Applied Pop Culture (not a real term but just one that I made up) means taking some aspect of the movies, books and games we love and bringing it to life in the real world in a way that helps or serves people in some way or just brings more fun and joy into our lives.
Hence, I have interviewed and profiled DangerMan, a “real-life superhero” who travels the country speaking to kids about the importance of literacy, health and non-violence; Kyle Simons whose Magicians RPG turns boring language study into an exciting role-playing game; and, now, Aleena Averly of Averly Designs who creates and provides outfits and props for many of your favorite cosplayers, effectively translating pixelated and digital images of the imagination into real, flesh-and-blood characters for cosplay fans to enjoy.
As a cosplay fan myself, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interview Aleena, a multi-talented yet underappreciated magician working quietly behind the scenes, turning fantasy into reality for all of us nerds and geeks. And it turns out her personal story involves a lot of adversity that just may inspire you if you read through to the end.
Q: Please tell us about your work. What do you do and for whom?
A: Currently, I’m a costume fabricator. Basically, I design outfits, props, gear and accessories for both amateur and professional cosplayers. My clients range from new cosplayers to some of the more recognizable names in the cosplay world.
Q: You used to be a cosplayer yourself. When and how did you get into cosplaying? And why did you stop?
A: I have always been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games so I was really excited when the first movie was released in 2001. That year I dressed up in the movie version of the outfit for Halloween. I loved the design of Lara Croft’s gun holsters in the movie and really wanted to own an accurate version myself so I started trying to figure out how to make that possible and I was hooked!
But after a few years of making Lara Croft gear and outfits and dressing up I transitioned into graphic design and kinda fell off the cosplaying map for a while.
Also, with what cosplay has become, it’s hard to be taken seriously as a gamer and a fan if you look a certain way so I think I’ve transitioned along the way into being the ‘funny girl’ to compensate.
Q: We’ve seen your cosplay and modeling photos and were impressed. Have you ever thought about modeling for a living?
A: When I was younger, I had always wanted to be an actress so I generally avoided the modeling game. I did, however, do some modeling for the airsoft gun company Shorty USA for a while who found me after they had seen my Halloween costume. I did that just for fun more than anything else.
Recently, I also started doing some modeling for a wonderful company called Daisy Corsets. I took the job because I love their corsets and costumes (guess costumes are in my blood!) but also because the owners are amazing people and we have a blast together. It’s hard for me to ever take myself seriously as a “model,” though, because I spent a lifetime not wanting to be known for how I looked but viewed as a good friend and loving family member who just loves video games and movies.
Q: With cosplaying, you can get a lot of fans and publicity. But it seems that with the kind of work you do, you’re playing more of a behind-the-scenes role. What is it about the work that satisfies you so much that you’re willing to take on a more hidden role while everyone else gets all the attention (and maybe the credit for your work as well)?
A: More than anything I was a cosplayer because I loved creating things. I love watching a movie or playing a game and loving the design of something I see, wanting it, and then being able to make it a tangible item. I love the process of conceptual design, planning, patterning and creating and ending up with a final product I am happy with. I love coming up with ideas and techniques for how to make something poplar and I truly enjoy helping others do the same.
That’s why I love doing video tutorials for others who may be exactly where I was before when I was first figuring out how to create items. It’s nice to be able to help someone else because it took years for me to get my own methods down to an art.
My favorite part in this is taking an outfit or item that doesn’t exist in the real world and making it a reality for someone. When I used to be a cosplayer, it was also a dream of mine to be able to have the cosplay props, gear and accessories that I wanted. Hopefully, I’m able to fulfill that dream for others and make them happy and feel the same way I did each time I held a finished product in my hands.
I love to feel useful. I don’t really need the credit for it as long as when I am done I am proud of it.
Q: You just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Please tell us a little about what you hope to achieve through it.
A: I love what I do and am so lucky to have been able to continue doing it for as long as I have. But right now my customers have to wait weeks and weeks to receive items because everything I make is 100% handmade by me personally. If the campaign is successful, I’d be able buy the equipment and materials to take on more orders at a time without making everyone wait so long.
Q: I heard you were reluctant to do the Indiegogo campaign but that a friend talked you into it. Tell us about that.
A: I’m a very proud person. It’s my main flaw. I’ve spent a lifetime of not asking people for help. It’s very hard for me to admit when I’m not able to do something alone because I’ve always viewed needing help and not being able to do it all on my own as a failure. But I’ve reached a point in my life where I realize when something is starting to become too much for me and slightly out of my control. Sarah Larochelle of LaraCroftCosplay.com encouraged me to write the campaign and even did a lot of the social media page design side of it. With encouragement from her and cosplayer Jenn Croft, I finally felt I was ready to admit I needed help. They’ve made me see that the real failure would be in not admitting that and letting my passions and business die due to my stubbornness.
Q: What’s it been like trying to run a small, independent business by yourself?
A: It’s really been a joy and a struggle. On one hand, it’s been amazing doing something I’m passionate about that others happen to think is useful. But it’s also been a heavy load at times. Until January of this year, I had always worked full time in a normal career and then came home to also work full time on the costume fabricating. It’s been a couple years of very little sleep and constant anxiety to keep everything running and flowing.
Q: I happen to know that you’ve struggled with some serious health issues. I know you don’t like revealing it, but please do. In fact, even though Pop Mythology is an entertainment/pop culture website and health isn’t one of our usual topics, the reason I started it was as a way to cope with my own illness, so this is a topic that’s very close to me.
A: When I was 13, I started to get really sick all of a sudden. I was constantly tired and always felt like I had the flu. By the time I was 16, most of my eyebrows had fallen out and I didn’t know what it was like to feel good anymore. So I compensated by mentally pretending that this was the norm and just kept working through it. I went through quite a few jobs when I was younger because I was constantly having to go to the hospital and the ER and not wanting to look weak at work. But I was young and stupid and felt that as long as I pushed myself to work harder and got awards and recognition in the work place, it would somehow all balance out in the end.
After three years of specialists and unanswered questions, I was eventually diagnosed with lupus and pelvic inflammatory disease which led to emergency surgery. More recently, I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia and have just learned to live through most of it.
My doctor told me I needed to stay away from stressful work environments because they make my system shut down, so one of the reasons I started doing costume fabricating full time was that it allowed me to work from home. But, eventually, as I started getting more clients and more orders, it became overwhelming. I needed more, better equipment and proper tools.
So the Indiegogo campaign would be a way for me to keep this career and my independence which would be the best thing for my health. I spent a year researching what I’d need to be able to make everything faster and easier which translates into better customer service. It would also allow me to work at home which would help my charity work with St. Louis Pet Rescue as an emergency caregiver for neglected animals.
Actually, most people don’t even knew that I’ve been sick all this time. I just got really good with makeup and really good with jokes about my eyebrows, haha. Those that I did tell about being sick, I made it sound like it wasn’t a big deal.
Q: But it is a big deal. Most people have no idea what it’s like or how hard it is. A lot of what you just shared mirrors my own experience quite a bit, in fact. I know it wasn’t easy opening up like that so thank you.
A: Everything in life is a challenge. You just have to choose how you face it. I fully believe life is what you make it and I choose to make mine a useful one. That’s what makes me truly happy at the end of the day. I may not be rich and probably never will be. I also may not be famous for this work or anything else and people may never know who I am. But I don’t need all that. All I need is friends I can trust, a family I love and an art that brings me joy and a sense of accomplishment. Past that, all else is just a bonus.
Support Aleena’s Indiegogo campaign
Connect with Averly Designs on Facebook
Hear Aleena talk about some of her work in this YouTube video: