Millions of TV and film fans have taken the concept of interactivity to a whole new level. They don’t just watch and read about their favorite programs or play video games based on them. They regularly dress up as the characters from those shows and movies. Cosplay is the formal name of this activity and it has gained increasing popularity over the past few decades. One of the reasons for the most recent surge in popularity is the plethora of science fiction and fantasy-based programs now being produced on TV and online. Traditionally, cosplayers tend to dress as characters from these genres. Another factor is the increase in the number of comic based conventions such as Baltimore Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con, the granddaddy of them all.
Portia Lewis as a character from Marvel’s ‘Agents of Shield.’ (Courtesy photo)
Media coverage of the cosplay scene tends to focus on White cosplayers but there is a large and passionate contingent of African- American cosplayers. One such cosplayer is Baltimore native and aspiring actress Portia Lewis. Lewis, who is an alumnus of Baltimore School of the Arts (which boasts Tupac and Jada Pinkett among its graduates), was noticed on social media by not just one but two of the actors who play the characters on which a few of her cosplays were based. Wentworth Miller, who became famous for his turn on the much loved television series “Prison Break” now plays Captain Cold on the show “Legends of Tomorrow.” He posted one of her Captain Cold cosplays on his Instagram account. Caity Lotz, who plays White Canary on the same program, also posted Lewis’ take on that character on her Facebook.
Lewis got into cosplay by accident, playing around and coming up with characterizations of “Harry Potter” characters at home with her siblings. “We loved dressing up. We loved that people loved our costumes and wanted to take pictures of us,” she told the AFRO. She also started going to conventions. “I started at Otakon [, cosplaying with my family before I even knew what cosplaying was. If you’re in the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia area), it’s a huge anime convention that’s not overly saturated with overly serious-minded cosplayers so the atmosphere is fun and full of freshness. Baltimore Comic Con is great too.”
Lewis’ art background also helped. “I went into college as a painting major and I left with a fibers and material studies degree. So I think I found myself and my love for manipulating materials and making one thing with another and that’s what translates into my costumes now. My thing is, I don’t want to sew. Obviously, I can sew, I have the degree for it but it makes me more creative to figure out how can I create this costume with things I already have in my house. Things I know how to manipulate. So that’s kind of what sets me apart from other cosplayers.”
There are particular challenges of being an African-American woman doing cosplay. “As a society, Black is lesser, especially when it comes to attractiveness. I often feel I have to work twice as hard to be noticed and deemed beautiful, even as a woman with fairly Eurocentric features. As far as being a female cosplayer, I hear that I’m a “female” or “feme” instead of just being the character even when I’m not making the character particularly feminine. As a woman there’s always a question of how much we’re going to take off. It’s almost expected.”
Lewis, who recently launched a gofundme campaign [gofundme.com/PortiagoestoLA] to help with her move to Los Angeles advises those who are interested in becoming cosplayers to, “Be really good!” She states, “That’s simple but it’s actually pretty poignant, It’s difficult for us to do this ‘for fun.’ We can’t just slap on a $15 costume from the Wal-Mart clearance section, cake on some cheap make-up and say we’re Pikachu. There is a sharp eye of scrutiny on us for thinking of breaching the ‘Wonderful White World’ of cosplay so be unquestionably good. No, be amazing. And remember people are going to talk about you but don’t let that stop you. Everything that you want, dream, and wish for is on the other side of fear.”