Early in February, Maridah, a popular cosplayer based in Bellflower, posted a screenshot of a Facebook conversation with a fan. He asked for a nude photo. She sent him a photo of a cat who wore nothing but a slice of toast as a hat. He responded with typed out laughter before clarifying, "please, a picture of your breasts visible."
The 29-year-old mentioned this particular exchange a few days before she posted it, when we met at a Little Tokyo coffee spot. This kind of interaction isn't unusual. Maridah gets inappropriate requests and other skin crawl-inducing comments frequently. She takes screenshots of the ones that are the most disturbing. "It's cathartic," she says.
In real life, Maridah handles marketing for a company that sells cosplay wigs. Online, and at conventions, she's a cosplayer whose photos have garnered her fans from across the globe. Over 130,000 of them follow her near-daily Facebook updates. Thousands will click the Like button on a single image post. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, will comment. Some gush. Some critique. Some talk about anime. Maridah jumps into the conversation enough to remind you that she's in charge of this hub. She tells people when they've crossed the line, when their comments are offensive to her or anyone else who has become part of the community.
In recent years, many cosplayers have gone from fans who enjoy dressing in costume to micro-celebrities. Some make guest appearances at conventions. Others have starred in web series or appeared on television. A select few have turned the hobby into a full-time job. Maridah, who is originally from Texas, is one of the best known in the scene. Her following extends far beyond the United States. She was once a guest at a convention in Malaysia. Popularity, though, has its pitfalls. That's why Maridah doesn't use her real name. She advises new cosplayers to do the same. "It's a matter of safety," she says. "I wish it wasn't, but you have to be realistic."
Fans have tried contacting Maridah's friends and family. She has been followed around conventions. "While I appreciate it when someone comes up and is interested," she says, "there is the bad side you have to deal with the people who are stalking you."
In 2009, Maridah was ready to give up cosplay. Eight years after she first attended a con in costume, her priorities had shifted. College needed her attention now. However, she caught an anime series called Fate/stay night and was drawn to the female lead, Saber. Maridah liked the character's idealism and perseverance. She also appreciated that the costume was different from her previous projects. Saber is a warrior and Maridah would have to make armor on a larger scale than she was accustomed to doing.
For a month, Maridah worked on her Saber costume between her classes. She debuted it at Fanime, in Northern California, heading to the convention after a final exam. As it turns out, Maridah wasn't the only Fate/stay night fan. "Everyone's response to it was crazy," she says. People showed visible interest in the character. Someone tried to follow Maridah to her room.
Later, Maridah submitted photos of herself dressed as Saber for a book called Otacool. Danny Choo, the blogger behind the project, liked the images and posted about her cosplay more than once. A year after her Saber debut, a new series of pics became a hit thanks to a Japanese message board. Traffic on Maridah's website spiked. Newfound fans left comment after comment. She shut down the website's guestbook. Maridah had inadvertently gone viral and didn't know how to respond.
"Suddenly, there are all these people and marriage proposals," says Maridah. "It was nice, but also really scary at the same time."
Since then, Maridah has made numerous Saber costumes, including multiple versions of the original. She admits that her popularity has a lot to do with the popularity of the character she portrays at conventions and in photo shoots. Fate/stay night, which was originally released as a "visual novel" (a kind of story-based game), is a popular franchise. Saber is the star of merchandise items ranging from collectible figures to messenger bags. It helps that Maridah physically resembles the character. In person, she's blonde with big eyes, delicate features and a heart-shaped face.
But Maridah chalks up the success of the costume to a simple twist of fate. "I don't think it's any more special than anyone else's," she says. "I think it was kind of luck and also just the right people taking note of it."
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Today, Maridah still considers cosplay a hobby and she doesn't aspire to make it anything more than that. Occasionally, she'll model for a company, but doesn't actively pursue that work. She doesn't have the desire to appear on television. "I just want to enjoy my hobby and succeed at work," she says.
In order to do that, she's had to keep two distinct lives. Her online persona is built on photos and a few casual comments. "People really want to see a picture and project what they want onto it," she says. "I had to learn over time that I had to kind of step back and maintain distance and share little bits and not too much of myself."
Maridah says that dealing with the attention is "an ongoing process." There are days when comments hit her harder than usual. She reminds herself that the reactions - good and bad - don't define her. Maridah has seen other cosplayers struggle once they've become recognizable. She doesn't want that to happen to herself. "I don't ever want to be one of those people who gives up something that I love doing because it becomes too overwhelming for me," she says. "I try to stay as normal as possible."