Although dressing up in costume for fan conventions has been around for more than 70 years, the general public doesn’t really understand the fan-favorite practice. “Cosplay Melee” aims to change that.
Syfy’s reality competition show, premiering Tuesday, March 21, aims to demystify cosplay, a portmanteau word comprised of “costume” and “play.” Sort of a “Project Runway” for geeks, the series shows the competitors in action, creating their costumes from scratch within a specified time limit.
“It’s an art form for nerds, and I say that with all the love that I can muster because I’m a nerd,” the show’s host and self-described fangirl Yvette Nicole Brown told IndieWire. “Nerds, they’re just people who are really, really into stuff. So you could be a nerd about jigsaw puzzles, you could be a nerd about ‘Star Trek,’ you could be a nerd about gardening. Cosplay is a particular art form for those that really, really love characters and creating. It’s everything: It’s sewing, it’s painting, it’s creature work, it’s weaponry, it’s like the entire gamut of creativity for those that really love genre. I see ‘Cosplay Melee’ as a love letter to cosplayers, and a love letter to those that love cosplayers.”
Brown helped IndieWire break down the elements of the competition below:
The Cosplayers: Each episode, four people from all walks of life enter the “Cosplay Melee” workroom to compete. They may have an ordinary day job, but they have an extra drive to create. “You can’t do cosplay without passion,” said Brown. “As far as winning this competition, if you don’t have the heart to build from the ground up and make a new creation, this isn’t the show for you. They technically are considered amateurs…I think that a few of them have won contests and should win contests, but I have to say, from what I saw them creating under that time crunch, I didn’t see an amateur in the bunch.”
The Challenge: Each episode revolves around a theme that dictates what kind of costume the contestants must construct from head to toe. In the premiere, competitors Alicia, Fred, Grace and Xavier are tasked with creating characters for themselves that would fit into their favorite space opera universe. Almost everyone has some familiarity with “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and other space operas, and for good reason. “There’s not a lot to it. There’s spaceships, there’s heroes and villains,” said Brown. “I’m not trying to minimize it, but it’s an easy entry point for anyone to get into. [Later,] we’re going to see an anime challenge, we’re going to see a ‘Game of Thrones’ challenge, we’re going to see a superhero challenge and the video game world.”
Round 1: Accessory: For their first task, the contestants must create an accessory specific to the challenge — such as a headdress or a weapon — within eight hours. Based on that one piece alone, one competitor will be cut. It’s a tricky task since they have only just learned the challenge and entered the workroom for the first time. “Art is subjective, and the first round is really one accessory,” said Brown. “So what if I send someone home because their headdress wasn’t equal to someone else’s headdress but the thing that they really kill in is body armor? There have been a couple of moments where I’ve second-guessed myself.”
Round 2: Full Costume Build: The remaining three contestants then only have two days to create the rest of their costume. While time and stress are limiting factors, at least the materials aren’t. “The goal of the show was to provide in the workroom a dream space for cosplayers,” said Brown. “So anything they wish they had had when they were at home, we tried to put it there. They have saws and metal and every type of wig and every type of fabric and distressing and they have fur … It’s literally a magic place for them. There are people who created costumes using pages out of a book. There are people that made rivets out of thumb tacks. I’m telling you, these people are creative at a level that I personally can only dream of. What they can imagine and create blows my mind.”
Makeup: This isn’t Syfy’s other reality competition show “Face Off,” so that means the contestants aren’t judged on makeup effects. “I do believe that they can get assistance with makeup because they are creating a character,” said Brown. “We [judges] were always advised that the makeup could enhance what we’re seeing, but we were judging the actual costume they made. So I don’t know to this day who got assistance with makeup.”
The Judges: Although Brown’s main function on the show is the host, she also sits at the judges’ table with two experts: veteran costuming, special and makeup effects artist Christian Beckman (“The Hunger Games,” “TRON: Legacy”) and world-class cosplay model LeeAnna Vamp. Brown explained how their expertise helped her and the contestants understand how to create better costuming. “Christian is very soft spoken. He thinks very carefully before he speaks,” she said. “His role is not to be the cheerleader. His role is to really give them something they can use to take their cosplay creation to the next level. So what I learned from him is the names of things. LeeAnna can become all of these different characters. Her goal is to make sure that all the contestants know that they have to sell. Whatever character that you created, when you walk through that door, you need to come out and be that person. There’s no more playtime; you have to become.”
The Performance: Cosplay isn’t just about creating an external change but an inner psychological one as well. It’s transformational. “I’ve watched them literally become another person. I’m not a trained actor, but I’ve always heard from people who are trained that the goal is to be the person, not to pretend to be the person,” said Brown. “Cosplayers can lean into that. It’s almost like the characters they create become an alter ego. And for some of them, they’re supremely talented but shy — the idea of cosplay opens up a lane for them to kind of toss away the shy part of them because when they put on their armor or those wings or that headdress or carry that shield, they’re becoming this other thing. They have to give themselves permission to be fierce and fabulous and in your face.”
The Champ: While winning “Cosplay Melee” means a $10,000 prize and possibly segueing this passion into a career, it can represent something far more profound than that. When the final results are revealed in the premiere, it’s quite an emotional experience. “Sometimes in life, you really need a win,” said Brown. “It may not be technically a win on a game show, but you need something in your life to line up to let you know that you’re on the right path or that you made the right decision or you’re not just a weirdo. Because we all have those moments… [when] we feel like we’re not in step with what we should be doing or what the norm is. Sometimes in those moments you need something to check in the yes column to make you realize you’re in the right, you’re in this world after all. I feel like that for that contestant, that win was that moment. I was on the ride with them and I did get emotional. I don’t know if my little misty eyes made it into the final cut, but I really felt where that person was coming from, 100 percent.”
“Cosplay Melee” premieres Tuesday, March 21 at 10 p.m. on Syfy. Watch an extended trailer for the competition show below: