“I think, ‘Why have I done this to myself?’” explains Phoenix Spider on working on cosplays before a convention, “’Why am I in seven metres of fabric and I can’t find my way out?’ By the end I go, ‘Oh, that’s why I do it!’”
Having studied Theatrical Costume and Make-up at university, Phoenix Spider has said that she wanted to be a fashion designer… and a princess. Initially glamour modelling, a suggestion to go to MCM London Comic Con back in May 2015 led to her cosplaying as Black Cat (a costume she described as a cheap, but adjusted). While the cosplay fell apart, the convention turned out to be a positive experience, one which left her wanting to return, saying, “Next time, I’m going to be bigger and better.”
She has since attended subsequent conventions cosplaying Velma from Scooby-Doo, the Major from Ghost in the Shell, Ezra from Fairy Tail and Hela from Thor: Ragnarok. She has also cosplayed multiple variations of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.
In 2017, she publically posted about suffering from depression and anxiety. “It’s nice to know that other people feel the same way that you do,” said Phoenix Spider of the reaction. “You’ve potentially saved somebody by just making them feel like they’re not alone.”
Our interview was conducted on the Friday of MCM London Comic Con, with Phoenix Spider cosplaying as Bat Quinn. Over the weekend she also cosplayed Mary Jane Venom (teeth and tongue made by Hobby FX) and Latex Power Girl (latex cape made by Nookills Latex. Bodysuit made by Strawberry Panda Latex), photos of which are included here, shot by Papercube.
The interview lasted longer than expected, but Phoenix Spider appeared relaxed and was also supportive when discussing fellow cosplayers. We talked about some of the costumes she has made, the cosplay community, social media, and My Little Pony.
Who are you cosplaying at MCM London this weekend?
On Friday, I’m doing Bat Quinn, which is a mash-up of Batman and Harley Quinn, then I am changing later into the Greek Goddess Demeter for a Greek Goddess group who are dressing up together. Saturday I’m doing Mary Jane Venom. Sunday I’m doing Latex Power Girl.
I understand that you cosplaying Bat Quinn was initially a suggestion from one of your followers after you said that you wanted to cosplay Harley Quinn more, but you wanted to do something different.
I love doing Harley Quinn, because she’s so fun. But everybody does Harley Quinn. I like to be a little bit different and, I won’t lie, I do like attention. But I like to share attention as well. I thought, “What’s going to make me stand out from every other Harley Quinn?” It’s a process I do with all of my characters. “I like this character. What can I do that’s different, that’s unique and is me as well?”
So I thought, “Ah, I’d really like to do Bat Quinn. That would be really fun.”
My friend was like, “I’ve got a helmet, you can have it, you can spray it up.”
I was like, “Brilliant… oh… I need the rest of her costume now (laughs).”
How did you get into cosplay?
I used to do a lot of glamour modelling, any job that would pay really. It’s a very hard industry to break into. You end up doing shoots to pay the bills rather than shoots you want to enjoy. I always wanted to do more creative stuff. I wanted to dress up and I wanted to do outrageous things, avant-garde things, but people weren’t paying for that. People were paying me to take my clothes off and I was like… “But I want to keep my clothes on!” Obviously things affect me, but as much as somebody cannot care what other people think, I’m not ashamed of the fact that that’s what I used to do. If I get a paid shoot now, I will still do it.
I studied Theatrical Costume and Make-up at university. That’s when I met somebody called Silantre and she is an amazing cosplayer. She’s one of those ones you will never have heard of.
She was at MCM Birmingham in March with Costume and Play and she made the ride-on white tiger. She is a wonderful human being, so kind-hearted. The reason why she joined the course was because she was a cosplayer. I didn’t really know much about it. She makes these big costumes, things that are absolutely huge, impractical and back-breaking. She makes them all out of things she finds in her house. I’d just go into her house and there would be piles of bottles, empty toilet roll tubes and all sorts. Then the next week, there would be a costume and I would be like, (shocked expression) “WOW, that’s amazing!” I was completely inspired by her. Once you leave university it’s, “Okay, you need to go get a job now.” And you’re like… “How?”
I ended up getting very depressed. I was stuck in retail jobs, not doing anything creative. Suddenly, I was like, “Well, why don’t I start sewing again?” My then boyfriend said, “Oh, well you could go to Comic Con with me. You could make a costume.”
