Ordinary is not a word one would use for Apple Love. She breezes into the café in a black shirt and rouge on her cheeks and greets the waitresses with a wide smile, looking completely at home.
She’s been a little busy travelling recently, she says, and so it’s been hard to find some personal time. A well-known makeup artist, Apple has been on film sets around the world, while juggling several side projects – including one in which she transforms models into sea creatures to call attention to damage to the world’s oceans, as well as several popular videos that show the evolution of Khmer fashion through the centuries.
Born Dou Pothmolita in Stung Treng province, her parents worked with the Education Ministry. “I was really studious when I was young,” she says. “I only focused on [my] studies and tried my best to get number one in school so my mum wouldn’t worry.”
Nonetheless, she had pursued, and then dropped, three separate degrees by the time she left school, including one in education that she gave up with one term to go.
Then, she found makeup through a stroke of luck.
“My grandma loved making crafts and making things with flowers,” she says, adding that her family’s creativity rubbed off on her. “I [only] decided to do makeup when my friend made a zombie movie. No one knew what special effects were, [but] I volunteered for it because I wanted to experiment, to know what it’s like to be on a film set.”
A college student at the time, she quickly realised that her passions lay outside of her studies.
She began experimenting with kitchen supplies, glue sticks, tissues, food colouring and other materials so she could create the zombie look in her friend’s movie. It was just for fun at first, but then she started getting job offers.
In order to hone her craft, she went looking for teachers on the internet. “At that time, internet was expensive, so I spent $2 every day buying a phone card, treating it as a class for [myself],” she recalls. “[After all], you still have to pay someone to teach you.”
Her inspirations were other makeup artists she found on the internet, like the artists working with celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj.
But one Vietnamese-American artist stands out especially for her.
“Her name is Michelle Phan. [When I saw her], it gave me the idea that ‘oh finally, somebody [ethnically similar], somebody with similar ideas, and somebody with similar dreams going this far’. And I told myself I can do it too,” she says.
Her non-traditional path to makeup hasn’t always been an easy one. When she was starting out, she often had to deal with doubts and discouragement from her family and friends.
“[People said that] my special effects were too real, were too scary. Everyone found it weird and unacceptable [that] I was always thinking about how you can get a knife stuck into your head. My mum even said to me once: ‘Do you have a mental disease?’” she says.
Now that she’s gained some measure of success and recognition, her family and friends have rallied around her, giving her their full support.
Since beginning in 2011, she’s worked on film projects like First They Killed My Father and, more recently, has devoted more and more of her time to socially conscious projects.
“I’m really obsessed with culture, women’s rights, and environmental issues,” she says. “I debated a lot on TV for women’s rights, and when I found makeup, I started connecting all of [these ideas] together.”
An upcoming project calls attention to snares and traps used on jungle animals, and will be created in partnership with Wildlife Alliance, while The Jungle Project used body paint to highlight the need to protect rare animal species. But The Sea Project is what she is most proud of.
“It’s something out of my imagination, and it’s something that people told me [couldn’t] be done, [and yet] I did it,” she says.
And then there’s Hollywood, where she will head next for a one-month scholarship from a makeup school.
Makeup isn’t the only thing on her mind when she goes to California, though. Apple hopes to connect to the Cambodian diaspora there, and to encourage them to reach out to their homeland. She also hopes to become a role model for other Cambodians, to show them that there are unexpected possibilities in life.
She especially wants women to hear her message.
“Women [in Cambodia] don’t [feel like they] have many options or choices. They don’t realise how big and how far they can go. I want to share my personal life . . . to make them feel more comfortable in their own skin and be proud of their gender and themselves,” she says.
Despite working in an industry that is often seen as perpetuating pressures around beauty and appearance, she doesn’t have any trouble reconciling her career with her identity as a feminist.
“It’s different,” she says. “I’m not really into the idea of using makeup to transform [yourself] and thinking that we [as women] are not good [enough]. That’s why I’m into film more, because we create characters.”
“Just don’t use [makeup] to cover all your flaws and be so insecure. You have to be able to love yourself without it, and love yourself with it.”