Geek friendships are the best friendships.
For proof, look no further than the story of geeky small business owners Arkeida Wilson, Danielle Reichman, and Jenny Cheng. After connecting through the meetup group Geek Girl Brunch and continuing to bump into each other at related New York City events, they teamed up to form a podcast.
Fandom and Wellness explores the complex relationship between fandom and mental health. The three hosts speak frankly and boldly about issues that are often seen as “taboo,” but are common within the geek community — anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, mental health in the media, and the impact of geek culture on mental health. Nothing is off the table.
Launched in 2018, Fandom and Wellness also highlights the importance of diversity and representation in the media. The hosts have delved into such topics as sobriety, fandom as healthy escapism, cartoons and childhood development, Good Omens and autism, Moana and trauma, The Matrix trilogy and the trans experience, and Captain Marvel and the Bechdel Test. They’ve interviewed authors, experts, geeky business owners, psychologists, cosplayers, drag queen costume designer Whitney Newman, and Cake Boss star Ralph Attanasia.
When they’re not collaborating on the podcast, Arkeida, Danielle, and Jenny are busy running their own geeky businesses.
Arkeida devotes her energies to building her brand, Classy Rebel Design, which specializes in vintage-inspired geekbound apparel, designed and manufactured in New York. She’s aiming to launch some preorders in April.
Jenny and her college friend, Rose Del Vecchio, founded FanMail Box, which curates limited edition fandom-themed boxes for “lady geeks.” This endeavor has supported more than 100 small businesses run by underrepresented women, nonbinary and gender nonconforming creators.
Danielle is the owner, designer, and seamstress of Little Petal, the successful fashion brand she started in 2013. Little Petal offers handmade “geek chic” convertible dresses made to individual measurements. Through it, Danielle promotes inclusion, body positivity, LGBTQ+ equality, and intersectional feminism.
Read on to learn more about the individual endeavors of the Fandom and Wellness team, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the podcast, and a chat about geek culture, mental health, toxic fandom, community, friendship, and more.
You are the hosts of the Fandom and Wellness podcast, which explores the relationship between fandoms and mental health and highlights the importance of diversity and representation. You’re also entrepreneurs with your own geeky small businesses. Tell me how the three of you met.
Jenny: Years ago, we all separately became involved in Geek Girl Brunch, a meetup group for geeky ladies, and the various communities that branched off from GGB. We kept running into each other at NYC events and online and eventually became friends. At one point, I offered to take photos of Danielle’s dresses. Danielle and Arkeida bonded over their love of Harley Quinn. Arkeida and I talked at parties until, voilà, we were friends.
Arkeida: Yeah, I don’t think we ever actually had official first meetings. And one of our first recordings was Danielle formally introducing me to Jenny, even though we’d “known” each other for some time now. But GGB was the thread that connected us all together.
Danielle: The preludes are that Jordandené and I were hosting a geek girl after-party at AwesomeCon and Jenny’s company, FanMail, donated door prizes. We officially met when we vended at GeekGirlCon and I roped her into being my friend by asking her to model for me. Arkeida happened to stop by my booth at New York Comic Con, years before we really met at Geek Girl Brunch, and we did one of those you-look-familiars.
A podcast dedicated to fandom and wellness is such a unique and excellent idea. How did the podcast come to be?
Danielle: I have been vocal on social media about my mental health for a long time. As a result, I was able to have personal and open conversations with my customers and fellow geeky business owners about their mental health. I realized that anxiety and depression were actually very common in the geek community — but no one was talking about it.
I decided to create a fandom and mental health podcast that would generate empathetic and thoughtful conversations about the portrayal of mental health in media and the impact of modern geek culture on mental health. I invited Jenny to host it with me because she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and Arkeida because her truthful posts on social media speak volumes. The rest is history.
Describe your collaborative group dynamic. What do each of you bring to this project?
Jenny: As people with different backgrounds and experiences, we all bring different perspectives to the project. It is important to me to have some levity on the show to balance out the heavy topics we address, so I always try to bring some humor to each episode. I also act as the tech whiz!
Arkeida: I’d like to think that I bring new ideas. My brain thinks a lot about all the possibilities we can talk about. Obviously we can’t talk about it all and we do all have to come to an agreement on the episode we are doing. In addition, I talk about the Black experience in nerd culture and mental health while understanding that we are not a monolith. There are a lot of similar experiences within our group, but we all have many differences in how things affect our lives.
Danielle: As someone with privilege (white/cis), it’s deeply important to me to critique things I love, regardless of how nostalgic I am for them. I care very deeply about many issues, including wrongful convictions, trans rights, and abusive relationships. I try to bring that passion and those interests to the podcast, as well as facts because we are not actual psychologists so it’s important to be responsible. All three of us also bring the giggles because we’re friends.
