If you’re part of the online geek community, chances are you’ve come across the work of Monica Duarte.
Whether it’s her exuberant professional cosplay photos, her posts on geek fashion, Doctor Who, cosplay, and other fun topics for Temple of Geek, or one of her stints as a podcast host, Monica has become as ubiquitous on the geek scene as everyone’s favorite Marvel or Star Wars characters.
This blogger, photographer, cosplayer, geek fashion expert, and creative director of celebrated pop culture website Temple of Geek describes herself as a “professional geek,” and she’s not joking.
A visit to WonderCon in 2013 with her family sparked a passion for all things related to fandom. Armed with a desire to share that enthusiasm with others, self-taught photo skills, and a voluminous knowledge of geek events, she eventually spun her freelance coverage of these happenings into a gig with Temple of Geek.
With her camera and a notebook full of ideas in hand, Monica produces a dizzying amount of geek content. She recently covered the Her Universe fashion show and her photos have appeared in geek magazines. She and her family can be found rocking Whovian outfits of her partner Nathaniel’s design at conventions all over Southern California and beyond.
Thankfully she wasn’t too busy to chat with me about her supportive geek family, why there’s plenty of room for more women cosplay photographers, why representation matters, how her childhood experiences shaped her passion for geek fashion, and that time she lost her “professional cool” while photographing 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker.
You describe yourself as a “professional geek,” which seems pretty accurate considering everything you do. Tell me a little bit about how geeking out became your profession.
It really started with just being a big fan. Wanting to be at all the geeky events in my area. Making connections with people in the industry and a huge desire to share my passion with others. I love sharing.
You’re the creative director of the website Temple of Geek. What does that entail?
I work alongside Danniel Slade, the founder of Temple Of Geek. We work together to come up with content and a schedule for the site. I help recruit writers, photographers, and other talent. I also handle some of the social media and branding for our site.
When and how did you become involved with this pop cultural phenomenon?
I love that you call it a pop cultural phenomenon. That just made my year. I got involved with Temple of Geek just over a year ago. I had interacted with them on social media for years prior to that. I started by covering a few geeky events for them in Los Angeles. But I just really fell in love with the atmosphere.
Danniel and the creative director at the time, Dave Hisaka, were insanely supportive of my ideas. Anytime I suggested anything, they would respond with, “How can we help?” I eventually joined the Temple of Geek Podcast team, started covering geek fashion, and got really involved in the everyday behind the scenes stuff for the site.
When you’re in an environment that nurtures, supports and encourages you, it’s easy to get carried away with your passions. And that is what I did. I got carried away, started working hard.
Could you give us a sense of what a typical day of work looks like for you?
Typical work day starts with checking in with our team. Doing what I can to help them move along with their projects. I work on my projects, which usually include reaching out to geeky fashion vendors. Scheduling photo shoots. I check the stats for the site and our different social media platforms and work with Danniel to build those numbers up. I also schedule and organize event coverage for our Southern California Team. Every once in a while, I get to host a podcast episode. Those are always a lot of fun!
Tell me your geek origin story. How did you first discover this side of yourself?
My earliest geek memories are from about 30 years ago. I was a young kid and I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Ninja Turtles in 1990 in theaters. I think that is when it all started. At the time, I had older cousins who collected comic books. I remember sitting in their bedroom reading all of their Wolverine and X-men comic books. Everything was one geeky blur after that. My dad was a big geek himself. He took my brothers and me to a lot of geeky movies.
You’re also a convention and cosplay photographer, which I’m excited about because I’ve never interviewed one before. What’s your photography background?
None. I have none. Not any kind of a formal background at least. I took some photography classes in high school and in college (over 20 years ago). Back then digital cameras weren’t really a thing. We were learning how to develop film in a dark room. Most of what I learned in class is not really relevant anymore.
I just really love taking photos. I have always been the type to document everything with photos. Almost everything I have learned about photography has come from other photographer friends and from YouTube videos. YouTube has been an essential tool in my learning.
How did you come to specialize in cosplay, cons, and other geeky events?
It all started with WonderCon 2013. WonderCon is a convention that goes on every year around Easter in Southern California. It was my very first convention. I went with my family (my partner and our two children). The minute we walked onto the convention floor, we knew we were home.
Going to that convention was the beginning of my journey. I was so inspired by everything that I saw. So fascinated by the cosplay, the exhibitors, and the guests. I just started snapping photos on my cell phone of all the cosplayers I saw. That is how it started. I started posting those photos on my Instagram page and started my first blog.
