Even if you only have a glancing knowledge of cosplay, you have undoubtedly heard the name Yaya Han. A competitor, repeated champion, judge, teacher, entrepreneur, grand ambassador and more; Yaya is a defining personality and voice in the geek costuming game. She is recognized for her level of detail and quality to her cosplay outfits, almost as much as she is celebrated for her poise, class and welcoming heart. Being at the top of an optics based community isn’t always easy of course – trying to stay a float the rampant jealously, envy, ill assumptions, false acquisitions, creeps, and attitudes is enough to make anyone sink – but this veteran has remained ever truthful (to herself and fans), and respectable. Diplomacy and perseverance along with her talents is why she has endured; why she has reached “legend” status. This we learned first hand as we at Nerd Bastards had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Yaya.
We got to learn a little bit about Yaya’s history and unique experiences. We also got to hear her speak quite vocally on some very important trending discussions in the Cosplay scene. Drama that she herself has, at times, been in the center of (mostly pertaining to controversy over SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay). She sets the record straight on how people should or shouldn’t cosplay, where sexuality has its place, and how “we’re all in this together.”
Who or what got you into cosplaying?
I got into cosplay, like many, as a newbie amateur. Before I ever knew cosplay existed, I was a big anime/manga fan and avid artist. When I attended my first anime convention, Anime Expo, in 1999, throughout the weekend I kept seeing people dressed up as these cool anime characters! Something just clicked, and I knew that’s how I wanted to express what I was a fan of. I didn’t know how to sew, make props or style wigs, and back in 1999, there were no ready made costumes available, no commission businesses running, no online resources for how to make costumes. I learned how to sew my first garment on a $40 used sewing machine with the guidance of a friend, and from that point on I was on my own! Like most people during that time, I had to learn everything from scratch, blindly experimenting and feeling in the dark. But that is what made me fall in love with the craftsmanship aspect of cosplay, and it’s the reason I’m still actively making costumes 15 years later.
What was it like to put yourself out there in an environment where all eyes are on you? What was the response like that first time? How has your experience changed– for better or worse — since you first set foot on a convention floor?
My first cosplay experience was exhilarating and liberating in a way I had never experienced before. The combination of showing how much you love a character/series and wearing an outfit that you creatively put together was eye-opening and addictive to me. It was tremendously exciting to find a new art form that is as hands on and crafty as cosplay is. I loved experimenting and brainstorming ways to make a costume, even though I had no schooling in sewing, prop making or wig styling. It was a whole new world of learning and creativity, and even failing was exciting.
Of course it felt great for people to ask for your photo, and be appreciated for something you worked hard on, but cosplaying taught me early on to take things in stride, as all positive aspects are balanced with negatives. Like any art form, especially one as social as cosplay, there will always be criticism, rumors, jealousy and misunderstandings. Prejudice runs high in the geek world, as sad as it is to admit, and I had to go through all the stages of understanding how to accept and move on from negativity.
The biggest change for me in cosplay now is that I am able to make a living with it. That’s truly something I never even dreamed of, as the cosplay world in 1999, when I first discovered it, was minuscule and entirely hobbyist-driven. I came into cosplay as one of the nerdiest newbie kids you’ll ever meet, and I say that with full pride and nostalgia. To be able to have any sort of income by simply cosplaying was 100% impossible in the United States. I had a salary job and made costumes/attended cons as a hobby. When I quit my job to open a costume commission business in 2005, I took the leap to making cosplay my only source of income. Since then my business has slowly, painfully, amazingly developed into a variety of branches, all of which have something to do with cosplay and geek convention culture. I still don’t feel comfortable with the term “professional cosplayer”, but the cosplay scene is becoming an economic industry, and I’m somehow part of it lol.
Your career has given you the fortune of meeting a lot of celebrities. Who was your favorite to meet?
