Nerd Culture

Addicted to Heroines: Women Dominant Among 10 Best Cosplayers in the PHX

Sara Moni as Storm from X-Men.
Sara Moni as Storm from X-Men. Courtesy of Sara Moni

Amber Malinski has an alter ego. A few of them, actually.

For 180 days each year, the 25-year-old Valley resident oversees a classroom full of third graders at a local elementary school. To many, that already makes her a bona fide heroine, especially in light of the #RedforEd movement and all the challenges that educators grapple with these days.

Once Malinski leaves campus, however, the lithesome blonde retires to her secret sanctum (also known as her house) where she becomes AmberSkies, geek heroine.

So what’s her superpower? Why, the ability to transform herself into any number of famed characters from comics, movies, and video games, including The X-Men’s Emma Frost, Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It Ralph, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Malinski is a cosplayer, or someone who enjoys creating and wearing costumes, particularly those of a geeky nature, especially at geek events like the annual Phoenix Comic Fest (formerly known as Phoenix Comicon).

click to enlarge Amber Skies as Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy.  - JULIUS PHOTOGRAPHY
Amber Skies as Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy.

She has been involved with cosplay (a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play”) and transforming herself into beloved characters for several years now.

And she’s become quite popular, too. The folks from Marvel Entertainment are fans of her efforts, as are her students.

“My kids all know what I do and love it that their teacher dresses up and does stuff like this,” Malinski says. “It helps fuels my love of teaching.”

She’ll interface with a lot of her fans this weekend at this year’s Phoenix Comic Fest, which runs from Thursday, May 24, to Sunday, May 27, at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Malinski will also encounter plenty of other local cosplayers who will have booths alongside her space in the event’s cavernous “Hall of Heroes” on the third floor of the convention center’s north building. And, like Malinski, many of the best of them are women who enjoy dressing as famous heroines.

And eight of them are also featured on our list of the best cosplayers in Phoenix. Just like Thanos hunting down the Infinity Stones, we’ve tracked down the biggest and best cosplayers in the Valley in honor of Phoenix Comic Fest this weekend.

A majority of the list features female cosplayers like Malinski, who are each helping bring girl power to the Valley’s costuming scene.

click to enlarge Sara Moni as Storm from X-Men. - COURTESY OF SARA MONI
Sara Moni as Storm from X-Men.
Courtesy of Sara Moni
Sara Moni

Sara Moni does a spot-on cosplay of Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy and does it well. Phenomenally well, even. So fantastically that you might even think you've crossed over into the actual Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit before Thanos, um … never mind. Spoilers.).

click to enlarge Sara Moni as Michiko Malandro of the anime series Michiko & Hatchin. - JULIUS PHOTOGRAPHY
Sara Moni as Michiko Malandro of the anime series Michiko & Hatchin.

Granted, we might be overstating our case here, but the local cosplayer excels at being the green-skinned badass. Ditto for her portrayals of Storm from X-Men or Akasha from the movie version of Queen of the Damned.

As much the 20-something cosplayer excels at stepping into the spandex of such famed characters, she’s also has a yen for playing more obscure ones as well.

Like Tanya from Mortal Kombat X, for example, Michiko Malandro of the anime series Michiko & Hatchin, or Dragonball Z’s Jeice.

“The characters I tend to like aren’t popular, and you can’t just go out and buy costumes for them; you have to make them,” she says.

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: Sara Moni will be at booth H130 in the Hall of Heroes during the event. She plans on appearing as Gamora as well as debuting a new costume for Princess Allura from Voltron: Legendary Defender.

click to enlarge Kiba the Cosplay Corgi as Link from The Legend of Zelda.  - SMILING PHOTOGRAPHY
Kiba the Cosplay Corgi as Link from The Legend of Zelda.
Smiling Photography

Kiba the Cosplay Corgi

Necessity is not only the mother of invention, it’s also behind the origin story one of the Valley’s most unique cosplayers.

In 2013, local geek Nicole Spickerman decided at the last minute to attend Phoenix Comic Fest (then known as Phoenix Comicon). She wanted to do the costuming thing, but didn’t have enough time to create much of a get-up for herself. Instead, she decided to dress up her service animal, a male Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Kiba.

“I threw together a couple of makeshift costumes for him,” says Spickerman, who is afflicted with PTSD, extreme anxiety, and depression. “He went as Link from The Legend of Zelda and Moogle from Final Fantasy.”

And doggone it, Kiba’s costumes turned out to be a hit. Over the past five years, he’s attended numerous local cons and geek events dressed as Halo’s Master Chief, Junkrat from Overwatch, and a canine version of Deadpool known as “Dogpool.”

And everyone falls in puppy love with Kiba, including celebrities. At last year’s Game On Expo, for instance, actress Patricia Summersett (who voiced Princess Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) played fetch with the pooch while he was dressed as Link.

“I freaked out,” Spickerman says. “That was so awesome.”

