- Associated Press - Sunday, September 24, 2017

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Alicia Renae Lewis is known to wear a few hats and to magically morph into more than a few characters.

As the head cook at St. John’s Place Afterschool Program at Marcum Terrace she is known as “Miss Alicia” to the kids whom she feeds daily and somehow gets to eat their vegetables.

At Paula Vega Cakes, where she has worked for the past four years, she is the culinary school-trained pastry artist known by some as “the pie lady,” who creates the so-good-they-are-almost-illegal pies like Bourbon Pecan.

Off the clock, and at anime conventions both near and far away, Lewis is known as Alicia Rei, a popular body positive cosplayer with Kiss A Frog Cosplay. She’s inspired legions of fans from L.A., where she appeared earlier this summer, to her upcoming appearance at Hal-Con, one of eastern Canada’s largest anime conventions that will run in Halifax, Nova Scotia from Sept. 21-24.

And, of course, here at home at Tsubasacon, where she is on staff for the Oct. 13-15 anime convention at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena.



For the 26-year-old Lewis, who has lived in Huntington for five years, her love and energy for life and people was planted long ago.

A native of Princeton, West Virginia, Lewis was adopted when she was two weeks old by her mom, Sharon Lewis, a single mother, who runs the Women’s Health Center in Charleston, and who, along with her godfather, a family friend who passed away in 2013, instilled in her a fearlessness to dive strongly into life.

“She is an incredible woman who is very busy and dedicated and who works really hard, and she instilled in me the importance of being a black independent woman, and not to just fit that stereotype, but to know that I didn’t need to depend on anybody to help me, and I didn’t need to depend on a partner to make it,” Lewis said. “I am engaged now, so it is hard to disassociate some of those core values my mother instilled in me because my partner is very sweet and hands on and wants to help, but my mother taught me to be strong on my own and to take no s(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk).”

Here in the city, many people know Lewis from her work at Paula Vega Cakes, where she has worked for the past four years. She graduated from Mountwest Community and Technical College’s Culinary Program in 2016.

Lewis was the head cake artist for a year and a half, then did cupcakes, and now does pies, as well as cupcakes and cookies.

“I have ADHD, so a desk job is not something for me, and I love cooking and being hands on. Being elbow deep in icing every day is something I really enjoy, and coming home smelling like sugar is a joy for me,” Lewis said with a laugh.

Lewis said she loves the creativity of coming up with new pastry ideas. She just did a no-bake Oreo cheesecake on a graham cracker crust with homemade whipped cream and Oreo crumbles that sold like hotcakes, and she is working on a new cupcake made with Biscoff cookies, an idea she got on the airplane ride to L.A.

Lewis said the sweetest thing about working at the cake shop though is just the enjoyable environment that Vega has created and fostered.

“I love my job, and I love the people I work with. Paula is an excellent boss. I treasure her because she is very uplifting and is kind of a mom figure to all of us who work there,” Lewis said. “She has always been very flexible. I worked when I went to school full time, and she was always ready to accommodate me going to class, and she creates a really enjoyable work environment that I love to be in.”

That kind of mom team spirit sure comes in handy at her second job, which is helping her long-time friend Shane Belcher cook at the St. John’s after-school program at Marcum Terrace, a job that popped up right after she graduated in 2016.

“They have to comply with school food rules and the USDA, but I kind of transformed the way the kids were eating and the nutritional program, and the kids have loved it ever since,” Lewis said. “We have little kids who were picky, but I got them to eat their vegetables and can get them to eat something besides chicken tenders and french fries.”

Lewis said the job is priceless for the heart-melting little smiling faces of kids who are quick with a hug and a “Thank you Miss Alicia.”

“For me - and I get really personal about this - … seeing the kids at Marcum Terrace who need a little extra love, to me it is not just making sure they get fed and having a safe environment for a couple hours after school, but they also need a lot of love and they need a hug and they need some structure, and Shane and I do that. The looks on their faces and the thank-you-Miss Alicias, or when they come up and hug me and say thank you for feeding me, that is my moment. That is the satisfaction. That is why I do my job.”

As for her hobby of cosplaying that has now turned into opportunities to travel around North America, she got into it sort of by accident with an invite to Tsubasacon in 2012.

“My friend Katie Abbott, who was going to Marshall at the time, messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘Hey are you going to Tsubasacon?’ I had no idea what that was, but I did my research, and I was I like, ‘Well I like anime, I like pop culture, I watch this show, so why not go?’ I was doing research into Japanese Lolita fashion, which is very over the top and fits my personality. I kind of accessorized it up and went to Tsubasacon for the first time. I had been there for less than 10 minutes and I said to myself, ‘I am home, I am home.’ I was surrounded by the people who love the things I love, and we could carry on conversations for hours.”

Lewis, who loves anime, video gaming and pop culture, said she fell into the Tsubasacon family of fellow nerdy friends and in addition to Tsubasacon found herself making her own cosplay page in 2014 - Kiss A Frog Cosplay (https://www.facebook.com/KissaFrogCosplay/) - and dressing up as some of her favorite characters like Sailor Mars from Sailor Moon.

