Mike Ruiz: Celebrity photographer, fashion icon

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The cookie-cutter lawns, beige brick facades and repetitive rows of neat suburban streets in Repentigny were no place for Brooke Shields back in the ’80s.

That perfect face, the model’s body, the glamorous life … franchement, they just didn’t fit in.

Which is probably why she appeared so regularly to Mike Ruiz — at least in his daydreams.

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Montreal-born, US-based celebrity and fashion photographer, Mike Ruiz.

As an artistically stifled teenager yearning to express his creativity in the suburban wasteland north of Montreal, there was nothing he wanted more than to have Brooke Shields as his BFF, perched on his bed, doing her nails and gossiping about celebrity antics at New York’s legendary Studio 54. Which is interesting because when Ruiz — now a renowned celebrity and fashion photographer who has captured images of everyone from Prince to Queen Latifah — shot Brooke Shields 29 years later, perch on his bed with a bottle of nail polish is exactly what she did.

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Mike Ruiz’ iconic, Blade Runner-inspired image of Brooke Shields.

“Brooke Shields was one of my daydreams. We’d have slumber parties and girl talk,” he chuckles.

“I used to visualize it so much that years later, when I worked with her, it unfolded pretty much like in my daydreams. I shot her at my apartment in New York City and we were literally sitting on my bed, as she was having her nails done. It satisfied that full circle moment for me.”

If that childhood fantasy bore such fruit, it makes you wonder what else the talented Quebecer was visualizing to come up with his celebrated photos of Katy Perry in bondage gear and Kim Kardashian as an Iranian concubine.

Whatever the inspiration, Ruiz has made wild creativity his trademark. Known for transforming subjects into gripping, surrealistic images, Ruiz is at that point in his career where everything is possible. Yet, “anything” is no longer what he wants.

After years in New York, where he appeared on several reality shows, including Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, America’s Next Top Model,
RuPaul’s Drag Race and as a judge on the third season of Canada’s Next Top Model, the 50-year-old has pulled back his lens to focus once again on his craft.

Mike Ruiz' surreal, visionary photography have made him a sought-after talent worldwide.
Mike Ruiz’ surreal, visionary photography have made him a sought-after talent worldwide.

Having moved to central New Jersey’s horse country two years ago with his partner, Martin Berusch, and their beloved pit bull, Oliver, Ruiz has had a rebirth of sorts. Having gone from being a former model who “didn’t have a career” to being one of the hottest photographers in the United States, he wants to simplify his life. As a result, he’s busier than ever.

“I’m at the point where I don’t want to commit to anything that might be a distraction. I literally get up, go to my studio, shoot. My days of spinning an image to get it placed somewhere are gone. It took all the angsting I went through to be successful enough to be able to do that.”

Queen Latifah as photographed by Mike Ruiz.
Queen Latifah as photographed by Mike Ruiz.

The “angsting,” as he puts it, was considerable. Born one of three boys to mother Françoise, who died in 1998, and father Anthony, Ruiz says he grew up in an emotionally volatile but “unstimulating, blue-collar environment where we weren’t exposed to the arts. I was always very introspective and satisfied my creativity by imagining how my life would turn out.”

That rich inner world blossomed when, as a six-year-old, he met his closest friend and longtime photo retoucher, Helga van der Sluys. Both painfully shy, they sat together on the school bus.

“We ended up in the same class, we lived in the same neighbourhood, our fathers worked for the same company and we were born 10 days apart,” she notes. “We shared a certain path.”

By high school, she says, Ruiz emerged from his shell. “He learned he could make people laugh with a very sly, smart and witty sense of humour. He was always super creative and had these crazy ideas of stuff to do and make.”

Stifled in Repentigny, Ruiz moved to Montreal at 19 to model. Three months later, his first apartment burned to the ground. “I lost everything except my vinyl LP collection. People were passing out from smoke inhalation and I was running up and down the stairs.”

US celebrity Vanessa Williams is just one of the many superstars photographed by Mike Ruiz.
US celebrity Vanessa Williams is just one of the many superstars photographed by Mike Ruiz.
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Shot at Joshua Tree, California, for Hong Kong luxury magazine, Prestige. By Mike Ruiz.

He moved to the U.S. a short time later. Then, as he started to make a name for himself for his brooding and buff looks at the age of 29, he started taking photos, despite having no previous interest. “I would have learned a lot if I’d paid attention, but I never thought I could compete having never studied at art school.”

Since then, Ruiz has become as sought-after as the people he photographs: Tyra Banks, Kathy Griffin, Sir Ian McKellen, Jay Manuel, Kelly Clarkson, Kelly Rowland, Dolly Parton and Deborah Harry to name a few.

And more keep seeking him out, despite his shift to a quieter setting, which comes as no surprise to van der Sluys.

“There are not many limits for him. Whatever he sets his mind to do, he’ll excel at it,” she adds. “It just depends what that might be.”