BENEATH flashing billboards and sparkling skyscrapers, Maria Bega moved through Times Square dressed as Princess Anna from Frozen.

The 32 year-old Peruvian is one of the several men and women, mostly from Latin America, trying to eke out a living as costumed characters in New York.

Dressed as Sesame Street fuzzballs Elmo and Cookie Monster and superheroes like Batman and Hulk, these masked artists pose for photos with tourists in exchange for tips, vying with topless women in body paint and semi-naked guitar-playing cowboy.

For many visitors, the mascots are part of the frenetic entertainment district's charm but to some New Yorkers, they symbolise a crowded neon nightmare that is best avoided.

The characters are currently the subject of many complaints, proof of how much the area once known for peep shows, pornos and crack cocaine, has been cleaned up in recent decades.

With its bright lights and giant branded stores, the famous intersection is a symbol of the city that never sleeps and its untold opportunities; where dreams are made, as Alicia Keys and Jay-Z said.

But for Bega, the reality is more of a nightmare. She says she sometimes makes just $20 a day. ''You come here to waste your time, to freeze to death, and sometimes you don't even earn enough to eat,'' she says.

Bega got into the work through a friend and has colleagues from Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Ecuador. Many bring their costumes from home countries, where they can be purchased cheap. They require no permit to operate.

''Some are a little pushy but most of them are nice. They're out here making a living like everybody else,'' says 62-year-old Kentucky resident Dayle Duke, who took a photo of his wife with a costumed Statue of Liberty.

The entertainers say making money has become more difficult following several harassment and groping allegations that sparked articles about ''costumed creeps.''

In September, a man in an Elmo costume was arrested after being accused of groping a 14-year-old girl. ''Because of this, the police came to bother us. They're hardly letting us work,'' reveals Bega, who does a second job in the evening  in order to care for her kids.

Jose from Mexico, a different Elmo to the one arrested, says one or two of the hucksters are spoiling it for everyone else.
''Children used to run to me but now they see headlines about Elmo being a child molester and they don't,'' he explains.

Nearby, Robert Burck is having a better time of it, belting out tunes on his guitar while wearing only underpants, a cowboy hat and boots. The 48-year old known as the ''Naked Cowboy'' has been a regular fixture at Times Square for 20 years and makes around $150,000 a year in tips.

''I absolutely love the fact that I'm working in a den of thieves,'' he jokes, as CD sellers and ticket touts hustle with tourists. [AFP]


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