At the age of 21, cosplayer Monika Lee is already an eight year cosplay veteran. We chatted with the Heroes of Cosplay star about the art of cosplay, her crush on Lee Adama and why it’s important for us “to be geeky together.”
PC or Mac?
Mac, seeing as I’m typing from my Macbook Pro right now.
I gotta say cinnamon toast crunch—I’m a child.
What is your favorite curse word?
I probably say the F-word most often, but I use all curse words equally.
If you could pick a world from any video game, where would you live?
Probably Skyrim or Ivalice as seen in FFXII.
What fictional character from movies, comics, TV or video games have you secretly crushed on?
I’ve not so secretly crushed on Nathan Drake from Uncharted and Lee Adama from Battlestar Galactica.
If Gozer the Gozerian (from Ghostbusters) asked you to choose the form of your destructor, what would you think of?
Probably a giant mound of poutine that I would eat way too much of and thus, explode.
What motivated you to become a cosplayer, especially at the young age of 13?
I never had any true motivation to become a cosplayer, more just to start cosplaying because it seemed like fun. 13 was obviously a scary, middle school time (yay, puberty) and the idea of dressing up as my favorite fantasy characters and living in another world was very enticing. Now, there are a ton of added motivations for me like friends in the community, costume creation, conventions, etc. But I think at a young age, it was more of an outreach to a community I wanted to be part of.
Is there another cosplayer who inspires you?
I think every cosplayer should inspire everyone because the cosplay community is full of a ton of innovation of techniques and materials. That being said, I love the work of prop replica maker Volpin Props and Marie Claude Bourbonnais does incredible leather-work and sewing, it’s kind of crazy.
What was the first costume you wore to a convention? What was the convention and what year was it?
I believe it was Dragon*Con 2006 and I cosplayed time-skip Temari from Naruto. I was crazy into anime/manga at the time and Naruto was definitely one of my gateway drugs.
What was that first experience like? I know a lot of cosplayers find it empowering; what was that first time like for you?
Definitely empowering, but more so an overwhelming sense of belonging. I think that’s what draws most people in and what drives them to coming back each year. Many people in the nerd/geek/cosplay community were bullied in school or felt misunderstood for their love of comic books, video games, anime, etc. so conventions provide this safe haven of nostalgia where everyone kind of gets you and you can really feel like you belong. And cosplay is a great venue for this because you can really share your love of the character/source material with others.
Did you get a lot of positive responses to your first cosplay? Honestly, I can’t remember. I do remember just bonding with a ton of other cosplayers over Naruto and other animes and the feeling of post-con depression when there wasn’t another con for another year. Good thing now I can travel and go to a con almost every weekend!
How has your experience as a cosplayer changed since then? It’s definitely transformed into something I couldn’t have anticipated. There’s still that feeling of con-nostalgia, but the geek scene is so huge now that there are people from all over the world you can bond with.
And being a cosplayer is now no longer something to hide. People get what it is and think it’s cool. I love that I can share this hobby with people everywhere and we can all be geeky together.
You’re a high profile person now, not just in the cosplay world, but overall geek culture thanks to Heroes of Cosplay. Has any of this changed how you approach what you do?
I still wouldn’t consider myself high profile, much less in the cosplay world. As much as cosplay has exploded, there’s still a large majority of people who have no idea what it is. Despite any sort of high visibility my work has gotten, I don’t approach what I do differently. I make cosplays the same way (well, hopefully not as badly as a few years ago!) and I return to conventions for the same reasons.
How have your cosplay skills evolved over time and do your fans ever influence your cosplays?
I definitely like to think they’ve changed for the better. With any hobby or creative skill, with time and practice, you’re going to improve. I’ve tried to learn enough over the years so that I’m not scared of trying anything new because that’s what stopped me a lot in the beginning—not knowing how to make something.
As for my fans, I love them to death, but what’s most amazing about them is that they accept why I do what I love and don’t dictate how I do it. I know some cosplayers that feel like they can’t cosplay what they want because their fans will dislike it, but I don’t think that’s any way to approach that. Do what you love and your genuineness will come through.
What do you love most about cosplaying?
I’d say it’s 2 parts. First being the costume creation process. I love making something from scratch that displays my love for whatever source material I’m cosplaying from and to express my creativity.
Second is probably the people I’ve met along the way—so many cool, talented people that I wouldn’t have met if it had not been for this crazy hobby.
What’s the worst part?
Definitely when you keep messing up some part of a costume and you can’t figure out how to fix it. That brick wall is probably the most frustrating and discouraging.
And then probably unwanted criticism/judgment from non-cosplayers. As cosplayers, we get the trials and tribulations of making cosplays and the rewards we get from doing it, but many others don’t see that and simply want to judge in unconstructive ways (i.e. ‘x character is skinnier’, ‘you should’ve done this this way’, ‘your dress is the wrong color’, etc.).
What was your favorite cosplay?
I always say I hate this question because it’s like choosing which of your children is your favorite. I do all my costumes for different reasons and while I like to wear some more than others, I don’t have one overarching favorite.
Which costume was the most difficult to create?
I’d probably say my Sailor Mars. That particular costume I wore was with a group of 3 other girls so we had to create our costumes to be the exact same for 4 different body types. So it was kind of like making 4 costumes in 4 different ways that were the same.
Was there one that you gave up on and decided to do something else?
Oh a ton. I have 2 FFX-2 Yuna costumes still chilling, partially made. I have all the materials for Maya from Borderlands 2, unmade. It’s mostly a motivation problem for me. I get really excited for a costume, I research it, I buy some materials, but then I hit a roadblock on the costume or get discouraged and just stop working on it.
