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Ponies, Sweat, and Parental Disappointment

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The Executive Hotel in Richmond is a weird place. At first glance, it’s just another average hotel one would check into while attending a mandatory business conference in Des Moine. The dated ‘90s stucco on the outside compliments the tacky beige interior complete with conference rooms and a generic Irish-themed bar. One would never know this hotel — which seems to excel at mediocrity — transforms once a year into one of the strangest places on the planet when it plays host to one of the oddest conventions on Earth: BronyCan.

A “brony” is an adult male who’s a fan of the children’s cartoon “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” No, not the My Little Pony cartoon eight-year-old girls watched in the ‘80s — it’s a reboot of that show which according to some, has a lot of humour geared towards adults. Even so, the show is produced by Hasbro (the toy and boardgame company), and was originally targeted towards young girls.

According to their website, BronyCan is “The Largest collection of Bronies in Canada.” I’m not sure if that statement is a proclamation of an achievement or an admission of guilt — perhaps both. I read this and knew I’d hit the jackpot. I sent off an email and told the convention organizers I was with a local radio show and would like a couple of media passes so my co-host and I could attend. I took my camera along thinking I’d get some video footage of the convention to throw up on the show’s website.

The night before I prepared a list of interview questions, some of which went to dark places. The questions were based on research I had done which consisted of watching a couple documentaries and listening to some radio shows that talk about them. I discovered a subculture of bronies who are attracted to the horses — if the situation I was inserting myself into wasn’t weird before, it sure was now. I kept thinking of the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

As an avid fan of both Star Trek and pro wrestling, I had never been considered a normal guy. I’ve spent a good portion of my life apologizing for my quirks. I parlayed it into a small radio show which was called “Oddly Entertaining.” For better or for worse it surely would be that.

BRONYCAN 2014 — First Contact

1:00 pm Saturday, August 25th. Drew, his girlfriend Nicole, and I drove to the convention. None of us were familiar with Richmond. After circling for several minutes, we pulled up to a red light.

Drew motioned to the window, “I think we’re getting close.”

It was a 40-year-old man in a Pikachu costume smoking a cigarette. The suit was threadbare and dirty. It was 30 degrees in August. I was swept up in a wave of both pity and admiration for this man and his dedication to his fandom.

“Do you think someone should tell him it’s a brony convention?” Nicole asked. Drew rolled down his window.


PIKACHU GAVE DREW THE FINGER


“Sir!” he shouted obnoxiously the same ways Ebenezer Scrooge barks at the street kid on Christmas morning. The man looked up. “That is a Pokémon suit, is it not a Brony convention you are going to?”

Pikachu gave Drew the finger.

Strange times, I thought. Drew giggled and rolled up his window. The light turned green. We drove off.

As we turned the corner on the angry Pokémon, we realized that it was just the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of people in a variety of costumes filed into the convention centre. The first thing that hit was the stench — stale ramen noodles, sweat, and parental disappointment rolled up into one foul odour. It got stronger as we approached the main entrance.

In the hall, there was a cheaply fashioned plastic golden arch that read: “Welcome to BronyCan.” A man and a woman dressed in pony costumes were there waving people through the archway. A reporter from CBC News was there finishing a stand-up bit. They too, were gawking at the freak show to fill air time.

There was a healthy buzz to the convention. Despite the rancid smell that penetrated every corner of the hotel, I got the sense that these people were enjoying themselves. The number of children at this event surprised me. It was primarily male-dominated, but there was a significant minority of people who were there as parents with their kids.

I started to interview people. Each of them had one quirk or another. We took b-roll, and one of the shorter women dressed as a pony (I found out later they are known as “pegasisters”) approached our camera, grunting, and neighing.

“Are you a pony?” I asked.

She nodded her head.

“Which one?”

She neighed.

“Don’t they talk in the show?” Drew asked the grown adult refusing to communicate in English.

She neighed and nodded.

“But you don’t,” I deduced.

She affirmatively nodded.

“Would you like to be interviewed for a radio show?” I asked.

She shook her head “no” and bounced down the hallway. Nicole, Drew, and myself exchanged glances. I walked along one of the lines of people trying to get into a panel room.

“Hi, I’m with a local radio station, anyone want to do an interview?”

There were a lot of noes and awkward, non-confrontational staredowns. It all became entirely clear: at this convention, we were the outcasts; I was the loser.

