Mike Ruiz: Master Of Hopefulness

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Celebrity and fashion photographer Mike Ruiz readily acknowledges that he’s a pop-culture enthusiast, and the multitalented artist has dipped his toes in a variety of popular genres, including work as a music video director, reality TV star and high-profile model. He says that his real voice comes from photography, however, and he has worked with everyone from Betty White to Iman to Dolly Parton. Ruiz also chooses to use his art and public persona as a positive force in the world, and is active with a variety of charities. Above: Whirlwind force in the hip-hop world, Nicki Minaj.

Mike Ruiz is a very busy guy. From model to photographer to director to television personality, Ruiz has led a life in which he has been absolutely unafraid to embrace every opportunity that has been given to him, and his creative energies know no bounds. He began as a model and actor himself, working as talent for more than a decade before he stepped to the other side of the camera. As a director, Ruiz has helmed music videos for a number of dance luminaries like Vanessa Williams, Kristine W, Jody Watley, Traci Lords and X Factor UK judge Kelly Rowland. He works often with noted drag queen and television personality RuPaul, as well, and in 2007, he also directed a deliberately campy movie for RuPaul called Starrbooty, with a possible sequel slated for the future.


Though he says that he now prefers to stay behind the scenes, he recently starred in two seasons of The A-List: New York, a reality series on the LGBT-centered cable network Logo, which followed the lives of gay and bisexual men who were living in New York. He was on the panel of 2009 judges for Canada’s Next Top Model, and no stranger to reality television, he also has guest-starred on a number of episodes of America’s Next Top Model, as well as numerous episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. Although he doesn’t like to be labeled as just a photographer, or just a director, he admits that people seem to need to, in order to wrap their heads around everything that he does.

"I don’t know if it’s that I have so much to say that one medium started to not seem like enough," Ruiz laughs in humble amusement at his own fortune. "I started to venture into other mediums to try another form of expression, and I’m trying my hands at different things. It’s all about the experience for me. I don’t want to end up on my deathbed with a head full of regrets, so I’m just going for everything, whether I’m qualified at it or not!"

As a photographer, he has celebrities flocking to his high-impact, high-gloss collection of portraiture, beauty shots and editorial work. His fine pop sensibilities and his deft touch with the larger-than-life personalities that he works with have culminated in a body of work that’s an almost shameless blend of tongue-in-cheek humor, high-key glitz and sci-fi surrealism. And, most importantly, his shots are flawless, a quality that has attracted big names like the late Dennis Hopper, Sofia Vergara, Paris Hilton, Christian Bale, Lindsay Lohan and even the girls of Jersey Shore, among many, many others. And add a roster of commercial clients such as Sean John, MAC Cosmetics, Reebok, Vanity Fair, Flaunt, Interview and a variety of other impressive companies and publications, which include more than 60 magazine covers. Looking at his extremely detailed work, you’d think that he had spent many years learning the digital darkroom, but after getting to know him, it’s no surprise whatsoever to find out that Ruiz is completely self-taught. One of his greatest strengths as an artist is that he learns by doing, and he has done a lot.

An homage to Pierre et Gilles.

"I certainly bucked every route, every tradition. I never even studied photography," he explains about his circuitous path to becoming a professional photographer at 28. "The universal thing is to identify how passionate you are about what you’re doing, and if you still feel compelled to do it every single day, then you know that it’s something that you have to do. Once you identify that, you have to be consistent with it. You can’t put in just a little bit of effort and expect all the rewards. To this day, I try to prevent myself from becoming complacent, by thinking outside of the box, by creating new ideas and by trying to be different."

