How Stephanie Yanez Became an Akihabara Cosplay Idol

Stephanie Yanez (center) at Dear Stage in Akihabara
Stephanie Yanez (center) at Dear Stage in Akihabara

Anime convention regulars are probably readily familiar with Stephanie Yanez. Since winning the AX Idol contest at Anime Expo in 2004, the singer has traveled across the country performing cover songs of anime themes as well as her own material at conventions. Last August, Yanez had the chance to do what few Americans can, she performed as a cosplay idol in Japan's famed otaku (anime fanatic) district, Akihabara, singing the closing theme from the current hit series K-On, "Don't Say Lazy." We chatted with Yanez about the experience. You can see her play live tonight at the first anniversary of LA Jpop party Tune in Tokyo.

When you say idol in the US, people might think American Idol. Can you explain what an idol is in Japan?

A Japanese idol is usually a girl or a guy who is very cute or handsome. They are usually very young, but they can be older too. Usually, they have dancey songs and usually dance. They're usually not even the best of singers. That was something I looked up, in Japan people like idols because they have a raw voice. They like that it's not polished because they feel that no one can sing that song except that girl or guy.

The Akiba idols, a lot of them aren't known. They're only known in Akihabara, but the fans are really passionate. Some Akiba idols have become successful and some have grown out of it. You know Perfume, the group? They used to do Akihabara events. They used to perform with Momoi Haruko. Momoi is a total Akiba idol. Sometimes they'll graduate and become more famous, but a lot of times, they're doing it just for the love of anime and because they love to sing.

Pop idols, they're huge and they're in everything, magazines, dramas, commercials. They're all over the place. Sometimes you might not like their music, but you might fall in love with them because of a drama or a movie they do. Idols do everything, they are actors, singers and dancers. They have clothing labels.

How Stephanie Yanez Became an Akihabara Cosplay Idol

How did you end up playing in Akihabara last summer?

This is the second time I performed at the venue. It's called Dear Stage. It's a cosplay bar and cafe, so all of the waitresses dress up. They usually have cat ears on or something like that. They serve food and drinks at the venue and they have this stage set up at the front of the store.

It's kind of hard to explain the set-up. On the first floor, the stage is set up and they have windows where you can look in and see the show, even if you don't pay. If you really want to join in the fun, you can just run in there and pay. The waitresses and the people who work there, they're Akiba idols and they perform pretty much every night.

The first time I went there was last year and I went on behalf of Akibanana, they're an anime site, and they give a whole lot of information on what's going on in Akihabara, what's going on in anime. Anything anime goes down in Akihabara. First she did an interview with me on the site in '07. Then I told her I was going out there and she said, "I can set up a show for you." She set up the show. She had some of the Akibanana staff host it and ask me questions in Japanese.

The first time was kind of scary. They're very energetic and excited, which is really neat, but the first time I went there, I was really nervous. People will love you if you sing their favorite anime song. It was a different feeling.

In the States, I get comments every day, sometimes from the same person, but over there, it was different, maybe a little fanboy-ish, you could say. There were girls this time too. The first time, it was only guys. The second time, I knew what to look for and I knew what the club was about.

I asked them all to dance otagei, which is the otaku dance for idols, so they're showing their love for singers. When I asked them that, they were surprised that I knew the dance. They were laughing and all excited and got into it. They took pictures of me afterwards, we had a photo session.


How Stephanie Yanez Became an Akihabara Cosplay Idol

Can you explain what Otagei is?

Idol singers in Japan are cute, sometimes very young, Japanese girls that sing more fast-paced dancey music. The otagei is a dance form where they're expressing kind of what she's singing. When she gets more into the song, that's when they get more into it, they start bending and moving their arms and their legs.

I guess the best way to explain the dance is showing your love for the idol and getting so into the music that you're almost a part of it. When I was there, I felt like we were all part of the show and we were all in it together.

Is a cosplay cafe like a maid cafe?

Yeah, it's like a maid cafe, except that they highlight the waitresses with singing. A night there would be like you walk past the cafe and you see this really cute girl with cat ears and then all of sudden she's on stage performing anime songs and maybe a song of hers. They'll have a special guest that night who's a known Akiba idol. There are anime singer girls who are popular in the idol independent scene.

The second floor is interesting because that's a bar set up and the waitresses dress up as very handsome, beautiful guys and they serve everybody. They have a TV up there so you can watch the show from the first floor.

You've played a lot of anime conventions in the States. Did that prepare you?

Definitely. We're all the same. We all love anime and we're really passionate about it and we really show it. You'll know when you see someone that they really like anime. Sometimes you can hide it, pretend to be cool, but then all of a sudden, you sing an anime tune and they're all into it. It definitely prepared me because the anime fans I have are the same as in Akihabara, very passionate and will go that extra mile to have you out, help promote you, which is really neat.

Akihabara was a little different because it was a more heightened level of that passion. If you live in Akihabara, it's basically anime passion every day. Maybe because they live it, they go all out. Maybe it's the alcohol. It's heightened.

Why play the closing theme from K-On?

I really love K-On right now. I haven't been into anime in a pretty long time. When I watched K-On, it really reminded me of Azumanga Daioh, funny girls, off the wall characters. I really like anime with girls that are weird because I'm weird, so I can relate. Another cool thing about it is that they're in a band and there's music involved, so I knew I had to do it.

Then, I kept on hearing online about how well it was doing over there and I thought, I'm sure that they would love it. I had a feeling that they would go really crazy and love it.

When I got to Akihabara, I was looking around and there were tons of bulletins and K-On stuff. There's so much merchandise and I thought, wow, this is a really good time to perform this song.

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