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5 Things I Learned From SyFy's "Heroes of Cosplay"

by Zac Bertschy,

A few weeks back, cable network Syfy began airing what they referred to as a "docu-series" on the colorful world of convention cosplayers called Heroes of Cosplay. The mere announcement that the show would exist - coupled with casting news - naturally set the always level-headed, drama-free online cosplay community on fire, a blaze only further stoked when the show actually aired, resulting in online petitions asking for the show to be changed to present cosplay in a more positive light or be canceled altogether. As of this writing, the show is in its fourth week, and the controversy generated by it hasn't really abated.

Now, I'm entering my roughly fourteenth year as someone who writes about anime and anime fandom for a living, which means I've spent a whole lot of time at anime conventions and around cosplayers, and even inside the cosplay community. I've spent my fair share of hours backstage at convention masquerades, reading cosplay forums and attempting to work with notable cosplayers for features on the subject. I've never actually cosplayed myself,  and my technical knowledge of the craft of cosplay is limited, but my experiences observing the community and its inhabitants I felt gave me a unique opportunity to watch Syfy's reality TV series armed perhaps with enough knowledge to spot the show's problems while maintaining an open mind. What could Heroes of Cosplay teach me about the cosplay community? Would there be some insight into this strange little world that captures the imagination of so many people clicking through internet photo slideshows?

As it turns out, Heroes of Cosplay had plenty to teach me, and even corrected some of my previously-held beliefs about cosplayers.

 5. Any idea for a reality TV show is viable, even if you don't really know what the show is supposed to be about.

It's important to point out exactly what this show is trying to accomplish. Is it a reality competition show where professional cosplayers from around the country test their mettle, judged by a panel of respected talent? No, it isn't that, even though it appears they attempted to bring in elements of that format. Did they put a bunch of famous cosplayers in a house together with a fully-stocked bar and then have them compete against eachother, bickering in between physical challenges? No, it isn't that either. Is it an unflinching, documentary-style look inside the secret world of pro cosplaying, complete with in-depth interviews and behind-the-scenes footage? Well, I think it's trying to do that, but...

...Actually, I'm not sure what it's trying to do. Every episode features a handful of regulars - "cosplay ambassador" Yaya Han, bickering best buddies Holly and Jessica, and a couple others, plus a mix of locals, most of whom never show up again. They fly these people out to mid-range conventions like Wizard World Portland and Houston's Anime Matsuri to compete in the masquerade, which none of them ever seem to actually win, and then that's it. Mostly we watch these people squabble, stress out about something that seems like it's supposed to just be fun, and then snipe at one another. It's unclear what the show is actually supposed to be about - it has very little focus and the "climax" of each episode is usually just a dull thud where some random guy in League of Legends cosplay takes home the con prize and everyone else goes home empty-handed, having spent about 48 hours behaving as though their lives will come to a sudden, painful end if they can't get the zipper up on their latex Black Widow outfit.

But the show goes on, rudderless and seemingly without much of a gameplan. Where will the show end? Are they going to load up the masquerade at Anime Expo 2013 with series regulars and just cross their fingers that one of them places? The only person on the show who seems capable of winning much of anything, given the nature of cosplay judging, is Yaya Han, and she doesn't compete anymore. So what's the point of all this? I suppose it doesn't matter.

4. Cosplaying is a viable full-time career with major earning potential.

Over the years I've known many, many cosplayers - some casual, some dramatically more serious than others - and the most familiar refrain among the lot of them, when it comes to the base motivation for spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars constructing an elaborate costume, is that they always focused first on the joy of craftsmanship, with the camaraderie of their cosplaying buddies at conventions being a close second. And while some of my cosplay pals went on to use the skills they picked up making costumes in their careers - in some cases becoming legit fashion designers, full-time seamstresses, and professional costumers in film and television, not a one of them ever expressed the desire or even the belief that putting a costume on and wandering around a convention hall would actually become their full-time job. Most convention masquerades don't even offer a cash prize, and if they did, it almost never topped $1000, which for your average high-end cosplayer wouldn't even cover the price of the costume itself. Once you factor in your convention hotel room - and hell, airfare if you're travelling - even a "generous" masquerade purse of a sweet grand would still have you well into the red. This is all a labor of love, not a profit-making enterprise.

