Fashion Photographer Mike Ruiz Is Getting Into Leather Without Actually Wearing Leather
The photographer, famous for "America's Next Top Model" and "Ru Paul's Drag Race," on his Montreal youth, writing a new chapter for his marriage and exploring sexual pathways that once scared him.
Happy fall, Caftan readers! I write to you on a beautiful day in Providence, Rhode Island, where I went to college and where I am killing time before I visit my family tomorrow north of Boston, including my adorable 1.5-year-old niece, Ellie…
After I finish this, I’m going to the Rhode Island Seafood Festival in a little bit in India Point Park, where the Seekonk River and the Providence River meet. I am very excited for a lobster roll, some oysters and hopefully a margarita. (PS - I actually ended up having a lobster grilled cheese.) Part of my latest novel, Speech Team, which comes out next summer, is set here in Providence, and in fact the final scene is set in India Point Park (but not at the Seafood Festival), so that’s vaguely interesting, right? I love Providence very much and would even consider living here if I knew anyone, which I basically don’t. So anyway!
I assume some of you are familiar with Mike Ruiz, 58, the very handsome hunky fashion photographer who was a regular judge on both America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race through much of the 2000s and the early 2010s. Well, he’s this month’s Caftan interview! To be honest, although I liked Mike’s photography work, I didn’t know much about him prior to this, so reaching out to him was a kind of interview Russian Roulette, but Mike said yes and then could not have been sweeter or more straightforward when we talked, which we did for nearly three hours on September 2.
I think we had a good talk! I appreciated that Mike was very open and honest about his journey with marriage, intimacy and sexual exploration. (“I feel genuinely lighter after our conversation,” he emailed me post-chat, which made me so happy to hear.) That’s hitting the Caftan bullseye, if you ask me, as I’m usually more interested in people’s inner journey and how our self-perception evolves over time than I am in asking people about the various famous people they’ve [sometimes only briefly or shallowly] known. And Mike did not disappoint in that regard, even though admittedly he’s known or met many famous people. He also gave me tons of great photos where we can track the evolution of Hunky Mike through the decades.
Mike is also really passionate about animals, especially animal rescue, and does this (drool-worthy! lol) “Hunks and Hounds” calendar every year to benefit the cause. Check it out—it’s both hot and cuddly-sweet! If you’re really moved, you can donate to Harley’s Haven Dog Rescue of greater Philadelphia on Mike’s behalf.) And in recent years, he’s become the creative director of L’Officiel Fashion Book Australia, L’Officiel Fashion Book Monte Carlo and Photobook Magazine. Check them out because they’re all full of Mike’s always-luscious fashion shoots.
So here we go, Caftan Readers. I know I always say this, but I am so grateful for both the free and paid subscriptions this project has been steadily amassing since I started it just over a year ago. If you’ve been subscribing free and liking it, please consider the paid subscription—I certainly strive to make sure that each month’s interview is worth the $5 per month. (Think of it as treating yourself to some kind of gay intellectual/spiritual grande latte…perhaps best enjoyed with, uh , a grande latte!) And if you already have a paid subscription, then you know I’m doubly grateful.
Oh, and one more thing. I want to give a shout-out to my longtime friends Tom and Abi, who have taken their amazing Gayletter, over which they’ve been previewing and chronicling NYC queer nightlife and culture for more than a decade now, and moved it over to Substack. Especially if you’re a New Yorker, consider subscribing—they have great taste, both high and low, and their little write-ups always crack me up. I mean, how can you go wrong with headlines like these…
See you next month! I already have lined up an interview that promises to be insanely juicy in the best trashy gay way. But meanwhile, here’s Mike Ruiz!
Tim: Mike, I'm so excited to talk to you for The Caftan Chronicles—thank you for being available! Can I start by asking what your day’s been like so far as we go into this Labor Day 2022 weekend?
Mike: Well, today, I woke up at 3am.
Tim: And you live in New Jersey, right?
Mike: I'm in a little town about 10 minutes from Princeton, a rural farming community.
Tim: What is your house like?
Mike: I don't even know what style it is. It was built in 2000. It's two floors with a basement and a bunch of property and it's very private—my neighbors are at least an acre away.
Tim: And you live there with your dog, Julia, and anyone else?
