Makeup artist living her dream, despite limited use of hands

Look, ma, no hands.

That may sound flip, but when you see Jessica Ruiz do makeup by sticking a brush between her teeth, you see where I'm going with this.

That's right.

She uses her mouth. Ruiz has no other choice. Because of a congenital birth defect, Ruiz can barely lift her arms. Raising her hands to touch even her own face is impossible. So, her mouth acts as a substitute for her hands.

She may be a first.

Who has ever seen a makeup artist apply cosmetics by sticking a brush in her mouth?

Ruiz, 26, bites down on the handle and gets in really close, applying foundation, eyeshadow and even eyeliner. That's something able-bodied people struggle to do well, but Ruiz is masterful, creating precise lines.

Although she's yet to become comfortable applying false eyelashes - Ruiz is leery about getting close to people's eyes with tweezers - she has a wide repertoire. Her Instagram page shows off her range, which includes everything from runway looks to frightening zombie faces for Halloween.

Earlier this month, Ruiz, who lives in Northeast Philly's Lawncrest section, had her first big break working at the second annual Philadelphia Small Business Fashion Week. It was a slow start at first. The models and other makeup artists didn't know what to make of Ruiz, who travels by wheelchair and moves awkwardly as she sets out her beauty supplies. That first day, only one model agreed to let Ruiz prep her for the runway.

Ruiz must have done all right, though. By the next day, the models were lining up to have her do their faces. She thinks she did 20 faces or more. In the rush to get everyone ready, Ruiz and fashion-show organizers lost count.

Afterward, her neck ached and she was so sore that she didn't get out of bed. It was a happy kind of tired because Ruiz was living her dream - a dream that for years looked as if it would never happen.

Overcoming the odds

Ruiz was diagnosed at birth with health issues. Her stomach and intestines were outside of her body, which required immediate surgery. She also had arthrogryposis, a debilitating disease that kept her joints from moving normally. Her grandparents, who got legal custody of Jessica at 3 months, would bend her arms faithfully every three hours, around the clock, so they wouldn't stiffen into place.

Doctors "didn't expect her to really do anything," Ruiz's grandmother Linda, 65, recalled. "They said she wouldn't walk and she probably wouldn't be able to do anything.''

"She taught herself how to sit up, how to crawl, how to roll. She was just amazing from Day One," added Linda, who lives in Mayfair.

Ruiz attended Widener Memorial School for students with various physical and medical disabilities. While in middle school, Ruiz found herself being bullied.

"So, I was like, 'OK, what can I do to make myself feel better and . . . focus positive energy toward myself?' " she said. "So, I watched my aunt do makeup constantly, and I loved the way that it went from plain Jane to va va voom. And I was like, 'That's what I want. I want to be va va voom.' So I started wearing eyeliner.

"And that's what it started out as - eyeliner and mascara, nothing on the face, and Chapstick. That's what started it all," she recalled, before bending her head toward her hand to demonstrate how she would accent her eyes with eyeliner before school. "I put [eyeliner] right in my hand . . . and I would move my head instead of moving the actual object. It looked crazy. It definitely looked crazy.

"But being in an all-physically disabled school . . . and seeing somebody come in wearing makeup, they were like, 'What is this?' " she said. "There's such a stigma with people who are disabled that they can't be 'normal.' "

By the time she was 15 or 16, Ruiz was showing up to school wearing a full face of makeup. A classmate asked if she could do her makeup for a graduation photo. That was Ruiz's first time doing a makeup-for-hire job. The praise she got afterward made her think that she could possibly make a living doing makeup for others.

After graduating in 2008, Ruiz applied to local beauty schools but was rejected from all of them because of perceptions about her physical limitation, which sent her into a deep depression. Then, Jaleel King, a local photographer who works from a wheelchair, booked her for a fashion shoot. That helped boost her confidence and got her back into doing makeup.

"That night, I came home, I actually cried," she told me last week. "I'd finally seen that I was outside of my box. I was outside the stigma of being disabled."

Ruiz went on to do a couple of small fashion shows for a church and a boutique while also doing makeup for proms and sweet-16 parties. Then, earlier this month, she got her biggest gig yet after reaching out to Dawane Cromwell, founder of Philadelphia Small Business Fashion Week.

At first, he was skeptical.

"It was only because of the sanitation issue. I paused for a while," he told me last week. "Then, I went through her whole Instagram page to see makeup she'd done in the past. She's very good."

That first night, Ruiz did only one face. But the next night, there were so many models in her chair, she lost count. Long term, Ruiz hopes to open her own beauty bar and create a line of makeup and brushes with a soft tip.

But first, there's Halloween to get through. Come Saturday, Ruiz is booked to do zombie makeup on two males at 1 p.m., and at 3 p.m. a Monster High look on a little girl.

"I just love what I do," Ruiz said. "A lot of people day dream and night dream. I'm living the dream."

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong
Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen
Email: armstrj@phillynews.com