Munemi Imai sees the power of beauty.
The Japanese-born makeup artist got her start thanks to a twist of fate, but she quickly realized how uplifting beauty could be. Over the course of her career, she worked with magazines from Vogue to ELLE, on runway shows from Paris to Milan and on ad campaigns for everyone from Marc Jacobs to Shu Uemura. Ultimately, she started her own prickly pear seed oil-based green skincare line, Mūn, which approaches anti-aging gently and effectively.
Here, the true beauty believer tells us how happiness hinges on appreciation for what we have:
Live The Process: What initially drew you to the beauty world? What is it so intriguing and powerful?
Munemi Imai: Should I say it was “accidental destiny”? I was a rebel in my teens and ended up having to drop out of high school in my hometown in Hiroshima. At the time (at 17), it felt the worst thing that happened in my life, but this sent me on the path to the beauty industry. This was 1990 or so, and I was looking through job postings. Back then, there were a number of ads for aesthetic salons. I spoke to my parents, and they also recommended that I go to cosmetology school and get a hair stylist license. I enrolled in Tokyo, and, afterward, my mother’s friend helped me get a job at an aesthetic salon—and that’s how I got into the wonderful world of beauty.
I’ve been intrigued by the power of makeup ever since I started wearing it to ease my insecurity at 14. It really helped me. At each job that I’ve had in the beauty industry—at the aesthetic salon, hair salon, as a freelance makeup artist etc.—I’ve heard women talk about the insecurities that come with social pressure. And I’ve also witnessed how it makes them feel better when we understand their concerns and insecurities, give them advice and help them feel and look prettier. I’ve seen them smile, with sparkles in their eyes and lifted moods and spirits.
There is this mind-body connection through beauty: look good and feel good. And I chose skincare because, through my almost 20 years of being a makeup artist, I’ve learned there is a universal beauty ideal which is a clear complexion. And no matter someone’s facial structure, if she’s having a breakout or some skin issues, that makes her feel so uncomfortable. I always try to find someone’s good parts to compliment and, if someone has great skin, I always start with, “You've got beautiful skin!” and people always smile. What’s better than making people smile and feel happy? Beauty can do that.
It’s my personal motto: empowerment through beauty.
LTP: Why did you decide to create a non-toxic line?
MI: I was already in the process of working on my own skincare line, researching and speaking with different people to learn how things work, and I knew it would be natural and incorporate botanical ingredients. But it was a brief illness that forced me to take off from work that was my real wakeup call. I cleaned up my diet (which resulted not only in my body feeling better, but also improved mental health) and read books about how we could be absorbing potentially harmful ingredients from food and personal care. At that point, I knew I wanted to create a green beauty multi-purpose product that was gentle and effective. I wanted it to address the signs of aging I was seeing, such as fine lines and under-eye dark circles, using high organic content (to protect our soil’s health) and high-quality raw materials.
LTP: What separates Mūn from other green beauty brands? Do you have a hero ingredient?
MI: A good question. I have a different background than many of the founders of other green beauty lines, I imagine. My family ran an art gallery, and I grew up surrounded by art and artists. I’m an adult immigrant from Japan and English is my second language. I’ve worked in the beauty industry for almost 25 years between Tokyo and NYC. And my partner in personal life is a dermatologist/surgeon. He worked at a research lab as an organic chemist before becoming an MD, and he challenges me a lot with my product development. The combination of these factors makes my thought process and approach to the products and brand different.
Our hero ingredient—now you’re talking! I can’t get enough of sharing this:
It’s called prickly pear seed oil. I love everything about it, from the superior anti-aging and brightening benefits to how sustainable and environmentally-friendly a crop it is. Some benefits (to name a few): it reduces the appearance of fine lines, helps prevent premature wrinkle formation, brightens dark under-eye circles, calms redness, helps relieve sunburns and brightens and evens complexion.
The vitamin E found in prickly pear seed oil is the highest of any plant oil on the market (three times higher than argan oil). It is also very high in linoleic acid, which is proven to lighten sun-induced hyperpigmentation, protect the skin barrier, lower water loss and retain moisture. Other beneficial components include vitamin K, which helps reduce spider veins and broken capillaries, and zinc, which helps reduce redness and inflammation from acne lesions and decreases oil production.
It’s also high in phytosterols with antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
LTP: What are some of your current beauty, healing and/or wellness rituals?
