The first time I laid eyes on Mike Ruiz, back in 1997, when he walked into my office to show me his photo book for a possible assignment, I remember thinking, He’s the photographer? We should be shooting him. But there he was, looking like a Tom of Finland illustration come to life, but smiling and giggling like a 9-year-old. It was then, as it is now, a contradictory cocktail of tough and sweet. Who could resist? Oh, and the fact that he’s among the very top tier of American celebrity, fashion, and portrait photographers isn’t just icing on the cake — it is the cake. Ruiz is here to slay, brothers and sisters, and I’ve been rooting for him since our very first encounter.
Ruiz and I have loved traversing the planet shooting some of its coolest stars for magazine covers: Ricky Martin, Michelle Rodriguez, Tiki Barber, Daisy Fuentes, and many more. In fact, Ruiz has famously worked with the world’s biggest celebrities — Kim Kardashian West, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and, yes, Betty White. But he’s been so much more than an in-demand celebrity lensman: Ruiz has evolved into not only video directing and production (Kelly Rowland, Vanessa Williams, Kristine W) but a star in unscripted television on The A-List: New York (Bravo) and Kathy Griffin: My Life On The D-List (Bravo) as well as a judge on both America’s Top Next Model (The CW) and RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1). Tyra and Ru on speed dial? Loves it.
As if all of that wasn’t keeping him busy enough, Ruiz has turned his attention to helping pit bulls, with his annual benefit calendar, Bullies & Biceps, featuring top fitness models (many of whom are pit bull owners themselves) and gorgeous canines that need rescuing.
All proceeds from the calendar benefit various animal rescues — in the past they've chosen New York Bully Crew, an organization dedicated to rescuing at-risk pit bulls. I know how important this cause is to the talented Montreal native, since the loss of his beloved black pit bull, Oliver. As anyone who has ever crossed paths with Oliver knows, that was one unforgettable, amazing pooch. Mike and Oliver was a love story to rival any.
Love has been generous with Ruiz as well as devastatingly cruel. After years of bouncing around the dating scene, Ruiz found love with Martin Berusch. In 2013, when the photographer was trying to “simplify” his life, he and Berusch (and Oliver) moved to a beautiful home in central New Jersey’s horse country, and all seemed perfect in their world — until Berusch, whom Ruiz had been dating since 2010, passed away suddenly the day after Christmas 2016.
Only recently has Ruiz been able to reconnect and find love again, this time with Wayne Schatz. They married last May. All of the seismic activity in Ruiz’s personal life isn’t that surprising, considering his description of an “emotionally volatile” childhood to his hometown newspaper, the Montreal Gazette, as one of three boys born to his late mother, Francoise, and father, Anthony: “I grew up in an 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.” And boy, how did that work out for our guy? His photography work is instantly recognizable, part carnival, part homage, and, again, much like the man behind the lens, demands attention.
So yeah, Ruiz is clearly at the apex of a fulfilling personal and career ride: deeply happy in love, busy and challenged with work, and devoted to causes he cares about—including his extensive activities on behalf of The Ali Forney Center for Homeless LGBTQ Youth and LGBTQ+ youth.
I keep harking back to our first meeting nearly a quarter-century ago and how remarkably consistent my feelings about him have remained: Mike Ruiz is a good guy, a solid human, and a lot of fun to hang out with. The talented, effervescent, tireless, delightful photographer was even game to answer a few questions for Out. As I said, who can resist?
Mike, are people intimidated when they first meet you (all those muscles) and delighted when you greet them? It’s quite the juxtaposition, your frame from your persona.
Are people still intimidated? I think at this point, enough people have seen how non-threatening I am that the word has spread that I’m a total pushover.
How did you get cast in your debut film, Latin Boys Go to Hell? Do people still recognize you from that?
It was a classic Hollywood story. I was in an elevator in New York City and the director, Ela Troyano, asked me if I’d like to be in a film. I let her know that I was a photographer and not an actor, but that didn’t seem to faze her. She gave me her card and asked me to call her. I never called her, so she ended up casting Tony Ward. I guess he didn’t come off as a Latino, so she found me again and pleaded with me to do it. Since I’m all about the experience, I agreed to do it. The budget was negligible, so we had to do everything in one take. Also, I hadn’t rehearsed with the other actors prior to my scenes, so I had to wing it. Hence my stellar performance.
For those of us who know you well, it’s still surprising how highly sensitive and emotional you are. Can you sense how that translates into your work?
I do suffer from an abnormally high level of empathy, which makes me hyper-conscious of people and their feelings. I guess the way this translates into my work is that I have the intense desire to make people feel good. That’s always my fundamental goal when photographing anyone. I want them to feel special and beautiful. I’ve always considered my work to be optimistic and aspirational, and that definitely comes from my need to see the world through hopeful, optimistic eyes—which I hope leaves my subjects feeling the same way.
There’s a lot of visual drama in so much of your work. Is that you trying to stand out from the pack?
I found early on that photography was the voice that I never had. I used it to create a visual world that I needed to see. It was just my visual point of view. I’m just grateful that it resonated with some.
Dream assignment? Who are you shooting? Set it up for us.
My dream assignment has changed over the years. Ten years ago, I would have said that I’d love to shoot Gaga or Madonna. Lately, I get the most satisfaction using my skills and visibility to help our LGBTQ youth and animals in need. If there was something that I could shoot that would have some kind of major positive social impact, that would be a career highlight for sure.
In your life and career, you’ve experienced some extreme highs and devastating lows. What’s the lesson you wish you would have known decades ago?
The lesson I wish I could convey to my younger self would be to love myself more. I did a lot of self-destructive stuff in the effort to be loved. The answer all along was to love myself. That would have made so many decisions so much easier.
Tell me how similar and different RuPaul and Tyra Banks are. We know they’re both fierce, but what’s your take?
They’re similar in the sense that they’re both highly driven: success at any cost. At the end of the day, they’re just like the rest of us, human beings with struggles and triumphs.
After The A-List: New York, would you ever star in another unscripted series? Househusbands of New Jersey?
I never say never. I’m certainly not seeking it out, but if it landed on my lap, I’d do it. I’m a lot wiser and savvier now, so the terms of such a project would be far less exploitative financially. I’d have to have a stake in it. I’ve been on enough reality TV to know that I’m as good an executive producer as any I’ve worked with.
2020 is something else: COVID-19, presidential election, LGBTQ rights under attack. What keeps you so firmly on your indefatigable positivity train?
It’s not easy. I see so much hardship and despair, but I feel that if I contribute to it, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any favors. What a person says and does says everything about them, and the last thing that I would want to do is leave a legacy of hate and sadness. It’s like exercising—the more love you put forth, the easier it gets.
Send us on our way with this: Mike Ruiz is…
…trying his very best.