My family and I started to hit all the conventions that we could. Luckily, in California there is no shortage of geeky events. I took more and more photos. Met cosplayers, cosplayed, and eventually upgraded from cell phone photos to a DSLR camera. I created an Instagram page just to showcase cosplayers.
Cosplay exposed me to other geeky events outside of conventions. I felt like there was this huge geek world out here that I had never know before. I thought that there might be others, who like me, may want to know about these events too. On an old blog of mine I started a calendar listing of all the geeky events in and around Southern California. Because of that calendar, Michelle Jensen of Nerd Out App contacted me and hired me to add geeky events to her app for the entire country.
Working for Nerd Out put me in contact with people from all aspects of the geek community. I eventually started to do some freelance photography for different websites. Recently, I had some of my photos published in Doctor Who Magazine and SFX Magazine.
What are some of the more memorable conventions or events you’ve photographed?
Thanks to the kindness of the team at Her Universe, I was allowed to be one of the press photographers at the Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con this year. It is by far the most memorable event I have been allowed to photograph. I am a giant Doctor Who fan. This year the big surprise at the fashion show was that they had the new 13th Doctor walk the runway.
I just about lost all my professional cool when I saw the 13th Doctor. Getting to photograph Jodie Whittaker was a dream come true. I was fan girling and screaming as I focused in on her through the lens. I was so shook from the event that my hands were shaking. That’s just the level of fangirl I am for Doctor Who. It was perfect. What an honor it is to have the Doctor herself in my camera lens.
Do there tend to be many women doing this type of photography?
There are not a lot. There is a huge opportunity for more female cosplay photographers. In the Southern California area I can only name two consistent female photographers ( https://www.instagram.com/katiebe_photography/ and https://www.instagram.com/conwomanphotography/) other than myself. There might be more out there. But whenever I look out over the landscape of a convention floor or at cosplay meetups, I rarely see any female photographers. The need is great and I encourage female photographers to come and join us!
What’s the secret to taking a really great cosplay photo?
I think taking great cosplay photos starts with appreciating the cosplayer and all the work they put into their costume. Paying tribute to the detail they put into their costumes. Not trying too hard to re-create movie or television scenes. Just having fun with it. And you want to watch for framing and for posture. Those are the main things I try to remember.
You are also a cosplayer. How’d you get into that?
WonderCon 2013. My family and I thought it would be fun to wear our Doctor Who-themed Halloween costumes to the convention. We didn’t even know cosplay was a thing. We fell in love with all the different cosplays that were out there. It started as something we could do together as a family and it still is.
What are some of your favorite cosplays that you’ve done so far?
Almost all my cosplay is Doctor Who related. I have done so many Doctor Who cosplays that I have lost count. I am guessing it’s upward of 20 Doctor Who cosplays. It is a little easier to do Doctor Who cosplay because they wear modern styles on the television series. Finding the screen-accurate cosplays for Doctor Who can sometimes be as easy as walking into an Urban Outfitters.
But I have three cosplays that really stand out for me as my favorites. My all-time favorite would probably have to be my Linda from Bob’s Burgers. It was comfortable and fun. Linda is my spirit animal. I have been compared to her so often and I love it.
The second is my River Song costume from Doctor Who. It is from the Christmas Episode called “The Husbands of River Song.” The first time I saw the v-neck black and gold dress on actress Alex Kingston, I died. I said, “I want it.” A few weeks later, the dress showed up at my door. A surprise gift from my significant other. It is the most beautiful piece of clothing I own.
Last but certainly not least, I love my Doctor Who/Harry Potter mashup cosplay. My friends and I each dressed up as a Dalek from Doctor Who. We each designed our Dalek cosplay in the style of a Hogwarts House. I was Slytherin.
Do you tend to put together your own outfits?
I rely a lot on my significant other, Nathaniel, for my cosplay. He is a master of hunting down Doctor Who cosplay and building cosplays for our family. He enjoys it. I enjoy his work. So he handles the cosplay building and I handle the cosplay photography.
Why does cosplay appeal to you?
IT IS FUN! Halloween was always my favorite holiday. I lived for Halloween and dressing up. Cosplay is a way to extend that all year long. It’s something my children enjoy. It’s just fun!
You’re also one half of The ConMadres, aka Convention Moms. Tell me about the other half of this dynamic vlogging duo and how you came up with the idea for this.
Through cosplay and conventions I met a really great woman named Dee Sorto. We met at a cosplay event. We started to talk and it turned out we were neighbors. She lives walking distance from my house. We both love going to conventions (Con) and we are both moms (Madres).