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: Kiba will be dressed as Dogpool and Spider-Man during this year’s event.

click to enlarge Courtney Leigh as the Torgruta Sith Lady. - COURTESY OF V THREEPIO
Courtney Leigh as the Torgruta Sith Lady.
Courtesy of V Threepio
Courtney Leigh

If you’ve attended local geek events in the last few years, you’ve likely seen Courtney Leigh. It’s sort of hard to miss the local cosplayer, considering her costumes are on the attention-grabbing side.

There’s the red-skinned Togruta Sith Lady, who wields a crimson-colored lightsaber and wears a necklace of bones. Or there’s her imposing rendition of the spiky-headed Turian warrior from the Mass Effect series.

Leigh typically transforms herself into various geek and gaming icons, including Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, Pennywise from last year’s remake of It, and The Fifth Element heroine Leeloo.

Since getting into cosplay back in 2010, Leigh has also helped others get decked out via the variety of fantastic and fantastic-looking costuming items, accessories, and gear she designs and builds. The former student of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles has been lauded as a “wizard with fabric, foams, and thermoplastic.”

Head over to her Twitch channel ( and you can watch her build stuff in real time, including some of her newest creations (like props inspired by Fortnite and Overwatch).

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: Leigh will be at booth H136 in the Hall of Heroes on the third floor of the convention center’s north building every day from Friday to Sunday.

click to enlarge Sean Rhoades as The Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. - PRETEND PRINCESS
Sean Rhoades as The Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok.
Pretend Princess
Smolder Cosplay

Sean Rhoades has dabbled in a lot of things. The 32-year-old Valley resident had stints as a singer, musician, actor, podcaster, and even a shadowcaster. He found his biggest creative outlet, however, in cosplay.

In the seven years since he took up the art form, Rhoades (a.k.a. Smolder Cosplay) has learned how to conceive and create his own costuming. He designs, sews, and also molds and shapes foam. He’s even started building armor. “I’m a big Dragonball Z fan and the first couple pieces started looking pretty good,” he says. “So hopefully I’ll have some Super Saiyan armor ready for [Phoenix Comic Fest].”

And if his previous efforts are any indication, he’s definitely become quite adept at the cosplay craft.

Rhoades makes for a great Jareth the Goblin King. His Will Turner, Legolas, and Ninth Doctor are all excellent as well. His version of The Joker, which was inspired by Jared Leto’s take from Suicide Squad, was so good that Warner Bros. hired him to appear at some sneak previews.

“I’m a big DC [Comics] fan and was so excited about Leto’s Joker that I started building that costume months before the movie came out,” Rhoades says.

Thankfully, he left the knives at home.

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: In addition to possibly sporting Super Saiyan armor, Rhoades will dress up as Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on Friday and the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok on Saturday at his booth, which will be located at H122 in the Hall of Heroes.

click to enlarge Lance and Aime Jaze as Thor and Hela. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Lance and Aime Jaze as Thor and Hela.
Benjamin Leatherman
Aime and Lance Jaze

Aime and Lance Jaze tend to turn heads with their cosplay.

“Yeah, that actually happens a lot,” Lance says. “We get a fair amount of people doing double-takes after they see us, like they’re going, ‘Wait a minute.’”

It’s understandable, considering the cosplays created and worn by the Scottsdale couple are pretty darn close to their source material. To wit: the Jaze’s spot-on rendition of Thor and Hela from Thor: Ragnarok that they debuted at Phoenix Fan Fest last fall. Amy also does a near-perfect mimicry of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, and Lance can pull off a supremely convincing Captain Jack Sparrow.

You can credit the countless man-hours spent creating highly accurate costumes and props that match the ones seen on screen. It also helps that the Jazes, who both have a background in modeling, tend to bear a resemblance to the actors behind each character.

The couple’s epic cosplays have earned them a few high-profile gigs, like when Marvel Studios tapped Lance and Amie to appear as Thor and Scarlet Witch, respectively, at a few local movie theaters during the opening night of Avengers: Infinity War.

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: The Jazes will be at booth #H124 in the Hall of Heroes on the third floor of the convention center’s north building. Expect to encounter Thor, Scarlet Witch, and a few other characters throughout the event.

Jessica Nigri as Arcade Miss Fortune from League of Legends. - MARTIN WONG
Jessica Nigri as Arcade Miss Fortune from League of Legends.
Martin Wong
Jessica Nigri

Jessica Nigri’s place is cosplay superstardom is assured. The part-time Valley resident has practically done it all when it comes to the art form. She’s guest-starred at high-profile cons around the world, racked up millions of followers, served as a spokesmodel, earned huge sums of money for appearances, boasted the most popular cosplay page on Patreon, and been celebrated by her fans and dissed mercilessly by her haters.

Nigri’s parlayed her cosplay fame into role in popular animes like RWBY and Super Sonico, as well as her own documentary, Becoming Jessica Nigri.

Oh yeah, and she also designs and wears costumes inspired by video games, anime, and other geeky franchises. Some of her latest include a sexy versions of Sith Ladies and other Star Wars characters, including a scantily clad female version of Kylo Ren. No joke.

click to enlarge Asta Young as Princess Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire. - TY GOOSSEN
Asta Young as Princess Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Ty Goossen

Asta Young

Cosplay has been an absolute boon for Asta Young. It’s earned her tens of thousands of followers on social media, helped get her on reality TV, and allowed her to sell her geek-oriented paintings.

