It’s not uncommon in anime to see a lone girl standing bravely before a colorfully dressed, angry horde determined to get past her, but this was real life and Sarah Skrobarczyk, president of Delta H Con, had to make do with diplomacy given her lack of ninja skills or magical moon powers.
“We’ll work with you,” she told the irate mob. “We can give you day passes at a discount.”
Roughly 200 people had showed up on a busy Saturday at the registration table of Delta H Con 2012 expecting free admission. That’s what they were promised. They had just come from the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association Festival on Discovery Green, where among other activities they had watched a performance by The Lady Spade, a popular Japanese indie pop artist. Spade was a guest of Anime Matsuri, Houston’s most popular annual anime and Japanese pop culture convention.
The founders of Matsuri, John and Deneice Leigh, had approached Skrobarczyk a few months earlier, wanting to partner with Delta H Con to share the cost of bringing Spade to Houston.
“It’s expensive to bring in guests from Japan,” says Skrobarczyk. “We’re a little con and it was a lot of money. I told them that we couldn’t afford it, but thanks for thinking of us. I thought that was it.”
According to Skrobarczyk, after Spade’s performance, representatives of Matsuri ascended the stage and told people that they would be allowed into Delta H Con for free if they showed their ticket from the APAHA Festival.
“A ton of people showed up,” says Skrobarczyk. “I wasn’t prepared to give away 200 badges on the busiest day of the convention. I’m not going to eat that because of Matsuri. It hurt us. People blamed us for not honoring an agreement we had never heard about.”
It might have been just a misunderstanding. John and Deneice declined to be interviewed or to comment on this story, but the con’s history includes a fair number of unhappy customers. The Leighs held their first convention in 2007 at the George R. Brown Convention Center with a modest gathering. Guests included mostly local voice actors from A.D. Vision such as Christopher Ayres and Christine Auten, though the Leighs also netted national talent with Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime from Transformers) and the rock band BACK-ON from Japan.
Every year since then, Matsuri has continued to expand. Reported attendance has blossomed from a few thousand at the beginning to a whopping 24,000 at the last event, in April. Power Rangers, pop bands with ties to Asian or anime culture, fashion icons and, of course, paying ticket-buyers fly in from all over the world to attend. The Syfy reality series Heroes of Cosplay filmed an episode there in 2013, the same year that Matsuri broke into AnimeCons.com’s list of the ten largest anime conventions in America.
At the same time, this exponential growth has been accompanied by a number of problems of the kind not usually experienced by established conventions.
In 2014 DL Haydon of Free Press Houston reported that abrupt panel cancellations and excessive queues were very common at the con, and said it was “like Disneyland on day one: all the attractions malfunctioning and a lot of long lines.” Matsuri volunteers we spoke to complained of cursory and inadequate training, a lack of translators for the Japanese guests, and frequent disruptions to schedules. One volunteer whose job was to chaperone a celebrity guest said her supervisor, whom she had never seen before, had not even checked her identification to see if she actually was who she said she was before allowing her access.
In June of this year, social media lit up with accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct on John Leigh’s part regarding women associated with the convention, including a woman who said he asked her for naked photographs of herself. That was Chokelate (real name Nina Reijnders), a German fashion model and maker of wigs popular with the Japanese Lolita community, a fashion subculture based on modest Victorian-era dress and not associated with the sexual themes of the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name. After John invited Chokelate to Matsuri, she posted screencaps of John asking for the pictures.
That same month, another Lolita based in Houston also posted screencaps of unwanted sexual conversations with John in which he pressed her to tell him when she last had an orgasm. In that same post, she claims that while she was at an event with him, he tried to lift up her clothes without permission. When the Houston Press contacted John on this earlier this year, he declined to comment or to be interviewed regarding the accusations, but sent a statement saying he was “extremely sorry that my attempts at humor have offended some people” and that he had completed a $40 online course on sexual harassment from AJ Novick Group.