Mike: Wayne. It's a complicated story. Technically, we're supposed to be separated, but we're failing miserably at it. I think when we decided to separate, that took all the pressure off of us and now we get along really well. So, yes, we still live together.
Tim: Why do you think it's gotten better since you separated?
Mike: You stop taking each other for granted and stop having expectations of each other. He's not officially living here—he has his own place. But now if either of us wants to go on a date [with someone else], we go. The leash is off and we're both free to do whatever. And somehow that's taken all the pressure off having to conform to some ideal of a relationship. We're ingrained with this idea of what a relationship is, which is all based on commerce and selling Hallmark cards. But as humans we haven't evolved to conform to this idea of a relationship that is on TV and in the movies. So if you just let go of that idea of what a relationship is supposed to be, you can make it whatever suits your personal needs. So since we took the pressure now, ironically now we're closer than ever.
Tim: What would you call yourselves now—buddies?
Mike: Our physical intimacy went away when we were having some issues which started at the beginning of the pandemic, but I feel like it's coming back. It's taken us 18 months to figure out a new dynamic to be able to be intimate in a nonphysical way. I still love him more than anybody. He's still my husband and I have no intention of divorcing him. He has all the qualities that I really respect and admire in a person fundamentally.
Tim: What are those qualities?
Mike: Empathy. He's very compassionate, like his love for dogs and how he treats animals and cares for all living things, as I do. He's also really loving and consistent. The entire time we were together, he would put toothpaste on my toothbrush at night. Before he leaves for work at 6am, he comes in and gives me a little kiss on the forehead and tucks the blanket under my feet. We don't sleep in the same bed—we're two big guys. I sleep with my dog.
Tim: But—uh, do you usually get up at 3am?
Mike: No. I'm 58 so I have to pee a couple times a night and I invariably check my email when do, so this morning I was responding to the editor in chief of two of the magazines that I run for him. Then I went back to sleep and woke up at 9:30am and had breakfast, oatmeal with blueberries and protein powder and walnuts and a mushroom concoction. Not magic mushrooms! [laughs] I saw this documentary on Netflix about mushrooms. People have literally cured themselves of cancer on mushrooms. There's so much research being done on the health benefits of mushrooms, including the mental health benefits of the hallucinatory variety.
Tim: Have you been on any journey with the hallucinogenic ones?
Mike: I have a friend who does mushroom ceremonies for CEOs and stuff and about a year ago I did one with her. I was tripping balls and saw myself as a four-year-old and was talking to myself. It was pretty epiphanic and a couple days after I felt like I had processed some trauma because I was walking on a cloud. I'm actually going to do it again. Those feelings linger after the high and you create new neural pathways in a short amount of time.
Tim: Okay, cool. Do you drink coffee in the morning?
Mike: No. After my oatmeal, I go to the gym. This morning, I went to a gym three towns over because gyms are part of my social life. I don't go to bars or clubs. I like going to different gyms all the time—it's my thing. So I went to this new gym and had a really great leg workout all the while producing four photo shoots on my phone, texting and emailing.
Tim: Mike, you are very fit…
What is your exercise and diet routine?
Mike: The shape I'm in now happened over the pandemic. I've always been in okay shape—never "Holy shit!” kind of shape. So when the pandemic hit, I basically became Bette Midler in Ruthless People, working out four hours a day down in the basement. I couldn't get gym equipment online to save my life, so I had a couple 12-pound dumbbells, a couple resistance bands and some sandbags and a broomstick and I created this basement pandemic workout that literally got me in the shape I'm in now. I'd do up to 20 reps of everything. It took me hours to do hundreds of reps for each body part, which kicked my metabolism into overdrive. Now at the gym I'll do 50 to 60 reps of light weights, which is easier on my joints.
Tim: How would you describe the body you have now versus before?
Mike: Before the pandemic, I knew I had nowhere near the definition, symmetry and muscle mass that some of the bodybuilders I work with have. Before the pandemic, I would do a set until I was tired and then stop, but during the pandemic, I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna do this amount of reps whether my mind can handle it or now—if I peter out halfway through, too bad, I have to figure out how to keep going." I pushed through my mental limitations, [which is how I've had success in life] because I never went to college or even studied photography, but I pushed through the fear of failing and said, "Fuck it."
Tim: What do and don't you eat?
