Cosplayer smashes barriers to become Internet sensation, inadvertent role model

Growing up as a geek who loved Star Trek and X-Men, Krystina Arielle Tigner didn’t have many positive role models who looked like her to reference, which makes what she has accomplished even more remarkable.

After an accidental brush with convention culture in Atlanta, Krystina was hooked on cosplay, which appealed to her childhood love of dress up, and has since become a rising star in the field.

She’s featured in one of the most irresistible gifs of 2017, a “dance-off” in which she plays Wonder Woman’s twin, Nu’bia, to Gal Gadot’s movie superhero. That instant piece of pop culture heaven has been viewed 35 million times. A Buzzfeed video in which she transforms into four different iconic black superheroes has also gone viral.

Krystina infuses everything she does with joy, including elaborate cosplays from Wakandan Wonder Woman, to Hamilton, to “Frohawk Rey”; Trekkie-themed photo shoots at Vasquez Rocks; a spread in Cosplay Culture magazine; and appearances at cons, where young fans have been known to seek her autograph.

She’s found herself breaking barriers, becoming an inadvertent role model to future geek girls, and meeting some of her personal heroes — Ava! Uhura! — along the way. 

You’re going to want to follow her to see what she gets up to next @KrystinaArielle.

Krystina Arielle Tigner as Wakandan Wonder Woman.

You describe yourself as a “Hollywood cosplayer, pop culture enthusiast, and professional geek.” How did you first discover the world of cosplay?

I have always been into comic books and pop culture, but I truly discovered cosplay for the first time on a St. Patrick’s Day trip to Atlanta with my friend Janna. Our hotel just so happened to be the site of MomoCon. I knew of it, but I had never felt the energy and passion of a convention. I decided that day I would try my hand at cosplay and when I got home I ordered tickets to Dragoncon and the rest is history.

What specifically drew you to this form of geeky self-expression?

I love comics. I love pop culture, and I love dressing up. This field allows me to honor those things and I love it.

Is your love of dress up something that stretches back to childhood or did you embrace this interest later in life?

I’ve always loved to play dress up. We didn’t buy costumes when I was a kid, we just created something. From playing in my Mom’s closet to revamping my wardrobe today, I love style and being able to show creativity.

What do you like about transforming yourself into an iconic character?

Being able to honor the characters that got me through rough times and good times. Most of the characters I portray are characters I have loved since childhood and it feels like a dream come true every time I suit up.

What’s the most challenging aspect of that?

The most challenging aspect for me is being sure that I bring the character to life but still feel comfortable in my skin.

When did you begin to realize that you might be able to take your cosplay to a professional level?

I don’t know that I ever have. From the beginning, I have just followed my heart and that has served me well to this point. I started because I love it, not because I thought it would take off to the point that it has.

2017 was a big year for you! You became an Internet sensation with a wonderful gif featuring you dancing joyfully, dressed as Wonder Woman’s twin, Nu’bia. It’s been viewed about 10 million times. What has that experience been like for you?

As of today, it’s at 35 million views and I’m still absolutely stymied by it. I love that gif. It makes me chuckle every time.

Tell me about how that gif came to be.

After the Gal Gadot dancing video came out, I knew that I wanted to re-create it. When we were on the set for the Buzzfeed video, I recorded it and set it to Britney Spears as a dance-off between Nu’bia and Diana. A dear Twitter friend, @mobius_strip, created the gif and the next thing I knew, it had a lot of views.

People have really responded to it. Why do you think that is?

I think the fact that my joy in that moment is genuine, as was hers. Two authentically joyful people, one being a six-foot knockout with a great smile, and the other having really cool hair, speaks to people, I guess.

Are you a big fan of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman”?

YES! I have probably watched it about six times in the last week alone.

Tell me your geek origin story. Were you into fandoms and pop culture as a kid? If so, what were some of your favorite franchises or fandoms?

My first fandom was X-men. When I was younger, my Grandpa Jack took my sister and I to our first comic book store. X-men was the first comic book I ever owned and I watched X-men the animated series with my family. It will always have a special place in my heart.

As a kid, there weren’t many pop cultural role models to inspire you. In fact, your husband created a “wall of representation” for you to remedy this. Would you mind telling me a little more about that?

When my husband and I first got married, I saw a Vogue issue that featured models that all had natural hair. I cried my eyes out because it was just so powerful. I ended up telling him about how it felt to be a child and not see many characters that looked like me. Characters of color who weren’t sexualized or objectified. Characters that could inspire something in the next generation.

We have this area over our sink in the kitchen and my husband had some art there. One day, he started buying every magazine that featured women of color for me and placing them on that wall. By seeing those pictures, I could feel inspired and see the people that came before me.

