A photographer who dressed as Hello Kitty in Times Square reveals the underground world of costumed characters

Dressing as Hello Kitty in Times Square was a strange experience.

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Dressing as Hello Kitty in Times Square was a strange experience.
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Joana Toro

  • Photographer Joana Toro spent a year performing as Hello Kitty in Times Square after moving to New York in 2012 to study English.
  • A roommate introduced her to the world of street performers dressing as iconic characters like Mickey Mouse and Elmo.
  • Many of her fellow performers were immigrants from Latin America who had trouble finding other jobs.

In 2012, after working as a photographer in Latin America for the better part of a decade, Joana Toro moved to New York to study English.

Toro soon found herself in need of extra money, which led her roommate Marcela to introduce her to the semi-legal world of Times Square street performers. She was captivated by the mostly immigrant performers, who make a living by dressing as iconic characters, posing for pictures with tourists, and asking for tips.

It was shocking at first to see Mickey Mouse did not speak English and was an immigrant from Mexico,” Toro told The New York Times. ” … It was surreal. A paradox.”

Soon after her introduction, Toro took up her own costume. For a year and a half, she donned the cumbersome costume of Hello Kitty and saw firsthand a world that most people can’t imagine.

Toro shared some photos from her experience, and you can see the rest at her website.


Toro was first introduced to the world of costumed performers by her roommate Marcela, who dances salsa with a Barack Obama mannequin.

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Joana Toro

When Toro decided to become a costumed character, she first tried wearing a Minnie Mouse costume. She ended up also trying Mickey Mouse and Dora the Explorer, before settling on Hello Kitty.

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Joana Toro

She rented the costume from Berta, a Mexican immigrant. She warned Toro that the gig was hard work and not very lucrative.

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Joana Toro

Despite the warnings, Toro decided to give it a try. She told Business Insider that it felt like being “in an astronaut uniform on a strange planet.”

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Joana Toro

Over time, Toro became friendly with Berta, who put two of her sons through college from the 15 years she spent as a performer. Here, Berta wears a Mama Noel costume.

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Joana Toro

While in the suit, Toro’s vision was reduced to a small dark hole that she could only use one eye to see out of.

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Joana Toro

Toro chose Hello Kitty, because she says it made her feel more comfortable, which she says is crucial to attracting more people.

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Joana Toro

There was also another reason: “When you’re Mickey Mouse, the little boys high-five you. Hard. They slap you on the back. Hello Kitty is cute and less of a problem,” Toro told The New York Times.


Toro soon met many of her “co-workers,” who had diverse ages and backgrounds, including many who have professional backgrounds and college degrees. She said a large number of the performers are Mexican and Peruvian immigrants who can’t find jobs elsewhere.

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Joana Toro

Many performers commute to Manhattan from Passaic, New Jersey. They change into their costumes wherever they can.

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Joana Toro

Toro says that it’s shocking when you realize that people wearing the masks of American icons don’t speak English.

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Joana Toro

Toro would work on the weekends for seven hours at a time. Depending on her luck, she could make anywhere from $50 to $250 per day.

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Joana Toro

Often, performers change in subway stations like the 42nd Street Station. Since 2016, performers have been required to operate in designated “activity zones” marked by rectangular boxes painted on the pavement.

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Joana Toro

Source: NPR


Any performers that violate the rule have to pay a fine up to $500 or face jail time. But arrests of the performers have actually plunged since the new rules went into effect.

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Joana Toro

Source: DNAInfo


While Toro says that her interactions with children often made the job heartwarming, it was also scary to have to deal with rude adults and teens, who yell at and push the performers.

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Joana Toro

A little girl was once so excited to meet Hello Kitty that she bit down on Toro’s fingers.

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Joana Toro

The performers have been allowed to work because many assert that it is their first amendment right. But the new rules were instated after tourists complained about “unpleasant” interactions with the performers.

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Joana Toro

Source: DNAInfo


Many performers have complained about the new rules. “It was better [before the zones], because we could walk all over,” a 26-year-old New Jersey resident who dresses as Super Mario said. He supports his family in Peru with the money from performing.

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Joana Toro

Source: DNAInfo


And many arrests and tickets have resulted simply from miscommunication because many of the performers don’t speak English. But the rules and their enforcement from police are still evolving to accommodate those concerns.

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Joana Toro