TJ doesn’t use her real name when she talks about her life as a cosplayer in the public eye. Neither does fellow cosplay star JusZ.
They say this minutes into their respective chats with The New Daily, recalling moments when strangers would cross the line between admiration and intrusion.
“Some people can push personal boundaries,” TJ says.
That’s why she keeps her cosplay persona as far away as she can from her real life.
“Sometimes they genuinely don’t know they’re doing it, they just get really excited. You’re dressed up as their favourite character and they can be a little socially awkward … and then it gets awkward.”
Usually, it takes some firm wording for certain people to realise that cosplay doesn’t mean consent to be touched or contacted on personal social media pages.
TJ says a lot of pop culture conventions have adopted this message, advertising it at events and online. There’s a long way to go, but “it’s getting better”.
This is an unexpected introduction to cosplay culture, but an honest one from two veterans of the performance art.
Behind the scenes
Cosplay is the art of getting dressed as a character from the screen or pages of a comic book.
JusZ describes it as a “creative love letter” to a character or fan community.
“I feel like there is no stronger way to show how much you love or connect to something than putting hours of time into creating a costume so that you can be them,” she says.
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It’s the Monday before the highly-anticipated Oz Comic-Con Melbourne and JusZ is wrapped up in a warm sweater, a steaming mug cupped between her hands. A streak of blue runs down the middle part of her hair.
She first heard about cosplay 12 years ago, some time after she moved to Australia from Canada.
“My background is musical theatre and pop music, so costumes have always been something that’s really connected to me. But I never knew there was a way to connect the things I was nerdy about with costuming,” she shares.
But as social media grew and people started sharing more of their lives online, JusZ realised “people can actually do this”.
At Oz Comic-Con Melbourne on Saturday, she plans to become Zatanna from the DC Bombshell comics. In this alternate reality, the Second World War is fought by the universe’s superpowered women on the front lines.
The 1940s-inspired look, featuring a top hat, elbow gloves, a black corset and white hot pants, is one of JusZ’s favourites. Every time she wears it, she makes little updates to improve the fit and wear.
Her costumes are mostly handmade, but the time she spends on them varies according to how complex the costume.
“Most of my stuff is sewing based, but it really depends greatly on how much time I have. If I’m working on it just in the evenings then it can take anywhere between two or three weeks to six months,” she says.
“And then, sometimes, you do something wrong so you’ve got to undo it and come back and do it again.”
JusZ has kept almost all of her costumes from the past 11 years. She’s even working on setting up a dedicated space in her home for them, thanks to her daughter moving out to study at university.
“Before I was using really big tubs, the costumes were in bags with all the accessories and stuff. And then I labelled the outside. I’m working on something similar now, but just in a closet.”
Her current costume closet houses about half of her 40-plus creations. In another very organised closet are fabrics and wigs, which she is “quite proud” of.
As an official cosplay ambassador for Oz Comic-Con, it’s worth being this organised. JusZ attends five or six events around the country every year.
“Every city has its own special vibe. But the really neat thing is you do get to see a lot of the same cosplayers over the years and you become friends with them,” she said.
“There’s always that stage when you meet at a convention and you connect on social media and then it progresses into friendship. Most of my friends now – we met through cosplay and now we’re best friends.”
One of those friends is TJ, a fellow cosplay ambassador, whom she met at Comic-Con Melbourne in 2017.
‘Just go for it’
For the most part, TJ says the cosplay community in Australia is extremely wholesome.
“I’ve made lifelong friends, like JusZ is a great friend of mine. We see each other outside of cosplay as well as in cosplay,” the 32-year-old says from her home in Melbourne. Several lush houseplants fill the room she’s sitting in and behind her are shelves stuffed with video games.
TJ says she’s lucky because she knows other people struggle to form friendships in the community. Newcomers can find the community intimidating, while those who compete in championships may experience friction with others.
And as cosplay becomes more mainstream, there seems to be more pressure to do well.
“It is a lot easier to get good at, compared to when I first started, because we suddenly have all these tools and materials and tricks that never existed before. YouTube, Patreon – all these websites are full of tutorials,” TJ explains.
“If you choose to set your mind to it, you can become good at it. But at the same time, that does apply a level of pressure to get things right.
“So there is a lot more intimidation, I find. Or people feel ashamed that their stuff isn’t as good as others, which makes me really sad. But I can understand that looking at someone who has done this for a long time, or a competition winner, can be overwhelming.”
It doesn’t help that there is a negative corner of the community that chooses to degrade fellow cosplayers.
“But that can be said for most communities out there. Other than that, everyone I’ve met is just so lovely. You don’t have to be good to cosplay. If it makes you happy and as long as it isn’t hurting anybody then just go for it.”
TJ started cosplaying many moons ago in 2010. She once spent six hours transforming herself into Darth Maul, the Sith Lord from Star Wars.