Tell me a little about what kind of work goes into producing one of your podcast episodes.
Jenny: At the beginning of the year, we brainstormed and chose topics for the year. Before each episode recording, we collaboratively write and organize the show notes for each episode. If the episode requires research, we divide up the work among the three of us. After recording the episode, I do the audio editing and upload the final episode for release.
The Fandom and Wellness podcast has covered such topics as sobriety, anxiety and depression, fandom as healthy escapism, cartoons and childhood development, Good Omens and autism, Moana and trauma, The Matrix trilogy and the trans experience, Captain Marvel and the Bechdel Test, and the cultural significance of Miles Morales. Where do you find inspiration for the topics and fandoms you discuss?
Jenny: We want this show to be fun for us, so we always choose topics that interest us personally. It’s not hard to connect most media to mental health in some way. We also try to stay at least slightly relevant by doing episodes about new movie releases or when a TV series ends.
You’ve had some cool special guests on the podcast. How do you decide who you want to invite on?
Jenny: We love having guests on our podcast because we always appreciate having different personalities and perspectives on our show. We make an effort to invite individuals with unique points of view and experts in relevant fields. For example, we interviewed Whitney Newman, a fashion designer for drag queens. We also spoke to Andrea Letamendi who, unlike us, is a real psychologist.
What have been some of your favorite/most memorable guests or episodes so far?
Jenny: I really enjoyed having Cáel Keegan on the show to talk about the Matrix as a trans allegory. He is a professor at Grand Valley State University and wrote a book about the work of Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Cáel’s knowledge of LGBTQ cultures, identities, and histories allowed him to provide compelling evidence that The Matrix is a trans allegory.
Danielle: My favorite is also “The Matrix is a Trans Allegory” with Cáel Keegan because it was just such a brilliant episode and everything I wanted this podcast to be. But we recently put out an episode called “Romanticized Unhealthy Relationships” where we discussed things such as how Disney movies shaped our minds in problematic ways, the cycle of abuse in relation to Harley and the Joker, and how crucial it is to never shame someone in an abusive relationship, regardless of how much fear you are feeling for them.
Arkeida: Absolutely loved talking to Rachel and Geisha V about cosplay and Darais Prince in the Into the Spiderverse episode. Cosplay is a bigger part of my life than I sometimes admit and hearing about how it intertwines in the lives of others is so fascinating! Being a girl from Brooklyn and seeing the communities that I’ve grown up in shown in a non-gentrified and not criminalized way in Into the Spiderverse — there is something so beautiful about that.
In each of your experiences, how can fandom be beneficial to wellness and mental health?
Jenny: Fandom just makes people happy. I fall in love with these TV and movie characters and I derive so much joy from following their journeys.
Fandom also brings people together. Feeling like you belong to a community is so important to improving mental health.
Danielle: Sometimes it gives people who feel very alone in the world a character to relate to.
Arkeida: It’s such a fun escape from the hard realities we have to experience in our lives. Sometimes the shows and movies we watch, or books and comics we read, mimic our real lives and shine a light on the things we need to fix. Fandom can also help create strong bonds and friendships with the people we meet from sharing these common interests whether IRL or via the net.
I think there’s also a growing awareness that geek culture can sometimes be a negative thing and even damaging to mental health. We hear the term “toxic fandom” a lot. What are your thoughts about that?
Jenny: Toxic fandom is what happens when people are unable to accept the opinions and experiences of others and attack them for it. Toxic fandom is what makes positive communities of open-minded and empathetic people like Geek Girl Brunch so important. I think it is important to curate your online fandom experience by following people who are good for your mental health and blocking people who are not.
Danielle: We definitely take cracks at Fake Geek Boys a lot on the podcast. For example, we discussed toxic fandoms on the Rise of Skywalker episode in relation to Rose Tico/ Kelly Marie Tran and Jar Jar Binks/Ahmed Best. I think the best way to combat it is to just surround yourself with geek girls/ nonbinary folks because all we want to do is pump each other up and call each other cute and smart.
The three of you speak openly about some “difficult” or “taboo” subjects, such as suicidal ideation. Why is it important to you to be open and honest about these things?
Jenny: No one is ever alone. Someone in the world is experiencing what you’re experiencing and if you talk about it, you can find out who is also feeling the same way you do.
Danielle: The only way to destigmatize subjects incorrectly viewed as shameful is to speak openly about them. As someone who has had suicidal ideation, and many friends die by suicide, I have found that it is a topic that is difficult to even bring up without invoking fear. I wanted to discuss it because it is common, being open about it has personally saved my life, and burying those feelings only leads to isolation, guilt, and nothing getting better.
