SINGAPORE: It might seem like an easy way to pick up some extra cash on the side.
To the casual observer, mascot performers just need to walk around in a costume, waving at people and posing for photographs – or, if you’re lucky enough to be in a Pikachu Parade, basking in the screams and adulation of thousands of children.
But what goes on behind the scenes is far less glamourous and much more strenuous.
Event management company JNR Entertainment provides mascot services and has gamely agreed to give me a glimpse into the life of one of their employees – event executive James Chiang – as he goes about his day as a mascot talent.
10.00am: It’s a weekday morning and the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre is teeming with people formally dressed in business attire. I’m here to meet James, my designated companion for the day.
The slim, bespectacled 25-year-old greets me with a smile and firm handshake, before running me through the agenda for the day. Laboratory diagnostics company Human Diagnostics Worldwide has booked his services for the day to take on the role of Mr H, a lab technician-type character who stars in many of the company’s promotional videos.
He tells me that mascot talents usually only need about 15 minutes to meet the client and put on the mascot costume – which JNR Entertainment also supplies – before beginning their work. But in this case, the company has provided its own costume, which means that James needs extra time to try on the costume and make adjustments before his engagement is due to begin at 11am.
The event we’re at is a trade exhibition held in a cavernous air-conditioned hall, not open to members of the public. I thought it would be a piece of cake for James, and I told him so.
He shrugged non-committally. “Let’s see what the costume’s like first,” he said.
10.15am: The costume consists of a thickly padded foam body, detachable legs and a rigid plastic head. On top of the body, James also needs to put on a pair of trousers, shirt and a lab coat.
All this makes for a struggle to get in and out of the costume – a struggle exacerbated by the cramped conditions in the makeshift room set aside for James.
“Usually our mascots aren’t this thick, and more flexible,” he said, as he turned around to get zipped into the foam body by a staff member from Human. “I really need help to get into this one.”
It takes James 10 to 15 minutes to get ready, with the help of one or two staff members. He moves awkwardly for a few minutes around the small room before gesturing to one of them to lend him a hand in removing the head.
He heaves a sigh of relief, mopping his brow.
11.00am: It’s showtime! James is led out of the room by a staff member, who cautions him to watch his step and walk slowly.
The exhibition area is fairly empty, and I wondered about the reception he would get from this corporate crowd. But he proved to be a hit.
Heads turn as he ambles slowly around the space, waving and flashing passers-by the thumbs-up sign.
“It’s a mascot!”
“Can I take a photo with him?”
A variety of different responses greets James at every turn. Grasping on to the staff member’s arm, he gamely stops and poses for a photo with a passers-by, before waving goodbye as he is led away.
We do one round of the exhibition space before returning to the booth, where he poses for a group photo.
12.00pm: It’s time for a break. James retreats to the holding room and with some difficulty, removes the costume.
He collapses into a chair and gulps down some water gratefully.
“It’s important to keep myself hydrated because it’s so hot in the costume,” he explained. “Sometimes, the sweat drips into my eyes and it can be painful, but I can’t wipe it away because I’m wearing the head, and my hands are as good as paralysed once I’m in the costume anyway.”
There are bottles of water all over the small table, and I finally understand what they are for. In the half-hour or so we are in the room, James drinks five bottles of water.
“But doing this is a great way to lose weight,” he quipped. “I think I’ve lost about 5kg in three months just by being a mascot talent.”
Before we know it, it’s time to put the costume on, and we are off again.
12.30pm: The air-conditioning in the exhibition hall is on at full blast, and I am shivering. But next to me, James is drenched in sweat.
I ask him if the oppressive heat is the biggest challenge he faces, and he shrugs.
“Maybe,” he said. “But then sometimes there are kids who try to take off the head, or pull your hair ... that can be irritating sometimes.”
“But they’re just kids being kids, so I just use my hands to wave them off and say no in a nice way.”
1pm: As James is led around the exhibition area, I step into his path to take a photo. Without hesitating, he stops and shows off a variety of hand gestures, opening his arms wide, waving and giving me the thumbs-up sign.
Impressed, I later asked him if he knew that I had been snapping pictures of him.
He laughed and shook his head.
“I can’t really see anything that’s directly ahead of me,” he said. “There’s a hole at the mouth area, but I can only see the ground and people’s feet.”
“So if I see feet coming towards me, I know people are coming, so I will start shaking hands and making gestures.”
These gestures are, he added, of vital importance to being a good mascot talent.
“There must be a lot of action, because the passers-by can’t see your face,” he said. “I learnt this through trial and error because sometimes, when my colleague is the mascot, I have to be his assistant.”
“So I found out what the correct posture is, and the gestures people like.”
2.00pm: James has a small face towel stashed away that he uses periodically to wipe his sweat during his breaks.
He is clearly no amateur, and I ask him about his experience.
“I’ve been Barney, Pikachu ... and the God of Fortune”, he said. “But honestly, I’ve only done this six to seven times over the past three months.”
“The part-timers are the real pros at this.”
It turns out that his company had initially planned for a part-timer to wear this costume. But when the time came for him to be fitted, they realised he was too big to squeeze into it. James, as the slimmest member of the team, had to step in.
But this is par for the course for James, who has tried his hand at balloon sculpting, dishing out ice cream and popcorn at parties, and even being a magician’s assistant.
“I could be scooping ice cream today, being a mascot tomorrow, and making teh tarik the next,” he said. “Every day I wake up and I do something different ... “It’s what I like about being part of the events industry.”
2.30pm: “You human ah?”
An elderly man stops James and pokes a finger into the thick foam padding around his upper arm. James responds by giving him a thumbs-up and a wave.
Next to him, the staff member from Human grins and invites the elderly man to take a photograph with James.
It is nearing the end of his time as a mascot. The crowd is getting thicker as more people stream into the exhibition area, asking James for photographs.
Inside the costume, his energy must clearly be flagging. But from the outside, there is no sign of exhaustion as he continues waving at passers-by and posing for photographs.
We do one final round of the exhibition area before calling it a day and heading back to the booth.
3pm: With a sigh of relief, James removes the costume for the last time, mopping his brow.
“It’s been twenty minutes but it felt like twenty hours,” he said. “It’s very tiring and sweaty ... but I’m glad so many people came to take photos with me.”
He packs the mascot neatly into a box and leaves it in a corner of the room before picking up his backpack and getting ready to leave.
I take my chance and ask him how much he is paid.
"About S$2,000 a month, for my full-time job," he replied. "We usually give our part-timers S$10 an hour for other event jobs, but because being inside the mascot costume is so challenging, we pay our part-time mascot talents about S$50 for two hours."
Clearly, this is not a fast road to easy money like I thought it would be. But there are payoffs.
“For the 20 minutes I’m in the mascot costume, it’s like I’ve become Mr Popular ... everyone wants to take photos with me,” said James, grinning. “No one would want to take photos with me if I wasn’t wearing it."
"It feels good.”