How do you keep from suffering a total cosplay meltdown when things aren’t working out?
I usually try and step back and kind of retreat to my head to figure out another mode of solution. It can be really daunting, though, when you do something 5 times over and it just isn’t working out.
Obviously, the source material is a great resource for constructing a cosplay, but there must be times where you can’t figure something out. What resources do you use?
Google. Seriously. I get so many messages asking me how I did something or how to do something and I’m like, do what I do and just google it.
So many people both in and out of the cosplay community have tutorials or posts about how they constructed something. Whenever I don’t know how to do something, I just google it. I googled how to make chainmail, I googled how to artificially rust something, I googled to find a low-cost, bow replica. It’s a magical place.
I know you collaborate with other cosplayers, what’s that process like?
If I could, I would love to cosplay all the time with my friends. As fun as it is to make a costume for yourself and enjoy it, it’s really fun to cosplay with friends and share that love together. Photoshoots are way more fun and the costume creation process is really fun too. It’s a great way to bond.
Both male and female comic book/video game characters have sexy costumes. But male cosplayers, even if they’re wearing tight spandex, don’t seem to get objectified and demeaned the way that women do. Male cosplayers are seen as embodying the characters, while female cosplayers are often labeled as just wanting sexual attention. Does that double standard affect you and what advice do you have for how the nerd community can come together to help change this mentality?
I think this double standard is an issue that goes beyond the cosplay/nerd community. That being said, male cosplayers are definitely objectified and demeaned—maybe not on the scale that female cosplayers are, but that may simply be because the scope of female cosplayers is quite large in comparison.
I think a solution lies in the basic understanding of treating each other with respect. These days, it’s become way too easy to say what you want without repercussions. It shouldn’t be okay to comment rudely (which is an understatement) based on a person’s looks/appearance. It’s not up to anyone to judge someone’s intentions for their hobbies. Someone may cosplay because they want the sexual attention, so what? Someone may cosplay because the characters inspire them. It’s not up to any of us to judge someone’s motivations in cosplay.
How do you feel about conventions that don’t have explicit anti-creeper and harassment policies and/or a track record of enforcing those policies? Based on your experiences, do you have any advice for how cons can improve these policies?
I think it’s sad that this is something that has to be employed. The fact that we can’t go into what used to be a safe, public haven and just nerd out together without the possibility of being harassed in any way really sucks.
I think it’s important that all shows make use of some policy of harassment, but in a constructive way that doesn’t detract from the show. It’s important to understand that if you don’t get along with someone or they make you uncomfortable they’re not immediately labeled as a creeper or harasser. That being said, we as con-goers as well as con-staff need to be vigilant in case of any harassing situation. NYCC this past year had some very helpful signs explaining how certain behavior could be seen as harassment and how to avoid those situations.
I have nieces who are getting serious about cosplay and conventions. One of them started out at 14 (she’s a big fan, btw). Since you started cosplaying at 13, I’m wondering what advice you have for them as far as managing the attention cosplay can bring at a convention?
When I started out at that age, managing attention wasn’t really something that I had to grasp with. Nowadays, it can be tough with social media and the increasing amount of harassment incidents. I think the most important thing with any kid is to make sure they have someone with them whether it be a parent, sibling, or a group of responsible friends. I never go to cons alone and I think that’s especially important for any young person. Besides, if you go with your niece, you guys can cosplay together!
Along the same lines, what advice do you have for people just starting out as cosplayers?
Don’t be afraid to explore with making your cosplays! I used to be intimidated by the littlest thing, but through experimentation and playing with new techniques, I don’t feel that limited in my scope of creation. Whatever you learn while making a costume can help when making the next costume, so on and so forth. Just play around and have fun.
I think we’re all a bit fascinated by the person behind the cosplayer, so I want to veer off of the cosplay path for a minute, you’re studying industrial design. What drew you to that field and what do you love about it?
I learned about Industrial Design from one of my photographer buddies who graduated with a BSID a few years ago. Georgia Tech has an excellent program for it as well. I think I was drawn to the concept of any sort of product design as well as the process that goes into it. ID has really led me into a better understanding of manufacturing methods and processes as well as the formation of all the products and objects around me. With that, I also really got into licensed products for video games (my internship at Blizzard for the past 2 summers has been with licensing) so it’s been kind of whirlwind. If anything, I’m glad that all my interests kind of work together.
Okay, back to cosplay! Heroes of Cosplay was pretty controversial. I’m sure that experience came with a lot of lessons, both good and bad. What did you take away from your time on the show?
The most important thing to me is whenever someone comes up to me and says their exposure to the show inspired them to cosplay. If any part of a tv show can inspire someone to enjoy this hobby for any reason I do, I think that’s pretty awesome. I love to see families cosplaying together or young boys/girls cosplaying because I started out cosplaying at a young age. I really do hope that this show or any work I do can inspire more people to love this hobby like I do because the more the merrier.
What’s the most important thing that you want people to know about cosplayers?
I think I’d like people to understand our motivations for cosplaying. A lot of people just see a superficial view of it—people dressing up as fictional characters—but I believe if people were to try it out and truly understand the lure in the hobby, they could really appreciate it. It’s incredibly humbling when someone likes your costume and so incredibly awesome when you can bond with someone over a fandom simply because you’re cosplaying. While hard work, cosplay is extremely rewarding and I only hope everyone can experiences some of the rewards cosplay can give.
Special thanks to Monika for stopping by and answering our questions. Monika is as intelligent and well storied as she is talented. For more on Monika and to see her cosplays, check out her website www.monikalee.net. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter