The Monk Who Wears Makeup
Kodo Nishimura loves makeup, nice clothes, and serving the Buddhist community as a monk at the temple where he grew up. This might seem like a contradiction – while it’s common for monks to take jobs outside the temple, few attend New York’s Parsons School of Design, do makeup for clients including Chloe x Halle, or appear on Queer Eye: We’re In Japan!.
Nishimura’s journey into working as a professional makeup artist began shortly after arriving in the US; as a lonely student, he offered to do the makeup of a friend who was also struggling. What he discovered was the results lasted far longer than a single night of self-care. It’s a lesson he tries to include in his gender-inclusive makeup classes.
“What was so interesting was that even when the makeup was washed away, [my friend’s] confidence was still there,” he recalls. “And that was something hopeful that reflected onto my heart. I felt that I could also be beautiful. I could also feel powerful. And if I were to study makeup and master the techniques of eyeshadow and foundation, I felt that I could not only nourish [those around me] and people who see me without discrimination, but I could also feel beautiful and meaningful too.”
Learning to embrace all elements of his personality – what he calls an embodiment of both traditional and modern cultural values – is what led Nishimura to write This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are; an autobiography that describes going to school in America, embracing his Japanese heritage and his religious training. That decision was made largely because Buddhism had been something he had disregarded for so long.
“My mom is a piano teacher and she said, ‘If you say you hate Mozart’s music, you have to play his music,’” he says. “[Thereafter,] you can make valid analysis.” The same proved true for his training to become a monk, which culminated in his 2015 ordination. “[Before that,] I had only heard bits about Buddhism, [so] I ended up really doubtful and suspicious.” But through the ordination process, Nishimura found unexpected peace, and a community ready to embrace him, rather than shame his sexuality, career, or appearance. And that’s one message of acceptance he’ll always repeat on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I’m a religious leader,” he says emphatically. “And I’m telling you, from a Buddhist perspective, that everybody is equally valuable.”
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based travel journalist who has written for BBC, Thrillist, Vice and Marie Claire