“I cosplay characters who don’t look like me or who have a different body type. It is something that is important for me to let people know that there are people of color who cosplay and that representation in the cosplay community … matters. We are out here doing incredible work, and we are cosplayers, prop makers and seamstresses,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who will be Princess Serenity from Sailor Moon (complete with a costume that has an eight-foot-train) at Tsubasacon this year, said her cosplay experience got a whole lot deeper back in March 2015.

Afropunk, an influential community of young, gifted people of all backgrounds who speak through music, art, film, comedy, fashion and more, shared a photo of Lewis, who was then 330 pounds, in her Sailor Mars cosplay outfit. The share blew up her social media and charted her on a new depth of cosplay.

“I woke up to text message and emails and Facebook messages like, ‘You need to check your Facebook,’ and I thought, ‘Did somebody die?’ No it was like 30,000 likes on that photo in that AfroPunk post,” Lewis said. “My Facebook page went from 3,000 likes to 10,000 likes in two weeks. That is when the cosplay inquiries stated pouring in. That is the point where cosplaying for fun became cosplaying on a whole new level for me; I now had a demand. Cosplay is still fun, I never ever expected or wanted what people call cosfame, or being recognized for your cosplay talent, because at the end of the day I am just a nerdy woman of color who likes to dress up on the weekends and hang out with her friends.”

That may be so, but that circle of friends and sphere of influence is growing.

From that initial surge of popularity, Lewis was invited to the annual Anime Expo in Los Angles, and she is a guest at HalCon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as her schedule went from two or three conventions in a year to nine this year.

“It has been a very busy convention year, and it has been fun. I have met incredible people, and I have met people who said I have saved their life - that my posts have brought them out of depression, and given them the courage to cosplay and wear the things they want to cosplay. I have always been body positive and I have always been a person to advocate to wear what you want and be who you are, no matter your size your color, your religion, your sex or sexual orientation.”

The past year too has brought other sea changes as well.

She and her boyfriend, Justin Abbott-Sylvester, whom she met at IndyCon, where she was on a panel about Cosplaying Against Bullying, are now engaged.

Lewis, who had been single for seven years, found Justin in what she calls the nerd community where they both love cosplay and both have PlayStation 4’s and share a gaming library.

And last October, after having really serious health issues, she opted for gastric sleeve surgery. She has since lost 140 pounds and now is dealing with what she calls the very difficult mental and physical adjustment.

Lewis, who wants to drop two more sizes, said her size hasn’t changed her mission of sharing the gospel of body positivity.

“Even when I was heavier I loved the body that I was in, and loved the way that I looked,” Lewis said. “I have always been a very confident person and always tried to make other people comfortable and confident and love the body they are in. Some people have told me because I lost weight that I am not body positive. That is not true. The size that is stamped into the back of your pants should not define who you are as a person, and it should not define your worth.”

For someone for whom cosplaying has given so much, Lewis said she loves giving back and helping here and where she can.

She is part of a group called the CausePlayers who dress up and do hospital visits for kids at Charleston Area Medical Center during the holidays.

For her 25th birthday, she and her friends raised $1,100 with which she bought three Wii U game systems for three West Virginia Children’s Home Society homes.

“I want to make a difference and to give back to the society that gave me a home,” Lewis said. “Without the West Virginia Children’s Home Society I do not know where I would be today. They helped my mom find me, so I wanted to do something for the kids still in the shelters and still looking for homes and for forever families. The least I could do it is to get them a game system to help them hang out for a while.”

While Lewis is super stoked to go to Nova Scotia next weekend for Hal-Con, she is also that stoked, as a staff member of Tsubasacon, to help make special touches to make the home con even better. She is helping put on the popular Maid Cafe, which is popular in Japan, with girls dressed up in cute and tasteful costumes and serving and hanging out with customers. She started it last year and the Cafe - and its Paula Vega Cakes - were a huge hit.

Lewis, who has a friend coming in from Washington state to be a part of Tsubasacon, said it is an awesome feeling in Huntington now for fellow nerds with things like the recent Power Up Retro Video Game Convention and places like Rare Drops and Game Stop where fellow gamers congregate.

“There is something magical about Huntington I think because the pop culture and the nerd community is so tight-knit. So if there is something going on, we know and we kind of promote each other and talk up ideas to each other, so if somebody has an idea it sort of comes to life,” Lewis said. “It is so neat to live here and to have West Virginia’s premiere anime convention just down the street and to know we are bringing in thousands of people for a weekend. It is so neat to see the community come together around a positive culture that needs to be here. For a weekend, all of our other problems just go away. They disappear, and we can come together and be ourselves, and dress up and be silly and walk around in our big princess gowns and craft foam and and worbla armor and just be amazing.”

Lewis said she hopes even more people in the region come and dress up and check out Tsubasacon and feel the magic that has helped transform her life.

“I know a lot of people speak about this how conventions are like safe havens where you can go for three or four days and be yourself, and step out of the mundane day-to-day life, if you have one, and be your favorite superhero, or that one character you loved growing up,” Lewis said. “There is something empowering if you identify so much with a character. There is something magical about cosplay that can bring you out of your shell and into a different mindset and space and conventions do that.”

___

Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com

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