STGCC 2015: Stella Chuu Interview

By Jedd Jong

Cosplayer and burlesque performer Stella Chuu, something of a celebrity in the American cosplay circuit, is in Singapore for the first time as a special guest of the 2015 Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention. She has captured the imagination and attention of geeks everywhere with her portrayals of characters including Psylocke, Irma from Queen’s Blade, Ivy Valentine from Soul Calibur and Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Stella is active in the “nerdlesque” scene, integrating geeky elements into her performances. Her Tron burlesque routine, in which she portrays Quorra, is particularly well-known. She’s even done a performance as Firefly’s Jayne Cobb. “I’ll be in my bunk,” indeed.

Over STGCC weekend, fans geek out over getting to meet Stella in person and there are selfies aplenty. On Preview Day and Day 2, Stella dons the cape and bracelets as Tharja from The Fire Emblem, and on Day 1 she wields the giant shuriken as Yuffie from the Final Fantasy series. 

At the convention, Stella speaks to other journalists and I about the craft of cosplaying and how she deals with the various responses she has gotten. Read on to hear her thoughts on the portrayal of Asian women in western popular culture, how cosplay has helped her self confidence and the nitty-gritties that go into learning a burlesque routine. It’s apparently really easy to look goofy instead of sexy while removing a bra.

You recently cosplayed as Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, who is a good example of a well-developed lead female character in contemporary movies. Who are some of your favourite female characters in film and television?

Furiosa from Mad Max[Fury Road], definitely. She’s a really great role model as a woman who can really lead a movie with her character. Who else? Mako Mori’s really great, I feel like she kind of started a trend, which is really nice. There are always a lot of problems in American films where the studios think that it’s more important to cater to male audiences but they don’t realise that there’s also a huge female and unisex market. For us in America, we’re definitely in an age where we’re fighting for feminist ideas.
You work is a cross between cosplay and burlesque, do you view it as performance art?

Yeah, I find it really empowering for me to be able to perform burlesque and it’s really great that I’m able to do cosplay with it too because back in the day, burlesque was very different. It was very classic and beautiful and elegant. Now, it can be anything. It can be artistic, it can be strange, it can be funny and it still can be sexy. I perform burlesque because it makes me feel empowered. It’s also an outlet for the artistic side that I can’t express through cosplay.
How would you compare STGCC to the cons you’ve been to in the West?

The convention itself is very similar, the way it operates, but I would say that cosplay is very different here. There’s more of an emphasis on pretty makeup, which is nice. I’ve actually learned a few things while I was here, just looking at other cosplayers. Cosplay photography is very different as well, it’s very cinematic. They definitely take their time to ensure the shots are really beautiful, whereas the difficulty of cosplaying in America is that America is so big that the only time that photographers get any time to shoot cosplayers is at conventions and cosplay photographers have learned to shoot really, really fast. Like 10 minute photoshoots. The photos are really beautiful but they don’t tell a story, it’s not cinematic, there are many limitations to it. It’s unfortunate. I would love to see more planned photoshoots in America. I would love to see more in-depth collaborations between cosplayers and photographers.

Do you feel that the representation of Asians, particularly Asian women, in American popular culture has improved?

Oh, definitely! I mean, back in the 90s, we were the girls who were the waitresses and the sex symbol of the bad guy, like the sidekick, doing kung fu.
The “Dragon Lady” archetype.

Yeah, the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. I mean, it’s not a bad stereotype because it’s sexy, it’s not gross or anything like that, but it is not as empowering as it could be. There are TV shows coming out like Fresh Off the Boat, which is great, it is so perfect. It shows the other side of Asian culture. And movies like Pacific Rim, showing Mako Mori being a powerful woman who’s just fighting for her place. That’s what I feel like we’re doing in America, we’re fighting for our place, fighting for people to understand that we’re more than just this cute Chinese or cute Japanese girl. We’re not submissive, we’re actually very outspoken, we’re very independent and we have a lot of ideas.
Would you say you’re using cosplay as a platform to communicate these ideas?

