On Sunday afternoon at Anime Expo, I met Atlanta-based cosplayer Yaya Han at her booth inside the exhibit hall, surrounded by cat ears, unicorn horns and pegasus wings.
Han is part of a growing number of what she calls “cosplay entrepreneurs,” people who have turned their hobbies into businesses. She sets up shop inside the exhibit hall of anywhere from 20 to 25 conventions a year, selling the cosplay accessories that she makes along with glossy photos of herself portraying a number of famed heroes and villains, calendars and T-shirts. There's almost always a crowd around Han's booth, more so when she's working it. On this day, as she tried to make her escape, she was stopped at least three times for photos. Han sweetly fulfilled all the requests.
Han was dressed as Chun-Li. More precisely, she was dressed as an Art Nouveau rendition of the butt-kicking Street Fighter heroine, based on a design by artist Razvan-Sedekiah. It took her 10 days to make the costume, not long considering that she included embroidery and other details.
“Every day I'm crafting, so I think that sped up my costume-making process,” she says. The results were impressive, so much so that Han couldn't walk much more than five feet without someone asking for a photo. Every time she posed, a handful of others jumped in on the shot with professional cameras and cellphones. Maybe some were just taken by the video game character come to life, but others clearly knew Yaya Han, at least by her reputation as one of the best cosplayers in the U.S.
Born in China, Han has been a fan of anime and manga since childhood. She was also the kind of kid who was always drawing. When she moved to Germany with her mom, at a time when Japanese comics and animation were hardly known in the country, she learned that people didn't quite understand her interests. “I was always the freaky Asian girl who drew these weird-looking Barbie dolls in class,” she recalls. But the trends caught up with Han. She once created her own 98-page manga for a high school project, which was ultimately published in a German magazine.
For the past 13 years, cosplay has been Han's art, a logical progression of what she has been doing since childhood. She's portrayed a diverse range of characters, from Rarity of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to George R.R. Martin's heroine Daenerys Targaryen, always with a focus on “the woman empowered.” She makes her own costumes with great attention to detail and, while most are based on pop culture products, she has created original characters to cosplay as well.
Back in 1999, Han was living in Arizona and traveled to Southern California with her local anime club for Anime Expo. She entered some of her artwork into the convention's show, but at the same time was taken with the cosplayers. She didn't know how to sew, but a friend gave her some tips and she started churning out one costume after the next. Soon, Han and her friends began entering cosplay competitions. For a year and a half, they won every contest they entered. “It was very addictive, but it took way too much time,” says Han. “We ended up not enjoying the con because we were stressing out over the performance.”
Han's reputation grew in the cosplay world. She was asked to judge competitions. She was invited to conventions as a guest, which was a rare honor for a cosplayer at that time. She sat on panels about everything from costume construction to modeling for cosplay photos. Meanwhile, she was working as a systems technical analyst for a software company. “It was the most boring job in the world,” says Han. “I would just go home and work on costumes.” Seven years ago, Han decided to quit her day job and build her own business, Yaya Han LLC.
People often ask Han how they, too, can take cosplay to a professional level; she says that's a hard thing to explain because there are a lot of aspects to what she does. Primarily, she's an accessories designer. “I roll from my bedroom into my workroom in the morning and craft-craft-craft,” she says. For conventions, she ditches the sweatpants and glasses for the intricate costumes and elaborate make-up that define her professional look.
She doesn't do much spokesmodel work. She does, however, work with photographers to document her costumes. “It's no longer just about making the costume, you have to have good photos as well,” she says. Han began selling photos when she noticed that fans were bringing low-res computer printouts of images for her to sign. The 2013 calendar she produced is an extension of her modeling work. She has already drawn 250 pre-orders for a limited run of 1,000 calendars.
But Han isn't just about image. Her panel at Anime Expo, called “Sociology of Cosplay,” fills a gap that she noticed at conventions. There are loads of how-to cosplay panels, but none that delve into the culture surrounding the hobby. Han launched the panel to discuss the problems that affect cosplayers, like how to deal with trolls or people who just don't understand what cosplay is. “Why do they think we're freaks? Why are we judging each other?” she asks rhetorically during our interview. Han's business model reflects the sense of community that exists at conventions. It's not just about business, it's about supporting the scene.