Two years ago I wrote a blog about the street performers cropping up in Las Vegas in droves. That was two years ago, and a lot has changed since then and so I thought I would write a new blog with a more updated point of view. It’s gotten to the point now where you can’t walk down any block of Las Vegas Blvd (“The Strip”) south of The Wynn and not see at least a dozen or so different characters milling about. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see Spider Man having a conversation with the Cookie Monster or Chewbacca hanging out with Hello Kitty. Truly, a walk down the Las Vegas sidewalks allow you to witness quite the menagerie of characters, that’s for sure.
But what is the real scoop with these people? Are they really as aggressive for tips as the media makes them out to be? Are these people really just homeless people in costume? I decided to hit the streets and find out once and for all for myself. Of course, in doing so, I had to bring my camera and I also decided to recruit one of the best street performers I knew, professional model, writer, and raconteur, Sarah Jane Woodall, to help me out. Sarah and I have a long history of working together on different photography projects and whenever I need a model for some off-the-wall shoot, she is the first person I call.
To put Sarah’s life in perspective, she has an entire bedroom in her home just devoted to different wardrobe pieces she has assembled or made over the years ranging from go-go outfits to her pink Elvis costume. Sarah is one of the busiest models I have ever met where her repertoire of work involves everything from fetish modeling to wearing mascot costumes at any one of a variety of different conventions or events here in Las Vegas.
When Sarah is not modeling she’s a writer for CityLife Magazine here in Las Vegas and when she’s not doing that, she’s out on the Strip in one of the coolest showgirl outfits you’ll ever see! Sarah’s skills don’t just end at modeling, she’s also an extremely talented costume designer as well…
While walking with Sarah one night on the Strip, I got a chance to ask her some questions about what it’s like to now be one of the many street performers in Las Vegas:
How long have you been doing this?
Not long. I just started a few weeks ago and I’m still learning the ropes a bit.
How did you get your start as a Las Vegas Street Performer?
My roommate started doing it and had quite a bit of success so he asked if I’d like to tag along one night and try it for myself. I certainly have no shortage of costumes so I figured I’d give it a shot. The worst case scenario is I’d go out on the Strip and act goofy for a night and have some fun. The best case scenario is I go out on the Strip, act goofy for a night, have some fun, and make some money, so here I am!
Since you brought it up, do you mind answering how much money do you actually make doing this?
There is a lot of debate about how much the different performers out here earn. Usually most people out here will tell the general public they earn a bit more than they really do but most of the good ones will earn about $20/hour, give or take. That’s about what I earn too, on average.
So, define what are “The good ones”.
You can walk around and kind of tell for yourself. Some of the characters out here make sense. I can see why people would want to take photos next to a cute showgirl with a giant joint (wink, wink) here in Vegas, and there are a lot of great showgirls and Elvis’ out here too. I’m not so sure about the Disney characters though…they seem a bit out of place for Las Vegas so I wonder how many people really want to have their photos taken with them. Yet some of the characters are very openly friendly, do a little hustling but aren’t overly aggressive, and they seem to do well, as they should. The wandering bunch of Sesame Street Characters are great, and some of the costumes, while not very “Vegas-y” really are cool. Some of the Avengers characters look awesome! But you have to ham it up a little. Just standing around doing nothing will not make you any money regardless of how great your costume is. You have to be a personality out here and, well, that’s where I tend to excel.
So is this really “work” for you then?
Absolutely, but I also have a lot of fun doing it too. I wouldn’t come out here on a night that I didn’t think I’d have a good time doing it. As soon as I burn out a bit, I just stop coming. I’m certainly not desperate for money but the money I make out here does help this starving artist out a bit, that’s for sure. So even in high-heels and a showgirl headpiece I still have a blast. I like to find an area to hang out that has music playing so I can dance a bit and have some fun. I think that’s why I do well, because I look like I’m a fun chick to hang out with and people want to have their photos taken with someone like that…wearing a showgirl outfit and a holding a huge reefer in public! Don’t be confused though, this is still work. I still have to be outgoing, deal with everyone from families to drunks and be outgoing to a point where people want to pay to have their photo taken with me and I have to do it on a street in stripper shoes. Physically, that gets a bit tiring after a while even if you are in really good shape.
Speaking of drunks, do you have to deal with many of them? How do you handle them?
I’m more comfortable with my body than most of the women out here. I think my background in nude modeling certainly helps with that. The later the evening goes, the more alcohol people have consumed so in the later hours of the night you tend to interact with more drunks. They are kind of like the zombies who come out after dark. It’s really quite funny. Some of them certainly can be a bit grabbier than others but I usually get tipped better by those guys so I guess it evens itself out. Some of the girls out here are a bit more prudish, and that’s fine. I’m used to dealing with drunken obnoxious guys though so I’m more in my element with them than most.
