NAHCOTTA — On an average day, Steffi Thomas can be found working as a residential advisor for Job Corps in blue jeans and with her long black hair falling to her waist. But in the growing world of anime, she’s a champion.
On Sept. 7, Thomas, 26, stood in front of 6,000 people as the intermediate Cosplay winner for the 2015 Kumoricon Convention, which judges how well candidates embody a selected character.
Her hair was pinned under a short gray wig with bangs that wrapped around her face. She stood tall in wooden Japanese sandals and her body was covered in layers of red, yellow and gray fabric — a look that took 275 hours to make.
“Convention is for nerds of any variety to be whoever they want,” Thomas,said. “We don’t know each other, but we know we have a common love that’s not always understood in our hometowns.”
Expanding anime culture
Anime, the Japanese word for animation, jumps into fantasy worlds that blend Japanese folklore and popular culture. This world of make believe has drawn in fans worldwide. When Kumoricon began in 2003, only 419 people showed. By the time Thomas joined in 2005, roughly 1,600 people attended.
In recent years, the annual event has hosted more than 6,000 people. It’s expected to move from hotels in Vancouver to the Oregon Convention Center to fit the crowds.
Kumoricon won’t own the anime stage in the Northwest. Two new conventions began this year in Eugene, Ore., and one in Portland.
Convention Chair Phillip Koop said conventions are growing because mainstream society has “gone comic.”
“Geeks were viewed as basement dwellers who collected comic books and had questionable character,” he said. “But today, everyone has seen ‘Spider Man’ and loves the idea of a Lois Lane.”
Today, the geek could be the person in the cubicle next to you who grew up watching Cartoon Network, he said.
While nerd culture is more acceptable, Koop said it wouldn’t be OK to hop on a bus dressed in cosplay anytime soon.
Finding friends among costumes
Thomas’ best friends are screen names coming from places like Oregon, Japan and Sweden. Conventions are the main place she can gather with people who love the world she picked.
“We’ve all been bullied in some way — for me it was just being ignored,” she said. “But at Kumoricon, being into anime is the normal thing.”
Her close friend, Ian Jefferson, said in the five years they’ve known each other, he’s seen Thomas out of costume once.
“It’s hard to imagine her in normal clothes,” Jefferson, 30, said. “I see her as whatever character she needs to be in that moment.”
Thomas snacked on yogurt, candy corn and hot cocoa as she talked about the character she chose, Kanata — one of the main characters of Trinity Universe who was the Demon God King until he rejected his father’s evil ways.
“I liked him ’cause he’s a goofball,” she said. “The first chat I ever saw about him said he loved pizza and naps — that’s lovable.”
The character allowed her to tap into her outgoing side, something she said most people never get to see.
Amanda Brian, 26, had only been to one convention when she met Thomas.
“Conventions drew me in because they are a culture of storytelling, art, and education,” Brian said.
Hundreds of attendees hold panels ranging from character Q&A’s to public-speaking lessons.
Brian thought Thomas was timid, until she attended her Shakespearean Voice and Acting panel. “She owned it,” Brian said. “It’s the like-mindedness of this place. Whatever it is you want to call yourself, you’re accepted.”
When the judges called Thomas’ name as the winner and the room began to clap, Thomas didn’t move. Brian had to pull her on stage to accept the award.
“She was recognized for her amazing work in a room of thousands — it shocked her,” Brian said. “It feels like we are coming into the generation of nerds. They aren’t wearing name tags saying ‘Hi, I’m nerd 645,’ but they are everywhere.”