October 2, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laci Neal needs several commas to answer the question, “What do you do?”

“I’m a cosplay enthusiast, performer, and historical costumer,” says the artist, actor, burlesque performer, lecturer/presenter, inaugural Miss World Steampunk, and self-described “big nerd.”

Neal’s various ventures come down to one simple fact: “I just love to play dress-up,” she says.

Growing up in the under-350-person town of Kimballton, Iowa, Neal lacked outlets for her burgeoning creativity and often felt stifled.

“I didn’t have many friends,” she says. “I read a lot and stayed up late watching Turner Classic Movies.”

Yearning for more possibility, diversity, and connections with like-minded people, 18-year-old Neal moved to Omaha in 2002 to study theater at Iowa Western Community College—where she says she learned not only the art of theater, but also the art of self-confidence.

“Confidence is huge,” she says. “I think of myself in high school—bullied and never speaking up—and I would never let that fly now.”

Sitting tall, with bright eyes, a kind smile, and a pretty yellow flower tucked behind her ear, Neal explains what drew her to performing.

“Well, I like attention,” she says with a sweet, yet sly, laugh. “But it’s not just that. I had dreams when I was young of being a movie star, but when I started performing theater my perspective on the entire thing changed. I love how all these individuals come together to create one beautiful thing—spending months on a project for just a few moments of being onstage and presenting the work.”

As for burlesque, Neal says that while it takes bravery, it lets her display all aspects of her costumes.

“With a Victorian dress there are layers upon layers upon layers, and how else can I show off all those layers unless I show off all those layers,” she says.

Cosplay, a combination of the words “costume” and “play,” is a performance art typically centered around pop culture characters common in the sci-fi/comic/geek convention culture. Think Star Wars, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings…it’s all-ages dress-up at venues like O Comic Con and others nationwide.

“I’ve always played dress-up and kind of been in my own little world, but didn’t discover there were others who did it until 2004 while researching a costume,” she says of stumbling onto the cosplay and steampunk communities.

“I’ve always loved the Victorian aesthetic—corsetry, making historical gowns and garments—so it was fun to discover that there are thousands of people who do this, it has a name, and I’m not just weird in liking to wear full Victorian garb every now and then,” she says.

As for her many loves and commas, Neal says, “They all kind of go together.”

“It’s all performance,” she says. “Ways of having some kind of role to play—whether it’s a role in a play or burlesque or a badass superhero. I can be whoever I want, any day of the week.”

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