And then there are the more personal effects it’s had on her life, which are far more profound.

“Cosplay changed me for the better,” Young says. “It’s helped me feel more confident about myself and allowed me to express my creative side and my geeky side.”

It’s also allowed the 4-foot-5 resident of Mesa the self-assurance to “fully embrace her height.” And she has a blast while doing so. The 25-year-old speaks effusively as she describes the fun of cosplaying Zootopia’s Judy Hopps, Wicket the Ewok from Return of the Jedi, or Child’s Play villain Chucky.

“I really enjoy playing characters that are fit to my height,” she says. “It’s fun to cosplay other characters, too, but when I cosplay stuff that’s tiny it just feels more awesome.”

Phoenix Comic Fest Plans: Young will be at booth #H818 in the Hall of Heroes where she’ll be dressed as Rocket Racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy, Wicket, or Chuckie Finster from Rugrats.

click to enlarge World-renowned cosplayer and Valley native Lindsay Elyse. - BRECKLYN GRIMES
World-renowned cosplayer and Valley native Lindsay Elyse.
Brecklyn Grimes
Lindsay Elyse

Lindsay Elyse spent more than a decade making her name because of cosplay. She’s arguably one of the more famous cosplayers to come out of the Valley and earned plenty of fame, fortune, and adventures in far-flung destinations because of it.

These days, however, it’s taken a bit of a back seat to Elyse’s career as a gamer and Twitch livestreamer, which is admittedly taking up more of her time. “I did the cosplay thing for like 10 years or so,” she says. “I love it and still love it, but I wanted to try new things.”

All that said, the Chandler resident has no give up the fun of making and wearing costumes anytime soon.
“I will always do cosplay in some fashion,” she says. As a matter of fact, she tries to incorporate it into her other pursuits whenever possible. Most of the costumes she creates these days are inspired by characters in video games she’s been playing, such as Yennefer from Witcher 3.

“Video games are like my big thing now,” Elyse says. “Nine times out of 10, when I’m making a costume, it’s from a game.”

And she’s usually livestreaming her building process via Twitch’s creative channels. “It’s the best of both worlds. I can stay on Twitch and stream, but I can also get some cosplay work done. And that’s really cool, because people can watch what I’m doing and ask questions and learn.”

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: Elyse will appear as Yennefer, Lady Loki, and Sailor Neptune at her booth (#H810) in the Hall of Heroes. She will also co-star in a panel on Twitch livestreaming on Saturday at 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in North 227C and participate in a cosplay fashion show on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in West 106ABC.


Two things helped influence Amber Malinski’s love of cosplay, both of which came from her childhood.

“I was really into musical theater as a kid. It was just the fun thing I really enjoyed,” she says. “And my dad ran this tabletop and PC gaming store, so I was really immersed in nerd culture growing up. So cosplaying came from a love of theater and from going to all these geek events and conventions when I was younger.”

click to enlarge AmberSkies as Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy at Phoenix Comicon 2017. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
AmberSkies as Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy at Phoenix Comicon 2017.
Benjamin Leatherman

Her dad, Randy Malinski, is still influencing her cosplay. He’s her biggest booster and regular sidekick for her adventures (you should see what they have planned for Phoenix Comic Fest) and has assisted her with such impressive-looking costumes as The Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke, Galaxy Quest’s Dr. Lazarus, and Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It Ralph.

He also had a hand in creating some of her most famous costumes, which depicted the anti-heroine Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy.

The first version of Malinski’s Nebula costume, which she debuted at Phoenix Comicon 2014, was so awesome that Marvel Entertainment took notice. The company sponsored her, helped her update the costume, and later featured her in their cosplay-oriented video series, Marvel Becoming.

It even got a thumbs-up from Karen Gillan, the actress behind the character, who was in attendance at Fan Fest 2015.

It’s not the only time she’s gotten kudos from a celebrity. Malinski wore a costume depicting Te Fiti, the volcano spirit from Moana, at Disney’s biannual D23 Expo last year in Southern California. It was so good it got a positive response from Mark Hamill, who was at the event promoting Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“Disney put me at the head of a parade going through the convention center. And Mark Hamill even rode by in a little car and gave me finger guns and thumbs-up like, ‘Hey, you look awesome.’ I was like, ‘Is this real?’”

And if Luke Skywalker likes your costume, it’s safe to say it’s awesome.

Malinski was blown away by all the experiences she’s had because of her cosplay pursuits.

“It’s been totally unexpected to have all these opportunities just because I’m so crazy about cosplay and make these crazy things in my kitchen,” she says.

Phoenix Comic Fest 2018 Plans: Amber and her dad will attending Comic Fest dressed as King Arthur and his manservant Patsy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You can see them at booth #H128 in the Hall of Heroes on the third floor of north building. They’ll even have coconuts for horse hooves.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it's initial publication.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.