I was like, “Oh, okay. That sounds cool. I know about this cosplay thing.” I did a bit more research and I was like, “I think this would be right up my alley.” Then I was like, “Hang on a minute, I can mix my modelling and my enjoyment of sewing and making things and socialising at the same time. This is perfect! This is everything I’ve ever wanted to do.” So I started off with Black Cat.
This would be MCM London, May 2015?
Yes and… my costume broke an hour after I arrived. I was in one of the toilets just crying, like, (imitates crying) “My costume broke!” I came out holding my costume together.
Did you make that Black Cat cosplay yourself?
I adjusted it. I bought a very cheap catsuit from China, because I thought, “I don’t want to go and put loads of money into something that I might not enjoy doing.” Then I bought some fur, some gloves, I decorated my nails, I got a mask and a wig. I did it as cheap as I possibly could, so if I didn’t like it then at least I’ve got a cheap Halloween costume.
The reason why the costume broke was because the zip was faulty. The first time I went to the toilet, I undid it, did it back up and the zip disintegrated (laughs). It made me think I should be more careful about what I do buy and maybe this is why I should make my costumes myself, because then I know it’s tested, I know what it’s made out of, I know what products I’ve used and I’ve done my research into it, instead of just going, “Oh, that’s cheap.” Admittedly I still do that, but at least I do a bit more research now.
Despite the costume breaking, what was that experience like for you at MCM?
It was very hot and sweaty. One thing I remember, was going, “Oh my God, why am I in PVC at the end of May, going into summer?” But it was amazing and people were coming up to me going, “Oh my God, I love your costume.”
I was like, “Thank you. Wow! People are so friendly here.”
It was really nice to go around and look at everybody else’s costumes, like, “Oh my God, look at that girl, she’s amazing. Look at that guy, how did he do that?” I was just like, “I want to be like this. This is what I want to do. These are my people now.” It was just such a pleasant experience.
Would you say that experience, that feeling, set the foundation for what you’re doing now?
Yeah. I mean, I always get that feeling when I come to a convention, because the majority of people are so friendly. You go up to them and say, “Excuse me, I love your costume. How did you make this?”
Most of the time they’re like, “Thank you. I did this, this and that.”
I’m like, “Oh brilliant! Can I add you on Facebook? Can I chat to you about it? Because I’m thinking about doing that too. I’ve got a different idea I want to bounce off you.” It’s really nice that people are just so open to talk to you about it.
You’ve previously called Black Cat is your favourite cosplay. Does that still apply today?
I love Black Cat, I love doing Poison Ivy, I love doing Harley Quinn, any of the Spider-Man characters as well… but it’s really hard to pick my favourite costume. Gun to my head, it would have to be between Poison Ivy and Black Cat.
What is it about those characters and cosplays?
I just feel like I can really relate to them as characters. I love strong female characters, ones that are not afraid to be sexy as well. Also, I find their costumes very interesting. With Poison Ivy, you’ve got so much space to be creative. There’s no wrong way of doing it. You can wear as much as you want or as little as you want and you can still get away with it. As long as you’ve got leaves on there, it’s Poison Ivy.
You described Black Cat as the one that best represents you because she’s “smart, sexy and sassy.”
With Black Cat, I think her attitude…she’s very much her own person, which I really relate to. She’s got a dark past as well. She’s been through stuff and yet she still gets up and does what she does. Whether she’s good or bad, she sticks to her beliefs and I like that in a character. I like someone who says, “This is who I am and this is what I do.” That’s my kind of woman! Plus (motions hands towards her chest) I do also have certain attributes that do help towards the costume (laughs).
I understand that Poison Ivy was one of the first cosplays that you made?
Well, the first two that I made at the same time were Christmas Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. It was very interesting having to look at techniques, how to apply things and what to do. I started off trying to sew all the leaves on and then got cramp. I was like, “Well, I’m three leaves in and I can’t move my hand.” So then I looked at what else I could do. Hot glue gun, brilliant. So I started hot gluing them. Then it’s like, “Ah, they’re coming unstuck. Now they’re stuck to me! How can I get around this?” Then I decided, “Let’s add lights in there as well, because that makes sense!” Then trying to get the lights to work, so that they’re hidden by all the leaves, but they still stand out, and they still work, hiding battery packs everywhere. I was like, “Why did I think this was a good idea when I started this?” (Laughs) But by the end of it, I was really happy. I was a bit nervous and self-conscious about it because it was the first time I was in public in such a skimpy costume.
