Using Creativity and Teamwork to Turn Cosplay into a Career
By Afi Scruggs
Cree Michelle Rogers loves surprising folks. That’s why she got such a kick out of the reactions she received last Halloween, as she and her friends strolled parties and clubs dressed as the Power Rangers.
Rogers and her team drew huge crowds in their brightly colored costumes. But when they took off their helmets to get some air, spectators gasped—these Power Rangers are Black. “We were expecting some take back,” Rogers says with a laugh. After all, her character, the Yellow Ranger, was first played by Vietnamese-American actress Thuy Trang in the original live-action TV show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. To Rogers’ delight, folks hurried over to get selfies with her.
Rogers belongs to UsualRangers5, a team of “kids who cosplay with attitude,” according to the group’s Facebook page. The team has been featured on Geekery View’s “Cosplay of the Week” Facebook show, the cover of The Washington Post Magazine, and in Entertainment Weekly. Alongside Rogers, the team features Aaron Pringle as the Black Ranger; his brother Jerry Pringle as the White Ranger; Thomas Huskey plays the Red Ranger; and Kendra Magwood rounds out the crew as the Pink Ranger. But these “kids”— all in their late 20s and early 30s — aren’t just playing around. They aim to turn cosplay into careers.
“There are people out here who are getting paid to travel the world just because of a costume they made,” Rogers says from her home in Savannah, Ga. “[Cosplay] is this new opportunity and business venture you can actually take seriously now.”
The history of cosplay – the act of regular folks dressing up as superheroes and fantasy figures – can be traced back to 1939, when a fan donned a costume for the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Manhattan. The practice gained popularity over the decades. In 1984, Japanese producer Nobuyuki Takashi, seeing the proliferation of costume wearers at the Worldcon in Los Angeles, coined the term “cosplay” – a portmanteau of “costume” and “play.” There’s a lot of fun involved, especially when elaborately costumed cosplayers — dressed as their favorite characters from movies, graphic novels or video games —gather at large conventions such as Dragon Con in Atlanta, which drew 85,000 visitors in 2019.
Although the success of Black Panther (2018) gave Black nerd culture increased visibility, Black cosplayers are still considered unusual. “There’s always been this weird separation between what it means to be Black and what it means to be a nerd,” Rogers says, recalling a meme that contrasted members of the UsualRangers5 dressed as Black Panther characters with white cosplayers portraying characters from Star Wars. The meme caption asked, “What is the difference?”
“Basically [the meme was saying] there is no difference,” Rogers explains.
Cosplay attracts people from all walks of life for the creativity and artistic expression it inspires. While costumes may be purchased online, many cosplayers find the DIY approach more fulfilling and economical. “Our team has a motto: we make what we can and buy what we can’t,” Rogers says. “There are people out here spending $4,000 on their suits. It can get pretty pricey when you’re going for that movie-grade look.”
“We’re lucky because we’re artistic,” she adds. “There is craft foam you can buy for a dollar a sheet. We heat it then form it to make shields or chest plates. We aren’t very good at making body suits yet, but we’ll go online, buy a bodysuit, and modify it.”
Huskey, who accompanied Rogers for a joint Zoom interview, pipes in that Rogers was spray-painting a costume just minutes before the call. Huskey says he’s an outlier in the group when it comes to costuming – he doesn’t have the same artistic skills as the other UsualRangers5. Rogers and Jerry Pringle met studying art at Savannah State University. Pringle says he’s been an artist since childhood, but cosplay is his medium.
“A friend dragged me to a convention and I was like, ‘This is how it’s done. This is how you apply that artistry you’ve had all these years,’” he says. The Pringles’ parents encouraged their sons’ artistic interests and support the brothers’ love of cosplay. “Our mom has an Instagram and Facebook,” Aaron Pringle adds. “She likes and shares a lot of our posts.”
Rogers’ parents took a while to accept her obsession. “They were weirded out,” she says. “They’ve always seen me make little costumes, but they never thought I would try to turn it into a career.” When confronted by skeptics, the team points to the success of mega-cosplayers like YaYa Han. With 2 million followers on Facebook, Han has her own featured line of fabric and supplies at JoAnn craft stores.
For the UsualRangers5, launching a cosplay career means building a social media following and networking at conventions. “Once you have that following, people keep reaching out to you,” Rogers says. The team’s appearance at a small Florida convention yielded a goldmine of contacts and business cards. “We show up in our biggest and best,” Rogers says. “When we go anywhere, we’re showstoppers. People come to us.”
Afi Scruggs is an award-winning writer and journalist, as well as a bassist. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio.