Celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz finds his light

Mike Ruiz & Oliver by Virgil Ocampo.

By Timothy Rawles

I can imagine that during this time of coronavirus, celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz looks great in a surgical mask. No, not because he’s so handsome he could make a Band Aid look good, it’s because you don’t have to see the bottom part of his face to know he’s smiling. I believe supermodel Tyra Banks famously called it “smizing.”

That wouldn’t be a surprise since Ruiz is a former model himself, but there is also a genuineness there, something that goes beyond the light captured by the lens and the one that shines deeper into his soul.

No stranger to getting involved in charities — his name is behind many LGBTQ organizations — Ruiz helps where he can and now that’s something he wants to extend to the canine species especially pit bulls; a type of dog falsely ridiculed for their character.

“People create stigmas and stuff to support their own fears,” Ruiz tells me. This could also be true for the LGBTQ community.

Growing up in Canada Ruiz faced ridicule himself. He says it had little to do with his sexuality, and more to do with his looks. Still, the disdain he encountered was hidden in conflation.

“You know, I was ethnic looking in an all-white area, and you know people in high school used to call me f*g,” Ruiz said. “They called anyone who was different a f*g. It wasn’t based on whether they were effeminate or anything of what they preconceived gay means. Anyone who was different they called a f*g.”

At 55 years old Ruiz has the physique of a man half his age and he doesn’t appear to have aged a day beyond his late twenties. Coincidently that’s when he decided to go behind the camera rather than pose in front of it.

“I didn’t have any lofty aspirations or anything,” he said in hindsight. “You know the minute I started shooting stuff it became a way for me to communicate. At the time I didn’t know what it was, I was obsessed with shooting, like I had to photograph seven days a week. In hindsight I realized it was a more effective way for me to communicate than, you know, any other way at that time.”

Finding peace in his photos not only allowed him to express what he couldn’t vocalize, but it opened up a whole new world to explore.

Ruiz started with landscapes, moved on to still life, and then eventually people, “I realized that’s what I really enjoyed doing, capturing…not really capturing a moment on film, more like creating one.” Ultimately, he became one of the world’s most sought-after celebrity photographers.

He is so influential that he was cast in the 2010 LGBTQ reality series The A-List: New York for its entire two-season run. Other cast members lovingly refer to him as “Aunt Mike” in the show which is pretty accurate considering he was the voice of reason inside a group of drama-fueled story arcs.

Being able to sift out the drama and see the real person inside is one of the gifts he has when it comes to photography too. His good friend Kathy Griffin was harshly judged back in 2017 for holding up a bloody likeness of Donald Trump’s head in a photo for Tyler Shields.

Two years later and Griffin is still reeling from the damage that editorial did to her career and self-esteem. But with the help of Ruiz and his profound way of interpreting the real person beyond their corporeal being, he shot the comedian as, of all things, a saint.

“I don’t want to be portrayed as a victim,” Ruiz recalls Griffin saying during the Prune magazine brainstorming. “So, Joan of Arc got burned at the stake, so we did a bunch of Joan of Arc-y kind of stuff minus her perishing at the stake. She was involved in the creative process and stuff. She trusts me so she knew I was going to execute it the way she was hoping.”

Speaking of judgment, Ruiz was also a big part of Ru Paul’s Drag Race for a while. He sat at the table deliberating on the fate of contestants vying to be America’s next drag superstar. Now that the show has gone to his homeland, Canada, I asked if he would ever return to Mama Ru’s panel, “I kinda quit on them and uh, and I don’t think they’re gonna have me back.” 

“I hit a wall doing reality TV,” he explains. “It was affecting me in a way that…it was distracting me from what I really wanted to do. It was taking me down like a different road and I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it.”

In fact, there was a greater calling for Ruiz beyond the fickleness of reality television. His name was Oliver, a black pit bull with white paws that changed his life at time when they both needed it the most.

Mike Ruiz and Oliver by Virgil Ocampo.

“I was selfish and self-absorbed and I met him and he just became like my son,” he says. “I channeled all of my attention benefitting me to him and I just fell deeply in love with him so much. He kinda changed my outlook on sentient beings. He would look at me so soulfully and I’d be like wait a minute. And then I suddenly started seeing all other animals that way.”

Thus, began Ruiz’s interest in animal advocacy. He constantly works to change the public’s perception of pitbull-type breeds. They aren’t the monsters society has labeled them. As Ruiz says they are sweet, “and up until the 80s where they started appearing in crime films and started appearing in news stories with drug dealers and dogfighting and all that, that’s kinda what created that whole stigma.”

A Mike Ruiz self-portrait.

Along with his long list of causes, Ruiz also helps Social Impak, an online retailer that works directly with charitable organizations. He is currently giving 25-percent of the profits from the sale of his collection to the Stand Up for Pits Foundation.

“If you go to any animal shelter in the country, 80-percent of the dogs are pit bulls,” he says. “They are the most widely discarded dog because they are cute little puppies and they grow up and people treat them, not like family members but like inanimate objects and then they get tired of them and dump them off at the shelter.”

Sadly, Oliver passed away over a year ago. It was a devastating blow. Now Ruiz has another pit bull-type named Julia, “She was left to die, tied to a pole, skin, and bones. And now, you know she’s living large.”

Oliver by Mike Ruiz.

With all his success in life this cause might be the closest to his heart. His annual calendar “Bullies & Biceps” which features attractive men holding pit bull puppies is currently in production. He says it’s become sort of an international phenomenon and one of his main yearly efforts for animal rescue.

“I don’t know what it is specifically about pit bull type dogs, but they have some kind of human quality that they can really, really connect with you,” says Ruiz. “They look into your eyes and tell you everything you need to know.”