Over Fourth of July Weekend, Anime Expo brought in 61,000 fans to the Los Angeles Convention (the turnstile numbers were over 161,000, including repeated visits). Like a lot of other fan conventions in the U.S., Anime Expo is experiencing a surge in attendance.
As attention on such events grows, so is the focus on the costumes. Cosplayers, fans who dress up as pop culture figures, have become the stars of the convention circuits. Their eye-catching outfits are photographed by fellow fans, as well as the press. Some cosplayers, like Yaya Han, who we featured in last year's Anime Expo coverage, have achieved something akin to celebrity status on the convention circuit. Plenty of others, who might not be as well known, have turned their love of costumes into business ventures.
This year at Anime Expo, I followed Jimmy Sherfy, a San Diego-based cosplayer who is an Anime Expo regular. During the course of four days, Sherfy provided a glimpse of what it's like to be a cosplayer attending one of the most popular conventions in the country.
Thursday: Retro Anime, Rose of Versailles Style
It's getting late in the afternoon on the first day of Anime Expo and Sherfy is hanging out in the intensely crowded lobby of Los Angeles Convention Center's South Hall. Sherfy has been here for at least an hour, maybe closer to two. He hasn't gotten a convention badge yet — the lines are still too long. In a little bit, he'll queue up for a pass that grants access only for the convention's exhibit hall. While there, he'll be on a search for a prop sword to use tomorrow.
Right now, though, he's standing in the lobby, amidst the crowd, as his boyfriend, a cosplayer who goes by the name Nintentoys, poses for photo after photo. Nintentoys is dressed as Mario, and he put together a superb rendition of the famed video game character. He's also hanging out with someone dressed as Princess Peach. The folks with the cameras — just about everyone here at Anime Expo — are loving it.
Sherfy and I head outside to chat. He's dressed in a red velvet top and is wearing fake eyelashes and a long blonde wig. So far, only two people, two girls, have recognized his costume. He heard one shout “Lady Oscar!” from afar.
Sherfy is dressed as the heroine of the classic anime The Rose of Versailles — a woman dressed as a man.
It's not the androgyny of the costume that's going over the attendees' heads, as genderbent costumes and crossplay are fairly common in the convention world. It's the anime series that people don't really get. Here at Anime Expo, the focus is often on the new. Inside the venue, there are hordes of fans dressed as characters from a series called Attack on Titan, something so fresh that, right now, it's only available online and with subtitles. The Rose of Versailles is one of the hallmarks of late 1970s/early 1980s anime. In anime cosplay years, that's ancient history.
There are a few different ways you can categorize anime cosplays. There are the costumes from the new shows — those that haven't had a U.S. television or DVD release yet — that keep the less up-to-the-minute obsessives scratching their heads. There are the old standards, many of which even people outside of this community will recognize. Those are things like Sailor Moon, Pokémon and Studio Ghibli films. Then there are the retro cosplays, outfits inspired by shows that are now far removed from convention kid radar, but inspire fanatical reactions from those who catch the reference. Sherfy chose the last category. The relative obscurity of the costume doesn't matter to him. The Rose of Versailles is one of his favorite animes.
Sherfy is a baby-faced 30-year-old from San Diego. He's been going to conventions since his pre-teens, but only started cosplaying a few years ago, when he and Nintentoys decided to dress up as mascot characters from Super Mario Bros. When he started going to conventions, Sherfy spent a lot of time on the convention floor beefing up his collection of Disney and anime dolls and assorted toys that date back to the 1980s. These days, his convention experiences revolve around costumes. He spends months planning the outfits. Sometimes he makes his own. Other times he pays for someone else to make it.
Sherfy cosplays frequently, but Lady Oscar is the first anime-centric costume he's worn. He debuted the ensemble a few months back in San Diego, at an event called Anime Conji. He spent a pretty penny on the piece, around $300 to commission a friend to make it, excluding the price of the materials he provided. Cosplay can be expensive, particularly if you're a stickler for details that will wow the crowd. Sherfy is pretty good at capturing the crowd's attention. He doesn't make it onto the convention floor much anymore. Frequently, he's busy posing for photos with friends and strangers.
