Everyone has at some stage had the urge to transform themselves - to embrace their inner other, and to manifest as a shining idealised archetype. For many, this transformative urge is snuffed out in childhood, as societal pressures to conform and adolescent self-consciousness tag-team conspire to derail their innate sense of play. But for many others, it survived, thrived and blossomed in an orgy of stitches, hot glue, gold paint and sequins - giving rise to fabric flights of fancy and equally fancy trousers.
To an outsider the world of cosplay can seem like a strange and obsessive pursuit, but for those who have embraced it, it provides a creative outlet, a feeling of community and sense of empowerment that is difficult to deny. Far more than just dressing up, the design and creation of such elaborate and fantastic costumes is a testament to the skill and dedication of these enthusiasts. This is no store-bought Halloween. The transformative power of embodying the fantastic and otherworldy can have a profoundly therapeutic effect on participants, as they see their imagination manifested in the physical realm and grow to embrace an ensemble of heroes, villains, outsiders and super-humans.
As the scene has grown and been gradually embraced by the mainstream it has generated its own cadre of celebrities and standout personalities, and one of the undisputed icons and ambassadors of the international cosplay scene is Yaya Han. Since 1999, Yaya has been crafting meticulous and elaborate costumes, building her own thriving costume and accessory business and starring in programs such as King of the Nerds and Heroes of Cosplay. To date she has appeared at countless conventions and events the world over, providing inspiration, enthusiasm and advice to legions of cosplayers, both new and old. Collide caught up with Yaya at the Park Royal Hotel ahead of her appearance at Oz Comic-Con to discuss costumes, creativity, fighting bears and more.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in the cosplay world? Were you a big fan of gaming and anime growing up? What was it that sparked your interest in it initially?
Cosplay has been a part of my life for so long that I do often reminisce about when I was starting out. It’s pretty amazing to me that I started 16 years ago. I was still a teenager and at a point in my life where I didn’t quite know who I was.
I was always creative growing up and certainly an avid consumer of manga, anime and video games, but I didn’t know quite how to express myself, so I would do a lot of fan art. I would draw and paint and even make up my own characters. I actually published a manga when I lived in Germany - it was part of a school project, but then it got published which was crazy.
I think when I discovered cosplay it really was this moment of feeling completely like I’d found a new world that I totally belonged to. It was so creative and hands on; instead of just being a fan of a character you could make something from scratch. You could become that character and create your own version of them. I think that’s such a sincere form of being a fan and expressing that you’re a fan. It just spoke to me, and it still speaks to me after all these years.
What was the first character you dressed up as and costume you created? Can you recall that moment where you felt that ‘Wow, this is really something that I want to do’?
Well, the first costume I made was actually a cross play. It was the character Kurama from manga and anime YuYu Hakusho, which was like a Shonen mythical fighting story - think Dragonball Z but better. I made his robe and it was awful! I didn’t have a wig or anything. No one recognised me of course, because I didn’t have the distinctive hair - but it was that experience of turning fabric into a garment that you could wear on your body that was so incredible to me.
As a self- taught designer and seamstress, what is the most enjoyable part of the process for you? Is it conceptualising and creating the costume, or is it being able to embody the finished result?
I think for me the foundation is always going to be the craftsmanship. That’s where I have the most fun, being in sweatpants with no makeup in my workroom (laughs). That’s my zen time. But of course dressing up as the character is definitely a magical moment. To put on the costume for the first time, to see the photos for the first time and just having that reaction from people and feeling absolutely invincible is amazing. But I think it’s definitely the act of creating the costume that has kept me going after all these years. I don’t think I would be as avidly into cosplay if I didn’t make the costumes, because it’s not as fulfilling otherwise. I’ve modelled certain items before for other people, but because I didn’t make the costume I can hardly remember the experience.
As far as your selection of characters, are there ones that you feel are more pleasing to you aesthetically, and ones you feel that you can truly successfully embody mentally and walk in their shoes?
I choose my characters depending on what mood I’m in and what I want to make. I want to always learn something from each costume and challenge myself to learn a new skill. I also have to think about whether or not I can see myself as a particular character. Can I wear this and feel okay going out in public? I always check myself on that and make sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily that I have to choose characters that I look like - sometimes I just really enjoy the transformation process and turning myself into someone who I don’t look like at all. The most important thing is finding a connection to the character in some way.
You have a lot of costumes that have become quite renowned, for instance your Camilla from Vampire Hunter D, Feye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, and Mima from Perfect Blue in her pop idol costume…
Yeah! I watched Perfect Blue and was like ‘I have to make that costume!’ (laughs). Like immediately, I was like ‘I GOTTA MAKE IT!’.
