This 29-year-old makes six figures a year dressing up in …
Stella Chuu is a professional cosplayer who left a job in graphic design to pursue her passion for all things anime and comics. CNBC followed her getting ready for and meeting fans at New York Comic Con.
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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 tells CNBC Make It that the materials for one of her costumes can cost as much as $1,000 to buy, including everything from wigs and makeup to leather, fabric and other raw materials — all of which can add up. 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.
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 self-made 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 into being a professional cosplayer three years ago.
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