While we're outside, a passerby with a camera asks if he can take a photo. He says his friends are going to “lose their shit” when they see Lady Oscar. That was, more or less, the reaction Sherfy expected today. Mission accomplished.
Up next: Legend of Zelda
Friday: Everyone Loves Link
Anime Expo is divided into two sections. There's the West Hall and Concourse of the Convention Center. That's where most of the panels and other events take place. Then there is South Hall, home to the exhibit hall, artist alley and a massive lobby that's turned into a less organized red carpet. Cosplayers make their entrances. One person asks for a photo. The cosplayer strikes a pose. All of a sudden, a crowd of people gathers, their eyes obscured by everything from iPads to snazzy professional-quality cameras.
There are certain costumes that tend to get the most attention: the sexy ones, the bizarre ones and the easily recognizable ones. On Friday, the second day of Anime Expo, Sherfy switches his costume to go the familiar route. He is dressed as Link, the hero from the video game franchise Legend of Zelda. Sherfy, Nintentoys and two other friends are all channeling characters from Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages. He's carrying a small, wooden prop sword, as he couldn't find the big, foam one that he wanted inside the exhibit hall yesterday. Since there was a Nintendo cosplay meet-up earlier that day, and since the character is quite popular, Sherfy was far from the only Link in the house. Regardless, his photo was in-demand.
If you want to cosplay, particularly if you want to go all-out with your costume, you have to get used to people taking your photo. Sherfy is okay with the photos, for the most part. He doesn't really like it when someone tries to snap a shot while he's eating or fixing something on his costume. Even when the photos are unflattering, though, he doesn't make a big deal out of it. If he doesn't like the image, he simply won't tag himself when he comes across it on Facebook.
In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about the treatment of cosplayers at conventions. Many have complained of harassment by other attendees. Sherfy says that he hasn't had so many problems in that regard. Once in a while, he'll encounter “old creeper guys” who might make rude remarks. The year that the X-Games were going on next door to Anime Expo, people shouted towards him as he walked passed the local Hooters restaurant. Still it's not something that has become common for him.
Today, the cameras pop up one after another. More often than not, people are polite about it. People tend to ask permission to take his photo. They ask often, usually offering some sort of compliment. We stop chatting so that Sherfy oblige the requests. Someone asks him to lock swords with another Link cosplayer. Sherfy agrees and the two engage in a mock battle pose outside as the afternoon crowd begin to head towards their cars.
Up next: Sailor Moon
Saturday: Are you Alan or Fiore? Does it matter?
Like a lot of others in the anime convention scene, Sherfy is a fan of Sailor Moon, the anime and manga series that hit the U.S. in the 1990s. “I liked anime before Sailor Moon, but Sailor Moon got me addicted,” he says. The thing about cosplaying characters from Sailor Moon is, though, that there aren't a whole lot of guys in the series. “Everyone is Tuxedo Mask,” he says, mentioning the heroine's dashing companion. “I wanted to be a character that you don't see a lot of in general.”
On Saturday, Sherfy debuts his newest cosplay, taken from the Sailor Moon universe. He let the fans decide which character he was. He could be Alan, a TV series villain. He might be Fiore, from the movie The Promise of the Rose. The costumes are similar and Sherfy doesn't seem to want to ruin anyone's excitement by correcting them.
This is Sherfy's most dramatic costume of the weekend and it's a complicated one. “It's not quite finished,” he says. “The first time, it's never done.” Still, he looks amazing in the catsuit, with skin expertly painted green and pointy ears poking out from under a wig styled by Nintentoys.
Sherfy commissioned his friend, Cynthia Ramirez, to make the costume. Ramirez, who works under the name Ahza-Miracle, specializes in custom-made costumes. She spent 23 hours over the course of three days working on the stunning catsuit. The costume had its challenges. “It has to really fit the person,” she explains. On the night before the convention, after Sherfy had arrived in L.A., she hand-sewed the embellishments onto the suit.
Because of the body-clinging nature of the catsuit, it's not an easy piece for the cosplayer to wear. “I was a little worried about that because I don't have a really slim figure,” Sherfy confesses with a chuckle. “I have to suck it in and have a little help underneath.”
