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?