If you've been to a convention like Fan Expo or Comic-Con, you've probably noticed that a big part of fandom is cosplaying: dressing up in the likeness of your favorite characters from video games or anime. For many, it's a casual hobby, but for people like Andy Rae, it's an activity that has taken on a major role in her life.
Though she has two degrees and a day job, Andy Rae has sometimes spent months (and many sleepless nights) creating her distinct costumes, which often include badass armor made with Worbla thermoplastic. It started when she began making her own Halloween costumes at age 15, but a few years ago, she attended her first con in Calgary and fell in love with the craft of cosplay.
"Before, it would take me six months to do a full armor, then it would take me four months, then a month—now, I don't like doing it, but I can whip up a whole armor in three weeks if I need to," Andy Rae told VICE. "I don't like to rush myself though. It's really hard you physically and mentally—it's very stressful."
Close to four years and 14 guest appearances at conventions later, Andy Rae has become a pro cosplayer. And she's attracted a massive number fanbase along the way, with over 100,000 followers on Instagram alone.
VICE met up with Andy Rae at Fan Expo Canada to find out what it takes to becoming a pro in the cosplay world.
VICE: How did you start doing cosplay?
Andy Rae: A girlfriend and I were like, "Let's check out this comic event! Maybe we should make something; maybe there will be another person dressed up there." It turned out there was a lot of people dressed up and there was actually this whole community. I made my first costume, which was a total nightmare. I did Lady Loki, but I used clay to make the horns... It was completely ridiculous, completely wrecked.
Can you tell me about your costume that you're wearing for Fan Expo Canada?
This is the breastplate, the cowboy hat, the bullet belt. This is a gender-bend of McCree from the video game Overwatch.
The gender-bend concept in cosplay is really interesting.
It is, I have a panel that is kind of about that... It's about interpreting cosplay design and how to make your own design. Gender-bending is really big right now, and also making humanoid or armored versions of classic characters or of things like Pokémon... I see a character and think: If they were female what would they look like? [McCree] is the first actual gender-bend I have done, but I do a lot of reimagining cosplays: battle armor Sailor Moon, battle armor Disney princesses—turning characters into warriors. It's taking original designs and revamping them... I just think it's more interesting; it's neat to be able to change things up and take a new artistic perspective on classical characters.
You said your boyfriend travels with you most of the time to conventions and that, as a professional cosplayer, you pretty much have to have another person with you to help, right?
Yeah, you always have to have a partner or a friend there. I went to Anime North by myself because [my boyfriend] couldn't make it, so I didn't have a handler. It was awful, it was really stressful. I was half-naked and running down the hall in the morning. I actually got the maid to help me do my breastplate up. I was chasing her being like, "Please, you have to do this!" She didn't really understand me, but she did it.
Oh wow, I went to Anime North too... I spent the night in the hentai room. They've actually caught people jerking off in there before.
Woah, really? That's not even the craziest thing I've heard of though. I went to Northwest Fanfest in Vancouver, and the afterparties... A requirement of being a guest was that we had to go to this VIP afterparty, and the VIP afterparty was at this club with a clothing-optional room. This club was decorated all like a Turkish bath, and there were people I was guesting with at the con who were just like naked, laying there, and drinking. It was wild; it was the weirdest thing I have ever experienced at a convention.
What's one of the most challenging cosplays you've done that you're proud of?
My paladin from World of Warcraft. We drove down to BlizzCon [in California] from Vancouver. I made the shoulders with the big wing on it in the hotel room. I would make [my boyfriend] pull over on the side of the highway in Seattle or something and we would spray and gesso the armor, then wait for it to dry, then pull over and spray it again. That was really last-minute, and I had never made a cosplay on the road before.
What's it like traveling with all your equipment?
It's brutal... I've never had luggage lost, but for one BlizzCon I did a Witch Doctor from Diablo and the TSA completely broke my spear in half. I put it in my snowboard bag, and they ripped it open. Everything was just broken, it was really upsetting for me... I flipped out at them at the airport, and that's all you can do, right? I just had to rebuild it in the hotel room. My one friend had all these LEDs for her gems, and maybe they thought there was a bomb or something in the wiring, and they completely ripped out the wiring... Some friends of mine will write little notes in the luggage saying, "Hey guys, this is a costume. Please be careful. You're doing a great job, love you!" I was scared having [the fake gun for my cosplay] in my luggage this time, but it doesn't even have a trigger... But yeah, it was good this time. It depends on who you fly with though.
How do you even go to the bathroom in a cosplay like the ones you create?
You don't. You don't go to the bathroom. And it's really hard to eat. Eating, sitting, whatever—they're not things that you do with cosplay. You suffer for cosplay, you suffer lots of burns [from glue guns], lots of things... Once it's all done and you see your hard work, it's really, really meaningful seeing it all together.
What sort of interesting interactions with fans have you had?
Some people love it—they see their favorite character come to life, and they just can't get over it. I've had weird, creepy things too. I just got an email two weeks ago. The title was "Sole Inquiry": "How much can I pay? I will pay you whatever money for pictures of the soles of your feet." That was a little weird. Things like that happen.
You have a big social media presence. What are the pros and cons of that?
My followers are awesome, and everybody is so wonderful and supportive. But there are bad parts... This cosplay that I did, McCree, it's super-popular right now because Overwatch is a big deal, so I posted these photos on my Facebook and my Instagram, and I got thousands and thousands of likes, so many compliments.
My McCree was also posted on Reddit. It made it to the front page of the gaming [subreddit]. It got something like 30K upvotes and over 800 comments. Probably about 90 percent of the comments were either calling me a slut... or [claiming] I didn't make my own costumes and that I was just a model. I shouldn't have even read it, but it's hard sometimes not to. When you can be anonymous talking on the internet, it can get vicious.
Speaking of sexism that you can experience when doing cosplay, how do you feel about the Cosplay Is Not Consent campaign?
It's great. Just because you're wearing a more revealing costume, it does not mean anybody is consenting to be grabbed, touched, or having inappropriate pictures taken of them. On the flip side of it, there is a very vicious part of the community... There is another movement of slut-shaming cosplayers out there, and you see a lot of cosplayers (some of whom are good friends of mine) ripped apart by people because they wear revealing costumes.
The Cosplay Is Not Consent movement is wonderful because it's about 'this is my body and I can dress however I want," and then you get the, "You're terrible for dressing like that, you're giving a bad name to women cosplayers." So I'm conflicted when it comes to it. Cosplay is not consent at cons, absolutely, 100 percent... But at the end of the day, if we're trying to promote that these are our bodies and we can wear whatever we want, do not harsh on me for being sexy.
Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.