Without a doubt, it was George R.R. Martin at San Diego Comic Con 2011. I’ll be honest, I generally don’t talk at lengths about celebrities because I respect their privacy, but I have told this story repeatedly because George truly did not need to be that nice to me, and he was. I have been a loyal fan of The Song of Ice and Fire books since the early 2000s, and re-read the first 3 books each year. (I had to wait 5 years each for the next 3 books to come out lol) Daenerys is my favorite character, and I planned on cosplaying her for a long time. When I found out that I would finally be at the same convention as GRRM, I knew it was time to make the costume.
I had “Daenerys” as my Livejournal username for years, and decided to write GRRM a PM about how much I was hoping to meet him. He actually responded, which I think has something to do with my username lol, and told me to come to his book signing. So, I made the costume (based on the books, not the TV show), went to GRRMs book signing, got my costume and dragon signed, but photos were not allowed. So this kind amazing man told me to come to the fantasy authors panel so I can get a photo with him. Since I was in costume and moved slowly through the con (walk-stop-photo-walk-stop-photo), a great friend of mine helped me out and walked me to the panel and took photos of me with GRRM. Then George told me to come to the Game of Thrones panel, so he could show Emilia Clark my costume (cue-fanfreakout). GoT had just aired that year and the panel was an inaugural event at SDCC. No one had really seen the cast together yet at an event. So I went to the GoT panel, and at the end of the hour walked toward the stage, when George saw me and waved me to the backstage area (cue-almost falling from shock). So somehow, I ended up greeting the GoT cast as they came down the stage. So in one day, I cosplayed my favorite character, met the creator of the character and got to see the actors for the well-adapted TV show the series is based on. As a fan, this was a dream come true.
Talking about Heroes of Cosplay – you got some heat early on in the first couple of episodes of season 1 regarding some comments made about certain cosplayers and their cosplay choices, as well as how people supposedly should or should not cosplay. It was clear to us that comments were taken out of context. For those that don’t know you outside of show, do you think there are certain rules and ways for people to cosplay?
I was already in the cosplay community for over a decade before Heroes of Cosplay came along, and I will be still be cosplaying long after the show ends. I have always advocated for tolerance, acceptance and support amongst cosplayers. To me, there are no rules to cosplaying, because it is an art form, and art is freedom. Anyone can cosplay anyone. Skin color, height, facial features, body shape, gender, ethnicity… don’t let any of it stop you from expressing yourself. Have fun with the costumes you choose to wear. Be creative. Revel in the unique connection you’ll forever build with the character you cosplay. There is absolutely no difference between a fan wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt, and a fan dressing up as Wonder Woman. We are all here to express our love and passion for something, in our unique way. We are all in this together.
Is there a different standard when it comes to casual fans vs dressing for competition?
Absolutely! Cosplay is an art form and can be enjoyed casually, or as a skill-test. Casual costumes are often constructed entirely differently than competition costumes. It’s completely cool to buy costumes, get them commissioned, or buy ready made accessories to complete your costumes. There are no rules to cosplaying, however, there are rules to costume contests. Some require that your costume must be hand made, others require a stage performance. Each contest is different, but they do have rules that contestants have to follow.
Competitions exist to give cosplayers the option to put their skills to the test, and to challenge themselves, and usually the costumes created for competitions are more elaborate, more detailed, and made with more thought such as finishing, lining, etc. If I make a costume for a competition, I take extra care to create the costume to look good on the outside as well as the inside. If I’m judging a costume contest and there is Pre-judging/Craftsmanship judging, it’s important for me to look at the costumes up close, flip their seams (yes!), and understand all aspects of the creation of the outfit. When high honor prizes are atstake, it’s absolutely necessary to consider every part of a costume creation and choose those winners who executed the project exceptionally, not who has the flashiest costume from the stage.
When I started cosplaying, there were no other platforms where you could showcase your costumes besides on stage at a contest. So I competed heavily for the first 3 years of my convention going experience. Without competitions, I would not have worked so hard on my costumes and experimented with new techniques, and in turn would not have falling in love with the craftsmanship aspect of cosplay.
