You may have seen one of Yaya’s flawless cosplay interpretations floating around the Internet, or maybe you recognize her from her guest appearances on Syfy’s Heroes of Cosplay. You have definitely come across this cosplay queen-turned-entrepreneur somewhere. After all, she is largely responsible for bringing cosplay into the mainstream world while simultaneously building an empire out of it.

Building a business out of cosplay sounds like a childhood dream you might confess to your parents at an age when you couldn’t leave the house without wearing your beloved super hero outfits. In Yaya’s case the joke is on all the people who ever thought cosplaying was merely a hobby for freaks. Fast forward fifteen years after Yaya’s discovery of cosplay and she is traveling the world as a cosplay host and model, appearing on TV shows, designing a cosplay accessory line, choosing a fictitious superpower for the theme of her own comic book— and most recently, posing as the official face for Jo-Ann Fabric’s new collection of cosplay materials. Anything else? I’m sure there’s more coming her way.

Despite Yaya’s ongoing success, her core passion continues to be constructing and cosplaying her own costumes which she attempts to create at least once per month. During one of her rare breaks, I caught up with Yaya about her path to nerd life, her affinity for Catwoman and why she believes cosplay is an empowering art form for women of all shapes and sizes.

Are all cosplayers nerds?
Funny no one has ever asked me that [laughs]… I believe that the act of cosplaying in itself is a form of being a nerd. I think whether you’ve been into cosplay your entire life, meticulously make your costumes, buy a costume or it is your first time, just the desire to dress up like someone from a fictional world is sort of like being a nerd. So yes, all cosplayers are nerds—but different types of nerds.

But in order to cosplay you have to know about the characters you are cosplaying.
Absolutely. Being a nerd is not something special or different anymore, everybody is a nerd. It’s like the rise of the nerds! Now it’s cool to be geeky and be into weird things, everybody has grown up with a superhero they admire or a character from a movie like Star Wars they feel a connection to.

Yaya as Emma Frost/Photo by Nicole Ciaramella

I know you cosplay all sorts of different characters from movies, to video games and Anime. Are you a fan of all these genres?
Well I grew up with Manga and that’s how I got into the whole “nerd-dom” myself, by reading Manga and also watching Anime. Those are the two core foundations of my nerd self but then, as I grew up, I played more and more video games and then I got introduced to Western comics, sci-fi movies and everything else. So yeah, I do believe my taste and the variety you see in my costumes reflects the different interests that I have.

In terms of cosplays there’s a lot of interesting characters in those genres. I design my own costumes too. I get a lot of ideas and get inspired by all kinds of things, like music or even animals. I just did a jellyfish couture dress—inspired by jellyfish—it’s just being creative.

Yaya cosplays Jessica Rabbit/Photo by Brian Boling

Your cosplay style is on the sexier side. What are some of the challenges that come with being a sexy cosplayer?
The challenge is to represent a character and also to create costumes that tell a story even if they are original costumes of mine. I think I am an extrovert, and I’m an exhibitionist in that sense. I think it is very empowering for women to be confident. I don’t believe showing skin or being sexy is objectifying a woman, I think it’s actually the opposite…That’s why I’ve never felt the need to do a gender bend, to change a male character into a female. I’m always about representing strong female characters.

I think I gravitate towards the more confident and sexy characters that are really badass and awesome despite the fact that they are sexy. It’s that in-your-face thing of, “You can’t have me and I’m still going to kick your ass.” [laughs] That is why I’ve always been a fan of meticulously creating costumes, especially if it is a sexy costume. I will put in extra effort to make sure that the costume is really good quality, to show people that this is not just about the attention; it’s about it becoming a theme and creating a character.

As a female cosplayer, have you ever encountered negatives or disrespectful experiences?
Of course! I’ve been cosplaying for sixteen years and I’ve made all the mistakes you can possibly imagine in this environment. For a long time I didn’t realize how wrong it was when someone would touch me or say something disrespectful. As a young girl growing up, you don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. When you grow up and become a well-rounded person you realize people can’t talk to you like that, they can’t do that.

In some ways cosplay can be a very difficult social phenomenon. We are nerds and as nerds we are inherently shy and we were never the pretty prom queens—at least I wasn’t. So it is weird to discover this world and all of a sudden be able to be yourself and feel beautiful and sexy and confident. With that come all these people who don’t know how to socially interact with each other because they didn’t have those experiences in high school. I think there is a lot of cattiness and negativity in cosplay but I don’t lament it, I don’t focus on it and I try to keep very positive in my outlook because there is no reason to dwell on negativity. If you want to get into cosplay more and go to more conventions, sooner or later you are going to encounter criticism and you’re going to have to be able to process it and that’s what I have done over the years. I have dinosaur skin now, really, nothing bothers me anymore.

