Many, myself included, have used the term “professional cosplayer” to describe various people who have leveraged cosplay into a career. But the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s an inaccurate term. Cosplay is a hobby people can use to promote their artistic skills, but actually making money off wearing a costume has numerous legal and practical barriers that make profiting from cosplay itself extremely difficult. That’s an inherent contradiction in the term “professional cosplayer” that deserves some examination.
The hobby of cosplay exists perpetually on the edge of copyright infringement. It’s one of the few environments where companies are okay with people replicating trademarked images without paying for the privilege… within reason. While a company will turn a blind eye to copying their unique space armor once, start churning them out at the rate of twelve a month and you’ll likely hear from their lawyers. In short, when there’s not much money being made, companies are usually okay with people walking around as free publicity for their products… but the minute there’s significant cash involved, they want some.
This isn’t just greed. Many companies are contractually obligated to their license holders to prosecute any violations of that license. They’ve basically signed contracts that require them to be fun-killing assholes. Some companies have historically gone overboard with this – Paramount’s past iron grip on the Star Trek license, for instance – but usually the boundaries are reasonable. Companies have come to love cosplayers because we’re basically mascots they don’t have to pay… or at least pay very much.
So there’s another inherent conundrum in becoming a “professional cosplayer” – you’re looking to make money via some level of copyright infringement, doing a job numerous others will do for free.
And it’s not just the companies that hold the trademarks you have to contend with. Geek films use their fan bases for free labor all the time. Whenever you see one of those “Come on down fans! You get to be in the movie!” messages, what it’s really saying is “Come work for us and supply your own wardrobe for free.” There’s nothing wrong with this sort of unpaid labor since it’s a great experience for some people. It just doesn’t leave much room for those who think their time and effort is worth actual money.
And make no mistake: if you want to make money connected to cosplay, you have to firmly believe that you are worth money and be prepared to wait until someone is willing to pay you money. Otherwise you’ll end up working for free despite yourself over and over again and probably getting pretty bitter about it.
You also have to be creative in your business model, because a so-called “professional cosplayer” is really getting paid for things that aren’t the cosplay itself. Whatever that thing is – how-to videos, instructional books, costume pieces like gloves or colored tights, full-blown commissioned costumes, or cosplay-specific photography, for instance – you stand a better chance to get paid for your time and a specific skill, not the character itself.
For instance, if someone comes to a cosplay seamstress and specifically requests she make them a Wonder Woman costume, that’s considered a commission, and that’s okay. But if that seamstress set up a website saying she’s selling Wonder Woman costumes, she’ll eventually be served with a cease and desist order from Warner Bros. Similarly, a live entertainer can advertise that they do children’s parties, complete with pictures in character, but they can’t use the licensed names of the characters, copyrighted symbols, or the universe they’re from without getting sued. When I used to do mascot work, my Oscar the Grouch outfit was referred to as the “Green Monster” because Sesame Street doesn’t own the trademark to monsters of a given color. “Green Monster” is now also code for costumes of Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc.
Before you start to think that cosplayers are all just parasites, however, there are things that cosplayers can do that official character employees can’t, like visit children’s hospitals, march in local parades, do face painting at summer fairs, and various other things that license holders don’t or won’t do. The “pro cosplayer” space isn’t totally narcissistic.
Of course, the flip side of this is that there’s a reason that not every really good cosplayer turns pro. You really do need skills beyond looking good in a costume to have anyone want to pay you money, because so many cosplayers these days look great. Social graces and being a quick learner were things I found were very useful to me in getting work: Companies could trust me to talk to booth visitors and the media, get attention, and not embarrass them. I even managed a pin up pose in a Stormtrooper outfit once that made it into a newspaper… complete with the name of the company I was promoting in the shot. Anyone who says that being a booth babe isn’t a skill has never been a booth babe.
It is possible, however, to know too much about a character you’re cosplaying for pay. When I was doing promo work as Quorra from Tron Legacy, Disney reps told me, very politely, to not use quite so many Tron references when talking to people. Apparently “end of line” and “I fight for the user” were such dated quotes that they were lost on the audience they were trying to attract for the new film. Whoops! The bright side is that I discovered that Disney people really are that nice.
You have to be that nice when interacting with kids. The Disney-adjacent Frost Sisters are another good example of this reality. What makes them an in-demand act is a combination of reliable work ethic, stage presence, and being very very patient with very very excited children. It’s this last skill that probably serves them best. Many girls can learn the Frozen song and dance routines, but keeping a smile on your face when a hyperactive kid rams their head into your gut for the third time in ten minutes… that’s a unique talent.
Clearly none of this sounds like the “professional cosplayer” model of sitting at a booth and selling pictures of yourself. That’s because you don’t make any money that way anymore. After printing charges and the cost of the costumes themselves, you rarely even make your costs back on signed photos these days.
Instead, cosplayers that make money are the ones that turn it into a true art. There has to be an iconic or transformative quality to your costumes that adds something to the legacy of the character as opposed to just replicating what others have done. That’s not easy, but when you notice other cosplayers copying your designs or techniques you’re on the right track. So don’t get mad – get merchandised! Produce a book, make YouTube videos, or do panels or classes on how you do what you do. And use cosplay to attract fans to your original work, because cosplay is art, but a cosplayer’s art doesn’t have to be limited to cosplay.
So “professional cosplayer” are more accurately professional models, costume designers, entertainers, or prop makers. The cosplay element might be your inspiration, but it’s not the thing that will get you paid.