Emily Wallin-Kale was in love with costumes ever since she was young, thanks to all the dance classes she enrolled in as a child. So when she started getting into Japanese anime as a hobby, she asked her mom, who had a fashion degree, for help sewing costumes of her favorite characters. It soon became more than just a hobby.
"I spent 18 hours painting a Sailor Moon costume because the skirt had a rainbow gradient," she says. "And from there it just, it just snowballed."
Wallin-Kale soon started competing, and winning, in the world of cosplay — or competitive costumed performances based on anime and videogame characters that are popular at anime conventions like this week's Youmacon in Detroit. But it wasn't an easy road.
"I didn't start actually really winning anything until I buckled down and focused on my craftsmanship, probably a good five or six years since it became a hobby," she says. Now, she's won more than 22 awards in cosplay competitions since 2012.
Because of her experience, the Grand Rapids-based cosplayer was tapped to help Youmacon enter the international cosplay scene. Last year, the convention earned the rights to run the preliminary round for the United States for the International Cosplay League, which is held each September in Madrid. The con also hosts the preliminary round for Clara Cow's Cosplay Cup, which happens every June in the Netherlands. And new this year, Youmacon is also hosting the preliminaries for the Cosplay World Masters Championship, which happens in Portugal in the spring.
"I've actually been working behind the scenes to get Youmacon involved on the international stage for the last three years," Wallin-Kale says. "So we finally got it and I'm just like, let's do this."
Wallin-Kale says cosplay competitions are typically broken into two categories: solos and teams. Both are judged primarily on craftsmanship. At Youmacon, the entrants meet with a panel of judges for private judging sessions. For teams, things get a little crazy, with the entrants judged on performing a skit. When she represented the U.S. in the Netherlands, Wallin-Kale and her partner Caitlin Bannister performed "Some Things Are Meant to Be" from Little Women as characters from the anime Sword Art Online II. ("I was watching that part of the show and I just thought, 'That right there, Little Women,'" she says.)
Wallin-Kale is quick to point out that cosplay competitions, especially on the international stage, are not all fun and games. "The biggest thing you have to understand going in is that it is a long and grueling process," she says. "Your schedule is grueling, and the time change is absolutely crazy."
Plus, there's the logistical difficulties of transporting elaborate, hand-made costumes across the sea.
"I actually put my competition stuff all in the carry-on," Wallin-Kale says. "I don't even risk losing it. I'm just like, this is all I have to wear for the next three days, this is what I'm getting."
You also have to be ready to make last-minute adjustments without the comfort of your studio.
"I had a friend, he was painting and gluing things in the hotel room the night before the competition," she says. "I woke up at like 6 a.m. to, like, panicked messages going, 'Does anyone have glue?' And I'm just like, 'Oh God, I'm so glad I'm not on that train right now because I've been on that train and I don't like it.'"
"You have to also realize that it is tough," she adds. "It is tough as heck. Like, some people come out of it not being friends anymore, and you just have to be realistic about it."
Still, Wallin-Kale says it's the passion for cosplay and the fellowship with other cosplayers that makes her go back to it each year — which is something that transcends borders.
"I might not be able to speak Mandarin," she says. "But I can sit there and geek out over China's cosplay team and be able to write them an email and have them remember me."
Youmacon takes place Thursday, Oct. 31 through Sunday, Nov. 3 at TCF Center and Renaissance Center; see youmacon.com for full schedule. Three-day badges are $70, Thursday evening's events are free and open to non-badge holders. Use promo code "METROTIMES" for a discount.
Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.