I don’t have an agenda, I’m not trying to communicate an agenda. I guess it’s a by-product of what I do. I tend to be attracted to characters who are powerful. I don’t like to cosplay characters who are weak because I don’t identify with them. I like to cosplay characters who have strong personalities. The character I’m cosplaying now, Tharja, she is crazy! All she talks about is killing people and summoning demons and being evil, so I find that really entertaining. I don’t want to cosplay a girl who’s weak-minded because I don’t want to have those feelings in me while I’m cosplaying – but I don’t choose characters specifically to show others that I’m powerful. I just choose characters that I feel comfortable with.
How important a role do you feel self-expression plays in building self-confidence?

I think that in all of these years that I’ve been cosplaying, my confidence has sky-rocketed. It was because of cosplay, burlesque and also putting myself out there and meeting people. I still kind of am really shy, I’m a mixture of introvert and extrovert, I guess. When I’m not cosplaying, when I’m not at a convention, I’m actually really quiet, I don’t like talking to people. I think another reason is maybe they’re not geeks so I have nothing to relate to them; I don’t like to have conversations with people who don’t understand where I’m coming from. I’ve noticed, especially recently, that I feel much more comfortable going up to random people at conventions and striking up conversations, especially if I’m not cosplaying and they don’t know who I am. I like talking to people as a normal anything. It’s a nice feeling, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that four to five years ago. I want more people to see the power of cosplay, what it can do for you in developing who you are and who you want to be.
You have a lot on your plate, how do you juggle it all?

It’s really hard, I work 40 hours a week. It takes me one hour to get to work a day, so another one or two hours after that, then when I come home I work on cosplay for about six hours. Give or take a few hours, when it’s off season and I don’t have any conventions coming up, I work on cosplay for maybe two hours a night before I sleep, but if it’s a really busy week, like the week before a convention, I can work on cosplay for anyone from six to nine hours or more. If I’m not working on cosplay, then I trying to hang out with my friends. Each time I get to see them I like schedule it out, I write it down on the calendar. I schedule out my lunch meetings with my friends like three weeks in advance [laughs].
How do you deal with any negativity you might encounter in the community?

There is a lot of negative attention that cosplayers get. I’m a much more risqué cosplayer, I’m so comfortable with my body. I don’t care if there’s nude pictures of me or derpy pictures of me or bad pictures of me, I don’t care, it’s fine. Because of those pictures, people will try to use it against me or something, and I’m like “you have no power here!” And then there’s people who are just saying stupid things all the time, so I like to troll them and just come back at them with really dumb comments. I feel like perpetuating anger and hate on the internet doesn’t help. If you’re mean to somebody else because they’re mean to you, you’re just going to continue being mean.
It’s a vicious cycle.

Yeah, it’s a vicious cycle, it doesn’t help anything; it doesn’t make you feel good. What I like to do when I troll people is to kind turn it around and get them on my side somehow. The best example was recently, I had a photo [of me], someone else’s photo, and the person said “this is a time when PhotoShop just destroys the photo” and I said “’destroys’ as in ‘destroyed it!’” [throws up the horns sign] and he’s like “no, kind of ruining it” and I said “’kind of’ like ‘kind of like it?’” and I kept trolling him until finally he’s like “sort of?” and I said “sort of awesome?” and he was like “…yeah.” You can see the comments getting more and more confused until he finally accepted it. It was great; that’s what I like to do.
What is your process when it comes to devising a burlesque act?

I need a stroke of insight; it’s really hard for me to just sit down and brainstorm, I have to be like “Eureka! There’s an idea!” I don’t like burlesque-ing just to burlesque. One of the common problems with nerdy burlesque is performers will just come on stage in character, they’ll dress as the character and just striptease. There’s no storyline, it doesn’t make sense – why is this person stripteasing? I always make sure with my burlesque that I tell a story, that there’s something happening that the audience can understand the effect because if you’re just stripteasing without any context, then it’s not nerdlesque. Nerdlesque is about being the character and portraying the character.
How do you prepare for a performance?