John has served as the event manager of Matsuri since 2008. The 40-year-old event coordinator and father of two has a passion for all aspects of Japanese culture, from the cars to the cartoons, but it’s the Lolita community where he has often focused his attention. In a blog post following the sexual harassment accusations, John expressed his devotion to Japanese fashion, and claimed that when he dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, he was often the subject of bullying, harassment and demands that he leave the subculture — something, he said, that women who wear Japanese clothing don’t experience.
“I hope to do more meaningful things with Lolita and promote more of the brands at our events,” John stated in the post, since deleted but still available in web archives. “Of course, I love other aspects of Japanese Culture just as much, but that’s a different story.”
Some of those other aspects, such as the voice actors for popular animes, don’t reciprocate that love. Dallas-based voice actress Caitlin Glass (Fullmetal Alchemist, Tokyo Ravens) refuses to have anything further to do with Matsuri after her appearance there in 2014.
“Everything was a mess,” she says. “We had an autograph session in a room where a panel had just let out, and some woman was telling all the fans lined up outside that they could only pick one of us to get an autograph from. I was pretty furious. I go to a lot of anime conventions, and that is just not how they work. I had to march out to the line and shout at her that people could get as many as they wanted. Then there was a lot of buck passing.”
Glass’s peer and friend Matthew Mercer (Attack on Titan, One Piece) also found himself in an awkward position when he was suddenly and without warning told to emcee the convention’s opening ceremony, which he did happily for the attendees though he felt that it was unprofessional that he was not asked (and paid accordingly) in advance to do so. Mercer left Matsuri before the closing ceremony, unaware that it was assumed by the convention that he would fulfill the role once more at that event.
“John had the balls to get up onstage and start calling for Matt,” says Glass. “He tried to joke that Matt was never around when he needed him. Treatment of the guests was just not great.”
Judging by the trail of defaulted loans and lawsuits from unpaid bills that seem to follow the Leighs, it’s apparent that some vendors, venues and lenders find them difficult to work with.
Mike Udompongsuk, a Houston laser technician for a medical company, had two things when he met the Leighs and became involved in Matsuri: access to a significant amount of money and a dream for Houston to have a first-rate annual anime convention. According to Udompongsuk, Matsuri used the latter to relieve him of the former.
“I’ve seen a lot of anime conventions here come and go, and Houston being a really large city, why can’t Houston have conventions like you see on the East and West Coast,” says Udompongsuk. “I thought Matsuri had that type of vision. As the years passed, I saw that they weren’t focused on the attendees but on themselves.”
Udompongsuk is a longtime anime fan, even having worked at Planet Anime for five years before it closed in 2008. He became friends with John and Deneice through their former arcade and store, Planet Zero, which Udompongsuk started visiting regularly. Eventually he began helping them run their store and represented them as a vendor on the anime convention circuit. It was at Shiokazecon in April 2006 that Deneice decided the Leighs should start a convention of their own, and asked Udompongsuk’s opinion and help to do so.
They wanted to open in less than a year, though Udompongsuk warned them that was too soon and that they should spend at least a year on advertising before the event. Matsuri went on the next April anyway at the George R. Brown, and true to Udompongsuk’s prediction, things were chaotic and disorganized.
Udompongsuk ran the dealer room and the registration for the convention. He was also approached by the Leighs and asked to help pay the fee for use of the George R. Brown through a loan that would be reimbursed after the con had ended and the money was tallied. A contract was drawn up and Udompongsuk handed over $50,000 to the Leighs to pay the fee and some other expenses that might come up. The money was to be paid back in monthly $10,000 installments by September of 2007. That never happened.
Nor did the George R. Brown end up with Udompongsuk’s money either. At least not all of it and not for years. A.J. Mistretta of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau confirmed that Matsuri left behind an unpaid balance with the convention center, though he declined to state how much that balance was, citing confidentiality. After 2007, Matsuri wouldn’t be welcomed back to the George R. Brown until 2013, when the GHCVB confirmed Matsuri had finally paid what was owed.
