If you have ever passed through Times Square - like 415,000 people do, daily - you have seen them: Elmo, Minnie Mouse, Dora the Explorer and a variety of costumed “mascots”, posing for pictures with tourists and hugging kids. They are part of New York’s most tourist-laden cityscape and recently, subjects of controversy.
Last year, the New York Police Department directed a coercive campaign instructing the public (and the tourists) not to tip the costumed characters. Tipping is not illegal when the costumed characters are careful to word their requests for money as optional “donations” or “tips” (which is technically busking and panhandling, and protected by the First Amendment). A string of unpleasant incidents and confrontations with a few aggressive individuals hadn’t helped, nor did the possibility of copyright infringement of Walt Disney Company and Sesame Street (though American Civil Liberties Union has contested the implication). And though there have been attempts to unionize the costumed characters and have them register in order to better control the rogue industry, the job remains unregulated to this day.
Over the last few days, we talked to several people working in costume and photographed their daily lives behind the masks. The interviews were conducted in Spanish. The subjects declined using their real names.
hopes&Fears: How did you come to be a costumed character?
Cookie Monster: Through a friend.
Mario: All of us were brought here, but not at the same time. If we needed a job, a friend would offer it to us. It always starts with a friend who works in the job first, and then we try it out to see if we like it.
H&F: What’s a typical day like?
Mario: I live in Passaic, New Jersey. I wake up at 6-6:30am, eat breakfast, and prepare food for the day. Then I’m here by around 9am and I start working.
H&F: In terms of getting the costume and all the logistics, everything is kind of on your own?
Mario: Yes, we start through a friend that brings us in, and we take care of our costumes and everything else. We don’t work for a company or under a contract of any kind.
H&F: Do you guys choose your costumes? Where do they come from?
Cookie MONSTER: Everyone buys the costume that they want. They’re brought from another country. It’s a costume store for kids’ birthday parties and whatnot, and that’s where we get them. The specific one we buy from is in Peru, where we are from.
Mario: The majority are mailed.
cookie MONSTER: Sometimes someone will come and bring the costumes with them.
H&F: How long have you all been working here?
Cookie MONSTER: Two years for me.
Hello Kitty: I’m about to be at one year.
Mario: I’ve been working here for two years. If I don’t find anything else I’ll stay here, and if I do, I’ll move on to a different job. I think a lot of us are in the same boat, at least from my experience.
H&F: Do you have other jobs too?
Cookie MONSTER: I was working at a factory for a while but not anymore, so this is my primary job.
H&F: When do you generally finish working?
Cookie MONSTER: It depends because I have a baby girl, and sometimes the woman who watches her can’t that day and I have to leave by mid-day and come back around six or seven to go pick her up. I live in Jersey about an hour away.
Everyone: We all have families here. We have to put food on the table.
Mario: Most of us send what we make back home to support our kids’ education; for those that aren’t here with us, it all goes to them.
H&F: What are the most difficult parts of your job?
Cookie MONSTER: There are a lot of people who ask for a lot of pictures and then when you ask for a tip they just laugh and run away. Other times they will give only a dollar and we have to split it when more than one of us takes the picture with them. Sometimes they give you some loose change.
We’ve even had people physically hit us. It’s really never easy doing this. Some of them think it’s funny to hit us on the head in groups.
Mario: School age, teenage kids usually will come in groups and laugh and kick us around. It’s rough.
H&F: Do tourists tip well?
Cookie MONSTER: Some of them do, some don’t. The French and Argentinians really don’t tip well at all.
Mario: In this part of the United States, as in most, tipping is part of the culture, so American tourists usually are used to it and will do it. But the Europeans barely tip ever.
h&F: How are the kids?
Cookie MONSTER: There are very few kids who start to cry.
Most of them get so excited, they light up and run and hug you. It’s the best part of the job for me.
Mario: Kids love Mario so much, so they come and take pictures with me. Sometimes the parents don’t have money to pay me. It's ok, because they appreciate it so much. It’s for them really, for their happiness. They love characters and I’m not going to disappoint them for the sake of money.
H&F: Is there a lot of competition between other characters?
Mario: It’s more of a ratio thing. There’s so many of us and sometimes there are very few tourists.
Cookie MONSTER: Sometimes everyone wants to jump in the picture but there’s only enough money for the four of us, for example. Everyone wants a part of it so it gets difficult because there aren’t enough tips to go around so in that sense it’s competitive.
H&F: Do all of the mascots get to know one another? Do new people come often?
Cookie MONSTER: There are new people all time, but we’re all in the same circle because we work together. Some people are closer than others.
H&F: And the friend who got you into it, how did they start?
Mario: Probably the same way I did, it’s like a cycle.
Hello Kitty: It’s like a chain of connections. The system is all word of mouth.
Mario: There is no job security. Some days are better than others. Some days you come home sad, but what are you going to do? It’s a business like everything else. It’s a daily struggle for us.
Cookie MONSTER: Times Square is a labyrinth. The police, fire department, sirens, people, everything.
Mario: It’s a huge conglomerate of people, especially in the afternoon. New York is really hard to navigate.
h&F: Is it hard to always be in costume, without your face showing?
HELLO KITTY: Yeah, they really don’t see us. It’s frustrating.
Mario: Inside the character, there’s a person with a heart who also has kids and a family. Everyone sees us as just characters, people forget that there’s a person with feelings underneath. It’s a balance of acting and being completely open at the same time.
HELLO KITTY: In summertime under the mask its…
Cookie MONSTER: It’s unbearable!
Mario: With the heat everything, you still have to work. In the cold, it’s the opposite, you’re completely bundled up. It’s a battle for us for sure.
H&F: Have people gotten sick?
Everyone: Yeah, all the time.
Mario: When you’re sick, you still have to fight through it. If you don’t show up, you lose the job. It’s all about survival first and foremost.
H&F: What some moments that bring peace to your daily grind?
Hello Kitty: There are kids who are sick who come and for them, it’s always free.
Cookie MONSTER: There are sometimes adults too, who come and hug you and get excited and that makes me very happy.
Mario: There was an elderly man in a wheelchair with a huge camera taking pictures of everything. Everybody is different and they have their own ways of relating to people and reacting to situations but I have my own rules. A couple people came up to him but no one really wanted to take a picture with an old man. I looked at him and said, “you can take one with me for free.” The guy wheeling him kept offering me a tip and I refused it. We took the picture and the guy was very happy. When there is someone who is sick I always offer to take pictures for free. In this way, I feel like I’m doing a service to people who really benefit from it. There’s many ways to do a service but for me this is how I derive satisfaction, a small difference I can make. It happens quite often actually. In moments like that, I feel great.
Photographs by Simon Chetrit.