First, there’s a lot of training, definitely. I take classes and stuff – in New York they have a place called The School of Burlesque where they teach classes, because not only are you dancing, but you’re learning certain techniques that are very complicated. You’d think it’s easy to take off your glove – it’s not, there’s a process to it. Learning how to dance with fans, learning how to take off your bra the correct way without looking stupid, taking off your corset on stage is really hard as well. One of the hardest things is being able to engage the audience, because you’re not just going on stage to take off your clothes, you’re like “hi, I am here, look at you [points], look at you [points]”, you’re staring at the audience, your eyes are meeting with them. Those are things that take a long time to learn. The first two years that you’re performing, you’re going to suck! You’re going to suck so bad! Over time, I’ve gotten better and better and what’s great about burlesque is that it lasts forever. You can start burlesque-ing when you’re 20 years and you can keep going until you’re 50, 55. I know plenty of people who are in their late 40s and are still performing, who have been performing for the last 20 years. Keep practising, I guess.
How have your family and your friends who are outside the geek circle reacted to your fame?

I just don’t tell them about it. If they don’t know it, I just don’t talk about it.
What are some of the most unconventional or unexpected materials you’ve employed in 
constructing a costume?

I was cosplaying Yuffie yesterday and I have a big shuriken. One of the things is there are rivets in it, but instead of actually putting rivets in, I put googly eyes then I spray painted them. They really have the perfect size and shape, so when you shake my shuriken, you can hear the googly eyes shaking!
Big props have become something of a cosplaying trend. Do you have any advice for cosplayers who are constructing and carrying around big props?

It’s tough because the problem with big props is that they’re fragile and they take up too much space, they’re really hard to transport. If you can avoid bringing them to a convention, you should just bring them to a photoshoot but not to a convention. I have very big cosplays with big feathers and big wings and I only bring them to photoshoots – what I do is I make smaller versions of those to bring to conventions. Make mini versions of your props, I guess – it depends on what’s important to you. If you want really good cosplay photos, then save your good props for cosplay photos. If you want your cosplay to be seen at a convention and you want people to look at your cool costume, you need to pick your battles.
How do you deal with people who might be a tiny bit creepy at cons?

I’ve gotten really good at it, to the point where I almost don’t worry about them anymore. We’re geeks, we’re all socially inept [laughs], we hide in our basements. I do get a lot of creepers but to be honest, the people who are the most inconsiderate and rude are the people outside the convention. When I’m walking from the hotel to the convention centre, there are dirty old men who’ll just be like “hey baby!” whereas at conventions, people are a little bit more respectful, it’s just that they don’t understand what’s the right thing to say. They’re not trying to be malicious, so I always see [it as] “okay, why are they saying this word? It’s because that that’s rude or something” They’re coming from this different place. I never try to be angry or yell at anyone, I always try to read between the lines and see where they’re coming from. I know how hard it is to be a geek.
That’s a very empathetic approach.

Yeah, if I stay angry, it’s not good for me.
Do you still meet people who don’t view cosplay as a viable art form, and if you do, what is your response to them?

I feel like I haven’t met them in real life, but definitely online, there are a lot of people who complain about cosplay having more attention than the artists who created the comic books and I don’t know what to say to them, because they might be fighting for something and I represent what they don’t like. I can’t change their minds, I’m just going to keep doing what I do, I’m not going to call them an idiot or anything like that. They’re entitled to their own opinion; I just hope that over time, they see more stuff that will change their opinions, but I’m not going to waste any time to argue with them.
What are your cosplans for the future?

My plans for the next convention, New York Comic-Con, I’m going to be doing a Gundam Girl and because I live in New York City, it’s easier. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to bring it to another convention. Also, I’m going to be cosplaying from Evolve, which is a game where you’re a bunch of people fighting the monster or you’re a monster where you’re trying to kill all the people, a really fantastic game. I haven’t picked out what I want from that yet. That’s it for this year, yeah.
How many costumes have you made this year?

This year specifically, I’m going to have in total 12 costumes that I’ve made. Last year, I think I had 15-20. There are fewer this year than last year because I wanted to concentrate on the craftsmanship to make sure that the costumes are whole and complete and well-made. Some of the problems I’ve had in the past is that my costumes fall apart really easily or pieces of it weren’t very well-made, so I just want to make sure that as I get better at crafting, my costumes get better because of it. 
Thanks for the excellent interview Stella!
Photos that aren’t my own are used for illustrative purposes only and belong to their respective owners. 

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