However, not everyone has to cosplay with craftsmanship as the focus. Anyone should cosplay however they want, and there are many who just want to casually dress up as their favorite character for a weekend, and it doesn’t matter how well the costume is made, or who made it. It’s just about having fun, and doing something that makes you happy. It makes me happy to meticulously craft a costume from scratch, but it also makes another cosplayer just as happy to purchase a ready to wear costume and run around in it. There is no right or wrong way to cosplay, so we should support each person’s choices and understand that there are many different styles of cosplaying.
Can promiscuous looking costumes be admired for what they are (the characters they represent ) without people sexualizing the presentation?
I think any creative community experiences growing pains when it reaches a certain level of mainstream-ness, and sexy cosplay is one of the biggest sources of controversy and growing pain in our community.
Let me start by stating that I absolutely believe that a revealing costume can be created and worn with dignity and grace. It’s all about how you carry yourself, not what you’re wearing. If you act “slutty”, you could be wearing a nun outfit and still come across as a sexual object. My advice is to put in extra work and thought when portraying a character in a revealing costume. Make the costume with care and finish the details nicely, cleanly. Make sure it’s tailored to you and that you’re wearing the appropriate undergarments. The more finished the costume is, the more polished you’ll look, the more confident you’ll be as the character.
On the topic of sexy costumes, I have to talk about the beginnings of the cosplay phenomenon (in the USA) decades ago, where conventions were predominately attended by male fans, and female fans were few and far between. Some of those ladies dressed up in promiscuous looking costumes such as Vampirella, Lum from Urusei Yatsura, and Kei/Yuri from Dirty Pair, but the way they were received was very different from today. I myself made a few sexy costumes between 2001 and 2005 (Felicia -Darkstalkers, Lum, Yuri, Mill-chan from Maze etc.) but never felt unsafe, or harassed in public. At no point did I feel like I was obviously, seriously objectified by other attendees of a convention, or even through comments online. Why is that? In my humble opinion, it is because the cosplay community as a whole was very small, a sub-culture within a sub-culture, and the vast majority of people who saw you in costume were also geeks, also cosplayers. There was a mostly unspoken understanding between everyone, that if you dressed up as a character, it is because you loved that character and wanted to pay tribute as a fan. So if a character wore a fur bikini, it was not regarded as a scandal for a cosplayer to wear the same in public. Because there was no way to make money with cosplay, nor become “famous”, the overall notion within the community was that you cosplayed as a fan. Of course there was drama, rumors, and accusations of “attention whore” cosplay, but they were mostly petty and on a minuscule, personal scale. After all, the best a cosplaying attention-seeker could hope for was a lot of photo requests and compliments. There was no “professional” or “monetary” gain from wearing a sexy costume.
Today, cosplay is becoming an Industry where money can be earned, and the lines between fan cosplaying, trade show modeling work, pin-up modeling and even the fetish and adult world are blurred together. Cosplay has become to mainstream and popular and the audience for it spans vastly beyond just cosplayers, or even geeks. Social media has allowed us to share our cosplay photos with the entire world, and the entire world has something to say about cosplayers and their photos. Most of the comments are superficial, skin-deep and generalized. Anyone in a costume is a cosplayer, lumped together based on face value. For the same reason, there is more harassment at conventions, more situations where inappropriate words are exchanged. We cosplayers are no longer amongst ourselves.
We have become a form of entertainment for the mainstream. I’ve watched this progression over the past decade and for the most part, it hasn’t impacted how I cosplay. I still make and wear a variety of costumes, from full coverage to revealing, just like I did 15 or 14 years ago. As long as we understand what it happening, and why, we can keep on having fun dressing up.
Did those first few episodes of HOC have a negative impact on your career? How did you overcome it? What made you wanna come back?
