Why Cosplayers Work For Free

If you're at all interested in cosplay then you've probably heard the rumours of so-called "professional cosplayers" -- people like Jessica Nigri and Yaya Han who make costumes and fly around the world, presumably making bucketloads of cash from it. Yet the reality is that the number of people actually making a living from cosplay can probably be counted on one hand, for one simple reason -- cosplayers are expected to work for free.

Note: To the best of my knowledge all of the photos in this article are from companies who pay cosplayers for their work. Good job them!

For those on the outside, there's an assumption that well-known cosplayers with big follower numbers are somehow making money off that number. Unfortunately, the main social media channels for cosplayers like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don't hand on any of their money on to their users. In fact, Facebook is more likely to ask for money from people running cosplay pages.

Before we get further into it, I should point out that there are two types of 'professional' cosplayers. The first are the craftspeople -- like Volpin Props or God Save The Queen Fashions -- professional fabricators and sewists who make and sell costumes, props and armour, and likely also subsidise that main income by offering classes, tutorial books and patterns for sale. The second type is the personality -- like Yaya Han or Jessica Nigri -- who market themselves as much as they do their skills.

Photos via Wildstar

As it stands, there are a couple of ways for this type of cosplayer to make money. One is print sales, which are pretty self-explanatory, but also hard to properly monetise without a huge, devoted following and a solid sales plan. Another is crowdfunding, which is a different beast altogether, with its own collection of controversies and naysayers. The last consists of paid appearances -- which could be anything from huge gaming expos like E3 to tiny local store openings. The problem with this last, and often largest, method for cosplayers to make money however, is that almost everyone expects cosplayers to work for free.

This isn't a new problem. Cosplayers themselves contribute to this expectation more than any others, as there has always been a huge community backlash against the idea of anyone making money from cosplay. No other community been so strongly opposed to the idea of 'selling out' since the punk music scene of the 70s. Every gruelling step cosplay has taken towards being something that you can make a living out of -- Facebook pages, selling prints, crowdfunding, promotional appearances -- has been consistently condemned and disowned.

Unfortunately the idea that cosplayers shouldn't get paid has become so ingrained that companies are taking notice -- why would they pay upwards of $50 an hour for a professional promotional model when they know a cosplayer will do it for free, and provide their own costume to boot?

Promotional models in Australia can earn up to $70 per hour at trade events -- and they don't come with the product knowledge, enthusiasm and self-supplied costumes that cosplayers have. While trade expos like E3 have long held to the tradition of booth babes, many companies are starting to realise that they don't work -- but cosplayers do. So why does the industry not value our time like they do their booth babes'? It's simple: they know they can always find a cosplayer who will work for free.

Photos via Smite

It's hard to tally the number of times I've been 'offered' an opportunity that has consisted of me giving up my time for no real reward. One store wanted me to work a three hour grand opening in exchange for a $50 gift card for their store. Conventions have asked me to be a guest, host three panels and a cosplay comp with only a free entry ticket in return. Local game-related institutions are always looking for cosplayers to turn up to day-long commercial shoots for their advertisements -- you'll get to see yourself in costume on the cinema screen when this ad is released!

Most often, companies will play to a sense of pride and accomplishment -- your cosplay was so good that we noticed it and we want you to represent us. It's all very exciting for a while, but after an hour or so of acting the spokesmodel on a convention floor, you start to realise: this is work. Not just work, but hard work. While cosplay is a fun hobby to be involved with, there's really nothing fun about standing in 6-inch heels and a heavy wig, smiling incessantly and handing out advertising material for four hours straight. Professional cosplay can be just as hard work as a retail job.

Photo via Old Trenchy

There are some situations where asking for pay would just be inappropriate, of course. The well-known Star Wars costuming group the 501st Legion, for example, appear at charity events for free, and ask commercial events they work at to donate to a charity in their name.

Unless it is a charity gig, however, it's worth asking yourself if the people who want you to donate your time and skills for free are going to be making money off your generosity. Are they advertising for a game? Making money. Opening a store? Yup, making money. Sometimes you'll be offered a free ticket for a convention or gaming expo -- but you should carefully weigh up whether or not it's worth it. If you're only working one or two hours each day in exchange for an $80 weekend ticket, then sure, go for it. But spending your weekend at PAX working for free? Not worth it.

