There’s no denying the force of nature that Mike Ho is.
As a Director and Photographer, he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the music scene, using his visionary style to capture the likes of artists such as Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, and Toni Braxton on camera.
Ho grew up in Milpitas, and back in 2011, as things were heating up with his career, he took what he calls “a leap of faith” and made the move to Los Angeles.
Growing up in the Bay Area, Ho was always drawn to the creative world. At 11 years old, he shot his first music video and short film during a family gathering. But things really started coming into focus for him at Milpitas High School, during his senior year.
“I was forced to take a drawing class to graduate. I had to do it; otherwise I wasn’t going to pass,” said Ho. “And that’s where I met Mrs. Taplin, who’s responsible for the artist I am now.”
Although Ho had zero interest in the class, he knew he had to hang in there and see it through. But things weren’t happening at first. He simply wasn’t motivated to draw.
Aiming to motivate him, Mrs. Taplin opted for a different route…
“She told me: ‘I don’t care anymore, just draw whatever you want, just so I can say you drew something, and give you some sort of credit for it,’” explained Ho.
Hearing this was music to his ears. Ho went home that day, and since he was a big Angelina Jolie fan, he decided he would start there. At the time, “Tomb Raider” had just come out. Ho grabbed the DVD cover and drew the entire thing on an 11X17 piece of paper. When he took it to school the next day to show his teacher, she couldn’t believe it. She figured that he must’ve traced the image. But when Ho showed her the source of the drawing, a DVD cover that was much smaller than what he had drawn, it was almost as if a lightbulb had gone off in her head. Then and there, she realized there was potential in him that needed to be brought out.
“After that, she taught me shading…I became her experiment,” Ho said. “She taught me all these different tools, and I became addicted.”
To help nurture the potential that she saw in Ho, the teacher designated a corner of the classroom where he could focus deeply on his work. There, he would put on his headphones and get lost in a state of deep creation, drawing image after image. When he was finished, he would hang each one up on the walls around him. Drawing had activated something from within, and whatever it was, Ho was fully in its grip.
One day, Mrs. Taplin asked him if he had ever tried photography. He hadn’t.
“It’s just like drawing,” the teacher told him. “You just have to mold the light.”
Intrigued, Ho dabbled a bit with photography, while continuing with his drawing. But it wasn’t until he graduated from MHS in ‘03, and went off to Mission College, that he began to take photography more seriously. Ho began taking photography classes. Soon after, his fashion photographer buddy, John Agcaoili, a co-founder of production collective Darkside of the Moon, was inviting him to Vegas to take photos at the SHOT Show.
“He gave me a digital SLR camera — it was the first time someone put a camera like that in my hands,” Ho recalled. “We took the photos and went back to the hotel room and my friend said, ‘Let me see your memory card’. And he looked and said, ‘These are really good.’ He told me I should pick it up and start practicing when we got back.”
Along with attending college, Ho was also working in sales at Atmel Corporations. When he came back home, he used some of the money he was making to buy a camera. Since his brother was a reggaeton musician, Ho saw an opportunity to pick up some practice. He started taking photos for his brother, and also photographing models to build his portfolio.
Soon, local musicians were reaching out to Ho, and asking him to do their photography. Ho was starting to gain traction.
And then, one day, in 2008, a musician friend asked Ho if he would shoot their music video. Though he knew nothing about video, he agreed to it. At the time, he was studying at the Art Institute in Sunnyvale, and he had the ability to check out any film equipment that he wanted to. So he did. And what resulted was the very first music video he ever shot. That video became a local sensation.
He didn’t know it at the time, but in the years that followed, he would go on to be a highly sought-after music video director by many celebrities in the industry.
Ho continued doing photography, and went on to shoot a second music video for another local Bay Area artist.
“At that time, the video was on Worldstar…it was picked up by blog sites and local magazines. One magazine named me one of the Top 10 Directors of the Year — and I had only had 2 videos under my belt,” said Ho.
As things were warming up with the photography and directing, Ho was laid off from his sales job. At the time, he was also sleeping on the floor of his mom’s Milpitas home. He had been searching for another job, one that would help him become financially stable. But after his second music video hit the Bay Area scene hard, he figured that now was the time. He just had to figure out a way to translate the photography and directing into something sustainable.
Ho began going full-force with his work. His musician brother connected Ho with a guy who went by the name of Royalty.
“Royalty was the one responsible for making MySpace famous. He was the first person who used the platform for what it was, and he created a trend that sparked everything else…” said Ho. “He was one of the first internet sensations. And he saw the potential in me.”
Soon, he began traveling with Royalty, filming and photographing his shows and tours. Royalty introduced Ho to Derrick Traylor, or Dee Trane (as everyone called him), who worked in Radio Promotion at Interscope Records. Dee Trane took a look at Ho’s work and was astounded by the results that Ho achieved with essentially no crew and no money.
And then came the big break that paved the way toward Ho’s future successes: He was offered a gig creating video content for Interscope. He would go out on the road and document the things that the artists were doing behind the scenes, and post the results on YouTube and Twitter. At the time, Ho recalls, no one else was really doing this.
The year was 2010. Ho was traveling back and forth between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. During one of his drives back home from LA, a producer he knew, Mav (who passed away a few years ago), called Ho up and said that singer Charlie Wilson wanted to meet him. Ho turned the car around and went back to LA to meet Wilson, who was in search of the right person to conceive and create a music video for his hit song “You Are.”
After meeting Wilson and listening to the song, Ho came up with a concept on the spot. Wilson fell in love with it, and asked Ho to direct it.
