You all know I watch Syfy (don’t judge). I really like their reality competition show Face Off, and for the past two seasons I also watched their cosplay reality show, Heroes of Cosplay. I should point out that HOC was a summer series and a season was about eight episodes. It looks like the show’s team followed the cast for a year (maybe longer), developed about sixteen episodes, and broke them up into two arbitrary “seasons.”
Costume-play, or cosplay, is the evolution of all those science fiction convention costume contests from the sixties and seventies. On the evolutionary tree, it probably branched off from Renaissance Faires and Dickens Faires too. Now, with latex, silicon, moldable plastics and various facepaints available in just about every large urban area (and the internet) nerds who want to make costumes can do it easily, although it’s got to be expensive. And then they can meet at conventions and have contests. Heroes of Cosplay followed several groups of cosplayers as they competed at these various events; in Atlanta, Georgia, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland and New Orleans.
One of the featured players was a young Chinese American woman in Atlanta named Ya Ya Han. Han was portrayed as a “senior” cosplayer who spoke frequently about her cosplay career. She mentored a couple of the Atlanta cosplayers, and was often asked to judge costume contests. In the first season I think she went to Japan and someplace like Denmark for cosplay events.
I didn’t like Ya Ya Han as she was depicted. She seemed shallow and full of herself. Her attitude toward the other cosplayers, when she was speaking directly to the camera, was a schoolmarmish, finger-wagging disapproval when they didn’t follow her suggestions. To be fair, her suggestions were good. And she did have beautiful costumes.
The show followed Riki and Monika from Atlanta; Jessica and Holly from LA; Victoria (I forget where she was from) and Jesse from Oregon. Chloe was also from LA, presented as someone who wanted to level up her cosplay skills. Chloe is the daughter of special effects wizard John Dykstra. She has her own show on the Nerdist Channel. I liked Chloe. I really liked Jesse because 1) he was an armorer; 2) he and his Portland friends did steampunk stuff; and 3) Oregon. I grew to love Jessica and Holly for their wild imaginations and their egalitarian approach to cosplay.
I was originally taken with Riki’s dedication to her craft, her intensity and her attention to detail. Later in the show,though, she said something gratuitously mean to one of her other cosplayers, and I lost interest in her.
Let me stress that these are so-called reality shows. For the most part they aren’t scripted, but editors and producers shape what you see and hear, and they definitely do create “characters” that probably only somewhat reflect the real natures of the participants. In the first season, while other cosplayers were shown sketching plans, molding breastplates, frantically scrambling to finish costumes, Ya Ya would be shown lecturing the camera or holding court with adoring fans.
I also smirked every time Han, leaning over to expose her ample (enhanced?) cleavage, talked about the important of her cosplay “career.” Selling cat-ear headbands and calendars of yourself in the dealers’ room, a career? Oh, please.
It did not occur to me right then that I might be using a sexist double-standard. Jesse, the steampunk pirate, the Oregon armorer, dreamed of quitting his day job and doing fabrication full time. You go, dude! Strike out for that horizon! Ya Ya, you want to make a career out of modeling and maybe licensing your designs? Well. How shallow of you.
To be fair, several of the players have career aspirations; Holly and Jessica work in the movie business in LA, making creatures for webseries and films; Riki hoped to become a fabricator also. I think, seriously, where my sexism kicked in was the difference between fabriation (carving, molding, building) and costuming… sewing. Molding a plastic breastplate, now there’s work. Sewing? More of a girl’s hobby.
I’d love to say that the scales fell from my eyes — but they didn’t. What changed my opinion was Ya Ya Han’s storyline in the last 2 episodes of the second season. In those two hours, Han accepted a contract with a costume company and conceived of her most ambitious personal costume yet. Of course, to up the drama, both costumes were due for the same event, seven days away.
Museum Replicas offered Han a role in their webseries, and let her develop the costume for her character. For the first time, I saw Ya Ya Han the designer. Her energy and enthusiam for the project bubbled up, immediately apparent. The costume she created, which had been suggested by some sketches provided by the company, was simple looking but captured the character perfectly, and a few of Han’s touches, an asymmetrical ruff of feathers, for instance, were completely hers.
Her second costume was that of Enira, the Banshee Queen from the video game Lineage II. Enira is evil and majestic. She is tall and menacing. Ya Ya Han is not tall. To get the lines for this compelling costume, she would have to walk on stilts. The queen’s gown included yards and yards of fabric (probably flowing over crinolines); a “metal” bodice/carapace thing, huge peacock wings mounted on bones, a high headress with horns that extended out to the ends of her shoulders. The costume was for the contest Han was hosting and judging, in New Orleans.
Here’s an idea of what it looked like.
I’m sure this costume had at least 100 hours of work in it, done while Han was also carrying out hosting and judging duties… and learning to walk on stilts. By the day of the performance the show gave us a woman who was in a sleep-deprived fugue state, struggling to finish her costume.
She completed it, donned it and successfully participated in a photo-shoot in the hotel lobby, but backstage at the contest she ran into a little flurry or errors. First, someone cued up her music too soon. Normally music wouldn’t be a big deal but it also contained the verbal cues she would lip-sync to, and she didn’t want it to give away her character. Stagehands stopped it in time. With that corrected, she had to navigate four steps up to the stage, on two-foot stilts, wearing more than 50 pounds of costume. Four people helped her, but even so, she caught her foot on the way up. “I was scared I would fall. I was scared I would hurt myself; I was scared I’d damage the costume; I was scared I’d make a laughingstock of myself.”
When she reached the stage safely, she came out and nailed the performance, gliding around the stage as if she really were seven feet tall, approaching the edge of the stage and leaning over (because cleavage) to menace the audience. It was a flawless performance in a flawless, over the top costume.
And I got it. It’s not about cleavage, colored contacts and lipstick; at least not only that. It’s really not about school-marming the youngbloods, or at least, not only that, either. Ya Ya Han the creative designer was on display here; Ya Ya the disciplined performer who honed her skills, who reached beyond her skill and comfort level and managed to deliver. This Ya Ya Han has a work ethic, determination and grit. I finally saw her.
I’m not saying that we would ever hang out together. While I could imagine sipping a pint with Jesse Lagers and his friends, or even hanging out with Holly, Chloe and Jessica, Ya Ya and I have nothing in common. Still, after two seasons, it was a pleasure to see the artist behind the diva. I appreciate her creativity and her craft. Maybe I learned a little something about judging people based on appearances. Probably not, but I can always hope.
Here is some information on some of the show’s cosplayers:
Jesse Lagers’s website.
Ya Ya Han
NOTE: While I was tracking down these links I happened across an article where someone complained that the judging at the New Orleans convention was “rigged” because “the only people who were asked about their costumes were the ones who later won,” and they turned out to be mostly HOC people. Okay. Let’s review briefly. The show is a “reality” show; thousands of hours of footage are taped while crews follow around the cast. Then, it has to be distilled down into a forty-seven minute format. Of course most of the conversations that were aired were HOC cast. The judges probably talked to nearly all the contestants about their costumes because that is part of the judging process. Get a grip.