Last week, my first magazine spread went up on that wall. When we started it three years ago, I never would have imagined that would end up happening. It’s an amazing feeling.

Do you feel like you want to be a role model for young girls who might find themselves in a similar  situation.  

I never signed on to be a role model, because I guess I never felt worthy of that title. When I go to conventions now and I see little kids that are excited to the point of tears by my characters, it really puts things into perspective. Whether or not that’s what my intention was getting into this, it is now a reality. I want future little cosplayers to know that they can be strong, inspiring, wear their hair how they want, and that there is space at the cosplay table for us.

As a black woman, what changes would you like to see when it comes to representation in the world of fandoms and geek culture?

I would like to see cosplayers of color represented at conventions in the same way the non-POC cosplayers are. Quirktastc compiled a list of over 500 cosplayers across the country. Having one black cosplayer for every 12 non-POC cosplayers just to meet a diversity quota isn’t acceptable.

There are people with amazing talent and because we are seen as “black cosplayers” rather than just cosplayers, it puts us into this box of being a novelty rather than talent. I want to see more panelists of color, more cosplay guests of color, and less gatekeeping within the community.

What fandoms are you currently into?

I’m a die-hard original series Trekkie and I love “Doctor Who.”

It looks like 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting year in terms of representation with “Black Panther” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time.” What are your thoughts on that?

I believe it’s amazing. Seeing “Black Panther” for me was a powerful experience. To see a young black girl be the foremost STEM expert. Strong fierce warrior women. Characters portrayed as Kings and Queens. It was beautiful.

I am so excited to see “A Wrinkle In Time” and to feel the same way. Ava DuVernay is a truly powerful filmmaker and it is going to be amazing to have Storm Reid inspire a generation of young black girls. Her presence in that film will help some little girl delve into the world of sci-fi and that is beautiful to me.

I fell that we are on the cusp of a very important paradigm shift and I am ready to see what that brings. I hope that seeing black characters portrayed positively will help our society and media do the same. I hope that we will continue to have the tough conversations and that hearts and minds will be changed.

Krystina as Ironheart.

Aside from the Nu’bia gif, you’ve achieved a lot in recent months, including shooting a Buzzfeed video in which you transform into four iconic comic book characters — Misty Knight, Storm, Nu’bia, and Ironheart. How did this video come to be?

I was approached by a fellow cosplayer, Bernie Bregman (The Geek Gatsby). He recommended me and I worked with the amazing (visual artist and writer) Kasiemobi Udo-okoye.

Tell me a little about the Buzzfeed shoot. Was that fun to do?

The Buzzfeed shoot was a really great experience. Everyone was really kind and it was enjoyable.

The video has received an overwhelmingly positive response. How do you feel about it?

I’m really proud of it. Everything that I am currently doing is beyond my wildest dreams so it feels really exciting to have these amazing opportunities. I am really glad that it has been well-received, and that I made my Grandma proud.

Are you a comic book fan? Were you into comics as a kid? 

Yes.

What are some of your favorite titles/characters?

I started with X-men. I am currently deeply emotionally invested in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

Which do you prefer, Marvel or DC?

I honestly like both. There are different characters in each that resonate with me in different ways.

You were just featured in Cosplay Culture magazine. What’s that feel like?

That has been a really cool experience. Just yesterday, a kid came up to me with his copy at a convention and asked for my autograph on his copy. It was a really overwhelming moment. To see my cosplays in a magazine is something I never expected in my wildest dreams. It just came out this month so I am still terribly excited.

You also recently joined the Nerdbot Girls. How did you become involved with them?

I’m a part of an online forum called “Drinking Bros: Nerds” and I met my friend Dana Jane (who is also a Nerd Bot Girl in this group). We met in person at Nerdbot-Con and I ended up clicking with a lot of the girls on that day without them realizing I was the girl Dana wanted them to meet. They took a vote and invited me to join them.

Perhaps the most exciting that happened in 2017 was that you got married. Congratulations! Does your husband share your love of geeky things?

Thanks! Yes, we were married May 28. My husband is not a comic book nerd but he is a magician, so I guess that counts. He has been incredibly supportive of this journey and I am so grateful that he is by my side through it.

Another project you recently participated in was a Star Trek-themed shoot at Vasquez Rocks, which was the location of several episodes of the original series. What was that experience like?

That shoot was organized by a dear friend, Aliza Pearl, who is a cast member on the Geek and Sundry RPG show “Shield of Tomorrow.” We jokingly call ourselves “Uhura’s Angels.” It was really great to be in that spot that I recognized from so many great shows.

You actually met Nichelle Nicols, aka Lieutenant Uhura! Tell me about that!

She is amazing. She is the kindest, most intriguing person that I have ever met. Being able to spend a couple of days with her last year was just beautiful. She’s sharp, witty, and still absolutely gorgeous.