“Yes, I would like to talk to you!” an acne-covered teenager shouted from the line. He wore a tight-fitting, sky blue T-shirt with a pony on it. There was a stain in between the shirt collar and the pony. I think it was chili.

“Cool, I’m T.J,” I said to the man as we quickly set up the camera and microphone. Drew and Nicole checked the sound levels.

“So why My Little Pony?” I asked.

“It’s hilarious,” he said in a very effeminate voice.

“What’s the funniest moment?”

“Okay um,” he snorted, giggling to himself, reliving his favourite moments from the show.

“Pinky Pie was out partying all night, and she walks in wearing a lampshade,” he stammered out. A couple of people in line laughed behind him. I stood there uncomfortably not getting the joke.

“Is that your favourite pony?”

“Hmm, no, I would say Rainbow Dash.”

“Why?”

“I think we have similar personality traits.”

Drew snorted. I smirked but shot him a look. Rainbow Dash fanboy picked up on this.

“It’s okay. I know it’s weird. I get it,” he said. This was not the first time he’d been asked to justify his fandom. A sudden wave of discomfort washed over me. I finished my line of questioning.

“Enjoy the convention man,” I smiled and reconvened with my group. We discussed the moral ramifications of going through with interviewing these people. The last thing I wanted to be seen doing was picking on the little guy. We ultimately decided that there’s nothing wrong with asking them questions and allowing them to expose their quirky traits, and they did.

Most of the guys we talked to were excited just to be there among friends. One man called his grandmother because he was so excited to be on the radio somewhere. The convention was strange, but we got what we expected. We left with enough interviews to film a brief but successful segment — which is why we decided to come back the following year.

BRONYCAN 2015 — Digging Deeper

3:30 pm Saturday, August 23rd.The last year had been such a funny event to cover I decided to cover it again for my show. This time, I wanted to get an outsider’s perspective on the experience, and what better way than by attending the BronyCan dance, where all the bronies and pegasisters get together to party. I could only imagine the gong show that would ensue. This would be my crown jewel as a radio host.

I had the perfect candidate: Mary was a correspondent for my show and about as far from a brony as you could get. If anything, her television diet consisted of The Bachelorette, Real World, and Jersey Shore reruns. She was cool, well kept, and professional, and I thought it would be amazing if we got footage of her dancing with a few bronies. Her bubbly personality would make her the perfect person for the job.

By the time we got there, the crowd had thinned and what was left was a group that gave off an unnaturally creepy vibe — or carried with them some kind of hex. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to make of Mary, a cute girl openly engaging in conversation with them. Most of the conversations were stilted at best. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach; this was not going to work.

We explored other parts of the convention. The smell of stale flatulence lingered this year also. Mary was a trooper. I kept apologizing, and she kept shrugging it off. We spent a lot of time in the lobby clock watching and attempting to get interviews but for the most part failing to strike oil. Mary noticed a guy sketching on a notepad. It was a picture of a pony, and it was good.

“Hey,” she said. “Can you draw me as a pony?”

There was a stunned silence.

“You know,” Mary coaxed. “Just give it a shot.”

He looked at me. I shrugged and pulled out my camera. He began to draw Mary as a pony. A voice came from behind me, “What are you shooting for?”

I wheeled around to take in the might of an overweight man in his late fifties, coke-bottle glasses, bright white running shoes, a fisherman’s vest with a variety of buttons, matching gray, stained sweatpants, and a T-shirt with a faded logo of a wolf howling at the moon. His “I love furries” trucker hat had several buttons. It was lifted just high enough to reveal the awkward combover. His salt and pepper Wilford Brimley mustache had a mustard yellow tinge to it, either from smoke or food.

“I’m shooting for a radio show in Abbotsford. I’d like to have a little extra content we can throw on the web.”

The man grunted and stared uncomfortably through me to look at Mary sitting patiently while the artist sketched on his pad.

“T.J,” I stuck out my hand.

His hand was a cold and clammy fish. He sat down on one of the lobby chairs and continued to stare. Mary was unaware. It made me uncomfortable.

“So, you like furries, huh?” I said, motioning to his hat. He snapped out of his trance.

“You like furries too?” he questioned, his hands gripping the chair. Nope, I thought. The little knowledge I had of furries from old episodes of CSI and Entourage weirded me out — men and women that enjoyed having sex in mascot costumes. Not for me. However, if it distracted the man from ogling my cohost, I decided to humour him.

“Aren’t they those mascots that have sex with each other?” I asked.

“Furries aren’t sexual!” he proclaimed. Everyone in the lobby stopped and looked. Even Mary turned around and shot me a glance. I shrugged. She returned to get her portrait drawn.

“Fair enough,” I replied, trying to calm him down. Realizing the ruckus he had made, the furry fanatic immediately went into damage control.

“Do you know how the furry culture was even created?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I shrugged. He looked at me then stared straight ahead as if reading off a teleprompter.

“The furry culture was created when one guy asked his friend to draw a rabbit with breasts, and as a jo-oh-oke his friend did it,” he scowled up at me. I paused confused.

“How is that not sexual?” I asked. He shook his head in disgust and glared straight ahead.

“You don’t get it, man.” An uncomfortable moment slowly passed.

“So what brings you to BronyCan?” I asked, rhetorically trying to alleviate some of the tension.

“Bronies and furries, we’re pretty much the same people,” he explained. “Most of us go to both here and VancouFur.”

“What’s VancouFur?” I asked. Disgusted, he replied.

“Duh! It’s only one of the biggest furry conventions in Western Canada!” He narrowed his gaze at me and shook his head. “Don’t you know anything? I mean it’s held right here at this hotel.”

Suddenly my mind filled with horrifying images of mascots and cartoon characters trying to recreate their favourite Discovery Channel scenes all over the hotel lobby. He continued.

“Most of the people that put on BronyCan put on VancouFur.”

I looked at him stunned. His revelation was too much weird for me.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” I stuck out my hand but remembering the cold film on his grip turned it into a fist bump. He did not finish the fist bump, so I awkwardly put my hand away and walked back to Mary.

“How goes it over here?” I asked.

“Good, he’s just about done,” she said. The man looked up from his drawing and smiled.

“Check this out!” Mary reached over and picked up a laminated drink menu. There was a picture of each pony on the menu and below it was a drink named after them. She handed me the menu. Pinky Pie had cake-flavoured vodka.


IT ALL BECAME ENTIRELY CLEAR: AT THIS CONVENTION, WE WERE THE OUTCASTS — I WAS THE LOSER


 “We can walk over to the hotel bar and get any of these drinks made,” she said. I stared at her blankly. There was no way I was staying to drink after my conversation with that last dude.

“There,” the sketch artist said. He held up the drawing. It was a surprisingly good interpretation of Mary as a pony.

“Oh. My. God. That is amazing.” She held it. “How much do I owe you?”

The man looked at her, shocked. “Oh, I’m keeping it.”

Mary was very confused. “But, I’ll pay you for it.”

Again the man shook his head. “No,” he said in a chilling tone. “It needs to go in my collection.”

Mary pushed on though. She wanted that damn picture.

“Can I at least get a picture of it with my phone?” she asked. I’m sure the man would have rather licked wood, but he finally let her take a picture. He then promptly walked off.

We noticed people were filing into the dance hall from the bar. The muffled sound of club music played. It was the last moment to get our shot. We opened the large doors to the dance floor and walked in.

It was a nightmare. Clouds of smoke, roaring club music, silhouettes of ponies and children dancing. I did a double take.

Why are there kids here?

I walked over and asked one of the volunteers. A short, plump woman who looked to be enjoying the party.

“It’s an all-ages dance,” she yelled.

Really? I thought. People are coming in from the bar mixing with children that look like they could be in the age range of three to seven. I looked over to the far wall and saw a bunch of mothers staring at their children dancing with total strangers. Mary and I exchanged glances. The thought of inebriated grown men dancing with random children made me uncomfortable. I tried to forget about the birthday cake and rainbow flavoured hard liquor. The veneer of innocence from years past was stripped away. A potentially much darker side emerged. It was time to go. There was nothing more to see.

At home, I tried to edit the footage. I couldn’t, it was just too uncomfortable. The innocence of the first year was replaced by creep. I could tolerate a lot of weird, but to allow an all-ages dance party with alcohol was over the line. Drew, Mary, and I talked about it on the air and decided that 2015 was the last BronyCan we would ever cover. I recently Googled it, and there is a BronyCan 2017, still held at the Executive Hotel in Richmond and it looks to be their biggest one yet.

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