Bring your A-game if you want to play World of Warcraft with Karen Sakai, but check your negativity at the door.
"I'm a gamer," she says. "A gamer likes to play their favorite games with people. So I give out my real information so I can do that. That's who I am." Being true to herself is how Sakai stays successful. She was born in Norfolk, Va. but her mother took her to Japan when she was young. She later ended up in the Navy town of Bremerton, Washington, where she experienced a lot of bullying as a kid, growing up biracial in an Asian community.
LEFT: Sakai at five years old, photo by her father. RIGHT: Sakai at 24, photo ©2014 Renegade Photo
"There were many Japanese around," she says. "I'm half-white and half-Japanese and the Japanese, they picked on me because I was half-white: I brought a disgrace to Japan, I'm ugly, blah blah blah. The older folks, they also saw me as kinda weird. They didn't understand that people could be biracial. I didn't know many mixed kids either. The friends that I did have didn't care though, and that was the best."
The racism she struggled with when she was younger was only compounded by her hobbies and love for all things considered nerdy and geeky. She experienced so much flak for the nerdy things she loved, she took a very long hiatus.
Sakai as Ms. Marvel (©2014 Renegade Photo)
"It was in 2003. I stopped doing it because I got bullied," Sakai recalls. "But after a while, I thought to myself, 'I'm an adult now. I can do whatever I want.'"
When Sakai joined the Navy as a Master-at-Arms in 2009, many of the issues surrounding her childhood faded away, despite being stationed in her Washington hometown (which, incidentally is what Sir Mix-A-Lot wrote about in his 1988 song, Bremelo).
"I loved being in the Navy," Sakai says. "I met a lot of gamer, nerdy folks in the Navy and they thought it was really cool that I am a female who loves this stuff. Everyone was so accepting of me. They didn't care where you came from as long as you came in and did your job and had a good personality."
Sakai's family has a long Navy tradition. Her father was a long time Surface Warfare Officer who practically spent his entire life on an aircraft carrier.
"He was a career officer, always an XO or CO," she says. "He was in for 22 years and he talked about it his whole life. I think everyone should have an experience in the military, if its something they're thinking about. I chose the Navy because it runs in my family."
Sakai was in the Navy for four years and left to finish her dual degrees in Anthropology and Primate Behavior and Ecology. While in school, she began modeling and cosplaying. She found the cosplay community to be the most accepting of which she's ever been a part.
Sakai as Rikku from Final Fantasy X-2 (©2014 Studio Henshin Photography)
"I'm a cosplayer who will openly admit I've been bullied and it hurt my feelings. I'm open about it because it's all part of being human," she says. "This community is a very happy place. It feels like family. People who enjoy the same things as you, they're not going to criticize you. Comic-Con and events like that feel like a long distance family gathering. It's a safe place where you can really be yourself." She compares it to football fandom.
"I'm from Washington," she says. "So I like the Seahawks. If you like anime and you're among friends, it's like a group of Seahawks fans meeting up at Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the game. But people respect each other's preferences. No one is going to make fun of you for liking Black Butler over Dragonball Z. You can be who you are."
For Sakai, modeling is a bit different.
"I've done car shows, lingerie, cosplay modeling, all that stuff. It's an industry. Sex sells," she says. "So they want that generic, skinny, 'whatever' because it sells. I've done tests on my Facebook page and whatnot, posting different kinds of pictures, seeing the interactions, likes, and views it gets. The ones that get the most attention are the ones where I'm slutty and generic. I'm completely fake in those pictures but they're the ones that get the most attention."
So which photos are the real Karen Sakai?
"The ones where I'm not wearing makeup and I'm in a sweats, not showing cleavage," she says with a laugh. "I'm me. I do my own thing, if they want to see cleavage 24/7 then I'm probably not the person to follow.
Karen, now 25, lives with her boyfriend who is himself an Air Force veteran, in Washington state. They got together because he outdid her own nerdiness.
"If you one-up me and start a conversation about how wrong I am about something, then I know you are a true nerd," she says. "He knows much more lore, more information, about games, anime, and comics in general."
Sakai's game is World of Warcraft. To her, it's like cosplay.
"I made a character to live in a second world. I'm the hero in the game, not a little kid getting picked on. I create and customize a character who is strong, powerful, and pretty. When I dress up, I like to try and role play as a character I always looked up to or enjoyed. It's fun to be someone else for a change."
To hire Karen, email her: firstname.lastname@example.org
To help Karen purchase material to build her own costumes (she loves to make armor) see her Patreon page.