Mike: I don't eat pork and dairy, mostly for ethical reasons. I still eat chicken. Wayne makes bison burgers. The past few weeks, we've been eating white rice, steamed broccoli and bison burgers three times a day. Then vegan yogurt with protein powder at night. I don't really drink [alcohol], not because I'm sober. I just don't like it. I'll have a drink every once in a while.
Tim: Okay, and do you take the dog out?
Mike: We do laps in the pool with her. She's Julia, a little pit bull mix rescue. She was tied to a pole, skin and bones, left for dead, and a foster mom rehabbed her and we adopted her 11 months later. She's eight now. We love her more than life itself. I actually ended up in New Jersey because I adopted another rescue dog, Oliver, in 2012 when I was in Manhattan and my unhealthy amount of empathy overrode my need to live in NYC. I thought, "I need to give this dog a better life than he's had so far." And I found this town and house, and now I'm a country boy, and it was all inspired by Oliver, who passed away in 2018.
Tim: So we are going into the Labor Day weekend. What does your weekend look like?
Mike: I am turning my phone off, which is one of the greatest gifts I can give myself.
Tim: Really, no phone all weekend?
Mike: I'm getting done everything I need to get done today. But, yes, I'll keep the phone on because I'm an Instagram junkie. But I won't be doing business.
Tim: You have quite a presence on Instagram.
Mike: I have a love/hate thing with it. I actually got kicked off of it recently. All they would tell me, after nine appeals, was "You violated community guidelines." They wouldn't tell me how. My conspiracy theory is that they don't document the reason why because it would violate first amendment rights.
Tim: What do you think triggered it?
Mike: Maybe the photos from my Leatherman Project…
But none of it was really sexually charged except for a little video I included of guys kissing, but no nudity or sex. Maybe someone in Indonesia got offended by that and booted me off. But I know people who work with celebs who know people at Instagram and they called on my behalf, and even though they couldn't tell me why, a week or so later my page popped back up with an "Oops, sorry, we made a mistake!" note from them.
Tim: How many followers do you have?
Tim: What do you think of the whole phenomenon of the narcissistic Instagays who post hot pics of themselves constantly and amass huge followings?
Mike: Well, yeah, but social media has created the ability for people to make a living, a revenue stream, where there wasn't one before. So these guys accused of being narcissistic are making money. Who knows what they would be doing otherwise? I use mine only for promotion. I used to be political on it, but that's just a timesuck with no benefit. Trying to sway people's political opinions on social media is futile. I just try to stay relevant by posting my work. My private page, yeah, I started it as a gratuitous pat on the back during the pandemic because it felt weird to be posting shirtless selfies on my work page. I've used it to raise money for causes like Ukraine. I'll post a pic and say, "If you wanna see the whole pic, DM me your receipt [of a Ukraine donation], and I raised something like $8,000. I'll send them the whole image, but it's just me in gym shorts, and when they feel duped [because it's not naked], I say, "Well, you helped people and you did something good."
Tim: Okay, Mike, so let's go back in time. So you were born and grew up in the little town of Repentigny outside Montreal, one of three sons to a Spanish Filipino father and a French-Canadian mother. How on earth did they meet?
Mike: That was a very harsh, blue-collar reality. My mom lived in a border town in New Brunswick right across the border with Maine, where where my dad was stationed in the Air Force, and all the girls from the Canadian side would go to the Air Force base. So my dad provided for us, but just food and stuff—nothing emotional. We had an emotionally barren childhood. My mom did her best but, without going into violent details, it was not a happy situation.
My dad, who is still alive, was an alcoholic. We talk occasionally. We were doing fine for a while, but then my brother, who is gay, got ALS and my dad wasn't emotionally available for him at all—would never call him or go see him. My brother passed away a couple months ago.
Tim: Oh, I didn't know—I'm so sorry.
Mike: I'm not one to post tragedies on social and seek sympathy from strangers. But through my brother's whole sickness, my dad barely reached out to him. They had a contentious relationship. My brother and I were close for a longtime then—I don't know what happened. He became unhappy and pulled away from me and we were estranged for seven or eight years, then he let me know he was sick and we reconnected, but it wasn't the same. With eight years of absence, your feelings change, even for family members.
Tim: Did you ever try to talk to him about all this?
Mike: Yeah. He was openly bisexual and had been married for 18 years with two grown daughters—I'm their godfather—but then he pulled away, and I couldn't make sense of why he would make me a godfather and then pull away.