Cosplay at Fan Expo: How can you turn fandom into a career?

A select few superfans have been able to make a career out of creating costumes of their favourite fictional characters. But it's a long and indirect road to becoming a cosplay superstar.

Very few superfans turn their love of costuming and all things nerdy into a major source of income

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      How can an average Torontonian tell that Fan Expo, the annual mega-gathering for all things nerdy, is upon us again?

      Just look out for the hundreds of cosplayers – fans dressed to the nines as their favourite superheroes, villains, and TV characters – flooding the downtown core.

      While the slate of stars scheduled to appear at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre includes Gillian Anderson, Christian Slater and Mads Mikkelsen, many fans are here to see professional cosplayers: the elite of their fandom, who have turned their passions into a potentially lucrative career.

      A very select few have been able to turn their fandom into a career, becoming internet-famous personalities, creating and selling costumes and accessories to fans who follow the people behind the costume as much as the alter egos they adopt.

      But it's a long and indirect road to becoming a cosplay superstar.

      Professional cosplayer Yaya Han at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. She's been making costumes since 1999. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

      Yaya Han, cosplay queen

      Yaya Han is one of the most prolific and best known cosplayers in North America, having made more than 300 costumes since she began in 1999.

      She has built what began as a hobby into a self-sustaining business, selling costumes, wigs, shirts and other accessories for budding cosplayers, as well as prints and posters of herself as characters such as DC Comics' Power Girl and Street Fighter's Chun-Li. She also enjoys a sizable online fandom including more than 1.5 million Likes on Facebook.

      When she isn't running her online store or booking convention appearances, Han can spend up to 20 hours a day building a new costume.

      Han was one of the cosplayers featured on a series of cosplay cover art for Marvel Comics' October lineup. Here she's dressed as Medusa from the Inhumans. (Marvel Entertainment)
      Han herself makes appearances at multiple conventions every year — this weekend she's splitting her time between Fan Expo in Toronto and DragonCon in Atlanta.

      She's also featured in Marvel Comics' series of cosplay comic book covers, dressed as Medusa on the cover of All-New Inhumans.

      Despite her high profile, Han reaffirms that cosplay to her is still first and foremost about passion, fandom and creativity.

      "Cosplay is a form of personal self-expression. It is not to be done for someone else," she says. "There is no difference between wearing a T-shirt of a character and wearing a costume of that character. It doesn't matter if you aren't the right gender or the right body type."

      Labour of love, not riches

      Han's success, however, isn't the norm. For many, cosplaying remains a time-consuming labour of love with only a slim chance of turning into a primary source of income.

      "A lot of people have the misconception that this is a thing that comes easily," says Gina G., a costume maker and cosplayer in Toronto. "There's a handful of people who can do this [full time] and I can list them on one hand."

      She mentions Han as well as Jessica Nigri,  who has cosplayed in an official capacity for video games like Lollipop Chainsaw and Assassin's Creed: Unity, as part of that short list.

      Gina G. says very few people can make a living just on cosplay, but her passion for it led to a career in costume making. (Gina G./Sarah Peters Photography)
      "It's very hard to live off of cosplay," she says. "But that said, there are so many other avenues for costuming that people don't think of, like theatre and film."

      Gina G. works at a costume and dancewear store in Toronto, making ensembles for more traditional theatre and performing arts as well as cosplayers.

      For those who want to make it on the convention circuit, things can get complicated — and more difficult.

      "People do not understand the work that goes into it. It's essentially running a small business," says Karli Woods, a Toronto-based cosplayer who also produces and hosts a YouTube channel called Geekin' Gorgeous.

      Cosplayers Leeanna Vamp and Karli Woods at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. Woods says being a full-time cosplayer is like running your own small business. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)
      "You have to update your website, and you're sewing new costumes. After your costume's done you have to source a photographer to set up a shoot, find a location, rent a location. You need merchandise so you need to make your prints, sell T-shirts, buttons, stickers, calendars," Woods explains.

      Cosplayers make money by selling their merchandise to fans at conventions. Only a handful will be paid by the convention organizers and appear as featured guests.

      Woods says her cosplay work has essentially become a second full-time job. But after several years in the scene, she feels ready to take the jump to quit her day job in television casting and focus on her cosplay and YouTube hosting starting next month.

      Cosplay misconceptions

      Many of the best known female cosplayers are often seen as simply pin-up models who became famous because of their bodies rather than their skills at designing costumes, says Meg Turney, a cosplay veteran and YouTube channel host who has appeared in commercials for video games like Guild Wars 2.

      "I think some people just go, 'She has boobs, that's why she's popular.' But that's not really the case," Turney says of Nigri.

      Meg Turney is a well known cosplayer and has hosted several shows on YouTube and programs like Nerdist News. (Meg Turney/Facebook)
      "The girls I think people assume were just kind of given these roles as leaders in this industry worked very, very hard to get there," she says.

      On the flip side of that, many cosplayers have experienced sexual harassment or assault at conventions. Turney says it could range from someone tugging at her skirt to look at the fabric she used, to being grabbed or groped while taking photos with fans.

      She credits the Cosplay is not Consent movement, and more security details at conventions that take harassment of cosplayers seriously, as positive changes.

      Fans spend hours building costumes of their favourite pop culture characters, but also discuss cases of sexual harassment at conventions 2:55
      "It's still a real person in there that doesn't want to be touched. You should definitely ask for permission before you touch any part of a costume."

      Despite all the challenges, however, Turney believes hard work and passion will see aspiring cosplayers through. "If you do something, and you do it well, and you do it with enough practice, people will pay you to do that thing."