NYCC 2012: The Cosplay Experience

I first met Lindsey Cepak at Baltimore Comic Con, when I asked to take her picture two days in a row. The first day, she was dressed as Marvel Comics’ new Captain Marvel, complete with her natural blonde hair. The next day, she was dressed as Jean Grey, aka The Phoenix, with red hair, and silly me, I just didn’t recognize her.

That’s the weird thing about cosplay – or costume play for long – an aspect of fan culture few people understand, or care about… At least until recently. The goal of cosplay is to get your picture taken, sure, but with some exceptions it’s not about becoming famous. It’s about being SO GOOD at inhabiting your character, that fans get excited to meet Captain Marvel… Not Lindsey Cepak.

Having encountered and chatted with her at Baltimore, Lindsey dropped me a line to let me know she was heading up to the massively bigger New York Comic Con this past weekend, and would love to say hello. I did her one better: because cosplay is something I’ve only recently come to understand, let alone appreciate, what if I shadowed her for the weekend, to find out what cosplaying was really like?

Happily, Cepak said yes, and over the next few days at NYCC, we would meet, chat, and get the skinny on what went down at the second biggest fan convention in the United States. And just to clarify, this is one cosplayer's unique experience, and by no means does it represent the universal experience for everyone at NYCC. But for those of you not in the know, here’s the scoop.

When I first met up with Cepak at NYCC, it was in the confines of the VIP room, a safe harbor for cosplayers and fans alike to just chill out from the madness of the Con, as well as do quick costume changes and touch ups as necessary. Cepak – I swear, totally coincidentally – was dressed as Stiles from MTV’s Teen Wolf. And though that would play out in a pretty important way for her in the next few days, starting off we mainly chatted about how she got into cosplay in general.

“I’ve always been really into Halloween, and I loved dressing up,” said Cepak. “I actually started seriously dressing up as characters in high school, but it wasn’t for conventions.”

In fact, Cepak didn’t even know conventions exist… Instead, she used her position as a sitter, walking kids around to get candy as an excuse to dress up as her favorite characters. “I took the kids trick r’ treating as I was babysitting, dressed as Sailor Jupiter,” said Cepak, laughing. The next year she dressed as the X-Men’s Rogue, then Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, before moving to D.C. where she discovered conventions.

It was during her first Spring Break, in fact, that she headed with college friends down to Nashville and coincidentally ended up staying in a hotel hosting a horror and tattoo convention. At the horror side of the convention, people were wandering around in costume, and Cepak’s eyes opened wide. From there, she fell in with a group that regularly attended Otakon, Baltimore’s popular Anime convention, and then she was off and running.

This certainly wasn’t hurt by Cepak’s estimation of the rapidly growing cosplay community. “I find it to be one of the most warm, engaging communities,” said Cepak, though she did note there’s some competition on the girls' side of cosplay. “Generally if people feel that should be getting attention they’re not getting, for one reason or another, they get upset,” said Cepak, adding, “But I think those instances are few and far between.”

One important item of note: Cepak readily admits she isn’t a trained seamstress, and gets “a lot of help” with making her costumes. This puts her squarely in the middle of the cosplay hierarchy: the top being people who make their own costumes, model them, and sell them; the bottom being people who just pull a costume off a shelf from the local party store, and wear that around. As you can imagine, the people on the top aren’t very fond of the people on the bottom.

That raises an important question though, and something that is a significant barrier to use regulars understanding cosplay: what’s the end result? If you’re a fan of comic books, and end up writing comics, the goal is to either break out on your own, or do some work for hire. Same with making your own movies, writing your own books, or heck, even selling cookies, right? So what about cosplay? If you’re the world’s biggest cosplayer, what does that even mean?

For Cepak at least, like most cosplayers, the goal is to have fun... And that’s it. She admits she did model a bit in high school, and would have fun being able to model cosplay in the same way, “But I don’t have any real goals,” said Cepak. She also mentioned two big name cosplayers, Yaya Han, and Jessica Nigiri, both of whom make their living through cosplay. For Han and Nigiri, they make money through merchandising photos, and selling costumes online. But for most cosplayers like Cepak, that’s something they can’t even imagine reaching for... So they don't.

If you can’t make money at cosplay, why bother, said everyone in capitalist America? Well, there’s other outlets for your cosplay beyond picture taking and making friends, both worthy pursuits. There’s also the East Coast Avengers and similar organizations who cosplay for charity. Groups like the ECA will go to parades and children’s hospitals in character, and become those superheroes for children. “I think that’s an incredibly positive thing you can do with your cosplay,” said Cepak. “Go be Batman for a little kid who is sick, and that makes their day. I think that’s amazing.”

Like many cosplayers, Cepak is continually pushing herself to make bigger and better costumes, whether by herself, or with help. Her holy grail? A female Iron Man costume she’s been working on for the better part of a year and a half. “It’s a project I took on not realizing what it would entail,” said Cepak with a note of regret in her voice. “It’s full on resin, and I was not prepared for that. I haven’t had a clean apartment in a year and a half, because I’ve had clay, silicone, plastic molding, resin molding… Everywhere.”

So for those of you thinking about getting into cosplaying, and ready to roll up your sleeves? Also be ready for the intense work it entails, both in creation, and upkeep of the costumes.