Udompongsuk considers Deneice the driving force of what became Matsuri. He rarely saw John, who often spent his time off the floor of Planet Zero in the office. It was Deneice who convinced him that they could ready a new convention in less than a year, and it was again Deneice who got Udompongsuk to hand over five figures.
“She’s very persuasive,” he says.
Udompongsuk didn’t get his money back, but he continued working with John and Deneice in the hope that they could build a brand that would endure. Matsuri moved to The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center the next year, and that was the main site of operations for most of the next six years.
“’08 was basically the apology tour to fix everything that didn’t go right in ’07,” says Udompongsuk. “I guess they still weren’t making money, because they still didn’t pay me. The staff and I stuck with them because we thought, ‘Maybe it will change. Let’s stick around and work hard and make this the best convention ever.’”
By Matsuri’s own attendance count, it drew 50 percent more people than the previous year. It was a success, but Udompongsuk still didn’t get paid. In fact, as times progressed and even as attendance numbers climbed, the Leighs continued to ask for more money and Udompongsuk obliged.
At one point, John hatched a plan to get into the tricked-out Japanese car scene as a way to bring in a different demographic and more revenue. He partnered with Clear Lake Infiniti and a Japanese company called Top Secret to try to make this happen. All that was needed was a car to modify and, for that, he once again hit up Udompongsuk. Udompongsuk was told that getting into this niche car market would provide the steady income that wasn’t coming from the arcade, and Udompongsuk obliged by transferring $36,000 to John for an Infiniti G37 to be sent to Top Secret for customization and then returned to America as a show car. The steady income from this project never materialized.
“I bought the car,” says Udompongsuk. “I’ve never sat in the car. It’s probably sitting in his garage. They used it for a daily driver for a while.”
In 2009 Udompongsuk handed over another, and final, chunk of money to Matsuri: $10,000 to bring in Japanese rocker Miyavi for the convention. According to Udompongsuk, Miyavi’s record label, PS Company, still got financially burned on the deal and Matsuri was forced to keep using new music companies such as Avex and Sony to forge agreements with guests for future musical appearances.
Harris County Court documents show Udompongsuk wasn’t the only person Matsuri owed $10,000 to in 2009. Mario Londono had contracted with the Leighs in 2008 for video production services that they never paid for, and later sued them for the amount plus interest and $9,000 in presumed legal fees. The Leighs filed to have the case dismissed, denying they owed Londono anything, but the case was set for trial in 2010. Prior to the trial, the documents show, Londono withdrew his claim, having resolved the matter with the Leighs.
It’s not unknown for conventions in Houston to get sued. Oni-Con had a legal dispute with the Grand Plaza Hotel in 2006, though documents regarding the specifics of the dispute were not available online and Oni-Con did not return requests for more information. Oni-Con appears to have had a clean record since, as have other conventions such as Comicpalooza and Delta H Con, which seem to have escaped any lawsuits over how they conduct business.
The amount of litigation revolving around Matsuri continues to grow, though. In 2011, Matsuri didn’t pay a vendor the $10,000 he says it owed him. R.G.G. Services, Inc. provided security for Anime Matsuri at the convention when it was hosted at the Crowne Plaza Houston Hotel near Reliant Park. By that point, Matsuri was reporting attendance numbers nearly double those of its first convention. Later that year, R.G.G. sued Matsuri for the unpaid invoice, and this time the complaint made it to trial. The judge ruled against the Leighs and they were ordered to pay. When we contacted R.G.G. regarding the case, a representative told us the company had no comment.
In 2012, Udompongsuk finally gave up on John and Deneice ever paying him back. By then, most of the core staff of the convention had resigned, citing as a reason the disorganization of the convention. Udompongsuk penned his own resignation letter addressing his financial grievances, and emailed it to the Leighs.
That was also the year that customers of Planet Zero showed up to find the doors of the arcade closed with a notice on them. The landlord, Henry S. Miller, was demanding $85,785 in unpaid rent.
That year was also when Anime Matsuri forfeited its charter with the Texas Secretary of State.
