HER UNIVERSE: IT’S YOUR UNIVERSE SPOTLIGHT PANEL
Deep breaths, is what she tells herself as she walks up a flight of stairs. A quick glance to the front row and familiar faces, decked out in goofy clothes and holding small signs, calms her nerves as she steps out onto the stage, waves, and takes her seat. Her smile brightens as she takes in another breath and lets her eyes scan the crowd, smiling brightly, waving and attempting to make eye contact with as many people as possible with a "Hey, guys!" as she made herself comfortable.
She could handle this, she told herself. She'd done it before. She wouldn't panic, she didn't do that anymore. Things would be okay.
Her Universe celebrates 'Geek Couture'. How and why did you come up with this concept?
In 2010, it was a different world for women looking for ways to wear their geeky pride. The options were really limited to childrens -- primarly boys -- and mens clothing, or 'sexy' costumes. I wasn't into any of those things and neither were other women I knew who were into 'geek culture' or whatever you want to call it. I couldn't find merchandise specficially for women that was practical and fashionable, so I decided I was going to make my own! Sometimes, you have to be the solution to your problems. So, I got people together, went about acquriing licensing while in school, and worked on building a business with more experienced people while working on my own education. A lot has changed in a short amount of time and it's not something many people might notice.
And it was hard. LucasFilm didn't want to license out to me and I worked for the! I had a white, male, business partner who said he should be the one going to pitch meetings because they'd respond better to him. Because, you know, young white dude. I never wanted my business represented that way, however, and felt like if they didn't want me, they didn't want my product. We went through a lot in the beginning. A lot of rejection, scrambling to find a name, trying to convince people to license out to us. But, I knew we had something special and not trying wasn't an option.
I wanted people with womens' bodies to have a way to celebrate their love of geek culture in a way that society wasn't providing at the time amd its gotten a lot better since then, but it's still an uphill battle. There's such a want and a need out there for it, still. We've expanded beyond clothing and love to try new things, but that's always going to be our focus.
Do you still feel as if comics are more of a boys' club or has that changed as well?
I think it's definitely still more of a boys' club, but its gotten better. The term 'fake gamer/comic girl' still exists and things like GamerGate happen -- and the fact GamerGame happened is just, you know, proof that we need to talk about these things and make these spaces more friendly for women. It's like... well, women consume all of this media too. Women often consume it more than men. Women invented most of these genres [audience cheers] -- yeah! Women invented or were the inspiration for most of these things or they created technology that's important for its existence. But then we're, like... we're phased out and told we don't really belong or our interest isn't real. And that's a hard pill to swallow. We're not allowed in the things that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for women setting it up.
You're also a black woman trying to make it in the industry. How do you think that's affected your approach to things?
I think that defines how I approach all aspects of my career. It's difficult, well it's actually impossible, for that to not be a hinderance to me in a lot of ways. I have to face racism, sexism, and to a lesser extent, ageism. Because I'm young, black, and a woman, even my Ivy League education isn't enough for some people to take me seriously. I've mentioned people wanting a 'white dude' to be the one to talk to investors and sell my produc, which isn't fair at all. But, I also think that's become one of my greatest assets and that's an important turn-around.
Something that's become a staple at SDCC is the Her Universe fashion show. What inspired you to bring that here?
The fashion show! Six years running now and it just gets better and more popular every year. It started out as us just, you know, coming to Comic-Con hanging out, doing panels, having a booth on the main floor, whatever. But what we started noticing was people using whatever spare place they could get to model these amazing costumes, either ones that were made to look exactly the same or people doing their own takes and versions of these characters. Using opposite-gender styled clothing, steampunk, casual cosplay, full body makeup and/or armor, all of that stuff that's just... fun. Creative. Real shows of talent. We wanted to give people a real runway to walk on that wasn't just a 'cosplay competition'.
So, we got together as our board team and came up with the idea of an actual, proper, fashion show that we pitched to San Diego Comic-Con, who loved it and... here we are now! We get to celebrate with thousands of fans and the media covers it and it's hard to believe we've gotten to this point.
We really alway want to celebrate the fans more than anything. The fashion show winner gets to design a collection with us, showcase their talents to the world, and it gives fans more ways to show off their geek love in clever ways.
Her Universe has taken on so many pop culture moments of the past ten years and you're always tapping into what's hot and new. Do you have a line you're particularly fond or proud of?
I don't -- I don't even know. I actually love the workout lines we did a lot, but a particular thing? That's so much harder to narrow down and it gets to be like picking a favorite child. I don't knw if I can.
You know, that's fair. You've also talked on your blog about having severe anxiety and being more shy and reserved. For someone with anxiety and wanting to break into the industry, it seems scary. How did you overcome that?
Something that I was taught and I live by now: you're the solution to their problems. Don't go into a job interview or a pitch meeting thinking you're destined for failure. Every person sitting on the otherside of that table wants you to be the answer for them and to fill a gap that they need. They're not looking for you to fail or find reasons to find fault in you. You can give them reasons to do that, but they really want you to be the perfect fit. I approach everything in life that way now. No matter how nervous I get or how badly my anxiety gets to me, I want to be the answer to someone's problem. I still get nerves -- my best friend, she's in the audience to help me with that and always comes to these things with me -- but looking at that, that these people want me to succeed and solve their problems, helps with dealing with the fear of rejection or whatever nerves creep up and want to get the best of me.
What about your entertainment-side?
Ah, that was... coincidence and it's also not coincidence that I don't do much outside of it. I did acting as a kid and the opportunity to audition came up, so I took it, not thinking I would actually, like. Get it? But I did and now Ahoska is so near and dear to my heart that I can't imagine life without her having been a part of me. But, acting's not something I ever would have taken up full-time. I was always going to be a behind-the-scenes, mostly, type person.
And in all of this, you've released not one, but two books: A Coloring Book and an autobiography. The latter talks about your career and what it took to get to where you are now. What was that like?
I just -- I just really wanted to share my stories and experiences, right? There are so many girls and women out there who are struggling to find their place, to find direction, and I was there for a really long time. I still am, sometimes, and I wanted to put into words what I thought, felt, and went through and how I found ways to express myself and handle those confusing thoughts and feelings that were, admittedly, hard a lot of the time. I thought that if one girl out there, one woman, could take something away from what I did to get where I am now, it would be worth it. And it's not as if it's a long read, I kept it short and simple on purpose and not because I couldn't be bothered to write more. I just wanted something out there.
We're going to change direction here and talk about Clone Wars a bit--
Would this really be a panel if you didn't?
Just a little bit. How does it feel that Ahsoka Tano -- [the audience cheers] -- that Ahsoka Tano has become one of the most popular and beloved Star Wars characters?
It's really amazing and I'll never get used to that feeling. She was such a fully recoginzed character who went through a very obvious growth and development over time and the fact she means so much to people shows how amazing she was and still is, all these years after Clone Wars debuted. And it's very "Oh my God" to actually stop and think about. As a Star Wars fan, as a kid, I never could have imagined being part of that universe, let alone making an impact. Ahoska resonates so deeply with people and I think it's because she had such a rocky start, but people gave her a chance.
But, I think a lot of that initial hate was because Ahsoka was definitely a 'typical' teenage girl with quirks and facets about her that would be okay when portraying younger boys, but people find irritating on women. She was bratty and didn't have the best self-control. Her voice was loud and whiny and we did that on purpose. And people hated her, but the producers were determined to see her growth through. We see her grow from that to an adult who's compassionate and considered Anakin Skywalker's 'greatest failure', as he called her himself, because of her ability to strike out on her own because of how she sees the Jedi Order.
And that type of arc resonates with people, especially young women, who see her as someone to admire and a role model. When you watch where she starts out and where she ends, it's a fulfilling story. And she's not perfect, she's made her mistakes, she has her flaws. But she was allowed time and room to grow and to get to see her grow from a teenager, over a fifteen year, span, is rad.
Ahsoka's ultimate fate was initally a huge cliffhanger. How did you imagine what happened?
Hashtag: Ahsoka LIVES. [laughs] Come on, I know what I just said, but I want my spin-off. Clone Wars was canceled so suddenly, none of us saw it coming, and we had so many stories still in us. Rebels... was a little unclear as to what was really going on with her. It's the ten year anniversary of the show and those characters still resonate so strongly with people. And, as a fan myself, playing the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker who strikes out on her own and becomes formidable in her own right and helping The Resistance... it was like a dream. [pauses] Because, confession. I grew up a fangirl. I read and wrote fanfic. I watched movies and tv shows 100 times over in a pre-Netflix world. I dressed up as characters I loved. To get to be part of the Star Wars world and in something that's so beloved, it's hard to imagine not being able to go back to that one day.
Since you're a self-professed geek and pop culture obsessed, what are you into other than Star Wars?
Oh. God. Well, like almost every millenial, I grew up disgustingly obsessed with Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings, too. When I was a teen, those are what dominated the internet for me. Anime. I made my parents order me subbed DVDs for presents growing up and I think I still have some of them? [laughs] I was always more Star Wars than Star Trek, but I was so in love with Captain Picard. My Doctor Who phase led to going back and watching old eras. Not, like, all of old Who. But I would fnd out about Doctors and watch their series based on which ones -- and companions -- seemed the most fun and interesting. I know, it's not very exciting stuff, but it's what got me into a lot of things I love. But for present-day stuff? If it or the character is on the website, there's probably a chance my friends have to put up with my screaming about it.
Well, the door is opened, and you mentioned Picard being your favorite Captain, so... who's your favorite Doctor?
Uh, Four and Nine. Sarah Jane and Martha for companions. They both have these moments and quotes that just stick with me, right? For Sarah Jane, it was when someone said she was 'only a girl' and Sarah Jane, absolutley angry and offended, responds that "There's nothing only about being a girl!" And that's something that helped shape me, mentally. With Martha -- oh, Martha never got the hate she deserved from people. She was so real and understandable. Who wouldn't fall for The Doctor? To watch her be in love and be mistreated, to see her rise up from that... that was inspiring. Her entire exit speech was amazing. And the scene when she's stuck in the 1900s, when she lists off the bones in the hand to a racist boss she was stuck with, that was huge in me feeling capable of standing up for myself and selling my work.
I gushed about the companions there, but Four and Sarah Jane are just top tier Doctor Who for myself. Nine will always hold a special place in my heart, however, because he's the first modern Doctor I saw and that's just how it goes!
Perhaps most importantly, what advice do you have for people trying to get into the business?
It's hard. It's a lot of crying and stress and disappointment. A lot of... uh, not sleeping? The reality is, not everyone can chase their dreams and not everyone is going to make their dreams come true. I won't pretend otherwise. But, for someone in the right circumstances, it's still incredibly hard for... well, most of us. Maybe some people have it super easy and good for them, but it's a long process that, for me, managed to pay off with persistence. I know how lucky I am for that.
Alright, now it's time for a Q&A from the audience. So if you guys could calmly line up at the microphones, that would be great!