Taken out of context, I look ridiculous. I am standing in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center among a group of costumed anime fans, and I am wearing Mary Janes paired with a powder-blue dress in an old-fashioned bicycle print. A large bow decorates the neckline — I am going for an Alice in Wonderland look. Last night, I scoured my closet, the goal being an outfit that may or may not be read as a costume.
When I asked my husband what he thought, he said, “If you’re trying to look like a kindergarten teacher, or one of those freaky twins from The Shining, it works.”
“Close enough,” I said.
Of course, I should be dressed as an obscure Japanese comic-book character, like everyone else at the Balboa Park cosplay meeting.
Five days earlier, I’d emailed 19-year-old Shannon Downer, a diehard cosplayer (“cosplay” is short for “costume play”) who agreed to allow me to tag along with her at Saturday’s event. I asked to borrow an outfit.
“So I can be part of the experience,” I explained.
From the tone of Shannon’s written response, it was clear she was not pleased with my request. As a result, on Friday night, with less than 12 hours until the cosplay event, she called off our interview. I had crossed a line. According to Shannon’s cosplaying friend, Marina MacDonald, “That is just not how cosplay works.” She said this with a heavy sigh, making it clear that I just don’t get it. Anime fans dress the way they do because they are passionate about it. Loaning out costumes is not something they do.
Nevertheless, I managed to talk Shannon into following through with the interview.
“You can come,” she said, “but you need to be at my house at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.”
I have a hard time finding the Downers’ home. Everything looks identical in Shannon’s Spring Valley subdivision, all beiges and stuccos, with the types of yards that gardeners maintain.
Mrs. Downer, Shannon’s mother (who does not offer her first name), answers the door after one knock and ushers me inside. Mrs. Downer wears a full-length denim skirt and a plaid blouse buttoned all the way up. Two shiny crucifixes hang around her neck. She introduces me to a housecat stretched out on the carpet. She talks to the cat in a high-pitched baby voice.
Mrs. Downer shouts up the stairs to Shannon, “That reporter is here!” There is heavy emphasis on the word that.
Nineteen-year-old Marina emerges from a nearby bathroom.
“You’ll have to excuse us,” she says. “We’re still getting our undergarments on.” Marina is wearing fishnet tights, a T-shirt, and no pants.
Mrs. Downer lowers her gaze. “It’s okay,” she mumbles in the voice she’d used to speak to her cats. “It’s just us girls and the kitty cats here today.”
Mrs. Downer goes into the kitchen and shuffles around. Moments later, she is standing near the front door with car keys in hand. She turns to me. “I’m going to have to ask you to move your car. I’m on my way to a Bible meeting, and you’re blocking me in.”
When her mother leaves, Shannon finally makes her way down the stairs. It’s hard to believe this is the same girl I ran into three weeks earlier in Balboa Park. Her dishwater hair has dusty blond roots, and her skin is so pale she’s nearly translucent. The last time I saw Shannon, she had on a long black wig and was toting a fake rifle — she looked like an Amish girl gone rogue. That day, her friend Marina was a steampunk version of the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland in platinum wig, a monocle, and an extremely short skirt. Today, Marina’s hair is long, a mousy brown.
Both Shannon and Marina are full-time students. Shannon attends Grossmont College. Marina goes to SDSU and shares an apartment near campus with her dad. Neither girl works.
They rush around Shannon’s house. The cut-off heels of pantyhose hug their heads, a trick to make their wigs fit better.
“Anime characters are perfect,” Shannon says as she layers on foundation. “They are tiny and have big eyes and creamy skin. We have to wear a lot of concealer.”
Marina again emerges from the bathroom. She’s now wearing an emerald-green corset. “Shannon is made for anime,” she says. “She’s tiny and pale. It’s hard for plus-sized girls like me to do cosplay…we’re both dressing as men today. Shannon is Ciel Phantomhive and I’m Undertaker from the Kuroshitsuji series, also known as Black Butler.”
“This turns my C-cup into a man’s chest,” Marina motions to her corset. “Anime characters are usually thin. I always wear a corset. It gives me an edge. I buy a lot of our stuff on eBay, and I make the rest. If I were really dedicated to cosplay, I would cut all my hair off to make it easier to wear wigs, but I like to be pretty in real life.”
Marina and Shannon are now seated on the Downers’ 1980s style couch, applying more make-up. The coffee table is cluttered with powders, lotions, and creams. On the far wall hang family photos — awkward Christmas studio shots of Shannon and her sister. There is one of Shannon as a toddler in an angel costume, a fluffy halo perched on her head. On the back wall, a clunky bookshelf holds books; most are religious — dozens of Bibles, audio books on Jesus, and texts with titles such as Christ in the Home, The Rapture Trap, and Catholic Prophecy. A smaller section of the bookcase is reserved for sci-fi, Stephen King novels, and comic books.
Cosplay enthusiasts share stories about their experiences doing cosplay in public.
“My mom is a super-Catholic,” Shannon says. “I don’t tell her when I dress up as demons. I had a pentacle on my head once, and she freaked out. But most of the demons in comic books are adorable. She never knows.”
Shannon tells me that her parents have come to terms with her cosplay hobby. But in the beginning, they weren’t so accepting.