Yaya Han in her Chun-Li cosplay, commissioned by Capcom for "Street Fighter 6."

One of the World’s Most Famous Cosplayers Shares the Joy (and Pain) of Playing Dress-Up

Yaya Han has been Chun-Li, Jessica Rabbit, Wonder Woman, and more—here she talks about why she's been so drawn to cosplay

Yaya Han in her Chun-Li cosplay, commissioned by Capcom for "Street Fighter 6."

World Of Gwendana

Words by Caroline Cao

It may sound overly poetic, but those who love cosplay see it as a form of communion, a synthesis of craft, self, and character. And there’s perhaps no one who loves cosplay as much as Yaya Han.

Yaya Han as Chun-Li at Dragon Con.

Caroline Cao

Among Han’s most recognizable looks is her cosplay of Chun-Li, an iconic character in the 36-year-old Street Fighter video game franchise. So it was a dream when Capcom hired her to promote Street Fighter 6 at the game launch, something that required her to design a new Chun-Li qipao in 10 days, heat-pressing down the blue vinyl patterns and gluing gold trim on white fabric. She proudly posed in her Chun-Li qipao at her 2023 Dragon Con press conference where she discussed her coming-of-age into cosplay and her book. “I grew up basically at Dragon Con. I've been coming here for 22 years and I developed as a cosplayer and indeed as a human,” she says.

As chronicled in her sprawling 2020 book Yaya Han's World of Cosplay, cosplay is a transformative living. Born in China in 1980, Han grew up on a diet of anime and manga. She was subsequently raised in Germany by her Chinese mother and German stepfather. Growing up as a manga-consuming nerd, particularly as a young Chinese woman “in the land of blonde and blue-eyed Anglo Saxons,” cosplay was an outsider pastime. She eventually packed her bags for the United States, where she dove into pockets of anime clubs and fandoms. Han ventured into her first Anime Expo in 1999, cosplaying as a fuchsia-haired demon fox from Yu Yu Hakusho, a favorite manga series.

Living off peanut butter sandwiches and ramen packs, she found the commissioned fan artist life rewarding but not financially sustainable. She did find employment in data entry in Atlanta, but the 9-to-5 drained her and denied her upward mobility. She took the monumental leap to quit and commit full-time to cosplay, her prime flow of income since 2005.

Yaya Han as Jessica Rabbit. Her favorite line from the character is, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” regarding the commentary about sexualized female characters.

Kevin Green

The term “cosplay” was coined by Japanese writer Nobuyuki Takahashi when he reported on the 1984 L.A.-based sci-fi WorldCon. Takahasi saw English "costuming" as too broad, and "masquerade" as too old-fashioned. Thus, he birthed the portmanteau of “costume” and “play.” According to Allied Market Research, the cosplay market was estimated to be worth $4.62 billion in 2020. Cosplayers engage in cosplay for a myriad of reasons: to be a powerful Wonder Woman, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, a sexy Darth Vader, a sexy Jessica Rabbit, Sailor Moon x Gundam mash-up, or steampunked Disney princesses. The possibilities are infinite. Some might purchase the costumes, some might commit hours and days to craft them from scratch.

Like many famous cosplayers, Han has to be her own stronghold against negativities, fetishization of her body, and critical gatekeeping. Once, she was criticized for being the "wrong" ethnicity for Wonder Woman (also criticized for being anime-styled). “I have built up a more thick armor against people with microaggressions against me,” she says.

Yaya Han's anime-stylized Wonder Woman cosplay in 2016.

Judy Stephens

She admits that over the years she has distanced herself from her Asian heritage. She often jests, “Yeah, I’m German, I’m always overcommunicating and always on time or always early.” This changed upon the rise of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. It compelled her to reclaim her Asian heritage. She increasingly dressed in hanfu and costumes from Chinese novels and donghua (Chinese cartoons), and she came out with a Wuxia-inspired hanfu pattern. “I want to be proud of 5,000 years of culture,” she shares. “Even if the country has a lot of problems, the culture and heritage are valid.”

