COSPLAYERS WITH NOWHERE TO PLAY
Updated: Jan 15
By Elizabeth McCafferty
A mega star in the cosplay community and others talked to me about the impact on mental health no conventions has had. With some cosplayers signing up to ‘only fans’, police run ins and online conventions all to keep their craft afloat.
Cosplaying is a world worth nearly three hundred-million pounds. A performative art whereby performers dress up as characters from books, video games and films. Each year, thousands of cosplayers flock from all over the world to attend conventions, celebrating the industry. But with all conventions postponed for the foreseeable future due to Covid19, how is a world that thrives off dressing up at conventions surviving?
I have never tried cosplaying personally but having been to comic con I’ve seen its roaring popularity first- hand. It’s a world I was desperate to know more about and I was lucky enough to be introduced to the realms of cosplay by the pros themselves.
I spoke to Yaya Han, a cosplayer from the States. With 595k followers on Instagram alone, she’s a mega star in the community and I was privileged to get a chance to speak to her. I wanted to get an insight into the impact the pandemic has had on the community and what it means for future conventions.
“Cosplay is such a niche market. It used to be a very modern nomadic lifestyle, where everyone would meet each other in different cities every weekend…My life has done a 180.” she explains. “I’m gone for over half of the year usually. This year, I have not gone to a convention since February... All of my events have been cancelled and all travel plans... it’s a huge lifestyle change”.
From a business perspective, a lot of her work relies on events. In amongst receiving appearance fees, judging contests and joining panel talks, Yaya also runs her business making merchandise and costume patterns.
Yaya published a book at the beginning of August- Yaya Han's World of Cosplay: A Guide to Cosplay and Costuming. It’s one of the first of its kind, an incredible personal insight into Yayas craft and the cosplay culture. However, due to the pandemic she was unable to attend her book tours and events. I felt a huge sense of sadness for her that she was unable to properly celebrate her success in the way it deserves.
Within an industry that predominately uses conventions to showcase and celebrate the community, I asked what resorting to using technology to host ‘cons’ online instead feels like.
“It all feels incredible surreal” she tells me. “There’s days when I wake up and I don’t believe we are in this reality…Cosplay is truly global. Conventions are indispensable. There is nothing that can replace them. As far as (virtual) conventions are concerned … it’s like...A* for effort, but it’s not going to replace that feeling of socialising in person and sharing your fandoms. For cosplayers, the conventions gave us a sense of community. You can walk into a room and it doesn’t matter about online followers, experience and portfolios. The only thing that matters is that you are dressed as a character that other people connect with. Now, social media is the only community that we have in cosplay”.
I wanted to delve deeper into the cosplay realms and understand it further, I thought it was important to understand more about what the community means to people and why conventions are as Yaya said, so indispensable.
I meet Roon from ‘Cospaste’ on Skype. She’s 19 and lives in the south of England. It was clear that she had an incredibly strong, supportive and protective outlook in regard to how cosplay helps mental health. I’ve always been in awe of people who are able to fearlessly be themselves and empower others to be the same. In a large way I feel the same about cosplaying, a ‘niche market’ and community that may seem unusual to some onlookers, but a vital support system and safe space to those part of it.
I asked her from a mental health perspective how lockdown and the pandemic has affected cosplaying, she explains that a lot of people can “use cosplay as an escape…. It’s so hard to find people in your own area that are also cosplayers so it’s sad to not see your friends… Younger people who don’t get on at school or get picked on or don’t fit in it, it’s the only place where they can fit in and be themselves and they don’t have to put on a normal face to other people. Having con taken away and we don’t know when it’s coming back and knowing your safe space has been taken away is really hard. Online isn’t the same, it helps but it’s not the same atmosphere where you feel ‘you are normal here, you fit in….no one is going to pick on you at a comic con for dressing up”.
Yaya was also very supportive with her shared view of mental health in the community during the pandemic. “Majority of us a really just dealing with the crisis fatigue” she told me “…It’s been important for me to not gloss over that, I’ve been posting (on social media) very honestly about how I feel, as I think we are all in the same boat…It’s been almost impossible to be creative… You have to be in a comfortable space and feel inspired. Right now, it’s incredibly difficult to feel comfortable as we are in fight or flight mode. You have to think, can I let go of these fears and these uncertain thoughts to immerse myself in a project? …Our lifestyle as cosplayers was very intertwined with social media, but now more than ever we are intertwined with it…Social media has always been pressure, now it is definitely more than ever, we all feel very guilty when we don’t post”..
