Cosplay at Fan Expo: How can you turn fandom into a career?
Very few superfans turn their love of costuming and all things nerdy into a major source of income
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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."
Eli and friends at Fan Expo! <a href="https://twitter.com/glasneronfilm">@glasneronfilm</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cbcnewsarts?src=hash">#cbcnewsarts</a> <a href="http://t.co/SMeFZNASSv">pic.twitter.com/SMeFZNASSv</a>—@aliceatcbc