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Times Square’s costumed characters have been splitting opinions for as long as they’ve been posing for photos — and like many New Yorkers, YouTube creator Carolina Rizzotto wanted to learn more about the cast of superheroes and cartoon favorites. Unlike most of us, she was brave enough to dive in at the deep end — by dressing as a shark for a day and trying to earn $100 in tips.
The characters divide New Yorkers’ feelings just as much as Midtown itself — they are seen either a welcome throwback to a grittier Times Square, or a disorderly swarm of aggressive knock-off Elmos — and as Rizzotto arrived in Times Square she was getting out of her comfort zone. Putting those worries aside, the Brazilian-Latvian content creator stayed true to her word, sweating it out in her video, “I went UNDERCOVER in Times Square as an INFLATABLE SHARK” and donning a plastic shark suit (cost: $40) to get to the bottom of what life is like for Spidermen, Mickies, Statues of Liberty and Olafs.
“We go by these costumed characters every day,” said Rizzotto, who studied TV and film journalism, “and if you look in the press, there’s only negative coverage about these people. Behind every costume there’s a person, and it was always really important for me to show both sides of the story. I wanted to see if there was a different perspective to be explored.”
Her first challenge was determining where she was allowed to linger. Rizzotto was careful to stay in the “green zones” where costume characters are supposed to roam, limiting unwanted interaction between tourists and hawkers. As soon as she hit the streets, she asked police officers and Times Square security guards where she was allowed to go. “While technically, you can go wherever you want — it’s a First Amendment right to take photos in a public place — they ask the characters to stay within certain parts of Times Square,” said Rizzotto.
She soon learned that it takes a lot of tourist tips to clear $100 in a day. Costumed characters split a tip evenly between them when they pose in groups. Six characters posing with two girls led to just $1: 16 cents per character for a photo op. “It’s hard to be part of it,” she said, and many visitors also don’t choose to tip.
But even being part of a group to get 16 cents was tough for Rizzotto. “These guys are completely ignoring me,” said Rizzotto after attempting to strike up a conversation with her fellow hawkers, who she later found out were gossiping about her. “It’s was tough feeling rejected by the gang.” She told W42ST: “It felt a little bit like the first day of high school — you’ve got the cliques of the good guys and the bad guys, the people who will talk to you and help you out and those who won’t.”
It is tough work: you have to watch for the faded lines of the “green zone,” wear heavy costumes, and stay relentlessly upbeat. The average a character can expect to make? $100 a day. Most speak Spanish, but Rizzotto was delighted when one person spoke to her in her native Portuguese. When she managed to connect with some of the characters, Rizzotto learned that some had been in the game for as little as a week.
Others have been there much longer. The best-known and the longest running character is the Naked Cowboy, a daily fixture since 1999, gaining internet fame in the process. He is rumored to make as much as six figures, said Rizzotto — “people automatically flock to him, he’s the most popular person there.”
During Rizzotto’s day on the job, however, the Naked Cowboy called her over for what she thought would be a heartwarming photo op with a woman in a wheelchair, but it did not go as expected. “She wants to be a naked cowgirl,” said Iron Man. “Let me see your underwear,” said the Naked Cowboy.
“It really caught me off guard,” said Rizzotto. “I’m usually, like any good New Yorker, really snappy and ready to put someone in their place.” She added on the YouTube video: “I was sexualized a lot today, in a f***ing shark costume. Which honestly just proves that, as a woman, it doesn’t matter what you wear, men will f***ing sexualize you.”
After a full day in shark mode, Rizzotto reflected on the experience, and the purpose of the costume characters in New York’s landscape, by stepping out of the costume and asking people what they thought. Were they, as one person said, “a tourist trap?” or “an inspiring part of New York?”
“A little bit of both,” mused Rizzotto. “These costume characters have been a part of Times Square for the past 20 years — they’re a part of New York City culture, because tourists expect them to be there and they actually want to take pictures with them. On the other hand, there are definitely some major jerks out there who will force themselves into your photos and try to demand money from you. So it can be a tourist trap, but that’s what you get for going to Times Square…”
The tough reality for the characters was her major takeaway. “Their favorite part of doing the job? Being their own boss and having freedom to control their work hours. What surprised me the most was how much money they make.” While most characters expect to make an average of $100 a day, after four hours, Rizzotto had only made $11 — not even enough to cover the cost of her shark costume.
But she also found some are heroes under the suit — a Spiderman helped clean condensation off her plastic window on the world. The Hulk (“there are so many Hulks right there, but in my opinion, I’m the real one,” he said) teamed up with her to help her get photos and tips, and said if she came back, he would help her again. “Don’t be shy,” he advised her.
And as Rizzotto struggled, Minnie Mouse insisted on giving her some cash. When Rizzotto tried to share the cash she had made with them — aware that this was not really her day job — both Minnie and The Hulk refused to accept it.
The green superhero said: “Maybe you can buy some food for the homeless,” bringing Rizzotto close to tears.
“These people who have to feed their families are here giving me money on my first day. This act of kindness was worth a lot more than $100,” she said. “It’s the small things that we take for granted in life, and I think people forget that these are people who are working every single day there to try to make a buck, and it’s a tough job.”
Subscribe to Carolina Rizzotto’s YouTube channel to catch more New York-centered content, exploring if New York is the city that doesn’t sleep and a future video detailing our city’s long-running feud with New Jersey!