Even though cosplay is making great leaps and strides towards being a legitimate profession, it's still incredibly difficult to make any sort of decent money from it. Most cosplayers don't rely on it as their main source of income either, but it can be nice to receive a little bit back for the amount that we spend on cosplay. To give you a rough idea, the amount of money I've made in my entire cosplay 'career' is around the same as the cost of two average costumes -- and I've made 35 costumes in that time. Stella Chu is another example of a 'part-time' professional cosplayer, who recorded her thoughts about paid cosplay in a recent vlog:

While for most of us cosplay is never going to be a full-time profession, we can at least make sure that our time and effort is respected as it should be. If we don't value our own time, after all, who will?


    Pretty outrageous community expectations for free cosplayers to be the norm. If anything the ones who make their own costumes should be paid at a higher rate as they will have a greater knowledge of the product they're advertising.

    The major problem, other than community backlash like Punk, is pointed out really well here. There will always be a cosplayer who will work for free. Until a major story of exploitation breaks the medias attention, and manages to hold it, I don't this this changing. It will take the community working together to get better conditions, and the backlash against making money will prevent that.

      A lot of creative fields struggle from this problem, photography, web/graphic design etc. People want to get their foot in the door or just get noticed so they work for free, I understand why they do it but it cheapens the product. I guess you need to decide am I doing this as a hobby or do I want to make a profession out of it, most of the time the final product will be vastly different.

    The use of the word "gook" in this article, whilst likely inadvertent, is offensive

      Must've been a typo can't I can't see where they used it.

        me either went over it 3 times.

        Last edited 04/02/16 11:35 am

    I don't see a problem. People are doing cosplay willingly as a hobby and for the love of their favourite franchise. Unless your purpose to go into cosplay was for profit then you are better off going a modelling agency for that since that is just not how it works.

    Just because I like and good at playing games does not mean I am entitled to be paid for doing it, but of course I could try to monetise it by going twitch/youtube but it is a choice, not a given.

      Yes but you would probably want to be paid if someone came to you and said "can you come and play games with and entertain an audience for four hours for an event we'll be selling tickets to".

      I'm not saying cosplayers should be paid just for being cosplayers, but I'm saying they should be paid for doing commercial work.

        Certainly, if they are approached by a client, the job should certainly be a paid job rather than a just a weekend pass to the event.

        I had the impression that the article mentions cosplayers attending events voluntarily should be payed since they are effectively promoting for these companies while they are there.

        Sorry to make it confusing.

          Firstly, when a cosplayer is a guest at a convention, they WORK. Panels, workshops, judging, running to and from events that the con wants them to attend, doing promotional work, interacting with attendees etc.... It is never "just a weekend pass to an event". When Im a guest at a convention, I spend the entire day doing things for the convention and making sure that attendees and staff are happy and having a good time. Usually the schedules are so condensed that there isnt much time for eating until late at night. Days may start at 7 or 8am and then end after midnight. Rarely do you actually get to spend time with friends or do what you want to do at the convention itself. It IS work, and hardly ever just a free ride to a convention. Yes, we do it because we enjoy doing it...but no...we shouldnt work for a con for free. Many conventions will exploit cosplayers because they know that the cosplayer will work their asses off for them and not expect compensation.

            I just want to know if it takes too much time to read the replies!
            He already said (above your text Lili) that he gets it, that he was confused about how the author were coming off with this!
            It were a bit of a pointless long text for something he understands already! =)

      The point of the article is those with your attitude are taking are actually creating a loss of jobs that models and paid cosplayers are losing. Those modeling agencies are losing assignments too because cosplayers that are viewing it as a hobby are accepting a ticket to the con and doing it for free.

    Legit question, when does Cosplay stop being cosplay and simply become modelling?

      I'd say that if you exclusively or primarily only do cosplaying privately and mainly for photos to license then that is more akin to modeling.

