The Punishing Economics of Professional Cosplay

Steff Von Schweetz has come a long way since her first cosplay photoshoot. To portray Mimiru from .hack//SIGN, she used pillows for the armor, acrylics instead of body paint and didn’t wear a wig. She was in high school and her mom was the photographer.

Now that she’s a professional cosplayer, she looks back at her first attempt at bringing an anime character to life as “really, really stupid.”

Today, the 28-year old Las Vegas resident lives the cosplayer life almost full time. She has almost 10,000 followers on Instagram and brings in over $1,200 per month on Patreon. She’s paid to appear as a guest at conventions and also makes money creating costumes for other cosplayers.

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Cosplay’s popularity and presence have exploded. With its newfound prominence, there are more opportunities for cosplayers to be seen and celebrated for bringing fantasies to life. But professional cosplayers find it difficult to turn that attention into a living wage.

Up until only a few years ago, selling photos of yourself cosplaying was frowned-upon. “People thought it was narcissistic,” Von Schweetz says. “How dare we make money off this hobby?”

But around 2012, prints of cosplay photos began to circulate more widely at conventions and similar events, opening the door for cosplayers to market themselves as professional cosplay models.

Schweetz is one of many cosplayers using the crowd-funding site Patreon. In exchange for monthly subscription fees, Schweetz’s Patreon followers can access photos and costume tutorials. Schweetz’s shooting costs are low; her boyfriend’s a pro photographer, so her shots are professional caliber but taken for free.

Appearing at conventions is another opportunity for cosplayers make money, but strings are often attached. Generally, paid appearances entail judging costume contests and speaking on panels.

Convention organizers like seeing the cosplayers they’ve hired stay busy. But they’re not paying for judges or speakers. They’re buying access to social media fandom. For cosplayers, numbers mean everything. More followers mean more conventions will believe you’ll attract more people to their events to meet and take selfies with you.

Schweetz was a fan until about three years ago when she became a professional. After winning a Nevada convention’s costume contest, she moved on to in a larger group competition. Many of the members were cosplayers Schweetz idolized. The prospect of working with them was daunting.

“I thought we would lose and it would be all my fault and they would all hate me,” Schweetz said.

Thankfully, her reception was far more positive than she thought. Not only did her team place in the competition, but the experience led to her relationship with her best friend, Mel, a cosplayer who goes by the name WindoftheStars.

Mel didn’t hate her but she does have a slightly different perspective on the cosplay industry. Schweetz has a somewhat lax attitude toward capitalism, saying “if someone buys something, that’s cool.” For Mel, a more seasoned professional, it’s more of a job.

Mel has over 50,000 followers on Instagram. Over the course of 10 years, her cosplaying career has involved international travel, commissions to make costumes for high-profile clients and victories in countless costume contests. Yet she still finds it difficult to get paid fairly for what she does.

Found an old D.Va photo on my phone. Something to break up the Lina/Ciri/Cindy spam. ❤️

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“It’s hard to get people to understand your worth,” she says. She used to do a lot of commissioned costume work but now with Amazon and eBay, people don’t want to pay between four hundred and a thousand dollars for a customized piece when they can buy something for a fraction of the price elsewhere online.

It’s difficult for Mel to convince conventions she’s worth as much as comic book artists and actors who are paid to appear. Conventions can be reluctant to pay her when there are plenty of aspiring cosplayers walking around for free. But there are also tons of aspiring actors and comic book artists attending the events but conventions still pay professionals to appear nonetheless.

Conventions outside the U.S. tend to pay cosplayers more fairly in Mel’s experience. Conventions like Otakuthon in Montreal give lunch breaks and often a staff member acts as her assistant for the day. In the U.S., the demands are greater. She often has to ask a friend to get her lunch because she has no time between judging costume contestants, watching her table and interacting with her fans, all with a smile on her face.

Mel and Schweetz face competition from fellow Instagrammers, cosplaying convention attendees and newer sites like Cospix, a social media site devoted specifically to cosplayers’ photos. It’s easier to get exposure but harder to stand out.

Mel is unsure if it’s still worth it. It’s becoming harder to remain relevant as she and others in her position have to constantly find ways to one-up themselves. Cosplayers making upwards of three figures are rare. Mel had a good year where she made $50,000, but that was an outlier. Most years she makes anywhere between $15,000 to $20,000 before her expenses. The glamor is all surface, she says. The flashy wigs and makeup hide the struggle to get by, even if you’re well known and popular like she is.

She misses the fun part: dressing up in costume with her friends and connecting with her followers. She tells the story of an older man in Australia who messaged her asking for help in creating costumes. He wanted to use cosplay as a means of connecting with his high school-aged daughter. Mel says the pair now cosplay regularly together and he always updates Mel on their progress.

“It turned into this really cool relationship from ‘how do I hem this,’” says Mel.

She’s considering scaling back her professional cosplay pursuits and letting the new market have its way. It’s tiring, she says, because “there’s always someone newer and younger and willing to work for free.”

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