“It’s really good when you make something yourself and then you get recognised for it as well,” said Debra Phillips (Superdebz Cosplay) on the reactions she receives after finishing a costume she’s been working on. “It justifies it and makes me happy that [I’m not] wasting all my money for nothing. I’m actually getting a skill out of it.”
From Manchester, Debra attended the first MCM Manchester event in 2011 after her sister showed her photos from an MCM London convention. She started cosplaying the following year, only to take it more seriously in 2013, when she began learning to sew. She has since cosplayed Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (including an armour clad Zelda from Hyrule Warriors) and Lana from Hyrule Warriors.
During our interview we talked about her most challenging cosplay, support from social media, getting motivation and fangirling over other people’s cosplay.
How did you end up getting into cosplay?
My sister went to one of the London events when she was at university with her anime society. Then she came back and showed me all the pictures. She was like, “Oh we did this and this and it was really fun.” So I was like, “Well, I want to do this!” So then we went to the first MCM Manchester event, which was five years ago and it was just a lot of good fun. I didn’t really do anything else for about two and a half years.
It was 2013 that I started getting more into it. I just started learning to sew as well. I ended up ordering a dress off eBay; it was for MCM Birmingham three years ago. It was an Ariel one… and it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t the same as the eBay picture was. So then [I thought], “You know what, I’m just going to start learning to sew.” So now I can do it all myself and I don’t get ripped off by [dishonest sellers]!
A little over two years ago, you said you see yourself as a “massive noob” in regards to cosplay. How do you see yourself now when you look back at what you’ve managed to accomplish and where you are now?
Back then I didn’t really know what I was doing at all and now I have somewhat of an idea what I’m doing (laughs). I can actually do stuff that most of the time doesn’t look completely terrible. I hadn’t been involved in the [cosplay] community at all back then, which I’m quite involved in now. I’ve got a lot of friends who do the same thing. So everyone kind of knows everyone at this point, whereas back then I didn’t have a clue who anyone was. I didn’t have a clue how to do anything. I was just kind of winging it.
You’ve been cosplaying for nearly four years. Your first cosplay was Tinkerbell…
It wasn’t the first one I wore to a convention, but it was the first one that I made. It’s dreadful compared to how I can do stuff now.
Where does that passion come from to carry on and continue progressing?
My parents never let me have any of the Disney dresses as a child, so I guess they’re partly to blame. They have to deal with me now. But I guess a lot of it is escapism and it gives me something to do when I’m making it. Then you get to show off what you’ve made and you get a lot of attention and praise for it. It just makes you feel really nice and really good.
Is that something you’re thinking about when you’re making it, seeing people’s reactions?
Yeah, I guess so. I really like to fangirl over other people as well. I’ll just be like, “Oh my God, these are really good.” I’m really into craftsmanship now. So I’ll sit on the floor and look at people’s dresses.
Has there been a particular fangirl moment at a convention for you?
I don’t think there’s been a particular one, but like I said, I do enjoy sitting on the floor looking at people’s hems now. That’s quite enjoyable for me. I don’t think I’ve ever fangirled completely on someone, but I’m not very good talking with people face-to-face either. So if I don’t know who someone is I’d just be like, “Oh my God, look at that over there. That’s so pretty, but I’m not going to go over because I’m scared.”(laughs)
What’s been the most challenging cosplay you’ve created so far?
Different ones have different aspects. I try and push myself with each thing I do, try and improve on something.
So, one would be more challenging than the other, but for a different reason?
Yeah. I’ll try and do different techniques for different things, try and learn something new. I usually give myself loads of time as well, but maybe Lana from Hyrule Warriors gave me the biggest headache, because I was restricted on time. It was a really awkward costume to put together. There was just things I was trying to do with it that I’d not done before and working with different fabrics and Worbla. I’ve worked with Worbla before, but I don’t think I’m that great with it. There’s things in the design that don’t make a lot of sense, it was really difficult finding reference images for a lot of the detail, so I had to wing a lot of the patterns on the skirt. So it’s trying to get it to look good and trying to work with the resources I’ve already got instead of buying new stuff.
