At Anime Convention, Volunteers Serve as 'Maids'

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Anime fans erase reality one step at a time, one wig at a time, and they have finally gotten their leather gauntlets on the ho-hum realm of the hotel restaurant. Now even the lunch break is part of the fantasy at Katsucon 15, the Washington area's annual anime convention. This weekend Japanese maids, in full frill, flit from table to table at Cinnabar restaurant at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City.

The maids bow and giggle.

They call conventioneers "master" and "mistress."

They gratefully drop to their knees to draw a ketchup smiley face on a Japanese omelet.

Yomiko, pearls woven into her hair, bounces around her table, her maid outfit hopping with her. She waves goodbye to her caped and winged customers after serving them burgers and playing Uno with them. "Oh, so nice to meet you," she says, waving her hands. "Oh, Jimmy-san, domo arigato. Oh, my first table -- I'll remember you for the rest of my life. Have fun at the 'con!"

In reality, the maids are not Japanese. They are American women. They are anime lovers, costumed -- as is everyone else in the hotel, which is now populated with furry animals and cartoon superheroes.

In reality, Yomiko is Sarah Blandy, 23.

She drove down from West Chester, Pa., to volunteer as a maid for the convention. Her mission? To be as cute, charming and accommodating as possible. To reinforce the fantasy.

"I do seasonal work at Disney World, and it's pounded into you that even if a customer slits your wrists, you have to be like, 'Ohhh, that's okayyy, let's take you to the information desk,' " she says, slipping into a sweet SnowWhite-like voice. She looks at 30 tables, 15 maids and a long line of hungry conventioneers. "This will be no problem."

This is Katsucon's first attempt at a maid cafe, a kind of themed costume restaurant that has sprouted in Tokyo within the past decade and has just cracked the American market. (There's exactly one cafe stateside, in Culver City, Calif.) At maid cafes in Tokyo, bedraggled white-collar men and lonely video gamers can get a bit of companionship in addition to a meal. The maids will sit and chat. They'll blow on your hot soup, or bring around a kitten for you to pet. It's just this side of sexual. The point is not bondage but bonding.

The only happy ending here is a hug goodbye and maybe a couple of sweaty dollars as a tip from the customer -- which is donated directly to Relay for Life, a cancer charity.

What if a 17-year-old anime fanboy gets a little handsy?

"We have a purple rape whistle," deadpans Magome -- a.k.a. Meagan Wallace, 22, who is at least two feet too tall to pretend to be a petite Japanese maid. Yet here she is from Upper Marlboro, in a plus-size purple maid outfit, a tiny black bowler hat pinned to her ponytail and glitter smeared on the nape of her neck. The main difference between Japanese maid cafes and this temporary maid cafe in Crystal City?

"Obviously larger women," Wallace says.

The maid cafe at Katsucon is a study in how traditions transition between cultures -- the earnestness of Tokyo's maid cafes becomes self-aware and a smidge ironic in Crystal City -- and how far fantasy can go when the reality is that people are hungry and want their food now so they can make the panel discussion on "Classic Anime: The Way We Should Remember."

The Hyatt's own wait staff, in dull gray vests, lends a sure-handed dose of reality to the proceedings. The fantasy persists, though, for hours on end. The maids do their best with the constant stream of hungry, lipsticked mouths. They skitter to the heat lamps to grab Japanese rice balls. They sit down to play Jenga with their customers. They take photos with smiling fanboys and squeak out Japanese phrases. They pause to hoist up their white stockings.

And, in a crowded convention of 6,000 noisy anime fans hidden behind makeup and masks, the maids offer a sense of sweet intimacy. Emporia, Va., resident Jackie Stutts, 21, (a.k.a. Medi) sends one of her customers on his way with a full embrace, careful to avoid the broadsword holstered on his belt.

"He was very sweet and he was here all by himself and he looked like he needed a hug," she says with a shrug.

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