I got a brilliant reaction from most people. I got one negative reaction from somebody, which was unfortunate. I mean, you’re always going to get that sort of thing. I was having my picture taken with some kids, their mum had stopped me. As I was posing with the kids, somebody walked past and said, “Ugh, why do girls insist on coming to Comic Con in their underwear?” I was just like… (shocked expression), “I don’t think I’m being inappropriate. Most of my body is covered up.” Kids don’t see sexuality, they see their favourite characters. I was quite upset about it. The fact that it was said in front of the children as well, so I couldn’t turn around and be like, “What’s your problem?” But also I then got really self-conscious and thought, “Oh my God, is that what people think of me?”
Did that have an effect on future cosplay plans?
It did start to make me think, “Well, is there a line?” As confident as I am with my own body and how I look, where’s the line between being me and being appropriate for everybody else? That’s quite difficult. Sometimes you have to say, “Do you know what? Sod it.” Someone’s always going to have something to say, so you might as well do it. You can’t please everybody, so you might as well keep yourself happy.
You’ve received a lot of praise and compliments on social media. However, you’ve also received some upsetting comments. In particular, at one point last year, you posted how you had “been body shamed and slut shamed.” How do you deal with comments like that?
It is hard. You’ve got to try and not let it get to you. So with that comment, that was actually to do with my Baywatch costume that I did last year. As everybody does, we all go through phases where we just don’t feel like we’re at our best. I was going through one of those phases where I was feeling a bit tubbier than I was normally. But I was like, “Well, just cut back on the sweets and it’ll go away.” So I already had the negative spiral going around… I have depression and anxiety as it is, which tends to grab those negative comments and cascade them. I’ve had to go through counselling throughout the years and I still go every so often when I feel like I need to.
Two people had commented on my Baywatch [cosplay-run] and one of them said something absolutely awful. I was like, “Oh my God, am I really that fat? Am I really that awful? Is that how other people view me? Do I need to lose weight?” I ended up making myself almost ill panicking about it.
Then I sat there and went, “No. That’s these two people’s opinion. It means absolutely nothing. They’re strangers I have never met, probably will never meet. I don’t care. They don’t pay my bills; they don’t have any part of my life. Why should I care what they think?” Even if I have put on a little bit of weight, so what? At least I had the confidence to go out and do it, which a lot of the time these people who leave the negative comments don’t.
I’ve always said that when somebody gives you a negative comment, it’s more a reflection on them than it is on you. So usually, when someone says to you, “Oh yeah, I think you’re this,” in actuality, that’s probably what they think about themselves and they’re reflecting it on you because they can’t get past the issues themselves. A lot of the time it saddens me that people are going through this and they feel that they have to be nasty to make themselves feel better.
It weirds me out that someone decides to take the time and effort to log on to Facebook, go straight to your page, go straight to one particular picture and write something like that.
Really, it’s quite flattering (laughs). Some of them, you just have to laugh at them. That’s how petty it is. They will pick at the most stupidest thing.
One thing I hear a lot is, “I’m entitled to my opinion.” Yep, you are. And I’m entitled not to hear it. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you need to air it. That’s always been my view. There are things I’ve seen that I don’t like, there are people I don’t like. I don’t go up to them and go, “I don’t like your costume. I don’t think you should have done that. I would have done it this way.” No, I just go, “Okay, it’s not to my liking, I’ll walk away. I’m not going to comment.”
Some people will spend hours hounding you and trying to break you down, to tell you that you are wrong and they are right. I’m quite thick skinned and I laugh at a lot of it. But some of my friends, when they get it, they’ll be upset for weeks about it and that’s horrible. You can have seven good comments and one bad comment, and you’ll focus on that one bad comment. It’s just horrible to try and destroy somebody for no good reason.
A few years back you called cosplay a hobby that has “unnecessary hate” and you wanted to push cosplay positivity to show that “anyone and everyone can be a part of the cosplay community.” Do you still feel that there is unnecessary hate?
Oh definitely. I think one of the classic ones that people seem to tell people they can’t do is Suicide Squad Harley Quinn. Obviously, Margot Robbie is a tiny, skinny woman, in tiny hot pants. That suits her figure. She’s also had a nutritional dietest, she’s had a fitness coach, she’s had everything, make-up, photoshop and being lit at the right angle so that she’s absolutely flawless. What I say is, if you want to do that costume, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, change it; make it work for your body. You can cosplay whoever you want, choose the outfit, make it work for you.
There are costumes I see and I know my ass is going to be too big to fit in that. So I’ll extend it, I’ll turn it from hot pants into full shorts, or I’ll make the skirt a little longer so that it suits me.
I saw [a photo of] a woman who was very much a plus size woman and she’s got the hot pants on. It had been shared around and people were laughing at her because she didn’t look her best. I thought, “How mean that this woman is getting picked on and this is being shared and she has no way to defend herself, publicly.” That could completely and utterly destroy a person and that’s horrible. Why would you want to do that to another human being? That really upsets me. But she had the guts to get dressed, to go out and do it.
I thought, if I was her friend I would have said, “Let’s change the costume, let’s make it work for you.” But not everybody has friends that are honest to them.
Has something like that happened to you?
I’ve been told that I have a cleft chin and therefore I can’t be appreciated as a cosplayer. Then the next week I had someone tell me I had a double chin. I was like, “People, leave my chin alone, please!” I get told that I’m a fake nerd a lot. Simply because I’m female and I’m pretty, therefore I’m only doing this for attention from boys.
(Overly sarcastic) “Yeah, I spend hours gluing and burning myself for male attention.”
From some of the comments I have seen on your social media pages, when you do put a post up, there are a majority of comments by males, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t female comments there.
Yeah. I love seeing other women compliment each other. It’s so nice and refreshing to see. I had a discussion with somebody; they were saying that they don’t like seeing lingerie cosplayers. So I do a bit of both. I said, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing either.” If you’re someone that likes to see huge armour cosplays, then go follow them. If you like to see somebody who likes wearing skimpy costumes, then go follow them. If you want a mixture then find someone who does both. There’s no right or wrong.
And people say, “Oh, but it’s lazy.”
“Do you know how many hours that woman has put in the gym to get a flat stomach like that? That’s not lazy!” It’s just a different point of view, it’s a different way of doing it. Again, it’s back to that, “I’m entitled to my opinion” point. You don’t have to like what I do, but you don’t have to be mean to me about it. We can agree to disagree.
You’ve posted publically about suffering from depression and anxiety. Do you feel that cosplaying has made it easier to cope with that?
Yes and no. I find crafting to be incredibly relaxing and it helps get some of that pent up energy out. It’s something that I’m good at, so I feel good about it and it’s putting that negative energy into doing something positive. However, anxiety never goes away. This week I’ve been feeling sick, nauseous, and headachy. I’ve had all sorts because of the panic of getting things done. Everybody has it, [asking themselves], “Will people like this? Is it going to work?” Once that voice starts, it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s not an easy thing to live with. How I’ve described it is… it’s like having over a thousand voices in your head, all screaming at you at the same time and you can’t work out what any of them are saying, but you know they’re all really important and you need to find out what it is, but you have no idea what’s going on. I’ve had to learn how to manage that. I’ve been to cognitive behavioural therapy, that helps you recognise when you’re starting to get anxious, when you’re starting to get depressed and you can try and get it before it spirals out of control.
I’m a big believer that if you throw negative energy out there, you’ll receive negative energy. So if you throw positive energy, you’ll receive positive energy. When I finally got a grasp of my anxiety, I thought, “I’m just going to try being positive for no reason whatsoever and see what happens.” Suddenly, people responded to me differently. They were more positive to me. It really did reinforce that actually, if I have a positive view and look at things differently to what my anxiety is telling me to look at, then maybe things aren’t as bad as that little voice is telling me. I suddenly had a lot more friends, I had a lot more going on in my life.
There is something better out there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and you got to just pull through. It’s usually the most difficult thing I have to do when I’m in that cycle, pulling myself out. But I am the only person that can do it. As much as I have my friends and family to support me, only I know what’s going on in my head.
Do you find the creativity of cosplay therapeutic for you? Even being Bat Quinn today, do you find that it has increased your own confidence?