At the time, we were both stay-at-home moms. We would meet up on Monday mornings after dropping off our kids at school and we would discuss the latest episodes of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. We could talk for hours and hours about all kinds of geek stuff. We both had so much in common and cosplay was a big part of both our lives.
We decided to start vlogging about our mommy and geeky adventures. We made a few DIY videos with our kids for fun. We really were just trying to reach out and share our experiences with other moms. We hope to build a community where geek moms can find one another, help one another,and inspire each other.
Your family is really involved in your geek life. Tell me about some of your shared and individual pop culture interests.
Doctor Who really is the glue that binds us. Our biggest shared interest is Doctor Who. Cosplaying and conventions is where we have met so many friends and built so many relationships. My kids are growing up alongside other cosplay kids and it is pretty great. We hang out in line for Hall H together and we cosplay together. We watch geeky programming and movies together. Geek is part of our everyday lives.
My kids accompany me to cosplay and fashion shoots sometimes. My oldest teaches me about what the latest trends in gaming and memes are. When my children were younger, it was more about costumes and playing dress up. But as my kids are getting older, conventions have been more about learning what goes on in the industry.
My oldest son is really into video games and movies. This year at San Diego Comic-Con, he had no desire to cosplay. He was more interested in all the gaming panels and movie panels. I hope that one day his passion for gaming and the experiences of going to convention will lead him into a career path that will make him happy. But if it doesn’t, I hope it provides for some really unique and special family memories.
For Nate and I, geek is our date night. It is our bond. He is also far more into gaming and anime than I will ever be. He has introduced me to the world of Star Trek and Voltron. He is supportive of my crazy geeky endeavors and I am supportive of his.
Why is including your family in this part of your life important to you?
Family is everything. They come first. Always. I truly believe that I am able to indulge in all my geek because they allow me to be myself. I don’t have to hide my crazy from them. They love my geekiness. It is something that would not be as fun or fulfilling if I wasn’t sharing it with them.
Let’s talk about some of your fandoms. You are clearly very, very obsessed with Doctor Who. What was your introduction to the series?
It started about six or seven years ago. My brother and Nathaniel would sit around and binge-watch it. Eventually, my son joined them. I was baffled as to what was so appealing about a British TV show with horrible special effects. It looked really cheesy.
Then one day I sat down and watched one episode. That is all it took. I watched Matt Smith’s first episode as the Doctor and I was hooked! I binge-watched Matt Smith’s run. Went back and caught up on the 9th and 10th Doctor. I was hooked.
Who’s your Doctor?
Is it too soon to say 13? I really don’t know. I have a special place in my heart for the 11th Doctor because he was my first Doctor. But all the Doctors have been so amazing. I can’t pick. But if I had to, out of loyalty I would say the 11th Doctor.
You’re a big fan of new Doctor Jodie Whittaker. Did you get to see her this summer at San Diego Comic-Con?
YES! I was at the Doctor Who panel in Hall H. I briefly said hello to her at the BBC America Booth. Nate and the kids got to have their photo taken with her. She was so kind and sweet to my kids. And as I mentioned earlier, I had the pleasure of photographing her at the Her Universe Fashion Show.
Do you have big plans for the season debut in October?
Yes! We will most likely host a watching party. I made a party guide for Temple Of Geek. It is basically ideas on how to throw a Doctor Who themed party.
What do you think of some of the initial negative reactions to Whittaker’s casting?
I am saddened by it. Initially, I too was skeptical of the idea of a female Doctor. The rumors had been floating around for a bit. I had romanticized the idea of the Doctor. And I didn’t know if I would be happy with a female Doctor.
Well, I was wrong. I am more than happy! The moment the reveal happened, I was on board. I didn’t know how desperately I needed a girl Doctor. I was way more excited about Jodie than I could have imagined. I remember thinking, wow, I can be the Doctor now. Not a gender-bent Doctor Who cosplayer. I can be her!
I understand fans being scared that their favorite TV show is now ruined. I understand that there is some negativity with every regeneration. I am just disappointed in the amount of hate and trolling that has come with it. Especially from fans of a TV show that preaches kindness, empathy, and civility. I hope it changes when they see her in action!
What are some of your other major fandoms?
So many! Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones are the big ones. I also love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix shows. I try to keep up with the DC television shows on the CW. But it is hard to stay consistent. This is why the human race does not advance faster. Too much good programming on TV.
As a woman, is there anything in the world of fandoms or geek culture you’d like to see change?