Ruiz’s style is largely influenced by photographers like Ruven Afanador, with whom he worked as a model, and Pierre et Gilles (Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard), who he says "created that perfection, that perfect alternate reality." He notes that his key look is due to a mastery of lighting, his own unique style that brings clients to him "because even without retouching, I’m able to make them look the way that they want to look." He also considers one of his hallmarks to be the way in which he reinvents his subjects, a difficult thing to do when so many of his famous friends and clients have been photographed ad nauseum. Calling them "transformations," he’ll toy playfully with context—adult film star Jenna Jameson in formal evening wear, noted thespian Sir Ian McKellen with a parrot perched on his shoulder, classic beauty Kim Kardashian as a short-haired cyber-vamp.

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Kim Kardashian

"I tend to identify something that I know they’ll respond well to," says Ruiz, "and i
s actually something that exists inside of them that I bring to the surface. I like to study them, break them down and identify something in them that they may or may not realize exists, and then bring it to the surface via hair and makeup, styling, environment and lighting. A lot of times, it’s jarring, but it kind of makes sense, as well. On the surface level, it’s very colorful and poppy, very pop art. But it’s so much more than that—the color, the vibrancy, the perfection of it all. It’s derivative of my need to create a more hopeful environment around me and to create a more hopeful world for others."

Born in Montreal in 1964 and raised in Québec, Ruiz is half Spanish and openly gay, a tough mix in the fairly intolerant, lower-income community he grew up in. He’s characteristically positive about the experience, though, thanking his upbringing for giving him a fantastical ability to escape into a world much like the one that he now creates with his camera. As a child, he’d often find himself in intensely realistic daydreams, elaborate worlds that he’d create for himself in which everything was full of beauty and color, and everyone there had perfect hair and was always "dressed to the nines." He says these daydreams were so realistic that he’d often be shocked to find that they weren’t actually real, and even at a young age, he realized that if he didn’t act on them, eventually his fantasies would shrivel up and die.

"It’s just creative visualization," he says. "I used to imagine myself in these different scenarios, and now they have all manifested. When I got that first camera as a gift, I realized that was the conduit for me to create that world myself."

Ruiz is also a businessman and a noted philanthropist in the LGBT community. He was a founding partner in the Los Angeles landmark studio, Miauhaus, which was open for 14 years until closing just recently. Ruiz says that he and his partners decided it was a better business decision to close up shop when faced with the reality that in order to stay competitive in today’s web-based market, they would need to upgrade to a much more expensive, soundproof space. "We didn’t go under," he says. "We just decided to end it."

Ruiz isn’t afraid to get wild with his high-impact beauty shots.

Ruiz is also a motivational speaker on gay issues and a tremendous supporter of a variety of organizations like GLAAD, Live Out Loud, The Trevor Project, Housing Works, the It Gets Better Project, Project Angel Food and the Men’s Sexual Health Project at the Bellevue Hospital Center and NYU School of Medicine. Two organizations on which he has focused his energies this past year are GMHC, a leading provider of HIV and AIDS prevention, care and advocacy, and the Ali Forney Center, a homeless shelter for LGBT youth based in New York City.

Because of his charity and his talent, a brief look at his Facebook page shows it full of positive comments from his fans and members of the LGBT community, many thanking him for everything he does as a photographer and many others thanking him simply for being who he is. He says that he’s flattered by all the feedback, and to him the most important thing is to inspire people to bring a positive energy and hopefulness to the world. "I work with a lot of philanthropic organizations that help kids," he says. "Everything that I do creatively has a message, and that message transcends photography for me, and now extends into trying to inspire kids into following their dreams, helping them to realize that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and light at the end of the tunnel."

Adds Ruiz, "The long and the short of it is to be consistent and to be proud of what you do. You can’t let people derail you. You can’t get discouraged. If you’re proud of what you’re doing and you love what you do, and you’re consistent at it, and you’re willing to put in the time, then nothing and nobody should be able to derail you for that. I certainly had many, many, many naysayers along the way, telling me that I couldn’t do pretty much every single thing that I’ve done, so that’s the most important thing: to believe in yourself."

Multitalented celebrity and fashion photographer Mike Ruiz is based in New York. See more of his work at www.mikeruiz.com.

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