The Office of the Comptroller was unable to specify why its status had been revoked, but explained that the only reasons would involve failure to pay taxes or fees owed, failure to provide a tax record, or voluntarily allowing the account to become inactive. Considering that the Comptroller’s office also mentioned that the account was at that point in collections with the state, and given the Leighs’ mounting inability even to pay the rent on their arcade, some financial difficulties involving the state are reasonable to assume.
When we asked The Woodlands Waterway Marriott if Matsuri had caused any problems in the four years the convention was hosted there, a representative of the group and the event planning department responded that it had been a positive experience all around and that the hotel had had no problems whatsoever with the convention. Matsuri was leaving The Woodlands Waterway Marriott simply because it had outgrown that facility. Curiously, though, Harris County Court records show the Waterway as suing Matsuri for $14,000 in unpaid room rates and restaurant expenses. The Waterway later withdrew its suit.
The closure of Planet Zero was the last straw for Udompongsuk. In his resignation email, he asked, “Since your store closed how do I know Anime Matsuri isn’t going to close too?” According to Udompongsuk, he consulted a lawyer about trying to win his tens of thousands back, but the attorney told him that, though he might win, actually getting the money was a long shot. Udompongsuk still attends conventions and, if Matsuri has a presence, he attempts to ask about the money, but so far has received nothing. He did talk to John in 2013.
“He told me how he felt betrayed,” says Udompongsuk. “How my resignation letter got leaked and he had to spend months cleaning up the mess.”
Anime Matsuri does have its supporters. The convention received an official proclamation of support from Mayor Annise Parker and the City of Houston, and the Consulate-General of Japan in particular is an avid fan of how Matsuri brings Japanese culture to the city.
“Anime Matsuri is a great promoter of cultural diversity, something which we think is very valuable in a city as internationally rich as Houston,” Emily Gurvis, a cultural affairs specialist who worked the consulate’s booth at the most recent convention, said in a written statement.
“What’s great is that Anime Matsuri not only offers visitors the chance to learn about Japanese pop-culture, but it also opens new doors for anime fans into the wide and varied culture of Japan. It was a lot of fun, and we’re happy we were included as a vendor and presenter at Anime Matsuri. We had the opportunity to share resources with the public and educate guests about the cultural opportunities that the Japanese Consulate offers to Houstonians. We also introduced people to the JET Program, which offers native English speakers the opportunity to live and work in Japan as English teachers. The panel that we presented was about learning Japanese and communicating as a non-native speaker, and that was very successful as well. Hopefully, Anime Matsuri will continue to inspire attendees to delve deeper into the traditional Japanese culture behind anime.”
Whatever may be happening with Matsuri’s finances, at least some of that money does go to charities. On a trip to Hawaii in 2014, John and Deneice made a stop with the Japanese Lolita Association to drop off $1,000 and various gifts for the children being treated at the Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children in Honolulu. Following a Lolita tea party event in June of this year, Matsuri donated another $1,000 to Citizens for Animal Protection, a local no-kill shelter that aids Houston’s pet population.
That said, the incident with Delta H Con and Lady Shade in 2012 is not an isolated example of people who feel Matsuri might be directly trying to sabotage any competition. Stephany Thai, also known as Buttcape, found herself on the receiving end of John Leigh’s wrath.
Thai had broken ties with Matsuri after she attended the con as part of the Houston Lolita Community, recruited by Matsuri to help with Lolita tea parties, fashion shows and other programming. The lack of translators, late show times and poor planning, as well as John’s alleged attempts to use the HLC as his personal advertising forum, soured Thai on Matsuri and she resigned as a moderator from the HLC Facebook group.
When Matsuri 2015 rolled around, Thai decided to try her own hand at organizing an event. Knowing that Matsuri had no activities planned on the Thursday before the convention, she put together Nightfall, a small reception and fashion show at the Crystal Ballroom near the George R. Brown. It was scheduled specifically for the evening so that there would be no overlap with Matsuri programming.
According to a long blog by Thai, John quickly scheduled a pre-con party at the same time.
