Cosplay superstar Jessica Nigri talks about turning her passion into a full-time job, and how Facebook’s algorithm changes have affected her

nigri jessica

  • Jessica Nigri, one of the top cosplayers in the world, has a new documentary with Rooster Teeth about her life.
  • Nigri has millions of social-media followers, and is one of the few people to make cosplay her full-time job.
  • Nigri said that she and other top cosplayers have seen their reach on Facebook dramatically decrease in recent months, in line with what online publishers have seen.

From the first time Jessica Nigri tried cosplay — the practice of dressing up as a character from movies, video games, or another fictional universe — she seemed destined to be a star.

In 2009, a friend of Nigri’s bought her a ticket to attend Comic-Con, the massive convention held every year in San Diego. Nigri did a quick Google search of the event and saw that some people dressed up as their favorite characters to attend, she told Business Insider. She decided to give it a go, and dressed as Pikachu from Pokémon.

Nigri expected to have a good time, and said when she got there she looked around and thought, “These are my people.” But she didn’t expect a photo of her at the convention to go viral, flooding her Facebook and Myspace with friend requests from people she’d never met.

There were a few reasons for that. First, Nigri wasn’t just dressed as Pikachu, but rather “Sexy Pikachu,” sporting a barely-there outfit that generated quite a bit of buzz. Second, in one picture she had a badge with her name on it, so that allowed random people to find her online.

Getting that kind of intense internet reaction from strangers might have terrified some people, but not Nigri.

“It was like an immediate addiction,” Nigri said of her first cosplay experience.

Now Nigri is one of the most popular cosplayers in the world, with beautiful and insanely intricate costumes she makes herself. She has 4.7 million Facebook followers, 2.8 million on Instagram, 1.2 million on YouTube, and even 3,500 on Patreon, who support her with monthly monetary subscriptions.

And the 28 year old has recently made a documentary with digital-media powerhouse Rooster Teeth, “Becoming Jessica Nigri,” that looks inside the day-to-day realities of making a living off of cosplay.

jessica nigri working

Turning a hobby into a job

Nigri said the first time she thought of cosplay as a real business was when she got a call from her job at Trader Joe’s asking if she was still coming in for the 6 a.m. shift. At the time she was actually in Japan, where it was well into the night. She was doing promotion for a video game company and dressed as Juliet Starling, the zombie-hunting cheerleader and protagonist of “Lollipop Chainsaw.” She wasn’t going to make it to her shift.

There are a variety of ways to make money doing cosplay, though the vast majority of people in the community do it just as a hobby.

Nigri listed them off: You can sell prints of photos or other merch from an online store, do appearances for video game companies, make costumes or props for others, get ad money from a YouTube channel, utilize Patreon, and so on. But there isn’t one overarching revenue stream that dwarfs the others. If you want to cosplay professionally, you have to cobble sources of revenue together, Nigri said.

But while the ways of making money can change, what is constant is that to become a prominent cosplayer you have to be both authentically connected to the community, and good at cultivating a fan base. Nigri described it as a mixture of personality, genuineness, and craftsmanship in your costumes (“builds”).

“If someone is doing cosplay for the wrong reasons it’s blatantly obvious,” Nigri said. And indeed it would seem extremely difficult for Nigri to fake her enthusiasm for the art given the vast amount of tutorial and behind-the-scenes video content she makes (not to mention the new documentary).

But there are still people who send online hate Nigri’s way, especially given the revealing nature of many of her costumes.

“Honestly I used to really get hurt by it,” Nigri said of some of the negative energy. But she said now she realizes that it usually comes from a place of sadness, of people not feeling 100% adequate themselves. “It’s never a personal thing, I never take it personally,” she said.

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Facebook reach has been ‘decimated’

While preparing for (and going to) live events is the bedrock of Nigri’s cosplaying, her ability to maintain a following on social media is also a key to the business side of things.

In this realm, while Facebook has put up bigger numbers, YouTube has been the more stable partner. Like many creators and online publishers, Nigri has felt the pain of Facebook’s algorithm shifts over the last year.

“Facebook’s reach has been decimated,” she said, before adding that though she has 4.7 million followers, she has moved away from the platform lately. A lot of other cosplayers have seen decreased reach too, she said, with external links they post not getting the numbers they used to.

When Facebook put an emphasis on video last year, that worked for awhile, then began to fall off. “I have noticed that videos in general are receiving less reach than usual,” she said. “It’s concerning because a lot of people depend on social media to showcase their work and reach new audiences.”

Now she fears the same thing is happening with Instagram, and said she feels that Instagram is starting to restrict reach.

But no matter what, Nigri is happy to have her day job be making incredible pieces and recapturing the flicker of childhood that’s still there.

“We actually just got back from doing a photo shoot with a bunch of wolves,” she said excitedly. For a cosplayer like Nigri, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

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