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Fans of costume play compete in 'Heroes of Cosplay'

by DAVID WIEGAND San Francisco Chronicle on August 13, 2013 10:40 AM

SAN FRANCISCO — If you think some of the would-be designers on “Project Runway” are monsters, you haven’t met the competitors on “Heroes of Cosplay,” premiering at 10:30 p.m. tonight on the Syfy channel.

You’re already setting your VCR to record the premiere episode if you know what cosplay is. If you don’t know what it is, you’ve probably never been to Comic-Con or a fantasy fan convention.

Cosplay is short for costume play and generally refers to the art of dressing up as characters from fantasy fiction, TV, film, comic books and video games. But there are cosplayers and there are cosplayers. Fan convention attendees may toss a colander on their heads and make R2D2 noises, but the serious cosplayers on “Heroes of Cosplay” spend hours and hours, and dollars and dollars, creating costumes and makeup to replicate fantasy characters in faithful detail.

The new Syfy show follows a few very dedicated, if not obsessed, cosplayers as they design and execute extraordinarily ornate costumes to compete for big prize money at the first-ever Wizard World convention in Portland, Ore.

We meet competitors such as Victoria Schmidt, who blogs about geek fashion and gets a lot of cosplay help from her boyfriend, Jinyo, in transforming herself into Lulu from Final Fantasy X; Chloe Dykstra, who hosts a show called “Just Cos” on YouTube’s Nerdist channel; Jessica Merizan and Holly Conrad, who founded a costume business together and team up for cosplay events; and Jesse Lagers, a software systems administrator who is jumping into cosplay with both heavily shod feet as Vault Dweller from Fallout 3 in hopes of creating a costumes and props business.

Hit movies are also fertile territory for cosplayers like Becky Young, who will remake herself as Merida from Pixar’s “Brave.” She’s so obsessed with detail, she sharpens her archery skills to prepare for the role. In an effort to get exactly the right shade of orange for Merida’s hair, Young spends hours and hours hand-coloring each strand of wig hair with Magic Marker. She’s also concerned about her weight, which may be a little above what would be acceptable for the animated heroin. She hits the gym, but is still worried she’ll get knocked down by the judges for being too heavy.

Jessica and Holly are so focused on details that they created a life mold of Jessica’s head in order to attach ram’s horns to her head. The mold works fine, but then they run out of time and have to resort to buying pre-made horns, knowing that using any store-bought features on a cosplay get-up is almost certain to cost them points.

As good as many of these cosplayers are, they all know they have miles to go before they reach the level of cosplay goddess Yaya Han, who no longer competes but is a much sought-after judge for cosplay contests and is also paid for personal appearances at fantasy events.

Yaya is the Simon Cowell of cosplay judging. You get one detail wrong and she’ll come down on you like a ton of Tiefling horns. She’s got one elaborate costume from a previous year just for her first appearance at Wizard World and a completely new outfit for her appearance as a judge. She stands at the top of a staircase in Portland as Wizard World fans stare open-mouthed, as if awaiting the Yaya version of the Sermon on the Mount.

You may think the whole idea of adults dressing up as fantasy characters is silly, but the dedication and craftsmanship of the cosplayers easily convinces you otherwise.

What’s unclear is whether competitive cosplaying is too rarefied to sustain multiple episodes. But as a one-off, it’s, well, fantastic enough.

The Syfy show moves to its regular time slot of 10 p.m. starting Aug. 20.

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