Shortly after the accusations of sexual harassment involving John started appearing online, he and Deneice flew to Hawaii, where they are hoping to expand Matsuri by holding a convention there. Previously they’ve also sponsored Lolita events in Germany, looking to bring the Matsuri experience to Europe. At a meet-and-greet in Hawaii, Matsuri waved away the harassment allegations, a local promoter who attended told us. John has resigned as a Kawaii Ambassador, a significant position in the Lolita community, and prominent figures on the anime circuit such as Glass and the Japanese fashion model Minori continue to cut ties with Matsuri and refuse to work with the convention.
Pop culture conventions were rare for many years in Houston, owing to a disastrous Star Trek convention in 1982 that stiffed celebrities and vendors alike for significant money and significantly damaged the city’s reputation as a convention destination for two decades until Comicpalooza revitalized the scene. The City of Houston has been very active in helping to relaunch Houston as a place where comic fans and anime fans can and should gather.
Increasingly, though, it looks as if Matsuri is not destined to be the success story that Comicpalooza has been, despite the numbers.
The Lolita community seems to be abandoning Matsuri, according to John Simons of Comicpalooza. He was recently approached by Bling Up, a California store popular with Lolitas. Bling Up told Simons that Houston has the largest Lolita community in the region, and since the allegations of sexual harassment came out, the store has been seeking a new convention to make its primary home. In partnership with Bling Up and former moderators of the HLC Facebook group, Comicpalooza will now have Lolita panels at its upcoming FanFair event, and is planning a fashion show for Comicpalooza 2016.
“If the Lolita community is looking for a place to feel welcome, we’ll do everything we can to provide it,” Simons says.
“My priority was make sure the attendees were happy,” says Udompongsuk. “If you look at their past events or go by Facebook posts, it’s all basically public image. Here’s them writing a check to a cause. Oh, look, we’re in Hawaii with these people. You’re supposed to run a good event, with things running on time; you give the attendees what they want. You don’t try to force what you want on them. This sort of thing, you’re kind of a public servant.”
After Udompongsuk broke ties with Matsuri, he decided he would organize a convention himself to try to make his dream come true. Initial planning went well, but the day before he was about to fly to Japan and finalize several attendees, he fell from a 16-foot ladder at work and broke his leg so badly that much of the bone has since been augmented with titanium. The medical bills from his accident scuttled his plans for his own event, but he remains hopeful. He is as passionate about Houston’s need for an anime convention as he was when he handed over nearly $100,000 to Matsuri, and hopes to further that dream when his circumstances improve.
“Instead of staying home and watching anime by yourself or with some friends, you can go somewhere and meet new friends,” says Udompongsuk. “You can see a different aspect of the culture of Japan through a convention. Yes, you can see the culture through the anime you watch, but you can see different aspects through guests.”
When we approached John and Deneice Leigh one more time for comment, a representative told us by email that the couple preferred to focus on conventions they were planning. Yet within hours of our last conversation with their representative, we got a text message from Udompongsuk.
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“Their lawyer contacted me,” he wrote. “Seems they want to discuss a payment plan now.” Though other lenders that Udompongsuk knew had never been paid declined to speak with us, he confirmed they had also received sudden overtures from Matsuri regarding past due balances.
“I’m guessing they’re doing damage control,” Udompongsuk continued via text. “Yes, it would be nice if they started paying back, but their words have no weight to me. Knowing John and Deneice, I feel they are trying to sweep it under the rug. They are going to the ones that have substantial information and who they owe money to. I guess it does not hurt for me to hear them out. Probably they are going to add a non-compete clause and I will have to help Anime Matsuri in order to get my monthly payments.”
Skrobarczyk has little love for Matsuri. She trades tables at the convention for the publicity, but otherwise has cut ties with Matsuri.
“I don’t know why they would spend all this money to bring people over from Japan and treat them badly,” she says. “I’m not surprised, though, because they treat everyone badly. The one good thing I can say for Anime Matsuri, though, is that they have a heck of a PR department.”