Ladybeard wants you to stay genki! All photos by Liz Ohanesian
Wes Bartel had never been first in line for anything before this sweltering Tuesday afternoon in LA. "Never," he says, "because I never care enough." Today is different, though. Today, Ladybaby is playing inside a 200-person-capacity anime shop in Little Tokyo. "Music is powerful, man," the 28-year-old remarks.
There are few bands that could get Bartel to wake up before dawn and wait all day, starting at 6 AM, to secure a good spot in front of the stage. If he had the opportunity, he might have done it for Babymetal, the popular pop-metal hybrid act, or Jpop group AKB48. "Maybe," he stresses.
For Ladybaby, however, there’s no deliberating. The Tokyo-based trio is the latest Japanese pop phenomenon to hit the US. They specialize in "kawaiicore," a mix of danceable pop and mosh-friendly metal, and features Ladybeard, an Australian professional wrestler who juxtaposes a healthy amount of facial hair with tiny outfits, like maid costumes. The group, which also includes teenage singers Rei and Rie, assembled by the costume company Clearstone.
While Ladybaby clearly serves a marketing purpose—the Los Angeles show was held at Anime Jungle, which sells Clearstone products—the group has taken on a life of its own. Their single "Nippon Manju," in which Ladybeard growls a list of Japenese tourist attractions, became a viral hit with its fast-paced, travelogue-style video.
Two days before their LA appearance, Ladybaby played a sold-out gig at S.O.B.’s in New York. The anticipation at Anime Jungle, a venue with a much smaller capacity, would mount into a full-on madhouse. "I honestly thought there were people who were going to camp out," says Bartel. His own dedication never wavered—he briefly considered heading back home and returning later, but ultimately stuck it out. Hours later, his friend showed up with a bento box as tribute for the primo spots in line.
Bartel attributes Ladybaby's appeal to their "shockingly different" style. Later on, though, he and his friends discuss how the group’s captivating star, Ladybeard, really isn't all that different from people they know. One friend pipes in that he has worn dresses at times. In the fan convention and cosplay world, cross-dressing is fairly standard.
By late afternoon, though, the crowd stands single file in a stop-and-start line that snakes through a small, indoor shopping area. Fans dressed in metalhead attire, anime T-shirts and Japanese-inspired street fashion wait to buy a piece of merchandise that will serve as their ticket to the event.
Wes Bartel, center, and friends eagerly await Ladybaby's arrival.
Ladybaby strikes a chord with those who enjoy a bit of the unexpected. Further down the line are two men and two women—friends and friends of friends—who have been hanging around since sometime between 11 AM and noon. "I like the blend of genres and the disregard for anything that existed before," says fan Jon Ituarte, 24. "It's something different."
"It's almost the same genre as Babymetal with the kawaii-metal type of thing," adds Tabitha de la Cruz, 21. Babymetal, the Japanese group that essentially invented kawaiicore with its three young, female singers and heavy metal dance beats, is referenced a lot here. Ladybaby is, in a way, riding that wave of success with a slightly different angle in its musclebound Australian star. "I just want to see Ladybeard flex really badly," de la Cruz says.
Some people, like Ituarte and de la Cruz, discovered Ladybeard because of their main interest in professional wrestling, only learning about the band after the fact. Others came across the group when "Nippon Manju" made the Facebook rounds.
In the US, Ladybaby's audience is clearly tied to the geek culture world, particularly the segment that is really into Japanese pop culture. Their New York show was pegged to the city's Comic Con. In LA, they're playing a venue where the walls are lined with Neon Genesis Evangelion bicycles, Astro Boy badges and Studio Ghibli DVDs. During a press conference, Ladybeard notes that their Japanese audience tends to come specifically from the fan community surrounding idols, i.e. young pop singers and media personalities.
Today's event isn't a full concert. It's more of an introduction to a group that the bulk of the crowd has only seen online. There is a short interview with Ladybeard, Rei and Rie. Ladybeard points out a fan who traveled from Tokyo for the event. The performance itself only consists of three songs. In addition to their hit, they play two new songs, "Age Age Money" and "Beard Chan Robot," which are set for release in December.
Despite the brevity of the set, the energy is intense. In the front of the crowd, a little girl in a plaid skirt and pigtails bounces around enthusiastically. Throughout the room, people wave glow-sticks and throw metal horns as Ladybaby goes bonkers on stage. Rei and Rie dance across the small space in well-choreographed fashion under fast-flickering lights. Ladybeard brandishes his biceps and practically doubles over during the songs' most menacing howls. After the set, there's more chit-chat with the crowd, plus a fashion show where the members of Ladybaby and others model some of Clearstone's costumes. After that, the fans head back into line for their chance to pose for a photo with the trio.
During the event, Ladybeard seems genuinely ecstatic that the group has been embraced internationally. He tells the crowd that they didn't expect that first video to get views outside of Japan, but an estimated 75 percent of them have come from the US. The fact that an Australian wrestler-turned-vocalist has struck a chord with a certain crowd in the States isn’t entirely surprising: His infectious charm and unwavering positivity is reminiscent of another rocker/multi-media personality: Andrew WK. Where WK entreats his fans to party, Ladybeard does the same thing, just with different words. Near the end of the night, he tells the crowd to "stay genki" and "work hard." The most important lesson he has for them, though, is to "stay kawaii."
For de la Cruz, the long wait was worthwhile. By 9 PM, she had met the group and had the chance to tell Ladybeard that she discovered the music because she's a fan of his wrestling. "He said I was adorable. That's all I needed in my life," she says. Moments later, Ituarte darts out of the store, exhilarated that Ladybeard had just put him in a sleeper hold. For someone who well-versed in the singer's wrestling career, that's a super-fan moment.
"It was completely worth it," he says. "I would do it again."
It's also part of what Ituarte finds fascinating about the performer's persona. "The fact that Ladybeard can go from trying to be cute one second to being frightening the next," he says, "I think that's really cool.”
Liz Ohanesian lives and writes in L.A. Follow her on Twitter.