Charlotte Woodfield talks to an artist who doesn't
let aches get in the way of moulding her cha' />

Behind every mask there's a story. Charlotte Woodfield talks to an artist who doesn't
let aches get in the way of moulding her characters.

There's a two-horned latex headpiece in the middle of Michaela de Bruce's Titirangi workshop. Destined for Melbourne, it stands half-finished in the small, dark room.

For 14 years, Michaela has made costumes - more than 35 by her last count. The list reads like a who's who of history and popular culture: royal wife Anne of Cleves,

Star Wars'

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Princess Leia, ingenue singer Christine from

Phantom of the Opera

... and she's worn them all, at conventions, competitions or theatre performances.

It all started with

Phantom of the Opera

. Michaela was 10, sitting in her lounge when, suddenly, on TV, was the over-the-top madness of a

Phantom of the Opera

music video; Sarah Brightman's high notes and exaggerated facial expressions. It was incredibly garish, says Michaela. But then there was the makeup, the cape and everything. "It was just really cool."

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A combination of youth and naivety led her into science first, says Michaela, now 32. "[I was] thinking a Bachelor of Science was the sensible thing to get."

But, with just a bachelor's degree, she says, job options were limited. "You're doing lab work all your life, lab rat work. Lab monkey."

With forensic science off the list, she went into acting instead. "But [forensics is] something I might possibly pursue, if these injections work. Fingers crossed," she says with a light laugh.

The injections are to ease her rheumatoid arthritis. It's the reason she limps from bench to fridge as she makes us cups of tea. It developed suddenly, about 10 years ago.

At midnight, after her opening night in

Much Ado About Nothing

, Michaela got home and realised she'd forgotten her keys. Sniffing in the chill May weather, she began to climb her back fence. When she slipped and fell, it didn't seem a big deal. Within a week, walking had become very difficult.

A few years before, Michaela had done stunt work, inspired by the stuntmen and woment she saw during her work as an extra on

Xena

and

Hercules

. Michaela proved very flexible during training.

"I'm very glad that I did those things before I got sick. You never know what's going to happen next, so just go for what you can right now. Do what brings you joy.

"There's a lot of pain every day. At the moment, especially." Now is not the best time for her arthritis to flare up; not when she's travelling to Melbourne's

Armageddon

in a fortnight to judge the convention's cosplay contest. Cosplay, when fans dress as their favourite film, TV or game characters, is a popular feature of conventions. She's banking on an impending injection to help.

It's a full-on involvement, this cosplay judging. "Pretty much all year round I'm fielding email questions about, 'Can I cosplay this?', 'What am I allowed to bring?', 'Can I bring a full metal weapon?"' Her answer to the weapon query is no, by the way.

At conventions, Michaela's surrounded by people who share her costuming love and dedication. But it can be long and tiring for her and fellow judge, Angela Wells. When it becomes especially bad - too sore to speak - Michaela will escape to a hot bath.

The heat helps relieve the pain, if not the tiredness, that comes with rheumatoid arthritis. Because it affects her immune system, she's also prone to getting sick.

Some people might roll their eyes. "But, for me it's just stating the facts. It's not, 'Oh please, please, sympathise, or please pity me'. It's just, this is why I can't be completely on form, all the time."

For Michaela, normal is being able to get around her single-level home, being able to move (slowly) down her front steps. "But because it's become my normal, I'm a really bad judge of when I'm in too much pain. When I feel normal, I know it's actually," her voice is confessional again, as she grins, "not normal."

Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Caused by the body's immune system attacking its own joints
  • Symptoms include swollen, painful joints, tiredness, appetite loss, insomnia
  • Affects more than 40,000 New Zealanders
  • Onset sudden in around one in five
  • Three times more likely in women
  • Can occur at any age, but more commonly between 25 and 50