I think it’s very apparent that Yaya does a brilliant job of maintaining a healthy balance between the reality of ‘real life’ within the realms of social media and making others aware of this too.
“‘It’s okay if you feel burned out at the moment.” She says… “It’s just getting through every day and the essentials, that is already enough”
I shared my question with Roon too, asking her whether the pressures of maintaining a creative and thriving social media presence can ever get too much?
“Quite recently I’ve noticed the community getting more popular due to Tik Tok, trending cosplayers, new people joining in lockdown... I think it’s easy to get swept up in social media but then you have to step back and think this is a hobby and I’m doing it for fun. You don’t want to take it too seriously…you need to think of your own happiness and maintain the right balance”.
Having spoken other cosplayers worldwide, the pressure to be active on social media was something that particularly stood out to me, with the demand to keep up appearances and remain creative.
I chatted to ‘Tessa Carter Cosplay’ from the Netherlands who I met on Instagram, she kindly agreed to Skype with me. I spoke to her also about social media and keeping creative during the middle of a pandemic.
“During lockdown I got ideas to film my first video. I asked my friend to help out, and we went to ‘small castle’. We were alone and no one could see us, but we then saw the cameras at the top of the castle…suddenly the police car turned up and asked us what we are doing. He asked why we weren’t wearing masks and said we needed to”. She explained to the officer “ ‘we are just doing a video whilst no one is here and then will put it back on afterwards’, but he told us that if he sees us again, there will be a problem and we will be fined”.
I asked her if there have been in any positives to the pandemic for her.
“I’ve used social media every day, trying to show people I’m not sad. I think it’s good to stay positive and keep communicating with my followers”. She goes on to add “I have spent more time creating costumes, videos and thinking of more ideas”. She begins to take out some of her fantastically crafted costumes and animatedly expressing how she made and customised them.
It’s incredible to see the craftsmanship and the love going that goes into to everyone’s costume. From an outsider’s perspectives, I think it’s something that is seriously overlooked. The more I spoke to the community, the more I saw first-hand their skills, empowering bravery and determination to pursue their craft and passion above anything else.
I was also lucky enough to meet Cinder from Cindercosplays in the UK, who had some extremely positive and empowering news in amongst the understandable negative experiences the pandemic has bought.
She explained how some photographers have started to become more collaborative with cosplayers and set up shooting dates which helps them stay creative. She also expressed similarly to Tessa, in that lockdown has helped her hugely in terms of making costumes. “I’ve tried some things I don’t usually do like styling wigs and props as I’ve had the time to… I have an onlyfans now too” she adds, “because of lockdown and financial pressures?” I asked… “it helped during lockdown as it was making a little bit of money” she nods “but actually, I moved out from my parents and I was empowered in that moment to go and do it”. This is the exact fearlessness that I was speaking about being in awe of.
Cinder laughed and explained how her creativity did have some newfound problems in that stores the she would usually source her costumes from were now closed. “I was really difficult to find cos craft wigs - they had to shut down due to lockdown. For the whole of lockdown, I was like where do I get my wigs ?!”. Luckily, they have now re-opened and I can’t wait to see what Cinders new purchase will be.
Yaya had also told me similar issues of sourcing. “My small business with 4 employees committed to making face masks. I was coordinating how to get four people to work on masks in different stages and keeping inventory…but we couldn’t even get cotton as the whole word was looking for cotton! It felt like a big hunt for materials to try and accommodate this new reality!”
I understand that these may have been very small glimmers of humour in an incredibly difficult time. I also understand the sensation of feeling a total creative freeness due to having more time than ever, which then has ultimately had no-where to go due to the pandemic. It’s very hard to maintain a balance when you have so much excitement and passion for a physical activity, that can't go any further. When asking all cosplayers if they would be rushing back to conventions once they reopened, all shook their head and expressed how it was ‘way too soon’.
I felt incredibly fortunate to all the women who gave up their time to introduce me into their world. I also felt sad when thinking about the reality of how long it will take some players, who don’t have the fortune of nearby community friends to be reunited. It was clear how much support the community brings to mental health, maintaining friendships and training people to be highly skilled in their creativity. I think a lot can be learned and admired in their determination and bravery to strive for what they want no matter how many people might not ‘understand it’. In all, I witnessed a fearless and powerful community, creatively battling through virus related adversity and its because of their brilliance that so much hope remains for the ultimate post pandemic convention.