At times, we get into discussions when deciding on episodes about if the topic will be too negative- because many mental health topics are overwhelming and come from a deep, potentially dark place. But creating a space where people feel less alone, where we can talk about heavy issues, is positive overall and has caused many people to interact with us about how we have helped them process their own traumas and be more open. We all really support going to therapy.
Arkeida: Same. People need to know that they aren’t the only ones that have these things in their lives to deal with. Not only that — it’s hard for people already in any of the situations we talk about to reach out or they just don’t know where to start out. So we try to include resources in our episodes so some can take those first, second or even third steps to better mental health.
Arkeida, what’s your geek origin story?
For that, I would need a time machine back to my adolescence days of running home after school so I could watch episodes of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Since then it’s only grown. I started watching reruns of Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: Evolution was another after school show I’d watch. I guess those were my first loves and I’ve not looked back since then.
What are some of your favorite fandoms?
Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, DC Comics. Anything with my girls Harley Quinn or Starfire, and X-men. I remember growing up and my uncles giving me my first X-men comics, I had no idea how to care for them then — but that interest soon grew into love. And even now, it’s been amazing meeting the friends I’ve made in my adult years through these fandoms.
Jenny, what’s your geek origin story?
Being a geek is just unabashedly loving something. Everyone’s a geek for something. My first love was music. I loved Green Day and My Chemical Romance and Panic! at the Disco. That was called bandom back in the day. I devoured fanfiction. I waited hours on line for concerts.
Then I fell in love with Smallville, Charmed, Supernatural, Teen Wolf … the list goes on.
I only really started going to conventions when I started FanMail and started meeting other fans in person. There is no place like a convention. To be physically surrounded by all that intense enthusiasm and excitement is amazing.
What are some of your favorite fandoms?
Right now, I am a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is Tony Stark truly dead if he is alive in my heart?
I am also a big fan of comedy shows like Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn 99.
Also, shout out to my OG fandom, My Chemical Romance, for rising up out of the ashes.
Danielle, tell me your geek origin story.
I grew up playing Atari and Genesis, watching Batman and X-Men Animated, and roleplaying Star Wars action figures with my brothers who were close in age. Nerdy things were a big part of my childhood and adolescence.
I worked at St. Mark’s Comics throughout college at Pratt Institute and read (not overexaggerating) almost every title that came out each week — which affected my fashion design work (EVERYTHING became geek inspired. My senior thesis in 2009 was inspired by the Green Lantern Corps.). It basically sealed the deal that I would start my own business in geek fashion.
Dogs. My fandom is dogs and Halloween. But seriously — Steven Universe is the best show that has ever been on television. Please watch it, please have the kids in your life watch it. There is also a running joke about me that if I view something as a favorite, it’s probably tattooed on me somewhere.
Futurama. The Twilight Zone. Harley Quinn. Star Wars. Harry Potter (f*ck J.K. Rowling). Something no one tells you about running your own geeky business is that you won’t have time to read anymore — so I survive on podcasts and audiobooks. Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom and The Arkham Sessions are my two favorites.
The three of you aren’t only podcast hosts. You’re entrepreneurs and each have your own geeky small businesses.
Danielle, your fashion brand, Little Petal, offers handmade “geek chic” convertible dresses made to individual measurements. Your brand promotes inclusion, body positivity, LGBTQ+ equality, and intersectional feminism. Tell me how you started the business and why you seek to promote these values through it.
Little Petal was originally a custom geeky bridal dress company in 2011, but I switched to convertible dresses in 2013 after a friend asked me to make her a solid navy one to wear on tour each night with her band. Afterward, I thought, “This would be cooler if it were based on Wonder Woman.” I designed about a dozen more, listed the character concepts on Facebook, asked, “Would anyone want these?” and within an hour each was claimed.
After that, and still, I make new designs based on special order. Every single dress has been handmade by me, to the customer’s measurements. I have always asked my customers to model because nothing looks more authentic or brings me more joy than the smile on someone’s face when they first get their dress, twirl in it, and scream about pockets.
My customers have become a found family to me. I describe myself as the least capitalist business owner ever because it is always more important to me to promote inclusion than to promote sales. I strive to raise money for as many nonprofits as possible (RAINN, Planned Parenthood, Jim Collins Foundation, To Write Love On Her Arms, Dilly Pro Bono, Association for Women in Science) and recently started gifting dresses to exonerated women after donating to The Innocence Project. I also now give half off to AMAB trans women who are replacing their wardrobes to make life a little easier.
I believe that brands get to choose what they represent and how to use their platform. We choose if our models are all thin and all white or if they represent everyone. We choose whether or not to charge a “fat tax.” We choose whether to listen to and amplify marginalized voices — or speak over them. We are living in a time when silence equals violence if you are a privileged person.