It seems you’ve recently met several of your personal heroes, including Ava DuVernay. What’s that been like?

I live in Hollywood and I have a lot of by chance meetings. The Ava DuVernay run-in was a really big one for me. Two days before, I had been making a list of my goals. One of those was to meet and work with Ava. I told her that when we met. So now I just pray for part two to come true.

Do you make a lot of appearances at conventions?

I’ve been making more lately. I really enjoy the environment and the amazing friends that I have made in this community.

That sounds like a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. What sort of efforts go into this?

For those that do custom builds, it can take months. A coplay look is a complete look. There’s hair, costume, shoes, props. It’s truly a process.

For those of us who don’t know a lot about how cosplay actually works, do you collaborate with a creative team of costumers, hair stylists, photographers, etc., for your various cosplays? Tell me about the process of designing a cosplay.

It’s different for each cosplayer. I love bringing characters to life but I work with some amazingly talented people that step up in the areas where I am weak.

I work consistently with Bonnie Ayala for makeup looks. She did my makeup for my wedding and almost every character I have ever cosplayed. My custom leather builds are designed and executed by Corena Gibson.

The cosplay community has a lot of talented photographers that attend conventions and book shoots through their websites. Photographers like James Rulison, who shot my Cosplay Culture issue photos, my Gwenom and Storm, Gil Riego, Ruy Arena, and, of course, Stefan Pinto.

My process is to decide on a character, which usually comes from a list of beloved characters from my childhood and curate my head to toe look. I fancy myself a stylist in my head. I just do cosplay instead of runway. I am very fortunate to be able to work with an incredible group of talented and creative individuals.

Is there an element of acting to cosplay? Do you have to kind of “become” the character?

There really is, in my opinion. Certain characters, like Gwenom, who is my only villain at this point, have to be presented with a certain confidence and swagger. I do enjoy that aspect of it. To get into character as Gwenom, I listen to “Monster” by Kanye West. Each of my characters has a theme song that puts me in the mood to carry myself as they would.

Krystina cosplays “Hamilton.”

You’ve cosplayed as Nu’bia, Storm, Deadpool, Hamilton, Gwenom, a Hogwarts student, and one of my personal favorites, “Frohawk Rey.” Do you have a favorite?

Wakandan Wonder Woman. Her war paint, combined with the costume and weapons, made me feel truly powerful.

Are there any dream cosplays you’d like to do in the future?

Definitely Vixen and Moon Girl.

I understand that you sometimes like to slip a little “casual cosplay” into your everyday life. Tell me about that. 

I like to wear simple outfits with odes to my favorite characters. Star trek pins, color schemes that match a certain character’s identifiable outfits. I just enjoy it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring cosplayers, especially those who worry they don’t fit the cosplay “mold”?

Drop the idea that there is a mold. Nothing is wrong with making your costumes, nothing is wrong with commissioning. There is no right way. Cosplay is a creative outlet and a form of SELF- expression. If you expect everyone to love everything that you do or to do things exactly as you do, you are going to spend a lot of time disappointed.

Be yourself, and be comfortable. Do this because it means something to you or gives you an outlet to express yourself. It can be intimidating but just stay true to yourself. You don’t have to be a professional costumer to be a cosplayer. Its costume play. Play and do you.

It looks like you spend a lot of time at L.A.’s Magic Castle. I’m jealous! 

As I said earlier, my husband is a magician. I actually got my associate member pin before my engagement ring. It’s an amazing place.

Have you actually attended the Houdini Seance?!?! Spill the beans!

We actually did the seance for the first time in January for my birthday! It was an absolutely wonderful experience. It’s truly magical.

You’ve said you want 2018 to be a year of “chasing dreams and achieving goals.” What are some of the goals and dreams you’re currently pursuing?

I have a lot of auditions coming up and I hope this will be the year I get to see my acting dreams realized. My goal overall is to be true to myself. To be kind to myself and to live and do things that make me happy. That seems simple but we tend to focus more on others than self-care. This year, I will take care of myself and my family.

What mark would you ultimately like to make on the world of geek culture?

If nothing else translates, I just want my love of what I do to resonate with people, because I feel truly blessed to be able to do it. I have no clue what is next on this path but I am going to keep making kids smile, and making my inner child happy.

 

2 thoughts on “Cosplayer smashes barriers to become Internet sensation, inadvertent role model

    1. Great interview with the Wankandan Warrior queen.I think she is absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous and as a black comic book fan that happens to be a man.Growing up I didn’t meet alot of black female comic book fans.Now that is changing and I’m so overjoyed. She’s a trailblazer a triumphant queen.Finally we can share it all. Sincerely yours -Mr,Shoes

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