It's a mild early autumn afternoon. The trees are just beginning to turn, leaves catching the golden glow of the sun. All in all, it's a perfect day to be outside.
A perfect day to cosplay.
I am joined by Sheila Netteler (known primarily as Shelandry Studios) of Richwoods, Missouri, a mother of three girls: Lilith, April, and not present today, her oldest daughter Chelsie. Her boyfriend, Danny, is also along for the ride. They've agreed to meet with me at Laumeier Sculpture Park on this lovely Saturday to tell their cosplay story. Since Sheila’s hometown is off the map, so to speak, meeting up in places that are easy to find is a must. (Her home can’t even be found on a GPS!)
We meet amidst handshakes and cordial "how-do-you-dos", the girls bright-eyed with eagerness at the prospect of a romp on the many nature trails that twist their way through the park. They're already rattling out the names of the sculptures they'd like to visit. "I want to go to the maze thing! Can we go to the maze, mom?" Sheila, with a practiced ease, immediately takes charge directing the girls to get changed into their costumes while I interview her. You can tell she's done this many times before. And that she has.
Sheila has always had a hand in the creation and construction of costumes; she's worked in haunted houses since the early 90's transforming actors into the ghouls and goblins of our nightmares, not to mention helping to build the sets on which they perform. She gleefully recounts a time when she did make-up for a zombie themed event, describing the rather gruesome effects she was able to achieve. However, while she enjoyed the work tremendously, she admitted to eventually getting stuck in that much dreaded "creative rut."
"There's only so much you can do," she says, hands busy with unloading her own gear from her backpack; a bow and a quiver of arrows are stacked against the stone wall behind us. "Every year it's the same theme, you know?"
Luckily for her, however, a chance to reinvigorate her craft came by way of a friend on DeviantArt; a popular website for artists to gather and show off their skills as well as give each other helpful critiques. The friend saw what Sheila was capable of and told her that she should branch out of the standard witches, vampires, and zombies of Halloween and start to make anime costumes. Having only been introduced a few years prior to anime and not knowing what anime or cosplay was, Sheila began to do her own research and attended her first convention, Anime St. Louis, in 2009.
"I just fell in love with it," she gushes with a bright grin.
Taking her art in a new direction, she began doing cosplay commissions and constructing her own costumes. To date she's made over twenty-five. In an attempt to find people with similar interests, she also founded the Cosplay Coalition Network in 2009. The membership has exploded from a few close friends to over nine hundred members worldwide thanks in large part to Facebook and is of this year celebrating its 4th anniversary. It was a way for people who share the same passions to come together outside of conventions to do photoshoots, make new friends, go on picnics, and chat about their favorite anime and manga series.
"It really took off. I was so surprised by that," Sheila says with a tone of amazement in her voice. "But it just spread by word of mouth and we keep getting more people."
Any dream costume she wants to tackle?
"Impa from Legend of Zelda,"she replies. "It's so hard to find good reference photos of her, and when you do, they're these odd angles from video game clips. Also I'd have to figure out how to get her armor to fit and stay on. And she has these weird ears. They're not super long, but they're hard for me to find."
Has she won any awards for her costumes?
"Only one. It was for best stage performace,"she says. "I don't want to waste my time in masquerades anymore. There tends to be too much favoritism with the judges and I don't think that's right. I also don’t see the point in wasting almost the entire main day of con waiting in a “green room” just to walk on a stage for a few short minutes just to show off my cosplay when I can spend the entire day enjoying the convention."
There is an unfortunate part of the cosplay community, she concedes. Some fans do tend to be hypercritical of each other, both with costume accuracy and whether or not said person is deemed attractive enough to pull the character off. But Sheila doesn't put up with any of it. Like any of us, she’s had her own struggles with body image. Through most of her adult life she has dealt with anorexia and had become thin to the point where it was no longer healthy. She was fortunate enough to find the support she needed in overcoming her obstacles, and has since put on weight. However, she admits to having gained more than she expected to. Nevertheless, it has not deterred her from cosplaying. Sheila is dedicated to fighting for the equality and the right for all people to cosplay whomever they wish. The coalition in particular embraces its members as full equals. She delights in welcoming people of all colors, sizes, and skill levels into her group.
"I like using all kinds of people for my photoshoots," she says proudly. "I don't just use the 'good' ones. It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like. Fun is what it's all about. If anyone tries to get negative on my webpage, they're deleted without a second thought."
Indeed, fun is what it's all about, as her daughters can attest to. When I asked how she got April and Lilith to join her in her cosplay hobby the answer was simple enough:
"They wanted to do it. They saw us adults doing it and they wanted to do it too. They’re constantly adding to their list of characters of who they really want to cosplay.”
By this time the girls have scampered back, decked out in their costumes and completely oblivious to the stares of both the wedding party and the homecoming group that are sharing the park with us today. April is Yachiru, the pint-sized lieutenant from Bleach, while Lilith is an Umbreon, a creature from the wildly successful Pokemon franchise. Both are enjoying themselves to the full, hamming it up in every photo and scurrying about ahead of us on the trails. Danny and Sheila are dressed up as a Glaceon, another Pokemon, and Kikyou from Rumiko Takahashi's Inu Yasha. They follow more sedately, but are nevertheless having just as much of a good time.
So, what is it about cosplay that drives Sheila? She says it's the challenge, of finding new materials to work with and to make everything all by hand. She also says it's rewarding in that it offers her more ways to express herself creatively given the near limitless amount of video game, manga, and anime characters to choose from. Every costume is unique.
Sheila goes on to add that being apart of the subculture has allowed her to become more confident.
"I used to be very shy and didn't feel comfortable around other people. But, by doing this, and having people come up to me to ask for pictures, it's given me more self-esteem."
Cosplay then, is more than just a casual hobby. It's a passion and a living, thriving community in which she feels recognized and appreciated. It may also turn into a livelihood down the road. Sheila has plans to turn her cosplay commissions into a full-time business.
Whatever her goals are, we're sure the cosplay community wishes her the best of luck in all of her endeavors.