As a woman, as a mother, as a Mexican American, I would like to see more strong female characters and more characters of color in the world of geek. I want to see it in movies, in television, and in comics. My sons have grown up in a world where Hermione Granger, Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, a female Doctor Who, and an all-female Ghostbusters cast is normal. At least to them it is. To them a female CEO of Stark Industries or a female superhero is normal. I want more of that.
But I would also like them to see that women of color can be superheroes as well. I would like to see Miles Morales’ Spiderman, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, or America Chavez’s Miss America on the big screen. Seeing Pixar’s Coco in theaters last year was so important for us. To see our culture beautifully translated without stereotypes or lame taco jokes was so refreshing. For my sons and for me to see Diego Luna in a lead role in a Star Wars movie, with his Mexican accent, was amazing.
Representation matters. Hearing a movie hero speak with the same accent that your grandfather has or that your father has is so important. I want that for every culture. For every sexual orientation. For people of all abilities. It feels amazing. I want more of that. I want that to be normal in the world my children and grandchildren grow up in.
You also have a passion for geek fashion and cover that subject a lot for Temple of Geek. What do you love about this particular niche of the fashion industry?
I love that it exists! Geek fashion helps me feel empowered. I love that there are so many forms of geek fashion out there. From the high-end geek couture that you see at fashion shows to the more casual everyday wear, I love it all.
I am so happy to be able to wear geek fashion that isn’t just a graphic tee. Don’t get me wrong, I have a large assortment of graphic tees in my wardrobe. But I am a huge geek and I want to wear my fandoms with me at all time. And sometimes a graphic tee isn’t appropriate for certain situations. I struggled with this a lot growing up. I wanted to wear modern trendy styles but I wanted them to have some geek flair. That just wasn’t an option when I was younger.
Growing up I was labeled a “tomboy” because I loved Batman, Ghostbusters, and Wolverine. I wanted to wear my Batman shirt all the time. I believed I was a tomboy because I liked something that only boys seemed to like. I believed it because even though I enjoyed trendy clothing, I wasn’t as in love with it as much as I was my comic book shirts.
In retrospect, I know that wasn’t an accurate description of who I was. I just liked superheroes and I just happened to be a girl. At that time superhero themed clothing wasn’t available to girls. I was teased, not in a mean way, about wanting to wear comic book character clothing. In an effort to fit in, I suppressed my inclinations to wear my fandoms.
At that time and in my world it was considered very dorky. I was never treated badly over it. People just didn’t seem to understand my obsession. But now I am so excited about the fact that there are people out there making clothing for fangirls like me. Styles that are in line with modern trends. Styles with geek flair. ACTUAL FASHION.
I am pretty sure that there are a lot of women out there that experienced the same. But unlike me, not everyone has the opportunity to go to comic book conventions and find these geeky brands. Not everyone has a place in their area where geek clothing is readily available. Temple Of Geek offers me the chance to tell the world about the amazing geek fashion that is out there. It allows me to help spread the word about brands that cater to fans like me. My goal is to show that geek fashion can be a part of your everyday fashion. That it is something that can go beyond the convention floor.
What brands and styles do you most like to wear?
You will most often find me wearing a top from Jordandene or an outfit from Her Universe. Those have been the two brands that I tend to spend the most on. But two other brands that really stand out for me right now are Hero Within and Elhoffer Design. There is something about their trendy and subtle styles that really hits home for me.
Overall and in general, you create and produce a dizzying amount of geeky content. What’s your secret to doing it all?
I try to do only the things that I am passionate about. I tried writing and covering events for genres that I wasn’t a huge fan of and I got tired of it quickly. I had no motivation to write. I had no ideas about how to showcase what I wasn’t truly in love with. I am just a fangirl. I fangirl hard.
When I am writing about something that I love, it is all so easy. I get ideas, I get passionate. I even have a 5 subject notebook by my desk or in my purse (my purses are huge) that I write in constantly. I can’t always execute all the ideas I have, but I write them down in case someday I can. I try to stick to a few things that I can be consistent with. Sometimes I start projects and they don’t always work out. But that’s ok. I tell myself that maybe right now is not the time for that. I move on to the next project and maybe later on I can return to those projects when I am better at what I am doing.
You’ve already accomplished so much, personally and professionally. Is there anything still left on your geek bucket list?
I really just want to grow as a person, as a photographer, and as a professional in general. There is so much to learn. The geek world is huge and vast. I want to share more stories, showcase new artist, visit more conventions. I hope to one day be producing videos that are more than just vlogs. But I still have a lot to learn. I have a lot of goals and they all revolve around getting better at what I do and sharing more geeky fun stuff.