Yaya cosplays Wonder Woman/Photo by Benny Lee

Do you think these issues specifically surround women in Cosplay?
I do think in general women will always have that difficulty that men will never have. They will never understand what it’s like to every single day at some point feel uncomfortable because you’re walking down the street alone and worry about a guy coming towards you. Men just don’t go through life worrying about these things.

When you are doing cosplay you’re putting yourself out there in every way and it is you being a woman dressed up as an idol, something that men have worshiped or have had a childhood crush on…this is why sometimes people cross the lines, because if you don’t fit their version of the characters because you’re not the right skin color or don’t fit the right body type, they will sometimes blast you, they will take it personal and say “You don’t look like Wonder Woman, why are you cosplaying her?” But cosplay is not for others—it’s for yourself. You don’t dress like Wonder Woman so other people can say, “You’re the perfect Wonder Woman.“ You’re dressed like Wonder Woman so you can feel like Wonder Woman that day.

Do you have any favorite characters?
I have more than one for sure. For a long time it was Daenerys from Game of Thrones, you know from the books, but her story is taking a weird turn now so I’m not sure anymore. I do love Catwoman. I like really strong dynamic characters with a lot of layers, not just heroes. I like Catwoman because she has lots of different ambiguities. But then I also like villainous characters, I like to dress up as super mean crazy villains because you can really go crazy in the photos and the make up and you know really “act out” [laughs].

Yaya Cosplays Daenerys Targaryen/Photos by Anna Fischer via Flickr

What do you think Catwoman would have for lunch on a Sunday afternoon?
On a Sunday afternoon…she would have sushi [laughs] a big nice assortment of sashimi and sushi and she would probably drink a nice glass of white wine with it.

Do you have a male super hero crush?
Yes and no. You become so involved with characters over the years you don’t know who you love anymore. My favorite video game character is Nathan Drake from the Uncharted Series. He’s pretty much the perfect man.

If you could have any super power what would it be?
I actually have a comic book series myself with Lion Forge and we specifically worked together for a long time to determine my hero super power. The Yaya comic book superpower is control of electricity, which means I can charge my phone just by touching it and I can turn on the TV just by looking at it, but I can also control humans because there’s electric current going through human bodies. So it’s a scary and powerful skill to have.

Photo by Anna Fischer

You have a line of accessories, a comic book and most recently a branding deal with Jo-Ann Fabrics. Did you ever think Cosplay would take you this far?
Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine I would be cosplaying for a living. It was completely impossible back when I found cosplay in 1999. In early 2000’s we would joke about it: we were the freaks, the fetishy-crazy-freak fans. Everyone would say, “You don’t want to be like those people, at least we’re not extremist dressing up like characters.” You just kind of huddled in your little cosplay community and no one else understood you. There was no possibility to ever make a living with it. It was never going to be an industry.

It’s unbelievable how it has developed. I think a lot of it has to do with social media and the success of comic book movies becoming absolutely phenomenal blockbusters. The world made being a nerd cool and all of a sudden cosplay became cool. Now there’s such a vibrant industry and it is amazing to see conglomerates like McCall Pattern and Jo-Ann Fabrics being interested in cosplay. They have had this market for so many years. So many cosplayers have loyally used their products and fabrics but they never knew this was their market, so to have them hone in on it is such a testament to how far cosplay has come. I’m just grateful to still be able to do it, to be active in this community after all these years and to continue to go along with it and point it in a positive direction.

Photo by Vincent Tam

What do you think is the biggest myth around cosplay?
I think one of the big myths surrounding sexy costumes and female cosplayers is that this is just a way to gain attention and that it is kind of pandering. I’m not going to say that’s not a part of it and everyone cosplays different and I’m sure that element is in the cosplay world but cosplay is an art form, a dedicated passionate unique art form and it requires so much focus and dedication. I really wish people would understand that aspect more.

When people look at a very well-made costume or a really beautiful picture they think that it was professionally done that there’s a whole team of people that worked on it but some of the things that cosplayers create are movie quality and people don’t understand it’s all done by amateurs. We were not trained for this, we didn’t go to school for this. There’s so many different skills you have to accumulate when you cosplay. It is incredibly fulfilling. It goes beyond sewing. It’s about modeling, photography, doing your own make-up and styling—so many different skills! I encourage parents to let their young kids do it, couples to do it, just go for it!

Diana Vergara is a web producer for Follow her @dilovesyou_.