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Some celebrities might have struggled to interpret the “camp” theme of this year’s Met Gala, but one was singled out for – to quote one approving tweet – having not only understood the assignment, but turned it in early for extra credit.
The actor Ezra Miller stood out among the black-tie and tulle for accessorising his Burberry suit and jewelled corset with five extra eyes: the painstaking, pre-dawn work of makeup artist Mimi Choi. “We were both kind of not awake,” she says from her home in Vancouver. “But it worked out in the end.”
Since starting out as a makeup artist five years ago, Choi has amassed 1m followers on Instagram for her surreal optical illusions – among them Miller’s publicist, who introduced him to her work. Miller had in mind her older “kaleidoscope eye” concept for his red-carpet look – and, Choi says, “as I was thinking of the theme ‘camp’, I thought multiple eyes that revealed different personalities and alter-egos would be very fitting”.
Application on the day of the Met Gala took five hours from 4am, with each eye taking about 200 steps and at least 30 minutes. Yet, surprisingly, Choi says her method is “pretty much spontaneous”. “I don’t draw anything ahead of time. I don’t do face charts – I like to start in one corner and see how it goes.”
With “only a general idea” of the finished look in mind, Choi tweaked the position – and number – of Miller’s extra eyes on the morning to better suit his face shape and bone structure.
Loose plans to connect the eyes with lines, or paint more of varying sizes as in Choi’s original “kaleidoscope” look, were abandoned in favour of simplicity. “Ezra has great bone structure, but his face is completely different to mine – on him, it would just look really crammed.”
Instead, she painted two pairs – one above and aligned with Miller’s actual eyes; one below them and “a little bit closer together, to give a rounder shape” – and one between them in his forehead, Cyclops-style. “After that we decided to do some eyebrows, to make it even trippier.”
For the staring middle eye, she says: “I didn’t know whether it’s a right eye or a left eye … so I drew two eyebrows to freak people out.” She ensured the look would last 24 hours by using acrylic and body paints (instead of cream makeup, which would smudge) and plenty of extra-strength primer and powder to set. On Miller’s lips, she used Ruby Woo by Mac.
The secret to her hyper-realism is close study of not just the iris, but the entire eyeball and its shadows and highlights. Miller’s brown irises “have a little bit more red”, and his eye white is yellow where a lot of people’s is grey. “I pretty much mixed 20 different tones of yellow, brown, taupe, grey, beige and red to make that eye white,” says Choi. “A lot of people just use white.” Choi has no artistic background, instead crediting her skill for observation to years of trial and error – and, she laughs, her obsessive compulsive disorder. “I always thought that my OCD was a hindrance in my life, but it helps with my art. I’m very fixated on small details. I can just zone out and look at one thing for a long time.”
Her mind-bending approach to makeup, she agrees, “is not traditionally beautiful”. “But that’s not what camp is. It’s about expressing your true self, though it might be bizarre or unusual to other people.”
As for the other Met Gala looks, Choi says she doesn’t like to compare art – but she thought Lady Gaga looked “lovely”.