      If you're doing in the public space and don't charge for your time and promote the community in line with promoting the product then that seems more like cosplay to me.

      Easy answer. When you are paid.

    I don't really understand the issue at play here? I thought cosplayers did what they did as a hobby? If they are approached by a company to do that why aren't they asking for pay?

    If I painted in my spare time and was approached by a person who wanted my painting I'd ask them to pay for it? Same goes for photographers? Any artistic freelancer really? Why don't cosplayers ask for money? And why is it the company's obligation to offer to pay?

    Edit: I'm not questioning the cause; I'm sure many others and myself included would prefer cosplayers to be able to make a living doing what they love. However this is a capitalist society? Historically any profession requires a form of pre-set industry standards that employees rally together to adhere to forcing employers to pay a minimum wage. Why should cosplayers/gaming industry be any different? I see the weight of responsibility on cosplayers as opposed to the companies to fight for their rights to be paid for their work. Personally I believe it should be paid work.

    Last edited 02/02/16 3:01 pm

      Yeah that is the issue, you should be able to ask for payment but by the article and from I've heard as well it seems that is considered selling out when you charge for your time and effort. They seem to think it devalues the openness of the community ignoring the fact the it legitimises the community.

      It's more that these people do it for a hobby, someone notices them and then asks them to come to an event to help promote their product. Initially they've done it because it's their interest but once they been approached to promote an event they should be paid.

      There isn't that sort of professional group creating a standard. The idea of cosplayers doing this as a hobby aren't just affecting other cosplayers but models who are working in the same space that are also losing those assignments to people with zero business sense willing to do it for free.

    Basic supply and demand.

    If there are plenty of people who will do the work for free, then that's what it's worth.

      I think its a disconnect between people being at a convention in a cosplay outfit for fun and it being equated to hey you're already here dressed up why not get some free tickets/gift cards at it if you come work for us.

        That's usually the argument for working for free, but if you're going to be working all weekend then it's not worth it. There's no point in getting a free ticket if you don't get to see anything/meet anyone. If it's just a couple of hours then hey, go for it.

          And that attitude is the reason cosplayers are being marginalized. You're literally taking jobs away from people that SHOULD be making $25-50 an hour doing so. You're trading that kind of pay for a weekend ticket.

      Doesn't make it right.

      Also, depending on how it's couched, may actually run you into labour laws.

      And this is why we need labour laws. You only need to look at the US, where the minimum wage isn't even a living wage in most cities, to see where "supply and demand" gets you in terms of employment. If you make money off the work of another person, I think that we generally agree that you owe that person some compensation - that's the essence of many of our IP laws as well. If the presence of a cosplayer at an event is worth the time of someone to organise it, then it should be worth $16 per hour.

      On another note, @hayleywilliams, if cosplays aren't getting paid for work, then I assume they're not covered under any kind of insurance (beside the organisers' standard public liability)? If an exhibitor gets a cosplayer in and they gets sexually harassed or indecently assaulted, which are both very unfortunate possibilities, they certainly will not have performed the kind of due diligence required to provide a safe working environment and would (if the cosplayers were employees) be financially liable for failing to do so.

        This so much. Not only are people being exploited because of their love of cosplay but they aren't being protected by law correctly.

    Because then they would be called cosworkers.

    If they're cosplaying as a famous character and are making professional money out of it doesn't that then become a trademark/copyright infringement issue? I can imagine Square Enix at the least would put a stop to anyone making money off Final Fantasy cosplay.

      It's very much a legal grey area, but to my knowledge no one's ever been prosecuted for it. You're more likely to run into legal issues if you were cosplaying Lightning for a promotional event and promoting it as "FInal Fantasy's Lightning endorses this product!" whereas if you're appearing as yourself (a cosplayer) they wouldn't really care.

      Isn't that sort of thing covered by derivative and transformative works, or something like that?

      I imagine a decent lawyer could argue in court that a cosplayer isn't so much using a company's character but rather putting their likeness on the character. Can artists posting song covers on youtube be sued for copyright infringement?