Earlier in the day, before we met up, Sherfy stumbled into a group of Sailor Moon cosplayers. They didn't know each other, but they spent some time posing for photos together.
While we're together, a lot of fans recognize Sherfy. One person asks if he's Fiore. Almost immediately after that, someone asks where Sherfy's twin was, indicating that she thinks he's Alan. It doesn't matter which character they assumed he is, they are obviously excited to see him. Sherfy isn't immune to that kind of giddiness either. A woman cosplaying another old-school anime character passes us. Sherfy hands me his phone and asks that I get a photo of the two together.
At two different points in the afternoon, grown women accompanied by children stop Sherfy. In both instances, the women give their cameras to the children so that they can pose for a photo with the cosplayer. After the second woman walks away, her Sailor Moon backpack fading into the background, I have a better understanding of what was going on here in South Hall. It's not that different from Disneyland. No matter how old you are, you might still feel a rush of excitement when you catch your favorite character roaming the amusement park. This is the scene in South Hall, except that the characters are played by fellow fans instead of paid employees. People come to Anime Expo for the panels and the parties and the exhibits. However, they're also coming because, just maybe, they will see their favorite characters come to life in front of them.
Up next: Wreck-It Ralph
Sunday: The “Comfy” Costume
As the convention comes to a close, Sherfy is wearing one of his “comfy” costumes. He's Rancis Fluggerbutter, a character from the Sugar Rush game in Wreck-It Ralph. For the costume, Sherfy altered clothing that he bought, adding trim to a jacket, t-shirt and pants. Nintentoys made the peanut butter cup that sits on top of blonde wig.
I realize that if Sherfy and I were to meet on the street out in the regular world, I might not recognize him, given all his wigs and make-up. He says that happens a lot. It happened even more often when his hair was brown. Now, he keeps it blonde, even when the wigs are off. Similarly, there are plenty of times when he doesn't recognize his fellow cosplayers. “I'll feel really bad too,” he says. “That happens a lot.”
Sherfy tells me that his eyes are really green — “not like a piercing green,” he adds — but he was wearing contacts during the convention. They're the circle lens contacts that cosplayers typically find online, gray on the inside, blue on the outside. He says that they make your eyes look larger. Knowing that, I might be able to pick him out of a crowd if he weren't in costume. Maybe.
During the course of our interviews, Sherfy mentions a couple times that he used to be shy. After four days of watching him interact with people at the convention, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. He's immediately friendly, chatting with strangers, reaching out to the teenage girls who ask if they can give him a hug. In recent years, he's taken an interest in performing too. While he says that he always sang, he's now looking to get into voiceover work. He also performs at parties.
Two years ago, Sherfy and Nintentoys started their own company, Epic Character Parties. They provide character-based entertainment for children's birthday parties and other events. Frequently, Sherfy will portray Peter Pan or one of the Disney princes that he has cosplayed. Nintentoys has shown up as Mario. They bring in friends from across Southern California to play other characters. He estimates that about 90 percent of the performers they work with are from the cosplay community. Since some of his other cosplayer friends have launched similar businesses, he says that they will work to help out each other on various projects.
Cosplaying at conventions started out as a fun hobby for Sherfy, but now it's also business. He'll save the heavy promotion for San Diego Comic-Con, he says, simply because there are more families with children at that convention. On Sunday, though, he tracks down various friends to see if they're available to work events in the coming weeks.
As we prepare for the convention to end, Sherfy thinks about what's next. Once he gets home, he'll start looking for photos that people have posted online. He might connect with a few of the people he met over the weekend on Facebook. Then he has to start planning for his next batch of costumes. Sherfy keeps an inspiration folder of cosplays he wants to try over the next year or two. Right now, he wants to add to his Disney prince wardrobe, tackle a few '80s cartoon characters and maybe portray someone from the comic Elfquest. He has a few more anime costumes in mind too, maybe something from Slayers, as well as a character from Revolutionary Girl Utena. In the meantime, though, he has to get ready for San Diego Comic-Con.