Star Wars for a cause
MANILA, Philippines - You don’t have to be a fan to recognize them. They’re quite the head turners; I’ve seen bystanders stop and gawk when the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader pass by.
“What we wear is 'movie accurate, screen quality' costumes,” says Oneal Rosero, commanding officer of the Philippine Outpost of the 501st Legion, or what is known as the group that dons Star Wars costumes during events.
The 501st Legion is an international fan organization, with members all around the world, that promotes building and wearing Star Wars costumes. Although it is not officially endorsed by Star Wars creator George Lucas, the 501st Legion is regarded as the preferred imperial costuming group of Lucasfilm, Ltd.
As such, the Philippine Outpost has been a common sight during toy launches, conventions, and movie screenings. Their appearances, naturally, set the stage for awesome photo ops and fan encounters.
What’s not said is how not one of these perfectly-costumed individuals gets compensated for their participation.
“We wear our costumes because we love Star Wars, and we have strict standards for quality," explains Regina Layug Rosero. "Our costumes are not cheap: they’re built of plastic, fiberglass, metal, fabric. They have electronics. Sometimes the construction and assembly of a single costume takes months, even years. And because the construction is of high quality, we are able to wear our costumes for years too, under varying conditions.”
There’s a high price to pay for a costume with very high “screen-quality” standards.
A costume can cost anywhere from P20,000-P50,000, or more. It’s a serious hobby, to say the least.
Regina gives us their perspective. "Other people spend on cars or sports, and we spend our money on our costumes. And we all do it for the same reason: this is what we want to do, and it brings us joy to do it. But I think our hobby brings us the added satisfaction that every time we wear our costumes, we get to help those in need through charity donations.” Incidentally, Regina is the Charity Liaison.
As a non-profit organization, the 501st Legion requires event organizers who ask for their participation to donate to a charitable organization or cause. This is practiced in all local 501st Legion chapters, with over 6500 members in over 50 countries donate: all proceeds go to charity, with a preference for children’s charities.
The Philippine Outpost is composed particularly of the Star Wars villains. “We’re basically the bad guys,” says Oneal. “Stormtroopers, Clonetroopers, Darth Vader, Imperial Officers, Sith Lords. Other characters include Tusken Raiders, Jawas and bounty hunters.”
And yet, these bad guys have been busy making many children happy over the years.
Among their beneficiaries are institutions such as Caritas Manila, PGH Children's Cancer Ward, PGH Special Education School, Kythe, Make-A-Wish International and Make-A-Wish Philippines, Bantay Bata, UNICEF, UNDP, and the Laura Vicuña Foundation.
Besides the monetary donations that their appearances are able to generate, they also offer their time for outreach and immersion at hospital wards, community events and even parishes.
“Whatever we do, it’s the smiles and the awe on the kids’ faces that makes the sweat and fatigue worth it,” says Regina. “If for an hour or two we can make them forget that they have cancer, or that they come from a poor family, and make them smile and laugh, then our job is done.”
Oneal adds, “It’s heartbreaking to see children in hospital beds with tubes and machines just keeping them alive, but to see them reaching up to us and smiling is payment enough. We are lucky we have helmets on to hide our tears.”
Good intentions are not always enough to make a difference; accountability matters too. The Philippine Outpost prides itself on a good reputation, and they feel confident to rely on it when the need to raise funds arise.
When the killer typhoon Ondoy ravaged Manila in 2009, they readily used their network of fans and philanthropists. “It was overwhelming to see such trust and faith in our group, when to most people we’re just a bunch of crazy geeks who wear plastic and fiberglass," Regina says.
No to stereotypes
It’s not all about villains with hearts of gold. It so happens that there is a sister group to which the good guys belong, known as the Rebel Legion.
In the Philippines, they are known as the Pag-Asa wing. While they maintain the same strict standards in costumes, the materials the heroes use are less difficult to work with as they are mostly fabric-based.
The challenge of working with the bad characters’ intricate armors may add to the appeal of choosing their roles. Oneal reveals that he started as a rebel when he started costuming, but eventually he turned to the Dark Side.
While Oneal and Regina, and the rest of the Philippine Outpost, may dedicate a lot of effort to perfecting their gear and coordinating events, they do have a life out of costumes. And while their level of fandom is indeed in the higher register (they actually met through their mutual love of Star Wars and eventually got married in a themed wedding, of course), they do lead regular lives and hold actual day jobs. So do the others.
The Philippine Outpost is composed of professionals: a mechanical engineer in the automotive field, a mechanical engineer in the medical internal prosthetics field, a dentist specializing in implant dentistry, a Ear-nose-throat surgeon, three international flight attendants, two professional musicians, computer programmers, advertising specialists, call center agents, graphic designers, writers, one architect, a TV commercial director, project managers of NGO and the “Van Gogh of bathroom construction.”
Regina is quick to dismiss preconceived notions. “There are stereotypes of geeks as losers stuck in their mother’s basement, unable to get a date and trapped in bad clothes and ugly glasses. Our guys are nothing like that. They’re successful in their fields, they have kids, and they aren’t stereotypes.”
Star Wars is more than 30 years old and most of its original fan base members are now parents passing on their fandom to their little ones. As the theaters screen the 3D version of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace this week, a new generation gets to experience the longstanding film series for the first time. New toy lines, video games and merchandise are sure to follow.
It also means that the need for the Star Wars costumers to get dressed up for events will almost never end. But none of them is complaining.
“The fact that we are able to raise funds and help charities (is why) we keep doing what we do. With what we do, we are bringing up the name of quality costuming away from the impression that its only for crazy fanatics who can’t seem to grow up," Oneal says. - Rappler.com
(All photos courtesy of the Philippine Outpost, 501st Legion www.pinoy501st.com)
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