Isha Aran / Fusion

For women who like to dress up as fantasy characters—and take pride in capturing every last spandex detail in their costumes—their authenticity can be one helluva double-edged superhero sword.

On one hand, embodying their favorite comic book or sci-fi character can feel euphoric and empowering—but on the other, their sexy "cosplay" can make them easy targets for men who see them more as two-dimensional characters than real, live humans.

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This push and pull was on full display this past weekend at New York Comic Con, where fans of comics, anime, sci-fi, and other such nerdery brought their cosplay A-game to Manhattan's Javits Center—as prominently placed signs warned visitors that "Cosplay Is Not Consent." The PSA campaign, which launched last year, is meant to remind fans that, no matter what cosplayers are wearing, they should keep their offensive remarks—and hands—to their damn selves.

As a comics nerd myself—if I wasn't wearing a press pass at the con, I probably would've worn a Harley Quinn costume—I was curious how the ~professional~ cosplayers are navigating these dicey waters. Yes, professionals. For a handful of women, donning costumes isn't just a hobby, but a job.

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Over two days, I spoke with five kickass cosplay models about the ways their fantasy personas empower them, as well as the harassment they've faced. Their experiences—or at least the ones they were willing to share in public—were both horrifying and heartening.

Maridah, 31
Dressed as Rei Ayanami (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
14.1K Instagram followers

The first cosplay model I spoke with goes by the stage name Maridah. When she’s not being flown around the country to cosplay at events, she works with a mobile gaming company in California.

Maridah told me that most of the harassment she's faced has been online, although she's experienced a few disturbing IRL encounters, too. "The worst I had was someone go into my hotel room, and, uh, do something lewd on one of the chairs and take some clothing," she told me. "In the moment, it’s really terrible, but you just kind of weigh your interest and passion for creating this form of fan art and interacting with really good people against the bad situations."

Despite these instances, Maridah loves her work: "Definitely there’s thousands more good things that happen over the bad things."

Crystal Graziano, 24
Dressed as Asuka Langley Soryu (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
7.9K Instagram followers

For Maridah's boothmate, Crystal Graziano, 24, cosplay is an escape. Along with being a model, Graziano works as a professional illustrator based in California.

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"It’s what I do for fun," she told me of her cosplay work. "I mean, when I do get into full costume, even if it’s revealing—I’ve got my heels on, I’ve got my makeup done—so I feel powerful like that."

As for her encounters with what she calls "rude" onlookers? "If you’ve got a big sword, then it’s like, screw you." Touché.

Emily Addison, 31
Dressed as "Whore-othy"
(No official social media presence)

For Emily Addison—Penthouse covergirl, Heavy Metal cover model, and New York-based cosplay model—the harassment has been relatively mild.

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"I feel like, in this scene, people are generally respectful," she told me. "I used to work in the adult industry, and there is where you will definitely get a lot of harassment. So I got a tough skin from that."

She's also learned to turn a blind eye. "If it’s happening, I’m not noticing it, because it’s not that obvious," she said of her experience. "I’m completely an exhibitionist—I like having my photo taken, getting people to come over here."

Marissa Jade, 31
Dressed as Destiny, Queen of Thieves
9.2K Instagram followers

When I asked Marissa Jade—a model, actress, and Mob Wives cast member—if she had ever faced harassment, she told me, “No, never.” The Staten Island native said that, for the most part, she only dresses up as her own character from the comic book Destiny: Queen of Thieves. (Yes, her own character! A few years ago, Jade was approached by publisher Scare Tactix Graphix to model for a new comic book character, and she worked with the creators to develop Destiny.)

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Jade revels in her role, but also appeared to be totally cool with old-fashioned gender norms. "I love being a woman in a man’s world," she said. "I’m a very strong woman—so believe me, I’m not trying to be better than a man. I believe a man should be top dog, you know? We need someone to hold us and take care of us. I like being a strong woman and having a strong man."

Ani-Mia, age not given
Dressed as Evil Supergirl
80.4K Instagram followers

Finally, I chatted with model Ani-Mia—a Maryland resident, according to her website, who used to recruit for Microsoft before becoming a full time cosplayer.

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"I got really lucky that I have a really good fan base," she told me. "I don’t get a lot harassment, but I have seen it come out."

She continued, "The community is so great and so sweet and so understanding and so supportive, but as it becomes more mainstream—and it gets out to people who don’t really understand it, don’t know what it is, and don’t understand how much courage it takes for someone to go out in costume—I think that’s where you tend to see that."

Her advice? "I always tell people to stay within the community. They’re the ones that love you. Forget about what people outside the community say, because they don’t understand."

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For her, the work is, in fact, a labor of love. "I love strong female characters. I love being able to be that character that I looked up to when I was growing up."