Getting back to the community of cosplay, there’s one aspect it has over any other big party: people are pretty cool showing up wearing the same outfits. “I get really excited!” said Cepak. “If it’s better than mine, I’ll say, man, how did you do that!” And if a costume isn’t up to snuff? Cosplayers are happy to help each other out, improving their costumes for the good of the whole community.

So with the preamble out of the way, what’s the plan, Stan? Cepak had Stiles on Thursday, Gem from Tron on Friday, Captain Marvel on Saturday, and Emma Frost on Sunday… Though it looked like the Emma Frost costume wouldn’t come together in time (spoiler: it didn't). She was particularly stoked for her Tron costume, as the producers had gotten extremely excited when she wore the same costume in San Diego; even though the costume was so stiff Cepak needed to carry a cane/chair combo everywhere just to sit down.

In case you couldn’t guess from that: Cepak is a very, very big Tron fan… But really she determines her costumes based on what she’s a fan of, not what's happening at the Con. “I had no clue Teen Wolf was going to be here until a week ago,” said Cepak. “But I had finished up getting all the pieces, so I said, yeah, I want to be Stiles!”

…And this is where we officially move away from straight journalism, because given I knew she was being dressed as Stiles, I put her in touch with the talent booker for MTV Geek’s livestream of the Con. That meant right after talking to her in the VIP room, Lindsey ended up, in Teen Wolf cosplay, chatting about her show on MTV. “I was nervous, but had a lot of fun with it, so happy I got that chance!” Cepak told me later.

The rest of Thursday was a little less eventful, including a fan who got excited about her Stiles cosplay, but thought her lacrosse stick was for rugby. Hey, nobody said that TV fans need to be sports fans too, right?

When I met up with Cepak on Friday, it was in the packed lobby of the Javits Center where she was resting in her Gem costume. As opposed to the excited cosplayer of Day One, Cepak was noticeably exhausted. Her costume was too tight, the bits on her fingers had started to fray and break, and worst of all due to constant shoving, the disc attached to her back had broken off permanently.

Not only that, but as I found out later the costume takes up to three hours in the morning to prep… Though it was worth it just for a unique upgrade from the same version at San Diego: Cepak had added reflective tape, so when fans took pictures with a flash, the Tron costume glowed. Pretty cool, no?

“Most people referred to me just as 'Tron!'” said Cepak, “But one girl called me Gem. I about spazzed, as yes, she has a name! An artist in the alley also remembered the specific character... Those are the moments I like the best--she's a bit obscure, but the people who love her, really love her.”

Tron Uprising producer Charlie Bean also recognized Cepak’s costume at the Tron panel, giving her a big hug, and making her day. “It’s amazing to see the creators of something you love… Love what you do,” said Cepak, happily.

Saturday – the biggest day of New York Comic Con – also turned out to be Cepak’s biggest day at any Con, ever. With the Teen Wolf panel later in the day, she packed both her Captain Marvel costume, and her Stiles costume. Wearing the latter, Cepak got brought up front at the Teen Wolf panel, given swag, and got to take photos with other Teen Wolf cosplayers… But because of the time spent hanging out afterwards, ended up missing a signing event with the cast.

Instead, Cepak quickly changed into Captain Marvel for a interview. “I had thirty minutes to change into Captain Marvel!” said Cepak. “Fastest change I've ever done… It involved redoing my hair completely, redoing eye makeup. I barely made it, only to find out that due to some scheduling conflicts, I was doing the interview tomorrow. Not a big deal, but I rushed for nothing! Happens sometimes.”

So big bummer, right? Changing back into Stiles, Cepak and a few other TW cosplayers got filmed by MTV joking around in costume… Only to be surprised by Tyler Posey. They freaked out, of course, but Posey freaked out even more, recognizing Cepak from the livestream interview, as “That girl Stiles!”

“I had no idea what he meant, but hey, I went with it,” said Cepak. “An amazing, wonderfully nice guy... I can't express how awesome he and Jeff Davis were, when he came up to meet us as well. Surreal moment: singing The Black Parade with Tyler and fellow cosplayers to an oblivious Gerard Way four tables down. Again, so damn lucky! I can't thank the Teen Wolf media runners enough for the opportunities they gave myself and my fellow cosplayers.”

It wasn’t until later that night that Cepak found out Posey had recognized her off the livestream, and in fact had promised to show the video to Dylan O'Brien - who plays Stiles on the show. “ I may have cried just a little bit,” said Cepak when she heard the news.

Watch our livestream interview with "Teen Wolf's" Tyler Posey and Jeff Davis. See where they discuss Lindsey at around 1:35:

The next day was a little less eventful as NYCC wound down. Dressed as Captain Marvel, Cepak did finally get to do the interview; but more importantly, had a six year old girl excitedly recognize her. “I love it when young kids know Carol,” said Cepak, “As I think she's a great role model, especially for girls.”

Okay: if the goal of this was to get a handle on the typical cosplay experience, our meddling kind of messed that up. But on a whole – Teen Wolf experiences aside – Cepak’s NYCC is most conventioneer-goers experiences: you wander the floor; you stop for pictures; you chat with fans and creators; and every once in a while, you get a unique experience that can’t be created anywhere else. The difference here is, those experiences come about through the clothes she wore, and the characters she inhabited.

“I’m not going to dress up as Captain Marvel at the local mall,” said Cepak, “But this is somewhere I get to dress up and embody that character for a day. It’s a great thing to show what character you like, in actual physical form.”

And that, my friends, is cosplay.

You can check out more about Lindsey Cepak at her Tumblr.