Is Lana one you’d want to rework in the future?
I’ve already started doing some bits for it now. I’ve redone the top part for that, which is good, I’m quite happy with that now. I don’t think I’ve ever been 100% happy with something. The first time I make something I usually go back and change something if I wear it again. If you’ve taught yourself to sew, every step you do is a learning process until you’re at a high enough skill level where it’s not. It’s good to go back and redo something as well, because it means you can look back on what you’ve done previously and realise, “Oh I’ve improved a lot since then.”
A lot of cosplayers use social media to show off their progress and work, but there have been a few instances where you’ve asked for feedback, constructive criticism and help from fellow cosplayers and prop makers. How helpful has that been for you?
It’s very helpful. I’ve spent a lot of time stalking other people’s profiles, because they’ve made something that I’m trying to do, or something similar, and they’ve used a technique which I haven’t done, or even thought about. A majority of the time people are very happy to tell you and very happy to help you, which is great.
I try and be as helpful as I can if anyone asks me anything. It’s not very nice to be turned down if you’re stuck with something. I always try and be really helpful and I always appreciate it when people are incredibly helpful as well.
Would you say that you’ve had to rearrange certain things in your life around cosplaying?
(Pauses) I don’t leave my house a lot anymore, because a lot of my days off I’m sewing, sat on my kitchen floor with Worbla.
Would you say there was a certain turning point where that happened?
Probably about two years ago now, where I seriously considered that I know what I’m doing now. I’m quite happy to spend all day sewing and then just crashing out because I’m so tired (laughs).
Is there a favourite cosplay that you’ve created?
My pink Ariel one, my newest one, that’s probably my favourite at this point. I don’t know whether it will be my favourite at the end of the year, but at this point it’s definitely my favourite. I’m just obsessed with Ariel. I finished it in time for MCM London [in May 2015]. Then I redid some parts for it for MCM Birmingham in November  and I won the masquerade on the Sunday with it.
What is it about Ariel and her costume that stands out for you?
I’ve always been attached to Ariel. It’s really cheesy, but I guess it’s because she has a dream, it happened and it was all really nice and lovely. I’ve just been obsessed with Ariel since I was pretty young and now I have a way to actually express it.
The dress was just one that I happened to want. It was one of the first ones that I actually made a few years ago, but it was when I was still learning, so wasn’t up to my standards anymore. I remade it and I was much happier with it. It’s not screen accurate, I did it off one of Lele Draw’s Queen Ariel designs. It’s true to the character, but it’s like your own spin on it. I like putting my own different spin on things. No one else really has it, so it’s nice to have something that’s more individual to you. I don’t want it to sound like it’s better than anyone else’s, because it’s not, but I like having something that’s more unique, [and being] the only one who has it like that.
How does it feel for you taking part in masquerades, placing and winning?
Really good. I really like getting recognition as well, because… I’ve got a lot of joint pain and the amount of work and effort I put into just working all day, that makes it justifiable. Like, “Oh I’ve worked nine hours,” which is probably something I shouldn’t have done, but I’ve done it and I’m in loads of pain, but it’ll be worth it. If you place, it’ll make you feel a lot more justified in what you’re doing.
You’ve mentioned moments where you tend to procrastinate. What do you do to motivate yourself?
I literally just force myself to do it. I’m usually quite good at keeping on track. It’s like, I’ll [work on something] for like an hour, then I’ll have a break for 20 minutes as opposed to working all the way through. Or instead of doing a part I don’t want to do, I’ll do another part. But if there’s something I don’t want to do, I just force myself to do it. It’s, “Do this and then you can eat this biscuit later. You can sit and play video games for the rest of the night, so long as you do this. It’s not going to get done itself, so you need to do it now.” I manage that way. It just works for me.
When you’re posting progress about your cosplays, you tend to mention being poor and having to budget. Do you plan and budget before making a cosplay, or do you just spend till you’re happy with it?