I would say that being on Heroes of Cosplay was an eye-opening experience and a great lesson. While there was negative feedback, overall the impact left on me has been overwhelmingly positive. Last year, we did not get to view any of the episodes before airing, so the final edits were a surprise to us each week. Heroes of Cosplay was not made for the cosplay community. It was made to introduce the mainstream audience, who have never heard about cosplay or geek conventions before, to a unique vibrant world. When I watched the show, it was apparent that each of us cast members were driving the big story arch forward, and sometimes the edits did not take our personal beliefs into account. Rather, it was to get the sound bites and scenes in that the show needed to tell the overall story for the mainstream to understand, no matter who said what or believed in something strongly.
The negativity directed toward me was in direct relations to how HoC placed me in the role of a judge/expert. What most surprised me was the realization that even in the case of words not said by me, audiences mis-remembered them as my words. There were some rough days, and I want to remember them well because they taught me so much. Through out the airing, my focus was to make sure other cosplayers understood my full stance on important matters in cosplay, such a tolerance, support, and appreciation for all styles and manners of cosplaying.
I learned through the HoC experience that all negativity dissipates, and positivity remains. I have met countless people at conventions since September 2013 that told me how Heroes of Cosplay brought their family closer, how they now craft together with their kids, and how much they are enjoying going to conventions now. I really did not expect the show, or myself, to have such a positive impact on so many people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Do shows like Heroes of Cosplay play a part in why costuming has become so popular?
HoC has absolutely contributed to the overall popularity of costuming and cosplay. The scene has exploded since the end of 2013, there are more cosplay guests at conventions all over the world than ever, cosplay related business are booming, and convention attendance has skyrocketed in the last year. As someone who has watched the cosplay scene grow and evolve for the last 15 years, I have definitely seen a huge spike in mainstream interest in cosplayers lately. I believe that the entire cosplay community has benefited from the creation of Heroes of Cosplay and other geek-focused shows.
Which costumes have been the most frustrating to make? Have you ever given up? How do you overcome construction meltdowns?
I have made some very frustrating costumes in my life, lol! But often, those are the ones I cherish the most. Oruha, Dark Elf, Carmilla, Batgirl, Banshee Queen Enira… all of them had challenges such as fussy materials to sew, weird props, weird wigs, weird wings, new techniques to be learned etc., and for all of them, I pulled multiple all-nighters to finish the project. But I love holing away in my craft room and lose myself in a costume project, the frustration is a part of the process, and is followed by the elation of problem solving. I usually work on two costumes at once, because when I get tired of doing one task, I can switch over to another task and continue to be productive/in the zone. That’s my way of avoiding meltdowns, but each crafter handles it differently. It’s entirely ok to walk away from the project for a while.
I’ve never given up on a costume because it was too difficult, because there is always a way to translate the design.
Whats one thing that you’d like people to appreciate/understand about cosplay?
Cosplay is an art form. A unique blend between fan expression and creativity. Many cosplayers create jaw-dropping, professional looking costumes and photos as pure hobbyists. It’s the passion and love for the character that drives them. I would like to see more understanding and appreciation for that.
Lastly (and we know you get this a ton) any advice for anyone who has never cosplayed but wants to give it a shot?
My biggest advice is to utilize the resources at your disposal. Practice your Google-Fu! There are so many tutorials and costume breakdowns out there, so many forums and websites dedicated to discussing costume making, materials and techniques. The amount of information available is astounding, so take advantage of it!
It’s also entirely ok to start with a simple costume, or even buy a costume to get into cosplay. It’s all about what makes you happy, and what gives you joy. Don’t let anyone else dictate how or who you should cosplay. Do it for yourself. Enjoy it!
Nerd Bastards would like to thank Yaya for her time. This was truly a great interview. We would have expected nothing less from this princess of primp. For more on Yaya, you can her out on her website www.yayahan.com, and LIKE her Facebook Page. You can also see her on Heroes of Cosplay Season 2, which premiers tonight (5/27) at 9/8c.