(This story originally appeared in Vivala)
Jessica Ruiz applies makeup in an unconventional way — with her mouth. She sticks a makeup brush in between her front teeth and uses her tongue to stabilize and position it in the angle she needs it to be in. Getting her makeup supplies out is actually the most difficult part.
That’s because the Philadelphia native has arthrogryposis, a condition where a child is born with joint contractures — meaning her joints don’t move as much as normal.
Twenty-six years ago, Ruiz was born an addict because her mother used crystal meth throughout her entire pregnancy. She was also born with her intestines outside her body and was sent into surgery immediately upon entering the world.
“Her drug use actually got me to the point to where I am today. It made me a better person,” Ruiz told Vivala. “My mother’s drug abuse and her self-centeredness actually gave me the real power to say, ‘Okay, how can I take this negative situation into a positive?’”
Despite having very limited use of her arms and hands, Ruiz’s positive outlook has given her the strength to pursue a career as a makeup artist.
In October, the part Puerto Rican, part Irish makeup artist had the opportunity to work alongside professionals at the second-annual Philadelphia Small Business Fashion Week.
“That was the biggest break,” she recalled excitedly.
On October 16, the night before she was scheduled to work the event’s kickoff, Ruiz said she told organizers about her disability. Dawane Cromwell, founder of the fashion week, said he received a call from one of his lead makeup artists who told him Ruiz actually applies makeup with her mouth.
“I paused for 15 seconds, and then I told the lead makeup artist, ‘What time can she be there tomorrow?’” Cromwell said.
He watched Ruiz apply makeup the following day.“The movement and the quality was identical to any other artist, and she was actually moving a lot faster than any makeup artist,” he said. “I was so impressed.”
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For Ruiz, it was an unforgettable day.
“To actually be in a room full of professional makeup artists that have a degree in cosmetology and know that I’m working side by side with them was an amazing feeling in itself,” she said.
Ruiz applied to multiple cosmetology schools prior to this opportunity but was rejected because of her disability. The praise Ruiz received that day from others was a stark contrast to the way she was treated growing up with arthrogryposis.
Ruiz said she was the target of vicious bullying when she was 11 years old. Her peers would call her cruel names and send her horrible text messages. “The worst part about it was I went to a school that was for the physically and mentally challenged,” Ruiz recalled. “There were no children that were ‘normal.’ We were all on the same boat, so that’s what really made it hard for me.”
As a child, Ruiz said she had to teach herself a lot. She learned how to pick up things with her feet and how to write in cursive with her mouth.
“I had to learn to do a lot of things with my mouth,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten sick by opening doors by actually placing the entire door handle in my mouth and twist my head to open doors.”
After watching her aunt apply makeup on herself as a young teen, Ruiz decided to try it. Makeup became her passion and an outlet from all the negativity. By the age of 15, she learned how to apply makeup on her whole face. Because Ruiz can’t bring her hand to her face, she applies makeup on herself by bringing her face down towards her hand.
In 2007, Ruiz was asked to put makeup on a friend for graduation photos. She was extremely nervous. “She had faith in me, to come to me and actually do this, so I had to have faith in myself too,” she said. “That was the moment that I knew this could possibly be what I’m here for — to bring confidence to other women and men and other people who suffer from physical ailments . . . as well as emotional and mental.”
Ruiz’s next dreams are to open up her own glam bar and create a line of makeup brushes with the perfect grip.
She stressed that one should never judge a book by its cover. “You never know what somebody’s capable of,” she said. “Where you lack in one thing, you excel in the other.”