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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.

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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.

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"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.

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Their reactions are complete opposites, like the sides of the moon.

On the bright side of the moon, pure joy. The smaller people, also known as the children, or the innocent, can’t contain their delight. They run up to him, squealing. They embrace him before he even has a chance to put his arms up to return the favor. They stroke his white fur and whisper, “Bye, puppy!” as they are rushed off.

The taller people, also known as the adults, or the parents, are the dark side. They are trying to obscure their emotions, but those who have lived long enough in the Midwest know that expression. The tight lips, the hunched shoulders, the wrinkled brow line. This isn’t the east coast: No one is going to yell at him and go, “Hey, who are you, touching my kid?” Instead, they make that carefully constructed passive aggressive face and stride off, bumping their strollers along at the maximum speed possible without breaking into a run.

This won’t last, I think.

And then, it doesn’t. Two women, both with handheld transceivers and official looking St. Louis Zoo button-up shirts, flank this giant white wolf man. They are less passive, more aggressive.

“Hey, who are you with, guy,” the bigger and buffer one asks.

“We’re writing a book,” I interject, knowing this is a partial fib, knowing that the wolf will not answer while in costume. “We received permission from the parking lot attendant.”

“Well, you can’t be here.”

Of course we can’t, I think. I would be nervous, too, if a man in a wolf costume frolicking around the St. Louis Zoo parking lot hugged my kid, too many weeks away from Halloween to be socially appropriate.

Natale and I apologize about 10 times, no exaggeration, and make a beeline back to our vehicle. We drive a little up the road, to an area of the iconic and historic Forest Park that is slightly more secluded and more welcoming to furry creatures. As soon as we park and the head is on, the wolf man is back in character again.

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He bounds over to a building and sniffs it on all fours. He leaps into the air, and then hides his face and shakes and bobs with delight. Natale is furiously snapping her camera, but she provides no direction to our target. He is so immersed in the character, it is more like trying to photograph a wild animal than a man. Before we can protest, he dashes down a hill, past a pavilion, and around a bend of a trail. As we jog to catch up, an amused runner asks, “What are you guys doing?”

“Writing a book,” I reply, out of breath, as the wolf bounds up another hill, leans up against a fence, and begins waving at cars zipping by on Interstate 64.

“Oh,” he replies, amused, as he lopes off.

As I watch this canine, in complete harmony and joy with the sights and smells around him, I think back to less than an hour ago, when I was interviewing the man that was inside the costume. If the wolf is his light side, his “regular” self is the dark, all quiet and reserved, sipping his caffeine and not meeting me in the eye often as we talk. He explains what it means to be a furry, and why he chooses what many believe to be its own lifestyle.

Darryl Glover says he enjoys wearing the costume because he can “make people smile as well as just be myself,” he says. “I can be something I’m not. I think everyone should stand out and be who they want to be.”

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When Glover first bought the suit, he had no intention of using it at anime conventions. He just wanted a fur costume so he could become a furry. The costume’s low cost as well as the character it featured both convinced him to buy it. The white wolf with the red marks is from Okami, a video game on the Wii that features a wolf goddess as the protagonist. It wasn’t until later that he thought about taking the costume to cons.

He was born Feb. 7, 1994, in Russia, and was adopted when he was 6 months old. He lived in England with his adopted family for about seven years, he says. When he was still young, his adopted parents separated, and he lived alone with his mother for a while. Things then “got out of hand,” he says, when his mother became abusive. As a result, his father received custody of him, and he moved to Wyoming in the United States with his father.

After staying there for two years, his father moved to O’Fallon, Mo., when he was about nine. He attended school in the Fort Zumwalt North School District.
Although Glover didn’t retain many memories of his physical and mental abuse, he knows it played a part of his inability to make many friends.

“I’m grown out of it now, but early in high school, it made me shy,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to socialize with many people. I did, but it was hard for me to.” He had a close-knit group of about three friends that he would hang out with, but he formed few other relationships, including romantic ones.

He first discovered the furry culture on the Internet. He found some furry artwork, and he was fascinated by it, he says. He didn’t know the word for it at first, but he eventually began to identify himself as a furry. This means he gets to put on a costume of what “I wish I could have been in reality,” he explains.

If it was up to Glover, he would be in costume every day. He has to find the time in between going to classes at St. Charles Community College for graphic design as well as working shifts at Dairy Queen. And the reactions are not always positive. For example, he has been banned from the local Wal-Mart.

Much like the encounter at the zoo, Glover and his friends asked permission if they could take a few photos inside the store. He made it about three quarters of the way through the store before he ran into some “high school rednecks” in the hunting and outdoor department, he describes.
“They saw me and started betting money on who could remove my head,” he recalls. He was able to sneak out with his group of friends by snaking through the aisles, but he is never allowed back inside for posing a threat to the public.

One place he is always accepted in his costume is at anime conventions, where most people are in weird costumes and fall outside of society’s definition of “normal” for one reason or another. Con attendees will ask him for hugs, pet his fur, pose for pictures with him, and, of course, glomp him. So far, he has only attended three anime cons.

While he is in costume, he never speaks. His playful puppy mannerisms come naturally, he says; he never practiced them. It takes him about 10 minutes to get into costume. First, he puts on the body, and then the feet and paws. The head, which goes on last, has a plastic ridge that holds it in place. When Glover wears the head for an entire day or more, such as at a con, the ridge starts to chafe and scratches up his nose. The entire costume can feel hot and a little heavy, but these are minor inconveniences.

What isn’t a minor inconvenience, however, is the smell that develops after being a wolf all day. After attending a convention, Glover will put the fur suit in a big plastic bag until he has time to wash it. The cleaning process is simple. He tosses the entire costume into a big, plastic storage tub, fills the tub with hot water, and pours plenty of Herbal Essences coconut-smelling shampoo on it. After swishing it around, he squeezes as much of the fur out as he can and then puts the costume outside to dry. It usually takes an entire day to dry completely.

Currently, Glover resides with his grandmother and her husband. He stayed with his father for about three years, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother. Luckily, his grandmother lived next door, so he moved in with her. He doesn’t think his grandmother could ever understand his furry lifestyle, so he doesn’t bother trying to explain it to her.
“I told her I bought the costume for $50 so she wouldn’t nag at me,” he says, “She doesn’t ask many questions about it, other than what it is. I tell her it’s a costume.”

One place he has found some recognition and acceptance is through his college. He recently took a Photoshop class and entered one of his projects in a show. Of course, he entered something of himself in costume. In the piece, the familiar white wolf is walking trough a dark forest, but his fluffy arms look like feathery wings, flapping frantically. He won the showcase and $100 to boot.
Reactions to the piece have been positive, with many people expressing they have never seen anything like it before. Glover doesn’t care what meaning people take from it. “Whatever they get out of it is what they get out of it,” he said.

Glover is looking to the future in more ways than just going to classes. Some day, Glover hopes to find someone he can share his life with. He wants to find a wife who would be a furry, just like he is, so they can “share a common interest, to be able to do the same thing as me,” he says. He dreams of he and his wife spending time and going out together in costume. He also hopes to find the time and money to attend a furry convention, a gathering just for other people like him.

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July 2013

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