Entrepreneurs

This 29-year-old makes six figures a year as a professional cosplayer

On Thursday, Stella Chuu spent well over an hour applying makeup and dressing up like a Japanese comic book character. Then, she posted photos of herself in costume for her 315,000 Instagram followers, many of whom she hung out with later that day at New York Comic Con in Manhattan.

Chuu, 29, is a former graphic designer turned professional cosplayer, a term for people who dress up as their favorite characters from movies, video games and comic books. While most cosplayers do this as a hobby — including at conventions like New York Comic Con (which draws 200,000 attendees a year) — Chuu is one of a select few performers who cosplay for a living.

She estimated that she'll bring in a six-figure income this year from paid gigs at events like Comic Con and other appearances. There's also money she brings in from selling photos and merchandise on crowdfunding sites like Patreon, and from live-streaming herself on sites like Twitch and Caffeine.

Chuu wasn't comfortable sharing her exact annual income. But she tells CNBC Make It that, while it adds up to six figures on a yearly basis, she typically spends about half of her earnings on "material costs," which includes the clothing, wigs and other materials she uses to create her elaborate costumes.

And after those costs are considered, she says, she still ends up putting most of what money is left toward more cosplay costumes.

For instance, Chuu says the materials for one of her costumes can cost as much as $1,000 and includes everything from wigs and makeup to leather, fabric and other raw materials. That doesn't even include the amount of time she has to spend designing, stitching and assembling everything — which can make the time she spent getting ready on Thursday look like nothing.

Professional cosplayer Stella Chuu with a fan at New York Comic Con 2018
Source: CNBC
Professional cosplayer Stella Chuu with a fan at New York Comic Con 2018

Take what Chuu wore to Comic Con on Thursday: She dressed as Katsuki Bakugo, a character from the Japanese manga comic "My Hero Academia." The handmade costume featured elaborate foam appendages that resembled watermelon-sized hand grenades, which she wore on each hand.

"Even though, say, a piece of armor foam is 10 bucks, working on it takes about maybe 20 hours," she said. And that's just one piece of a costume that also features a wig, makeup, knee-high black and red boots, and other accouterments.

All in all, designing and making all of the elements of just one costume can be a weeks-long process, Chuu says.

What's more, Chuu has over 200 costumes that she cycles through. Those include everything from Battle Angel Alita, a sleek, black leather-clad warrior from a manga comics series of the same name, to a scantily clad version of Valus, a minotaur warrior from the video game "Shadow of the Colossus."

Chuu wears the costumes to different conventions and events around the world, before she eventually either throws them out (if they get damaged), or sometimes sells them to make way for her newest creations.

Even a used costume can fetch up to $1,000, she says, especially if it is an elaborate design. Chuu also makes costumes on commission for other cosplayers, including one she's making now that involves a combination of body armor, fur and a large wig. She'll sell it for about $3,000, she said.

Chuu started cosplaying in high school and she says she got serious about it eight years ago, after she graduated from college at SUNY Purchase. A lifetime fan of anime, aka Japanese animation, Chuu grew up watching anime series like "Dragon Ball Z" and "Shadow Skill" before becoming the president of the anime club at her college.

"I decided to dive super deep into cosplay, because it just looked so cool when I went to conventions with my anime club," she told CNBC Make It. "And I just thought if I learn how to make my own costumes maybe something cool can come from this; maybe I could travel more, maybe I can meet cool people."

After doing cosplay as a hobby for several years while working a full-time graphic design job at Everyday Health in New York, Chuu decided to make the jump to become a professional cosplayer three years ago.

She quit her job, and a year later she moved to Los Angeles, where she now lives with her husband. She admits that it was a risky proposition to leave her job, where she had a guaranteed salary with full benefits, for a relatively uncharted line of work, since there are relatively few professional cosplayers in the world.

"I was taking a huge risk making this my full-time job," Chuu says, but she took inspiration from the recent rise of social media influencers and other online entertainers who have made careers out of building large followings on social media and sites like Twitch.

Professional cosplayer Stella Chuu
Source: CNBC
Professional cosplayer Stella Chuu

"I was really inspired by YouTubers and artists out there on the internet who made their own job, and it really motivated me to try it; and it's been amazing," she says.

Last year, she hired a manager to help grow her career, and she's already been described as a "cosplay superstar" by the gaming blog Kotaku. In addition to her more than 315,000 Instagram followers, Chuu has roughly 700,000 Facebook followers along with more than 12,000 people who watch her streams on Twitch.

"I stream on both Caffeine and Twitch, and when I'm streaming there, [people are] watching the creative process of me building a costume and figuring out how to problem solve the costume," says Chuu, who adds that she streams on both sites every weekday.

Meanwhile, on her Patreon page, she says her fans can crowdfund her projects while getting a look at the final versions of her costumes, which she models in photos and videos.

She also attends roughly 20 comic book and pop culture conventions each year. At those events, Chuu typically gets an appearance fee, and has the cost of her travel covered by convention hosts or other brands that want to pay her to promote their products.

In November, video game publisher Riot Games flew her to Beijing, where she dressed as a character from the game "League of Legends" for a major e-sports tournament. Chuu has also worked with companies like Marvel Comics to promote a mobile game, and Google even sent her a free Pixel to promote the company's line of smartphones.

"When you're a guest at a convention you cosplay, of course. ... You can judge cosplay contests and run panels," Chuu said of her typical duties when appearing at a convention.

"But, generally, you're kind of there to be a leader in the cosplay community — to show how to build costumes, how to become a professional ... and just overall be a part of the culture and share with everyone because it's very much a sharing community," she added.

Chuu isn't sure how long her cosplaying career will last or if she will eventually segue into another career. When she started as a professional cosplayer three years ago, she says, she figured she would stop eventually if she became a "starving artist" while pursuing her hobby.

"But somehow I've been able to make enough money to survive on, and even more, which is really, really great," she said.

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