      I imagine the same principal would be at play with cosplayers using characters. It will never be an exact 1-1 replica and as long as sufficient difference existed you could happily waste the legal systems time :)

        Not to mention it's pretty poor form to sue your fans!

          I'm sure that isn't going to dissuade some companies if it was actually possible!

          That's why you hire a legal team AND a PR team =P

      They don't care about cosplay people doing in their small communities as most true cosplay fans love their product they're cosplaying as so typically it is in the brand's best interest to promote that sort of behaviour(See World of Warcraft). Do tradeshows and the like I would hope or assume you're being hired by the first-party developer or publisher and it is all above board.

      Legal gray area because the art of cosplaying is changing the medium of the copyright material. If Square Enix started created content similar to cosplay material, the copyright would extend to that, thus making it an infringement issue.

      Interestingly, if you create a new version of a character (like a steampunk version of an established character), Square Enix can copy that design without compensation because they hold the original copy written material

    Yeah, if a company wants you on a stand/at an event, it should be paid. Full Stop. Even if the recompense isn't much or is a ticket, it still should equal out to a decent wage otherwise it's exploitative to say the least.

    Any reason you picked so many SMITE shots? They're actually very good for compensating their Booth cosplayers for time, materials and an event pass.

      I had a difficult time picking shots. I didn't really want to call out anyone that I couldn't be sure whether they paid cosplayers or not, hence adding the disclaimer:

      Note: To the best of my knowledge all of the photos in this article are from companies who pay cosplayers for their work. Good job them!

      SMITE is really good with cosplayers, even in Australia where we don't get offered paid jobs very often at all. I'd rather give the air space to companies who are doing the right thing, after all. Hope I made that clear enough in situ!

    So let me get this straight.
    Cosplay is a thing which started out as a hobby which people did out of passion for no financial gain.
    At some point some people realized they could make a buck out of their hobby
    Now the people getting financial gain from cosplay are upset there are people doing cosplay for no financial gain.
    And the people doing it for financial gain are complaining about the amount they're getting paid for dressing up in character even though they are not paying royalties towards the artists who created these characters in the first place.

      People still cosplay just for fun and attend events in cosplay just for fun. And that's awesome! No one is upset about that.
      However, some companies try to hire cosplayers to promote their products/events/etc free of charge because they do not see them as being on the same level as promotional models. They're expected to do all the same things as promotional models, with the added expectations of creating their own costumes and promoting the event through their social media channels.
      Royalties are not an issue here for two reasons:
      1. Often the companies hiring cosplayers own the characters they want them to cosplay in the first place (for example, see the Smite cosplayers in the article. Smite does pay their promotional cosplayers, though).
      2. When a cosplayer is hired as a guest at a convention, they are hired not for the particular costume they wear but for their skills and follower base. Like hiring a person as a guest speaker at a conference - if they happened to wear a pikachu shirt while speaking, they wouldn't have to pay royalties.

        Is it different because the person paid royalties (indirectly) when they purchased the Pikachu tshirt?

    I would just rather have cosplayers who are there for fun and not have any booked guest cosplayers.

    If you became a cosplayer to make money then you're stealing fron another company, it's called copyright and unless you have the licences you can't make money of it, yes we also know what ahhh personalities those two girls like to show off the most don't we all.
    Cosplay is a hobbh NOT a money source unless you can make the costumes, if you get asked to attend awesome take it as a compliment, if you get asked to attend choose a costume wisely, don't choose one that has a huge wig and 8 inch heals, be smarter and choose stupidly.

      Hey Simon- If you are as talented as YaYa Han - who DOES make her own costumes, some based on known fictional characters as well as original creations - You absolutely SHOULD be paid for it, and paid well.
      Conventions MAKE MONEY from increased ticket sales if they can put her name on their advertising posters. I wouldn't pay 10c to see Kate Moss, but I would gladly pay considerably more for a ticket if I would have the opportunity to see YaYa live. I suppose that's the test - ANYONE an organiser invites to a commercial event BECAUSE they believe that person will add to ticket sales is entitled to a piece of the action - End of story.
      I suppose you think professional standard athletes should play for free 'cause. like, they enjoy the game and they're exceptionally good at... You nonce.

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