Who’s Really Behind That Furry Costume? A Look at NYC’s Elmo Impersonators

Written by NYPress on . Posted in Blog, NY Press Exclusive, Uncategorized.


Pictured: Rodrigo, Photo by Alissa Fleck

An Elmo impersonator was arrested and subsequently hospitalized Sunday outside the Central Park Zoo for shouting, among other things, anti-Semitic obscenities at passersby.

(by Alissa Fleck)

An investigation into Elmo’s background uncovered the man, who gave the name Adam Sandler, formerly ran a Cambodian pornography site. Additionally, Gothamist revealed Elmo-gone-crazy-in-the-park is by no means an isolated incident.

The Wall Street Journal reported last fall the men and women who don these cartoon costumes for tips are frequently undocumented workers who speak little, if any, English. One could transform “from an undocumented immigrant from Peru whose grasp of English is tenuous to perhaps the most iconic American character of all time, Mickey Mouse,” reported the same article.

Many of the workers told the WSJ the job was preferable to other comparable jobs because people would touch, hug and even kiss them, rather than acting like they didn’t exist.

I visited Times Square, where the vast majority of fuzzy cartoon characters in NYC congregate (due to legality issues and tourist activity), with the hope of seeing how others in the business thought the industry might be affected by the recent Elmo incident.

I approached four separate Elmos, and one Cookie Monster conversing with an Elmo, all of whom were non-English speakers or were more forthcoming with cuddly pats than answers. The “conversations” were repeatedly interrupted by groups wanting pictures, which the characters were more than happy to oblige. After each picture, they would hold socks open for a tip, and hang their oversized heads in mock dismay if tourists did not pay up.

I finally offered one Elmo a dollar to answer questions, per his insistence, but once I’d handed over the cash, he would not answer or respond to requests for his name. None of the Elmos indicated they had heard of the arrest.

Andres, disguised as Spongebob, said he had purchased his costume at the store himself and had not heard of the arrest either. As I approached a solitary Mickey Mouse, he was playfully roughed up by a man whose pants were around his knees.

The greatest concentration of fuzzy characters was gathered outside the Times Square Toys R’ Us.

I finally made a breakthrough speaking to one Elmo named Rodrigo, from Ecuador, currently residing in Patterson. When asked how he came into this job and his costume, he responded with unintelligible, high-pitched, cartoonish squeaks. I repeated the question and he again squeaked. When I asked a third time, he said in a low, if frustrated, voice: “I know somebody.”

Rodrigo said he had not heard about the arrest, but seemed concerned about the incident. “What happened to the guy in Central Park?” he asked. Rodrigo said he makes $50 to $60 a day and only works in front of the Toys R Us. He has not been doing this long and does not currently have another job.

While talking to Rodrigo, a Hello Kitty approached. “She does not speak English,” Rodrigo said. I asked if they knew each other and he said they were friends.

I then asked if he likes his job: “No, but we need the money,” he said. He does like kids though.

More Hello Kittys meandered over, seeking out hugs, while a Shrek and Puss-in-Boots, seemingly working as a team, patted passing children. A security guard immediately inside Toys R Us said the fuzzy characters are not allowed into the store.

A Hello Kitty approached a man selling comedy tickets for a hug. “Who’s in there, Kitty?” he asked. “Is that a Chinese woman? I’m not a tourist. You wanna buy a comedy ticket?”

Erica, a teenage tourist visiting the city with her mother, hugged and took a picture with Rodrigo-as-Elmo.

When asked if she was ever “weirded out” by who might be in the costume, she replied: “Sometimes.” She also said she would not hug a random stranger on the street who was not in costume.

Greg Wrigley, a tourist from West Virginia, has two daughters and a grandson. He was visiting the Toys R Us with children from his church and said they had taken pictures with the characters. When asked how he felt about not knowing who was inside the costume, he said: “I do wonder who’s really in there. Is it a boy or girl? A child or adult? It doesn’t bother me one way or the other.

“When they put on the costume, they’re no longer a person,” he said. “They become a character. You expect them to take on the character.

“I think you trust whoever hires them,” added Wrigley. When asked how he would feel to know many of the characters were not hired, but in fact purchased the costumes themselves, Wrigley seemed surprised by the possibility. (The WSJ reported these workers do not need a license, and the Elmo incident reveals they are by no means vetted.)

“I guess that’s possible,” he said. “But [bad] behavior would give them away. If they grabbed someone inappropriately, they’d be beaten half to death, at least where I come from they would. I don’t know about here.”

As Wrigley spoke, a nearby Minnie and Mickey each swung a baby into the air for a family picture.

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