Han hopes positivity spreads to the community of Black cosplayers, who face racist harassment, including gatekeeping vitriol for cosplaying as non-Black characters. “The community needs to be more vigilant against any type of bigotry happening. It needs to speak about those issues with care,” she says. Her book shouts out to Black cosplayers movements, such as Chaka Cumberbatch-Tinsley’s #28DaysOfBlackCosplay, Belema Boyle’s #BlackCosplayerHere, and Petite Ebby Cosplay’s database of Black cosplayers.

She also wrote the “Racism and Blackface in Cosplay" chapter to tackle Blackface in cosplaying spaces. When correcting a light-skinned cosplayer who partakes in Blackface or changing skin color to resemble another existing race (which is distinguishable from a fictional alien race with non-human skin pigments), Han encourages diplomacy, amicability, and patience when explaining the harm. “You can’t just write people out if they said something wrong,” she says, distinguishing between malice and ignorance. Her chapter also confesses her internal accountability when “the Yaya back then” almost considered darkening her skin for a cosplay of Pirotess, a dark-skinned elf from the Record of Lodoss War franchise. Said cosplay incidentally didn’t take shape for other reasons, but she subsequently learned about the harms of Blackface and other forms of “facing” tied to Hollywood stereotyping and spoke out against them in cosplay spaces. The chapter iterates the “cosplay whoever you want, but don’t darken your skin” rule.

To list a few of her book topics, it covers hunting for flexible material, gatekeeping other cosplayers for costume “inaccuracies” when the point is the imagination and self-expression, the pros and cons of the business side, body shaming, the “Cosplay is Not Consent” anti-harassment movement, and the classic scenario of a skeptical Asian mom (Han’s mother) learning to understand her daughter. Having published her book during the early days of the pandemic, Han reflected that she would have composed entries related to the pandemic, her gratitude for in-person cosplay, and the expanding media platforms for cosplayers (such as the growth of OnlyFans as a cosplaying platform).

Every person understands their own parameters with their work labor, and Han admits that she finds labor unrelated to her favorite cosplay quite taxing. For example, she'll drop everything when Capcom wants to recruit her (read: pay her) to be Chun-Li, since her familiarity with Chun-Li fires up her passion. But even paid work unrelated to her favorite properties is too cumbersome to accept. “Unless it is a character I’m interested in, there’s no reason for me to do it.”

Yaya Han cosplaying as Xie Lian from the Chinese cartoon "Heaven Official's Blessing," on loan from fellow cosplayer Malinda Chan.

Malinda Chan

She notes another disadvantage found in some commissioned work. Some hired cosplayers could be bound to an NDA, something that would suffocate their ability to share the euphoria of the designing and absorb feedback. "If I can't share what I'm working on or get opinions on ‘does this look good, or does this look good?' then I'm just lonely crafting in a hole, an NDA hole."

It may stir controversy among cosplayers who hold the hobby as a sacred passion that shouldn’t “sell out,” but Han wants people to see professional cosplayers as more like gig workers offering their services and talents. “I would like to see more understanding that cosplay is a job and jobs need to be paid. That honestly starts with conventions,” she says. While Han gets paid to be a guest nowadays, she knows it’s common practice to be compensated in free convention passes rather than money.

Yaya Han as Lucy from the anime, "Cyberpunk 2077."

Brian B. Boling

Her estimation: If conventions standardize payment for recruited cosplayers, then companies may follow. “They have to look at us as more than fans,” she asserts. She endorses a standardization of compensation for employed cosplayers at conventions. “I took three hours to get ready [for Dragon Con] in the morning. It takes some people longer.” The performative labor must account for this as well. “Just like performers at Disneyland should be paid, cosplayers should be paid,” she says.

“There’s always a yin and yang.” The goods can come with the negatives, but the negatives can be overcome. “As an industry, cosplay is still very young,” she says. “We're going to go through some growing pains as it continues to grow."

Published on September 21, 2023

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.