I try and save money. I’m trying to save money for the one I’m going to be starting in a few weeks. But I’m not working a lot. I work in retail and they keep dropping the hours. I just try and save as much money as I can. If I know that I’m not going to be able to afford a big costume, I’ll do something smaller.
Last year I had lots of Coscraft vouchers, so I did one [Princess Zelda from Hyrule Warriors] that required lots of Worbla, because I didn’t have to pay for that myself; so that was convenient. Also I try and find cheaper alternatives to things. Like, a lot of my fabric I get online, just because it’s cheaper and I’ll try and find discount days or discount codes to try and get stuff as cheap as I can
What is the most you’ve spent on making a costume?
Probably about £200, for my Ariel with the pink dress, everything included. (Pauses) I don’t know, it’s probably about £170-ish. It was about that amount after all the fabric. It’s such a good costume and it just kind of happened. Then it was like, “Okay, I need all this extra fabric as well, because I need to do this, I need to add this to it.” My fabric was £7 a metre and I have to get ten meters of that… it just adds up a lot. Then you end up getting little bits for it. Like, “Oh, this little bit is only £10, so that’s fine, I’ll get that.” That just keeps happening.
How does it feel for you when you’re at a convention and people ask to take a photo and want to talk to you about your costume?
Honestly, I’m always taken aback by it when people are like, “Oh, I love your costume, it’s so good!” But I have a lot of issues with my anxiety, so I guess I’m always going to be taken aback a little bit. I’m getting recognition out of it and it’s making people happy, it’s making me happy.
Would you say that cosplaying has helped you with your anxiety?
I guess it’s helped with some aspects. I never have that many issues when I’m at a convention as opposed to out with the normal people in civilised society. I guess it helps. It helps with a lot of things. It means that I socialise with people, I talk to people that I usually wouldn’t talk to… that I wouldn’t even dare talk to. And it gets me out of the house a lot, which is really good.
You’ve mentioned a few times wanting to cosplay one of Anastasia’s dresses from Don Bluth’s animated film, as well as a walkable mermaid Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Are you still interested in cosplaying these characters?
I don’t think a walkable mermaid Ariel will ever happen. It’s something that I want to make, just for the sake of making it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wear it. I don’t think I’ll be comfortable enough wearing it. A lot of people do it where her skirt is opened up at the bottom and you can walk around, but I’m one of those people who would want to make it as an actual tail and you wouldn’t be able to walk, so it’s not very practical.
I’d love to do one of Anastasia’s dresses at some point, it’s just trying to find one that I’m attached to and really would do… and just getting it done. I’ve got a list and I keep seeing things and I’m just like, “I want to add that to the list.” The list keeps getting longer and it’s just more harder to narrow everything down to what I can do within my skills and what I can afford to do.
If money was no object, which cosplay would be there on the top of your list to do?
(Pauses) There’s a few that I’d probably want to remake completely. I’d want to remake my Hyrule Warriors Zelda one, which I’ve [already] remade bits for, but it’s still not up to [the standard] I want it to be. I would want to do more Disney dresses… oh God, I know what I want! There’s an Ariel dress in one of the parades in Disneyland… one that’s not running anymore, the ‘Celebrate a Dream Come True’ parade. It’s blue and it looks like a sail and I want it, but it’s very expensive. I’ve seen a couple of people do it and it looks absolutely stunning. I really want to do it, but it’s not going to happen this year, unless I roll into a lot of money. It’s unlikely, but it’s on my list. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get it done… maybe.
Finally, what’s your favourite Disney film?
The Little Mermaid. I’m far too obsessed with Ariel. I have too many figures and too many pairs of Little Mermaid pyjamas (laughs).
Thank you to Debra for taking the time out for the interview. You can see her describe herself as adorable by following her progress on the Facebook page Superdebz Cosplay.
Thank you also to Papercube for arrangement and photos. You can check out his work on his Facebook page.
Photos of Debra cosplaying as Ariel by Robert John Parker.
Interview by Shalimar Sahota