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Cultivating the culture of cosplay: Local artist lands big win for "Hellboy" costume

Jessica Fuller • Sep 10, 2018 at 10:31 AM

Michel McKinney was one of 42 contestants to test the stage last weekend at the annual Dragon*Con Masquerade Contest in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend. 

Her Angel of Death costume, inspired from the movie “Hellboy 2,” drew gasps from the audience of hundreds in attendance for the event. More than 100 hours of work were on display as she silently glided across the stage, eventually landing honors for Best in Show for one of the most widely-watched events at the convention. 

The costume is complete with towering wings decked with unsettling orange eyes, and a mask that completely obscures McKinney’s vision, requiring her to have a handler to guide her around when she’s in full costume.

Dragon*Con is one of the biggest multigenre conventions in the country, drawing in 80,000 fans from around the world last year. The contest is one of the convention’s largest events, with hundreds in attendance and thousands watching a livestream from the comfort of their hotel rooms. Dragon*Con is also renowned for attracting some of the most talented costumers and cosplayers from around the world, making the win a coveted one.

From costuming to cosplay 

McKinney is a Bristol native and runs the show at one of the Tri-Cities’ own pop culture conventions, Conapalooza, alongside her fiancè. She’s been making costumes since she was in middle and high school for plays and Halloween, sometimes with the help of her mother. 

It wasn’t long before she discovered “cosplay,” a form of art in which a costumer takes on the persona of the character they are portraying.

“This was back before there were forums, social media, Youtube, and how-to tutorials,” McKinney said of finding cosplay. “We had one forum to chat with other cosplayers on, and most of it was trial and error. To watch it grow into what it is now has been amazing.” 

She spent seven months working on her Angel of Death marks the seventh cosplay she’s designed and created, others of which include a Succubus from “World of Warcraft,” Rikku from “Final Fantasy X, Flemeth from Dragon Age” and Merida from Pixar’s “Brave.”

The Angel of Death marks the seventh cosplay she’s designed and created, others of which include a Succubus from “World of Warcraft,” Rikku from “Final Fantasy X, Flemeth from Dragon Age” and Merida from Pixar’s “Brave.” 

Here’s what she had to say about the experience of winning the contest, making the costume and the culture of conventions in our own backyard: 

• What did it feel like when you won Best in Show for the Dragon*Con Masquerade contest? What makes the win significant for you?

It was completely overwhelming. We artists are always our worst critics, and there was a lot of good competition, so I didn’t really expect it. I cried out of excitement, but I was completely honored.
Dragon*con is seen as “the best of the best” – so for me to win a Best of Show here, validated that I was at least pretty decent at what I do.

•What do you like about cosplaying?

I love the challenge of it. I try to pick things that, at first glance, seem impossible to me. Then I start the planning, the building, the painting (and I lot of tearing apart and starting over). The challenge of trying to figure out how to make a giant face mask sit on my head, or make my dress glide instead of drag the ground, is thrilling to me. Wearing it is about 25 percent of the fun for me, the rest is all in the build.

• Tell me a little about the work that went into your Angel of Death cosplay. How long did it take? What was the most challenging part to complete?

I started this back in November. I wanted to give myself plenty of time, and be able to work on it on and off until the con. I took a break during holidays, then started back again in February. I only had about two hours a night, if even that, to work on it – so I had to make it count. It was completed in June, with around 100+ hours of work total.


I’d say the wings were the most challenging. I had no idea what I was doing. I learned that I could bend PVC pipe with heat, then wrapped the base with couch foam, after attaching all of my feathers – there were SO many feathers. They were all made of two pieces of fabric, with a wire in the middle, then glued together and cut and hand painted. The eyes were EVA foam and Christmas ornaments!

• How do you choose your cosplays?

I have to connect with the character. Even if it’s just for a moment, I have to be passionate about it. My Angel of Death only has about three minutes of screen time, but I knew instantly when I saw it, I had to make it. Aside from Dragonzord, which was done for my fiancé, all of my characters have a special meaning to me. Most of them tend to be extremely strong, intelligent woman – or, like my Angel, very intimidating and powerful.

What is your hope for the future of Conapalooza? What about the local con/cosplay scene in general?

We went in with hopes to make this a family convention. Not just in the regular family sense, but in a ‘con family’. So few conventions still focus on the fans, and we want to ALWAYS make our fans No. 1. A lot of pop-up conventions and corporate conventions have a bottom line. While those things are nice, they are not what we are about. We want lots of cosplayers, we want lots of families and friends! We are open 24 hours a day – with family friendly events all day long, and more adult centric events during the night. We like to think we’re a “mini-Dragon*Con”

Not many realize this, but the cosplay scene in East Tn is amazing. In fact – the “Best Gaming Character” award at the Dragon*con Masquerade was won by someone from Kingsport! We’ve already started seeing the talent coming out of this area at our con, and at other local conventions. It’s exciting to see, and it’s also been fantastic making new friends with it. Exchanging ideas, giving feedback and encouraging each other. That’s what it is really all about!

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