Cosplaying: Larger Than Life

In the packed halls of the Nashville Airport Marriott, a 6-foot-8-inch scarecrow towers over the crowd. With a scythe in one hand and a rope around their neck, the scarecrow makes their way down the hallway, often stopping for photographs with people who aren’t afraid to approach the green-eyed creature. Strapped into a pair of jumping stilts and hidden under pounds of burlap and straw stands Amber Barnes, a 5-foot-2-inch, 130 pound girl with a love for nerdy media and costuming.

Barnes (left) in Fiddlesticks cosplay. Photo by Nathan Shane Photography.

Barnes began getting into nerd culture at a very young age.

“I have been playing video games with my father since I was three,” Barnes said. “and I started getting into anime once I was in elementary school. I have siblings who are way older than I am, and they would let me watch the shows and movies that they did. It’s just something that’s always been in my life.”

What started out as a way to bond with her family soon turned into a part of her identity.

“I made most of my friends because they liked anime and video games,” Barnes said. “We found out about MTAC (Middle Tennessee Anime Convention) in 2009 and decided to go. I loved every moment of it, because there were people like me around every corner. I saw people dressed as characters from my favorite shows, and I wanted to do that, too. So the next year, I did.”

Barnes spent the following year creating her first cosplay, a hunter from the video game series “Left for Dead.” The outfit consisted of a hoodie and khaki pants with duct tape around the arms and thighs, and even though it wasn’t much, it still holds a place in Barnes’s heart.

“That first costume was my stepping stone into the world of cosplaying. I entered MTAC’s cosplay contest that year, and even though I didn’t win anything from it, I still had a lot of fun getting to participate.”

From there, Barnes began to fall deeper into the art of costuming, and started to take her newfound hobby more seriously.

“One of my older friends was very competitive,” Barnes said. “and she wanted to enter the cosplay contest seriously. I decided to join her, and I spent the entire year learning how to create costumes. She was much more skilled than I was, and I wanted to be on her level, so she taught me how to sew and together we created some of our first cosplays.”

Barnes begins sewing for one of her upcoming projects.

Eventually, Barnes enrolled in college as an Art major, and she saw her skills grow.

“I was learning new things all the time! My professors were teaching me about all of these techniques that I had never heard of. It was sort of a culture shock to me.”

But with her ever-growing set of skills, Barnes kept pushing herself.

“I started getting into more obscure and less human-like characters, such as the scarecrow Fiddlesticks from the game ‘League of Legends,’ and I wanted to figure out how they would operate in real life. So I used the skills that I learned in my college courses to make my costumes. My 3D Design professor even helped me construct a prop!”

However, cosplay is no cheap hobby, and after paying for college tuition and the added costs that come with living on campus, Barnes found herself in a tight financial situation.

“I couldn’t afford the insurance on my car, so I wasn’t able to drive it, which led to me not being able to get a job. I was pretty much eating ramen and begging friends for food. I couldn’t pay for myself to do anything, and my parents weren’t able to help out very often.”

Despite the struggle to survive in her college years, Barnes continued to create costumes in her spare time.

“I was taking a lot of art classes, so I would ask my professors if my projects could be something related to my cosplays. They usually didn’t care, thankfully. I was able to double up and use my resources from those classes to create something that went into my costumes. I also got really into couponing and budgeting, and I saved a lot of money on my costumes by going to secondhand stores and repurposing the fabrics from clothes I would find there.”

During these years, Barnes built some of her most intricate costumes. These costumes include the feline character Cake from the cartoon “Adventure Time” with a functional, hand-brushed tail, and the larger-than-life scarecrow Fiddlesticks from the game “League of Legends.” Both costumes have given Barnes recognition from people in the cosplay community. Her Cake costume was part of a group cosplay that won second place in a cosplay contest, and her Fiddlesticks is extremely popular to MTAC attendees each year.

Barnes posing in her Lapis cosplay.

Barnes continues to cosplay at conventions throughout the southern states. Most recently, she competed at a convention in Atlanta, where she was recognized by the judges for the outstanding work on her costumes.

“I didn’t win anything, but the feedback from my peers and the judges is what really drives me to get better at my craft.”

Although Barnes now works a full-time job and still tries to maintain relationships with friends and family, she finds time to cosplay.

“I have a lot of friends who are into cosplay still, and the ones that don’t actively participate in it still support me.”

Cosplaying has helped Barnes in her real life, as well.

“I learned how to budget because of cosplay. Without budgeting, I would never have been able to afford a newer, more reliable vehicle to get me to and from work. I’m looking at new apartments to move into, and I know that my budget is going to help me figure out what places I can and can’t afford. I’m still always hunting for coupons and shopping at stores that take competitor prices. It’s how I’m able to afford most of the stuff that I own, honestly.”

As far as her cosplays go, Barnes has slowed down a bit, but her drive is still alive.

“I don’t have nearly as many costumes planned as I used to, but I’m happy with what I’m working on right now. I love competing, but I love being in costume more. I’m literally making peoples favorite characters come to life, and I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about my hobby.”

Barnes (right) poses in her Lapis cosplay with a friend. Photo by Nathan Shane photography.