Not so, says Heroes of Cosplay! In the first episode, the narrator mentions that cosplaying has created "international superstars"  and that "in the world of cosplay, the stakes are no mere fantasy! Thousands of dollars are up for grabs in every competition and the potential for millions of new fans! Winning a competition can lead to unlimited business opportunities!" Why, anyone with a sewing machine, a little imagination and first-hand knowledge of what Final Fantasy characters look like can become an overnight sensation, raking in THOUSANDS in competition prizes while the paid sponsorship gigs just roll right in! Riches and fame can be yours if your fabricatin' fingers are willing to put in the hard work, and you can navigate the cutthroat world of competitive cosplaying! Now, this may go against literally everything I've ever witnessed myself or heard first-hand from the dozens of longtime cosplayers I've spoken to about the financial side of cosplaying, but Heroes of Cosplay is here let us all know that it's totally viable to score fat stacks of cash dressing up like Steampunk Creamy Mami while a handful of gawking convention nerds snap blurry celphone photos of you!

Who knew it was such a growth industry? Not me, considering you'd have to be really in to cosplay in order to have even heard of the community's whopping two "superstars", the only two people who appear to make anything close to a "living" wearing costumes at anime conventions. One of them is Jessica Nigri, who reportedly declined to appear in the show as a featured cosplayer, and the other being...

3. Yaya Han, Iron-Fisted Empress of Cosplay Kingdom

The undisputed star of Heroes of Cosplay is none other than Yaya Han, a hard-working, particularly voluptuous cosplayer who busts out ultra high-quality (and usually ultra low-cut) costumes at seemingly every major convention in the country, selling pinup photos of herself and cosplay accessories in the dealer's room. Full disclosure - I knew Yaya in what feels like a previous life (she was a regular at my college anime club back in the late 90s, no foolin'!), and her transformation from perfectly normal anime fan to professional cosplayer and pinup model has mystified me for years. It was weird, sure, and I've heard my fair share of unfortunate Queen Bee stories about Yaya, but I always thought it impressive that someone - anyone at all, even one person - could dress up in geek-friendly (okay, geek-pandering) costumes at conventions and actually make a living at it (so to speak). "Good for her," I'd say.

According to the show, however, Yaya Han isn't just the world's most famous cosplayer, she is AMBASSADOR OF COSPLAY, the face of the entire operation, someone literally everyone who's ever heard of costumes respects, knows, and in many cases, outright fears. The other girls on the show talk about having their costumes judged by Yaya as a terrifying, anxiety-inducing ordeal, as if one misplaced stitch or botched hemline will anger their cruel demigoddess, and her eyes will glow red with perfectionist fury, the dimensional hellmouth in her cleavage opening wide to swallow transgressors and crafters of subpar cosplay whole, an eternity spent in writhing torment for the unforgivable sin of angering YAYA HAN, COSPLAY OVERLORD.

In the carefully-selected and edited footage shown of Yaya appraising costumes, however, she appears to be all smiles and pleasantries, constructively mentioning shortcomings and praising what she finds to be impressive. She seems pretty nice to everyone, so all that footage of her rending her inferiors asunder and drinking the marrow from their cosplaying bones must've been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe we'll see it in season 2.

2. Cosplay is all about the boobs ass craft

If we're being honest - and any discussion of Heroes of Cosplay needs to remain as honest as possible - it's not exactly a huge secret why Yaya Han and Jessica Nigri are the two most visible and successful cosplayers. Without getting creepy about it, the two of them use their obvious sex appeal to sell pinup photos of themselves in the dealer's room, which is where I'd imagine a majority of their income is generated outside of paid gigs for videogame companies (and the occasional anime company). Sure, their costumes are great, but it's the nearly-cartoon nature of their exaggerated physiques that likely keeps the money rolling in. Let's not kid ourselves about this. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it - pinup modeling is a profession as old as the hills and it's great work if you can get it, which requires an almost insane level of dedication to staying in shape and a natural confidence few possess - but that's what it's about for the only two people you can readily point to who make a living doing this.

Heroes of Cosplay has another idea about this, specifically in regard to Yaya - in her on-camera interviews (in addition to a number of the other girls on the show using this refrain as well), Yaya lets us all know that cosplay is entirely about craft. "Sex appeal is part of it, sure" she says at one point, but the chief motivating factor and selling point is the detailed craftsmanship of the costumes on display. While these soundbites are rolling throughout the show, Heroes of Cosplay reinforces the idea over and over again through subtle visual clues, showing us just how much cosplay is





Yaya in particular goes to the point of trash-talking Nigri, in a segment talking about one of her protégés. "I'm a little worried that she'll be seduced by Jessica's sexy cosplay style, and forget about the importance of craftsmanship that I've instilled on her. I think Jessica and I, we approach cosplay from very different angles. You know, for me it's all about craftsmanship, really paying a lot of attention to detail. The content that Jessica Nigri puts out really displays cosplay in the wrong light."

Of course, you're right, Yaya. Night and day difference here.

1. Cosplay is not about having fun.

If it's one thing I thought I knew about cosplay, having spent so much time around those that partake, it's that their chief reasons for doing it (as mentioned before) went roughly in this order of priority:

1. Have fun

2. Make something you're proud of

3. Enjoy the companionship of your fellow cosplayers

4. Walk the con floor in your masterpiece and let the people see you

There are a variety of other reasons people cosplay, of course, but in my experience, #1 up there always took priority over everything else. It was never about money, or winning, or showing up your "competitors" (like that bitch who totally bought that Sailor Moon costume off ebay no matter what she tells you about having made it herself!). It was always just about having fun.

According to Heroes of Cosplay, however, this is all wrong. In fact, based on the portrayal of cosplayers in this show, those four priorities up there wouldn't even rank in the top 5. I'd say the Heroes of Cosplay list would look something like this:

1. Shave years off of your life becoming a gigantic, unreasonable ball of stress over every little thing that may be going wrong with your "Doctor Who except a girl" costume

2. Show up those catty bitches who think they're so great but they're not so great you guys hey have you seen my "Cloud Strife except a girl" costume

3. Win gigantic piles of money and unending fame for participating in the Anime Matsuri costume competition, the center of the cosplay universe where the entire international cosplay community watches with baited breath to see who takes the prize at Houston's fabulous George R. Brown Convention Center

4. Pray that when the eyes of Yaya Han fall upon you that her judgment is swift

...I'm getting off track here.

The ladies in this show are chiefly shown in moments of pure stress-induced panic, and when they're not imploding at the idea of missing some crucial detail (on a costume they apparently started assembling 2 days before the convention), they're sitting in big circles sipping cocktails and talking shit about the girls that aren't in the room. Cosplay, after all, is an extremely high-stakes, cutthroat world where only the most dedicated backstabber can hope to find fortune and fame on the stage of Wizard World Portland. You go big or you go home.

Or maybe it's just a really terrible, manipulative, mean-spirited reality TV series that completely misrepresents the entire hobby and craft of cosplaying, makes cosplayers look like a bunch of backstabbing harpies and generally does a disservice to the already widely-misunderstood world of people who just like making costumes and showing them off at silly nerd conventions.

I don't even know anymore.

Retraction: Previously this article contained a snarky comment about the events in episode 4, wherein cosplayers Holly and Jessica dressed up as "Meme Cats". Jessica cosplayed as Maru, and claimed later to have a wool allergy, and was then shown dealing with the illness. I basically called it fake. Here's what I said:

"5. Claim to have a "wool allergy", then fabricate an entire costume made of wool, then complain about being sick and expect people to buy it"

I have been informed (quite thoroughly) by Holly, Jessica and their many fans via Twitter that she wasn't faking sick. Here's a blog post where she explains it. So there you go, I apologize for the assumption. I really have no idea what actually happened but if she says she wasn't faking it, that's good enough for me.

Show still sucks, though.

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