montessori teacher to pursue makeup artistry. Her natural eye for illusion quickly caught the attention of teachers at Vancouver-based cosmetics school Blanche Macdonald Centre. After the first month in her program, Choi says, “I felt a side of my brain open that I didn’t even know existed before.” From there, her creativity—and tireless work ethic within an art form that often requires 15 straight hours of concentration—took off.
Today, she’s known as @mimles to her 1.2 million Instagram followers. Most recently, she caught the attention of the fashion community with the mesmerizing multi-eye makeup look she created for Ezra Miller at the 2019 Met Gala. “By the time [viewers] saw the makeup, he had already been wearing it 10 hours,” she says.
Choi recently partnered with makeup brand Mehron to create the Illusion Palette, which she says features just the basics—foundations, matte eyeshadows, pressed pigments, and water-based paints, all in neutral colours. “I feel like if you truly understand the concept of highlighting and contouring, you can really do anything,” says Choi, who views all makeup as illusion makeup (to different degrees, of course), involving a process where we “create things that do not exist in reality.”
The desire to escape or alter reality has long been a driving force for artists of all kinds, from musicians to painters, who have turned to art as a type of therapy and catharsis. There’s a reason why the trope of the tortured artist, seeking inspiration from their internal demons, lives on. For Choi, the sentiment could not be truer—or more literal. Since she was four years old, the makeup artist has suffered from hallucinations during sleep paralysis, a condition that occurs while falling asleep or waking up, in which the mind is conscious but the body is unresponsive, temporarily preventing movement or speech. “A few years ago, I started painting these visions out,” says Choi. “I remember seeing spiders crawling all over my room at one point, so [I drew] a spider on my face. Once I painted it, I didn’t dream about it anymore. For me, it’s an extra layer of inspiration that the universe has gifted me. And isn’t it the greatest [gift]?” she asks. “It’s so original. Sometimes our worst fears are really the best thing that could happen to us.”
If you haven’t guessed by now, for the sake of maintaining her individuality, Choi chooses not to pay attention to other makeup artists’ work, for fear of subconsciously absorbing different aesthetics. “I like to look at other forms of art, like paintings, digital art, sculptures, architecture—things other than makeup,” she says. But as is to be expected on Instagram, Choi’s signature creations, like multiple rows of eyes or a blurred-out face, have ended up on other artists’ pages, sans accreditation—not that Choi minds. “After a while, I realized that people who copy you, they’re always going to be one step behind. They can lie to others, but they can’t lie to themselves,” she says. “Plus, my ideas are in my head, so people can never know what I’m going to do next.”