MI: A few of these are what I have been doing for a long time, and a few are newer. Cold-pressed juice, especially green juice, is something I’ve been drinking since 2010—and I will never stop this habit. Here in Honolulu, unfortunately, the choices are very limited, so, I normally go with Suja’s Twelve Essentials when it’s available. But, for when I’m in New York City, I think Juice Press is the most authentic and has the best juices. Their juice makes my body happy. Another thing I really emphasize is beauty sleep. It has so many benefits from stress relief to skin recovery. And, the more I work and the busier I am, the more it becomes really my only “me time,” so it’s important. I’ve also been practicing Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing before I start working. It’s easy and effective.
This May, I started weekly acupuncture. Previously, I used the practice as an emergency method for really bad neck and/or back pain. But this time, I started going there for mainly stress relief. The first time I met my Chinese doctor, she told me that my Qi flow is completely blocked from high levels of stress, therefore I was experiencing some physical issues. We’ve been mainly focusing on balancing the weak organ and flow of qi for stress relief. I also started going to talk to a therapist and that’s been very helpful. It took me a few trials to find someone who is a good match, but it’s a safe place where I can talk about anything and there are no judgments.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
MI: I’d like to share a story: In 2012, I launched our best-selling Aknari Brightening Youth Serum with very limited resources. I was also working as a freelance makeup artist, and that made my life very, very busy. I always felt behind on what I was supposed to be doing and struggled, feeling under water. By the end of the year, I felt I’d completely lost balance and thought my life was falling apart. Then, I decided to take a trip to regain my balance. I heard about this place in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala from a friend who’s been there and took their moon course.
It was a retreat (don’t imagine anything luxury), and we had a schedule of morning yoga, spiritual teaching from the founder, then evening group meditation. The place was hard to live in, especially the room and house that I was assigned to which was so old. My wall wasn’t exactly a wall; it was a piece of thin wood placed as a divider. A very dusty old mattress made my allergies act up. There was a five-minute shower rule; I had to learn to use water, on one hand, to wash my face and another to rinse my mouth to save limited bottled water. Some of the classmates were getting really sick with parasites; a thief broke into some rooms and stole everything from food to computers.
This trip started full of things not going as expected. I didn’t even have a place to stay the first night, even after a few people who had connections to the retreat reached out for me to secure a room. There was no space. A boy, who was on a boat ride to the village, got concerned and walked with me to every hostel and hotel—but they were all booked. I ended up going to the town on the other side of lake in a tuk tuk with local kids late at night. They found me a small concrete room with a simple bed in someone’s backyard, and that’s where I stayed. I woke up next day, thankful that at least I was safe.
My 10-day stay there was pretty interesting. For me, it was like the Wizard of Oz. Everyone I met became a teacher. I interacted and became friends with everyone from travelers, who moved there from other countries to locals who were very, very poor. Toward my last day there, I decided to go to the “Cacao shaman,” Keith, who I kept hearing about from my classmates. He said he hadn’t seen a packed session like the one I attended, and it was really tight. The whole experience was intense. Keith would go around and sit in front of each person, and he could be pretty harsh. There were men and women crying and saying things like, “It hurts; it really hurts,” and placing their hands on their hearts. Then, he came and sat in front of me. I was actually terrified of what he might say. He smiled and said, “A lot of light. Just play with it.” I left the session with this realization that my life wasn’t really falling apart. I was okay. I was not really sick, I had a great job, I didn’t have major issues in my life.
When I left San Marcos, I cried and missed people I met. But, back in New York, I was so grateful and happy for the privileges we have: electricity, comfortable homes, clean water—the list goes on. Some happiness may come with momentary things like good news and such, but lasting happiness comes from accepting and being happy with what you have. Studies show that the more choices people have, the less happy they are.
I suppose I am still learning and sometimes still struggle to attain that happiness that comes from contentment. Doing business always forces you to think it’s got to grow, you’ve got to be better, do better. If you stop hustling, that may be end of your business. That’s why it is even more important to be happy and appreciate the little things. I’m forever grateful to have a memorable trip like this one, which was uncomfortable by our usual standards, but which taught me lessons—big ones. I can go back again and again in my mind to remind myself and smile.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
MI: I think the quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” describes it well. There are no regrets no matter the outcome if you do your best with your purpose—whatever you do. Your best can be different every day; some days, it’s really hard to even motivate. But keep showing up, do what you can do, and understand that we are human and can’t always be running nonstop.