I met Cat Smith through the school I work for and a short time later there she was cosplaying at New York Comic Con. Here Cat, a veteran cosplayer stretching back to her Rocky Horror Picture Show Days, reveals what it’s like to cosplay as a woman no longer in her 20s, which characters inspire her and who she hopes to dress as in the future. She also takes an honest look at some of the uglier attitudes that infect the world of cosplay. But, her journey is a positive one, a journey that reveals a person with a creative and passionate heart who dons a costume to make children smile and make the world a little brighter. Read on and don’t skip to the end. Spoilers, sweetie.
Den of Geek (DoG)Before the questions, can you just list the characters you cosplayed as and what year it all began?
Cat Smith (CS): Magenta (1990ish), Gabrielle (Xena), Princess Leia, Sally (Nightmare Before Xmas), Rose (Titanic), Jessica Rabbit, Mrs. Lovett (Sweeney Todd), The Red Queen (Alice in Wonderland), Patsy Stone (AbFab), Mme Thernardier (Les Miz), River Song, Idris, Rose Tyler (Doctor Who).
DoG: Can you describe how you got into cosplay?
CS: I’m never sure if I should count Rocky Horror as cosplay, since it’s kind of its own thing. But that’s where the whole dressing up thing started, though I did have a Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform. If we don’t count Rocky, the credit has to go to Xena. As I would tell people, you spend enough time watching people in pretty clothes and saying “I want that,” eventually you figure out how to make it yourself (or hunt down someone to make it for you).
DoG; What about River Song makes her your go to?
CS: River is kind of a gift from the universe to me. Not only is she one of my favorite characters ever written, but Alex Kingston and I have enough in common physically (hair, not being either 25 or skinny) that most things they put her in are going to look good on me.
DoG: How are people’s response to what you do? From fellow Geeks? From “norms?”
CS: Usually very good. If I’m at a civilian event (like the time I suited up as the Red Queen and went to see the stupid Burton Alice movie, I wandered round the mall in character and made a big fuss in the Disney store about how they have a whole princess section, but no queen section), I mostly pay attention to the kids, who always think you are the real thing and get a huge kick out of you. Last year at Sakura Matsuri, I got chased down by some kid screaming “River!” and then he said it was his 21st birthday and would I please hug him. There’s always going to be some twit who comes up and says “what are you supposed to be?” or people who think you’re a weirdo. But most of the time, I feel nothing but appreciated and occasionally resented, like the time at NYCC that a girl wearing the same costume as me bounced up, said hi, and then said “DAMN, you look better than me.” I gave her a big hug.
DoG: How much work goes into the costumes?
CS: It depends on the costume. Most of River’s clothes are just clothes, so you can buy them off the rack, or buy something similar and modify it. Back in my Xena days, obviously there was no such thing as “off the rack,” so everything had to be handmade. The most insane costume I ever made was one of Gabrielle’s (from an episode called “Devi”), it involved a huge amount of beading and I worked on it about 11 hours a day, every day for 3 weeks. On the flip side, closet cosplay is a wonderful thing; where you just go into your own closet and jury-rig yourself something. Sometimes the results are just as good as with the costumes you spend a month on.
DoG: What do you hope River wears in the future so you can cosplay it?
CS: Oh gosh. On the one hand, making stuff is fun. On the other hand, so is shopping at AllSaints. I had a lot of fun making/assembling her outfit from “The Angels Take Manhattan” and it is very flattering, so I wouldn’t complain if they put her in more things like that.
DoG: Any characters you have a desire to dress as?
CS: Lately I have been contemplating non-River characters to cosplay and I have a short but fun list; Maleficent from Once Upon A Time and Lamia from Stardust will probably be the first I tackle. I have a personal rule about only cosplaying within my own age range (personal choice, I would never tell anyone else how to cosplay), so the older I get, the more challenging it gets to find fun people. But they’re out there.
DoG: Relate any memorable experiences you had at a convention, positive and negative.
CS: I’ve had so many positive experiences dressing up, it’s why I continue with this hobby. But it all came close to getting cut off right at the start, at my very first Xena con. I had a homemade costume, wrong hair, no wig, didn’t know anyone. I walked in the door and the first person I laid eyes on was a fellow Gabrielle, in the same costume I was wearing. I immediately went up to her, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and excited to bond with someone about how wonderful a character Gabrielle was and how we made our costumes. I said, “Hi! You look fabulous!” She didn’t smile. In fact, her face was stony and hostile as her eyes slowly raked me up and down and she finally replied with a very grudging and VERY obviously insincere “you look fabulous too.” I fled to another corner of the con, licked my wounds a bit and talked myself out of going right home. I’m glad I didn’t let that one girl scare me (I later found out that she had a bit of a reputation as a crankypants and then she and I eventually became friends), because later that day I was approached by a representative of Xena Night At Meow Mix, and I became their resident Gabrielle and sometimes co-host and they only ever made me feel super loved.
DoG: For those not in the know, can you describe the cosplay community you are part of, if any?
CS: See my previous anecdote, but don’t let that stop you. Yes, in a perfect world, the cosplay community would only be about connection and bonding and appreciation of each other’s creativity. And it certainly is that. People help each other find links to costume pieces, offer advice and guidance, tutorials on wig-dressing, etc. It’s wonderful. But I would be lying if I didn’t say there was plenty of competitiveness and hostility right along with it. I try to head any of that off by always being actively friendly, I’ll run up to another River, hug her and call her my sister before she has a chance to be unfriendly and the response is usually positive. I’ve been cosplaying since before we had the internet and before “cosplay” was a term, so it’s usually not hard for me to dismiss a less than friendly person and walk away. Unfortunately, I’ve seen friends treated very badly by fellow cosplayers and for stupid reasons: “you’re too fat to be that character! Your clothes aren’t screen accurate!” Or just hissed at for looking good. It’s awful, but again, it shouldn’t be a deterrent. Most of us are very nice, I promise.
DoG; Money or time (because it wouldn’t be for River) not being an obstacle, what would be your dream costume?
CS: Um. With me, what stops me from doing a costume that I’m crushing isn’t so much money or time, it’s physical limitations. Again, while my personal rules don’t and shouldn’t apply to any cosplayer but myself, I wouldn’t cosplay anyone worlds away from my own physicality. For example, I would love to cosplay Morticia Addams, but I would look ridiculous. Completely wrong body type. And I would LOVE to be Cordelia Chase (from Angel, specifically), but I look NOTHING like her, not a single feature in common and these days I’m a little long in the tooth to dress as a 20something. Oh wait, I’ve got one; Sarah Douglas’s costumes from Conan the Destroyer. Those were fierce and I would have no idea how to begin to build any of them.
DoG: What will the 80 year old Cat cosplay as?
CS: Well, we’ll see what 89 year old Alex Kingston is wearing then, won’t we? And there’s the old hag version of Lamia from Stardust and though I’m not a huge Once Upon A Time fan, no one can say Barbara Hershey’s costumes weren’t fabulous!