She doesn’t plan on spending six hours getting into her costume for Saturday – dressing like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is thankfully less complicated (but just as cool).
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TJ has always been a performer, having danced since she was five years old. What she loves most about performing is getting dressed up and entertaining. “Cosplay is an extension of that for me,” she says.
She also really enjoys making clothes, especially after taking textiles in school.
“My first costume – it just clicked straight away. I did it and thought, ‘This is awesome, I want to do it again’. I had such a fun time at that one convention and it just slowly grew from there. I had more costumes that I wanted to make and that meant more events to go to.”
The first costume TJ wore was the titular character from the 2002 anime Witch Hunter Robin. Anime was one of TJ’s first loves. That, and Star Wars.
She also loves going around conventions – talking to people, trading knowledge and sparking inspiration for future looks.
“You can be into the most niche thing and you’ll find someone else who gets the reference,” TJ says, eyes shining bright behind a pair of glasses.
“That, to me, is the best part of cosplay. It’s not doing your big, main popular characters, it’s doing something from this really obscure game that was popular like 20 years ago, and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Dude, you just made my day’.
“You have a little nerd moment and then that’s it, you never see them again.”
Welcome to Oz Comic-Con
Five days later, a young woman in a long blue wig, carrying an even longer foam spear leads the way to Oz Comic-Con Melbourne at the city’s Exhibition and Convention Centre.
The massive event is where like-minded individuals gather and bond over their shared passions. It’s like a Sunday market, if the stalls were dedicated to anime artwork, Marvel figurines, Jedi accessories and Pokemon cards instead of fresh strawberries and flowers.
There are panels too, where the cast and crew of a series, an author of a book, or comic book artists discuss their work and sign autographs for fans.
The young woman in blue is followed by fellow Comic-Con goers who no longer need Google Maps to show them the way.
Just follow the cosplayers. They’re everywhere outside the vast building, taking photos and embracing each other in pure excitement.
After two long years of lockdowns, Oz Comic-Con Melbourne has finally returned.
For someone unfamiliar with the experience, walking through the main gates is like entering a theme park. There are people everywhere, gushing, pointing and yelling to be heard over the crowd. The entire space is taken up by stalls, stages and food trucks.
Not everyone is dressed up, but almost everyone wears at least some sort of pop culture accessory, like a jumper with a certain logo on it.
There is almost has no choice but to give oneself up to the stream of fans, a strong and steady current that sweeps you past vintage comic books, boxed figurines and … is that? It is … a Roman Centurion helmet, complete with a vibrant red plume.
Up ahead, a pair of white Star Wars stormtroopers march decidedly down an aisle. They pause every few metres, nodding their helmeted heads to grant permission for admirers to take pictures with them.
A young man, sweaty and red-faced, quickly pulls his Darth Vader helmet back on and joins the picture, wielding a plastic lightsaber.
As utterly chaotic as it is inside, you can’t miss the official posters that read “cosplay is not consent”. The words are printed in large letters and are especially visible in the areas where cosplayers can stage photos with local photographers.
“When in doubt, look for sword,” a girl says as she brushes past. She clutches the hilt of a ginormous sword that pulses purple light. Its foam tip can be seen far above the tallest head in the crowd.
Suddenly, the path clears to allow a woman carrying a giant Pokeball above her head (an exercise ball painted red and white) with a huge Pikachu waddling behind her.
And in that opening, TJ and JusZ come into view. No, Harley Quinn and Zatanna come into view.
As Oz Comic-Con’s official cosplay ambassadors, they get their own stalls for meet and greets with their fans. People surround their stalls, decorated with pictures of their past costumes, and pose for snaps with the cosplay veterans.
“Oh, this is chill,” TJ says eventually, hands on hips. Numbers pale in comparison to pre-pandemic events.
Still, it doesn’t feel chill.
TJ laughs. “It can be overwhelming for first-timers.”
There is zero resemblance to the TJ from earlier in the week. Gone is the short-haired woman with glasses.
All one sees is the notorious Harley Quinn, mallet in hand.
A few steps away, JusZ shines as Zatanna. And as she chats excitedly to her fellow cosplayers, you get the feeling that attending these conventions is like coming home for them.
JusZ jokingly says that Comic-Con will have to physically remove her from their events to stop her from attending.
“I want to be able to keep doing this for as long as I feel like I want to.”
JusZ doesn’t know when she’s going to stop and honestly, she hopes she never does.
“There is a couple in the US called the Cosplay Parents and I think they’re in their 60s or 70s. And they cosplay amazing stuff.”
Cosplay Parents, or Steven and Millie Tani, are simply “relationship goals” to their almost 30,000 followers. They cosplay Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters, wearing matching or couple costumes to conventions and theme parks.
“I want to do that, like, still turning it out at events when I’m 60,” JusZ says fondly.
“Because these are my people and I don’t ever want to leave.”