While I do not believe in self-declared safe spaces, I try to create a space where people who have felt unsafe can feel at home and can nerd out together knowing a whole group has their back. I only want to create dresses for someone who I know will accompany a trans person to the bathroom if they need that type of comfort. It is my dream for the sight of a Little Petal dress to be synonymous with safety. To even have access to The Little Petal Alliance Facebook group, you must literally state that “trans women are women and black lives matter.”
Is there any news or something you’d like to promote in regard to Little Petal?
I recently started a Ko-Fi, where I do monthly subscription plans for anyone who wants to do split payments. I love it so much! It’s all my favorite customers who want a closet full of Little Petal! There are dresses that aren’t available on my site, it comes with a “fast pass” so you get your dresses faster than the normal turnaround, you get to pick any dress for one set price, and it is now the only place I do custom designs (which I am VERY happy about).
Also, just this week — thanks to the success of the Ko-Fi, I hired Aylin Aquino and Jordandene Social to help take over my social media (a constant source of burnout for me), and a part-time assistant to help me at my studio. Running a small business alone for almost a decade is extremely difficult, so this will be life-changing for me.
Facebook Group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/thepetalalliance.
Arkeida, your business is Classy Rebel Design, which specializes in vintage-inspired geekbound apparel, designed and manufactured in New York. Tell me a little about this brand how you started it.
I guess it began through cosplay and my own personal style. I’ve always had an affinity for pinup/retro styles. And I also want to be nerdy without wearing a men’s t-shirt! Which early on, was very difficult to do.
So one year, I was doing a group cosplay and, because of my sewing background, I ended up helping some of the folks involved. One of them was Robyn of Geek Girl Strong and she suggested that I should be designing my own stuff. And that was back at the end of 2017. And in a way, I had always wanted to do it but it felt like I needed permission and validation to even attempt it, and her encouraging words were really the spark for that.
Since then I’ve tried many ways to get my business up and running and hit a lot of dead ends. But I am finally in a place where I can be happy about the progress I’ve made because starting and running a clothing label is such a difficult thing to do. So I really commend and look up to Danielle who has been running Little Petal for years.
Do you have any news or something you’d like to promote in regard to Classy Rebel Design?
Heck yeah! I’m hoping that I will have some fun, new pieces ready for preorder in April! And I have several designs that are in the works that will slowly be released throughout the year. And they will all soon be available on my website: http://classyrebeldesign.com/.
Jenny, you and Rose Del Vecchio founded FanMail Box, which offers limited edition fandom-themed boxes for “lady geeks.” This endeavor has supported more than 100 small businesses run by underrepresented women, nonbinary and gender nonconforming creators. Tell me how FanMail came to be.
I went to college with my co-founder, Rose. In 2014, she asked me if I wanted to start a pop culture company with her and I agreed. We realized that there was a serious lack of pop culture merchandise for women in the market, so we eventually landed on doing a pop culture subscription box for women.
Every box contained a treasure trove of items from various fandoms. We have since moved on to doing single-fandom limited edition boxes and a licensed quarterly Charmed subscription box.
Is there any news or something you’d like to promote in regard to FanMail?
We have an exciting MCU project coming up, so if you’re a big Marvel fan, follow us on social media or join our mailing list!
Mailing List: http://eepurl.com/drzu1n.
The motto of Fandom and Wellness is “Be kind and take no shit.” How do the three of you practice this in your own lives?
Jenny: I love this motto because I always strive to be kind and empathetic, but also not so much that I am not standing up for myself.
Danielle: Like Jenny, I also have endless empathy. We’re both Hufflepuffs and this feels like a very Puff motto (Arkeida’s a Ravenclaw. All three of us are badasses.). The longer I’m alive, the less tolerance I have for people who aren’t kind to me. It used to eat away at me (sometimes it still does), and gaslighting ruined the better half of a decade of my life. Now I’ve learned that the best way to take no shit is to just know who you are, stay strong in that, and live.
What are your future dreams, goals, or hopes for the Fandom and Wellness podcast?
Jenny: I just want to keep releasing podcast episodes that generate empathetic and thoughtful conversations around fandom and mental health. I would love to grow our listenership, keep getting interesting guests on the show, and do more live panels at conventions.
If readers would like to support the podcast, what’s the best way they can go about that?
Jenny: You can support us by listening to our podcast, giving us a review and rating on Facebook or wherever you listen to the podcast, and supporting us on Patreon!
Danielle: We read reviews on air, and they help more than most people realize. Patreon support goes directly towards the creation of the podcast, which the three of us currently produce, but I would LOVE if we could afford to hire an editor to give Jenny a mental break (editing is very time consuming)!
Listen here: https://pod.link/1448641631.
You can also follow us on social media or support us in Patreon.