The only thing was, when Ho pitched Wilson the concept, he had used all locations that he knew. And those locations were in Milpitas — Cal Skate (the skating rink that was still open at the time), Spring Valley Golf Course, and Cal Hills High School. He asked Wilson if he’d be okay with coming out to Milpitas.
Wilson agreed, and soon after, they were actually shooting his “You Are” music video throughout Milpitas.
It was the first time Ho had a substantial budget to work with.
“I didn’t shoot on my little camera; we rented one. We finished the video and it ended up being a huge success,” said Ho. “Charlie was nominated for Best R&B Performance for that song at the Grammys.”
After shooting the Charlie Wilson video, Ho went back to LA and started attacking his work as hard as he could. He did a bunch of new music videos and shot for Maxim, Vibe, FHM, and other outlets.
Rubbing elbows with so many big celebrities gave Ho an ego boost that he hadn’t experienced before. He now admits that his taste of fame went to his head, and he started acting like a hotshot.
In the meantime, he was also sleeping on the upper floor of an abandoned building. He had a mattress on the floor — and that was about it.
At one point, Ho decided that he needed to take a break and get away from the pressures of LA for a bit. So he packed his car up with all his stuff, which included his laptop, camera, and hard drives. While on his way back home, his cousin told him to stop by and visit in San Francisco. So Ho made the stop.
The next thing he knew, while Ho was in San Francisco, his car was broken into, and all his stuff was stolen. All of the work that he had spent many years building was gone, just like that.
Something in Ho snapped.
“I retaliated,” admitted Ho. “I was damaging cars and doing mayhem in the street, and I got arrested.”
Ho was charged with Felony Vandalism, and booked for a year and a day. While in his jail cell later that night, he had an epiphany. He knew that God was trying to teach him a lesson of some kind.
“I was shooting models and doing work that was great, and I felt like I was on a high horse,” shared Ho. “I felt like God had knocked me down to show me I was going down a bad road. LA can do that to you…it can clog your brain with toxic things, false friendships…Now I was back home stripped of everything. But I think being stripped of everything gave me the clarity that I needed.”
His brother Leo bailed him out, and soon after that, his brother Allan took him to Church. Allan spoke to the Pastor and filled him in on what had happened. The Pastor asked to speak to Ho directly. So they sat together and talked.
And the Pastor said something that Ho will never forget:
“What if I told you you could get everything back, plus ten times more? And you could be the biggest director you’ve ever dreamed of, and do what you wanted?”
Jokingly, Ho responded, “Where do I sign up?”
“I’m being serious with you,” the Pastor replied. “To do all this, you have to give yourself to Jesus Christ, and you are no longer in control of you. And anything you are praised for, you must tell them that it’s not you, but it’s Jesus Christ. He must get the credit from here on out.”
The Pastor put his hand on Ho’s head and said a prayer.
Then and there, Ho felt his life was transformed. He felt a sense of deep clarity and purpose that could not be put into words.
“He knew the problem was my ego and that I had to get rid of that to receive the blessings,” said Ho quietly.
The Pastor had promised Ho that he would get everything back. And he was right. Literally a week later, Ho’s mom won a big settlement case and bought Ho a brand new camera package, so that he could get back to work.
He went back out to LA with a whole new outlook on life. He spent time reading the Bible and praising the Lord. Since he had made a commitment to spreading the Word, he went ahead and did just that.
And the blessings came rolling in.
After reviewing what had happened, a judge dismissed Ho’s case. She didn’t think he belonged in the system, and recognized that he was not in his right mind and just reacting off of emotions.
“She felt I had a bright future and that it was an honest mistake,” said Ho. “They dropped all the charges.”
Ho was also signed to his first production company. He was also able to afford his first loft, in Downtown LA on 6th and Main. And he was landing bigger-than-ever gigs, directing videos with Chris Brown, Usher, Rick Ross, Jordan Sparks, and others. He even did the “Fast and Furious 7” music video.
And the Chris Brown Video he directed was nominated for Video of the Year at the BET Soul Train Awards in 2014.
Since he’s half Latino, Ho also had the desire to start working in the Latin market. He connected with Jessy Terrero, a producer he had looked up to and respected immensely in the business. Terrero helped open the door to other opportunities that included Ho directing videos with Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny, and Nicki Minaj.
In 2019, he won Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro Video of the Year award with the song “Mi Cama Remix” by Karol G, J Balvin, and Nicky Jam; and he was also nominated for Video of the Year in the same category for a Sofia Reyes’ video he directed called “1,2,3,” featuring Jason Derulo and De La Ghetto.
In November, 2019, Ho’s directing work on Nicki Minaj’s “Megatron” was also recognized, winning Best Hip Hop video at the MTV EMAs.
Now Ho is focused on the future, and making the transition to directing for film and TV. He has developed a TV show with Jamie Foxx, whom he has known for the past 7 years, and they’re currently pitching it to networks.
When asked what makes his directing so unique, Ho boiled it down to a signature movement that he has mastered over the years…
“People mistake it for a camera shake, but it’s more about precision,” said Ho. “I move to the music. I dance with it. It stems from my training. Before I started doing this, I was working with companies in the military and I’ve gone through extensive training with rifles and pistols. You’ll never be able to imitate my movement, because I move my camera the way I move my gun…”
Prior to wanting to be a Photographer and Director, Ho had had his sights set on going into the military. His dad was a marine, and his grandfather had been involved with the military surrounding the Vietnam War. Ho’s intention was to be a part of Special Forces.
But apparently, that wasn’t in the cards. However, Ho still keeps that passion alive by integrating part of it into his work.
“My style is very militant in my work and the way I work,” said Ho.
Mike Ho currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cynthia Chavez, who is a model, along with their two children: Elijah (2) and Trinity, who is a newborn.