Which character do you relate to most?
The character that I’ve coplayed that I think is the most like me is probably Lulu from Final Fantasy X; somehow she’s always stuck with me. I made that costume in 2001, it’s been like 14 years and she’s still the one character where I feel like I’m baring my soul. She’s who I want to be or who I think I truly am.
Was that a big game for you, Final Fantasy X?
Oh yeah, absolutely! I mean all the Final Fantasy’s were, up until XIII (laughs). That’s where I kinda went, ‘Ehhhhh no’.
How do you feel about people perhaps looking at you or perceiving you in the abstract where they’re maybe idealising or fetishising the characters you portray as opposed to seeing the real you, or looking past you as an actual person?
Well think that’s all part of the game and I’ve really come to accept it and grow a thick skin over all these years. You have to understand that they’re not dissecting you, they’re dissecting the character. I think you have to understand that the character you’re portraying is very important to each person and they have their own vision of that character - so if your portrayal of a character doesn’t exactly fit their vision for whatever reason, be it your ethnicity or how tall you are, then they might take it personally. You just have to remove yourself from it and not take it to heart.
That’s why I think it’s so important to show the process behind the work and talk about your thought processes - why you chose the character, how you made the costume - so that people can understand that this is your journey, this is your vision. Then maybe they’ll be more inclined to follow it. Instead of just putting a picture out there as the end product, I would encourage other cosplayers to talk about how the costume was conceptualised and created.
Speaking of people’s perceptions and reactions, what’s the weirdest or most memorable interaction you’ve ever had with a fan or a fellow cosplayer?
There have been some really great interactions. If it’s like a really weird moment I tend not to hold onto it - they don’t stick in my memory as much. At Comic-Con in Brisbane this past weekend a girl brought me her sewing mannequin so I could sign it. I thought that was such a cool and different thing! She had to lug that thing in a huge box all the way to the convention, and she said ‘Now when I sew, I can look at your signature and it’s going to motivate me’. I think that’s really awesome!
For someone who initially got into cosplay as a passion and a hobby, how does it feel now that you’re doing it for a living? Does it diminish the enjoyment or spontaneity of it at all?
Yeah... Well no, no - I should preface that by saying I never went to school for business, so getting into running my own business was very challenging. I really enjoy the creative aspect of my job, which is making costumes, making products, going to conventions, doing panels and such - but that’s only about 20 - 30% of what I do. I have to do so much paper work and things relating to taxes, paying rent and utilities, paying my employees, keeping payroll going. I didn’t realise I’d have to deal with all those things when running my own business! (laughs).
There are definitely times when I think ‘I hate being an adult, I just wanna dress up as fictional characters!’ - but it’s really a great, satisfying feeling to be able to look back at where my business was when I first quit my job 10 years ago and started a tiny little commission business and compare it to now, where I'm able to have 8 people on payroll running my store and my company so I can do things like go to Australia for two weeks without the business imploding!
I have great people looking after it, they’re proud to be on my team and I take great care of them, I hope. I hope! We just want to keep expanding and sharing the joy.
You also make your own designs and products for the business…
Yeah, that’s been a big part of it from the beginning. I’ve always designed and made unique products that are copyrighted to us, because I want to have something that is mine, that is not someone else’s IP. I think that’s definitely very important if you want to be an artist and have longevity.
Do you find you have to embody a certain mindset when preparing to portray certain characters, go out in public and strut that strut?
Oh yeah. I like to take my time getting ready. If I’m rushed getting ready, I get rattled and sometimes don’t feel that great. I always tell cosplayers to get up extra early, don’t drink the night before and really take your time getting ready. Enjoy that process. When you put on the costume and everything fits and your makeup looks great and nothing is falling off, then you’ll feel confident, comfortable and you'll feel you can really be that character. So I always try to cherish that process.
You’re out here to judge the Comic-Con cosplay finals - what are you hoping to see from the Australian cosplay contingent?
Well I think Australia has always had a really high level of craftsmanship in the costumes and this is a craftsmanship based contest, and it’s also a very prestigious contest. The people have been preparing for months throughout the preliminaries and this weekend in Sydney is going to be the finale, so there’s a lot at stake. I know emotions are going to run high so my responsibility as a judge is to be there to support the contestants that have worked so hard. I’m not there to judge them, I’m there to make sure that the ones who put the most effort into it don’t get overlooked.
Finally, if you were in the woods and you were set upon by a giant bear, what kind of magic sword would you conjure to fend off your attacker?
Does it have to be a sword? I would do what my comic book character does, which is createan invisibility field! (laughs). I wouldn't want to hurt the bear. Maybe he’s just trying to defend his territory!