Cosplay is about to go mainstream. The concept of getting decked out and assuming a different personality is familiar to the con-going nerd set, but with a new Syfy show, “cosplay” is poised to become as much a part of pop culture vernacular as “GTL” was a few years back.
Premiering tonight at 10:30 p.m., “Heroes of Cosplay” is an unscripted lifestyle show which revolves around the craft, competition and characters (both real-life and fictional) of a culturally rich subculture that exists on the fan convention circuit. While the definition of cosplay varies among participants, “HoC” focuses on nine personalities who create homemade, highly-detailed costumes based on characters from comics, movies, video games and TV shows – and who participate in contests for cash prizes and respect within their community.
Though the show stars nine heroes, Yaya Han is the Wonder Woman of the cosplay world. Han is perhaps the most famous name in the community since beginning 14 years ago. Since then, she has built a following at conventions and on social media. Han’s intricately crafted costumes – such as Carmilla from “Vampire Hunter D,” Catwoman from “Arkham City,” Baroness from “G.I. Joe” and yes, Wonder Woman – have become as recognizable at events as the characters she’s portraying. She was also the focus of an Entertainment Weekly photo gallery during this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
Moreover, she has parlayed her cosplay fame into a full-time job. She used to work as a technical analyst for a software company, but now gets booked to appear at events and sells calendars and prints of her in costume, as well as operating her own store of handmade cosplay products. She no longer competes in cosplay contests, and instead chooses to serve as a panelist and judge for them. That’s essentially Han’s role on “Heroes of Cosplay”; she is spotlighted as the cosplayer all others want to impress. As other participants strive to create costumes that will inevitably be judged, Han is shown preparing for her own appearances at shows.
To discuss her role as cosplay rockstar within “Heroes of Cosplay,” and to discuss the culture of her fan community, Han joined me by phone from her Atlanta home as she packed up bins of cosplay items to be driven to last weekend’s Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland.
MTV Geek: What were the motivations for starting to cosplay?
Yaya Han: I was just a kid who had no idea how to make costumes. I was really, in a strict sense, a newbie. I discovered cosplay because I was going to an anime convention and did some research, and found out people dressed up as characters. I made a very badly put-together costume because I felt this desire to dress up. It was appealing to play dress up when it wasn’t Halloween, so the initial motivation was, “I want to be a character,” not to make the costume. The costume was a means to an end. I was forced to learn how to make them because I wanted to play dress up, but then became enthralled by the creativity of it and the process of finding materials and figuring out how to make the pieces.
Geek: For the uninitiated, can you explain the appeal of cosplay?
Han: It fulfills all of my creative urges, but gives me satisfaction as a fan to pay homage to a character I really like. This is so rewarding and challenging and so much fun. The end reward is you became an artwork, basically, and become this character you’ve always admired. That feeling of wanting to be a hero you admire is in everybody. Everybody watches a movie and goes, “I wish I could be that bad ass” or be a character for a day. Cosplay is a way to make that a reality.
Geek: Syfy has spotlighted you as the face of cosplay. Is there any pressure that comes with that?
Han: I don’t know if this is going to sound bizarre, but not really. I’m doing what I’m doing. The show is not going to portray me any different than what I do in normal-day life. They didn’t film me doing anything I don’t already do. For me, I’ve already received so much criticism and trolling over the years that I’ve had a lot more training in handling criticism or overt worship-type praise. Whether you’re reaction towards me is overly positive or negative, it doesn’t sway me from doing what I do. This is my passion, lifestyle and job. I think “Heroes of Cosplay” will show a lot of the positive things, like how much effort it takes to make a costume. These people on the show aren’t taking shortcuts. As long as that effort gets through to the viewers, we will be inspirational. Then there will be people who watch the show that want to get in and hands-on make outfits.
Geek: How would you describe your role within the current cosplay community?
Han: The community is experiencing some growing pains. It is getting to be mainstream. If “Heroes of Cosplay” was aired three years later, the cosplay community has already become mainstream. Companies are hiring cosplayers to be promotional spokes models for them. There are cosplayers trying to develop a cult following even though they’ve only been cosplaying for less than a year or two. It’s all about the social media or Facebook likes. For me, I’ve such a steady presence throughout the community that I think if anyone can raise up to the challenge of presenting the face of cosplay, it could be me. Not to be vain, but I’ve had the training to be in this position. I’ve had people trying to rip me down or spread rumors or try to shut down my business, or copy my products. So I want to be an ambassador of cosplay. I want to get kids excited about wanting to dress up and parents excited to help their kids make costumes.
Geek: Do the competitions and cash prizes featured on the show detract from the cosplay community, and does it receive too much emphasis within the community?
Han: Actually, in recent years, competitions have been getting too little emphasis. It is a weird thing that’s been developing; when I started cosplaying or when most people started 10 years ago, there was no way to showcase your costume unless you entered a competition. All the attendees of a convention would come to the competition and see you on stage, and you got to act like your character and enter for the possibility of recognition and awards. A cosplayer’s merit was decided by how many awards they’d won and how many competitions they’ve done. That was a way for a lot of cosplayers to become judges or become panelists and guests because they had to show that they could make a badass costume and put on a great performance. It wasn’t really about the cash prize but about the notoriety and the honor. With social media and the Internet, and with photography evolving so fast, it’s so much easier to do a photo shoot of your costume and post it online. You get the same amount of recognition and build a fan base a lot easier. So the costume contests have been declining in quality because there aren’t that many people who are talented that are compelled to enter. That’s why conventions have started to do cash prizes. It’s a way to motivate people to enter. Competition in cosplay should be strictly reserved for costume contests. There shouldn’t be any competition in who made the better costume of this character except when you are in a costume contest.
Geek: What part do competitions play within “Heroes of Cosplay”?
Han: A lot of people are mistaken that “Heroes of Cosplay” will only be about competitions in general. No, we’re going to costume contests and adhering exactly to rules they specified, and I’m there as a judge to help explain why we chose these winners. What makes this person deserve this award? I hope it’s educational and make people want to enter contests more and push their costumes more. There are a lot of flaws you can hide in photos, a lot you can Photoshop. On a stage, in a contest, it has to be real and is more challenging.