Yeah, it’s nice being somebody else for the day. The biggest thing for me that cosplay helps me with is the social side of it. Making and crafting, it keeps me busy, it keeps my mind occupied, and I’m too busy thinking about how to make something than having those negative thoughts come into my head. So even if I haven’t got somewhere to wear it, I will start making a costume because I need something to do and eventually I’ll get around to wearing it. I’ve got loads of costumes at home that I haven’t worn yet. I’ve just made them for the sake of having something to make. I find it really relaxing, just sat in my room with the TV on, or with some music, just crafting away. No pressure.
You just need a creative outlet?
Yeah. I’m just going to start gluing things until it looks like something, I’ll just push this fabric through a machine until it turns into a dress. It’s really nice, especially when you’ve got something positive at the end as well. You can go, “I can be proud of myself. I made that.” And that’s really good for reinforcing that self-esteem. Once your self-esteem is strong, it really helps suppress those negative voices.
You’ve uploaded a few make-up tutorial videos online. Is that something we could potentially see more of in the future?
I want to, yes. I’m trained in everything from beauty, bridal fashion, to special effects and monster make-up. The ones I’ve done so far I’ve done at my work. I just stole the video camera from work, [where they’ve] got the equipment. It’s just finding the time and the money to get the equipment and then… I’ve got all the ideas, it’s just processing all the ideas into one solid idea, then practising it, making sure I’ve got the right products.
Did making those videos come about because you wanted to do it, or was it because people asked you, “How did you do that?”
A little bit of both. I’m one of those people where, if you asked me how I did something, I’ll tell you. I don’t keep secrets. I thought, “Well, if someone’s going to Google how to do this, then why not put something out there that shows them how to do this.” Like, my zip zombie make-up, [most of the products were] from Poundland and it was a really simple one to do, but was very effective. I used a bit of my own make-up as well, [but] you’ve got horror make-up for a quid. You don’t have to have a blockbuster budget to create something effective.
In one of your live stream videos, you said, “Cosplay physically hurts me. It puts me in so much pain.” I understand that because of an ongoing problem, cosplaying and making cosplays just made it worse?
Yeah, the doctors don’t really know what’s going on and they don’t particularly want to have a look for some reason. It’s been getting better recently, but last year it was particularly painful. Having to come back to costumes, I’m making Mera [from Aquaman], but the puffy paint cripples my hand.
You are struggling for your art, so why put yourself through more pain to cosplay?
For me, it’s worth it. I enjoy it. Sometimes when the pain gets too much, I have to say, “No, this is too much.” I have to sit back, relax and take a break.
But I think if you truly enjoy something, a little bit of pain and discomfort… I’m obviously not saying harm yourself to do a cosplay, so long as you manage it and don’t take it too far, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just something that I enjoy so much that I’m happy to push through and get something done. Instead of just feeling miserable, lying in bed because I’m in pain, if I’m going to be in pain I might as well do something. So I just think, “Well, let’s be productive, let’s make a positive out of a negative.”
My other half sometimes helps me now. When I get to the point where I’m like, (whines) “My hand’s stuck. I need to finish this in three weeks, is that okay?”
[He says], “I’ll take it off you for a bit.”
What part of cosplaying do you enjoy the most?
Ooh, that’s a really hard question. (Pauses) I want to say all of it. I enjoy making it, seeing my friends, seeing other people’s costumes and dressing up for the day. I cannot pinpoint one single thing that makes me go, “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.” I just love all of it.
Having an idea and then seeing it come to light, and watching others have an idea and watching their creations come to light as well. You really get a family community going as well. We all look out for each other. If someone is picking on you, we’re all there to go, “No, that’s not fair. Don’t pick on my friend.” There’s a real camaraderie. It’s just everything… absolutely everything.
I do enjoy people enjoying my costumes, appreciating my hard work. That is very rewarding, to have somebody go, “Oh my God, I love that.” That does give me a nice spring in my step, and I’m like, “Hey, get me!” I enjoy trying out something new; trying to do a new technique I maybe haven’t tried before. And I love expressing my creativity. It’s a great outlet for me to get my ideas… out.
Finally, who is your favourite pony from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?
(Sharp intake of breath)
I’m going to go with Rarity, simply because I think she’s really pretty. I love her purple hair and her little sparkles. Or Princess Celestia, I love her as well. I just like anything that’s pretty and sparkly. For me, the love of My Little Pony goes back to when I was a little girl. I had tons of My Little Ponies and I always used to play with them. So even though I’m a big kid, I still want my My Little Pony toys.
Interview by Shalimar Sahota.
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