Walking down the Strip with Sarah for just one hour allowed me to witness, first-hand, everything we just finished talking about. I saw people in cars cruising the Strip shout at her to get her photo. I saw drunk guys get very touchy-feely on her a few times including one of the guys who hand out the porn cards for “escorts” on the strip. He actually tipped her $5 twice so he can…..uh, pose with her, and I even saw her pose with small children as well. An evening with Sarah yields a level of entertainment parallel to any Cirque show, that’s for sure.
The one thing about Sarah is that she knows she’s in mixed company as she is not the only showgirl walking on the Las Vegas Strip. I recently had the pleasure of doing a shoot with a more “conventional” showgirl/street performer, Kalliann Haas. Like many of the Las Vegas street performers, Kalliann has a more conservative job by day and at night, she transforms into a stunningly beautiful showgirl. Unlike Sarah Jane, who made her costume, Kalliann actually leases hers as I discovered in a conversation with her:
Your costume is absolutely amazing. Easily it’s comparable to one of the actual showgirl outfits in one of the major shows in town. Did you make this yourself?
I wish I could take credit for it but no, it’s actually not mine. A costume like this would have cost a fortune to have made and it requires maintenance too. I actually pay a small fee to the costume designer who made it for me to use every night. At the end of the week, I drop off the costume to her so I can have it cleaned and touched up for me to use the next weekend. I’m happy to do it though as it’s really worth it to be able to wear such a beautiful outfit all the time.
The other major hang-out for street performers in Las Vegas is downtown on Fremont Street. Downtown does tend to be a magnet for more of a motley crew of people, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t mean that the quality of the street performers is any lower or dodgy in quality. Last night I ran into these guys performing on the east side of Fremont Street. I can assure you, in all my years of living in Las Vegas, I have heard much worse than these two in major casinos around town. As a two man act these guys had an amazing sound that my Samsung Galaxy S3 does not do justice. They got a fiver from me!
Because of the sheer volume of people around the performers on Fremont Street, they have had to get a little more aggressive in their requests for tips. I think the reason isn’t because they are rude, it’s because so many people want to have their photos taken with these folks for free. Now, of course, standing on a street in a costume means you are in a public place and anyone has the legal right to photograph you for free and without your permission. That’s part of the Fair Usage laws of photography. But I think it goes without saying that if you are going to employ someone’s time, talent, and services for your own photo, a $1 contribution (or more) for their effort is not asking for much. For some of these people, it’s not about just slapping on a wig and walking around, they actually put a considerable amount of time and energy into their costumes and makeup. “Before I walk out the door to come out here I spend almost an hour just getting my makeup perfect and my costume, it’s 100% authentic to the original…that’s not cheap” says a Gene Simmons look-alike. “People think it’s easy to come out here and do what we do but I can assure you, it’s not. Many of us put a lot of work into coming out here and this really is a type of performance doing what we do. None of us really just stand there for a picture, we really get into character. That’s what makes this a bit of fun but it’s also why people like to pose with us. Deep down, we are all entertainers out here!”
As I was attempting to get some photos of a contortionist group performing, I was approached by a very pleasant Marilyn Monroe lookalike. The thing I loved about her was she didn’t just have a great look, but she had an ANGLE! “If you want to get a great photo with me, I can take you over to a spot by that casino entrance over there that has a huge air vent. The air blows my skirt up and it makes for an awesome Marilyn Monroe photo!” I was sold and I was happy to give her my last $4 in singles…that kind of thought and fun attitude just deserved more than a single dollar bill.
I managed to have a brief conversation with Seana (AKA Marilyn Monroe) that was quite educational as to her line of work. I told her that I really liked her pleasant approach, which was very refreshing to see as opposed to some of the performers who sometimes just stand around waiting for people to approach them. “I figured out an angle that works well for me. I used to come out here as a playboy bunny but I didn’t like the kind of people I was attracting so I switched gears and today, I’m Marilyn!” Seana is a waitress in a famous restaurant in Las Vegas by day, and to earn a few extra bucks, she comes out as a Street Performer a few nights a week. I had a very interesting and brief conversation with her while walking up the Fremont Street Experience. Twice, we were interrupted by people wanting to take photos of her which was great!
Do you find this kind of work more or less difficult than your “day job”
It’s not really easier or harder, it’s just different. Sometimes the nights are a lot of fun, sometimes it’s hard work, especially when you have a bad night where everyone wants to take their photo with you but nobody wants to tip you. That can be a bit frustrating, but I never take it out on anyone and I’m always polite and I think that helps in the long run.
Who are the people out here who annoy you the most?
Sometimes the drunks who like to grab you too much but as “Marilyn”, I don’t run into that as much as I used to. The people who annoy me the most though are what us street performers call “Snipers”. Those are the people who sneak up behind you to grab a quick photo and run away. They think we don’t notice, but we all do. That’s kind of pathetic, but so be it. Generally speaking though, most people are nice and respectful and while this can be a bit tiring from time to time, overall it’s fun and I make a few extra bucks so I can’t complain.
As a Vegas native myself, I used to have mixed feelings about the street performers in Las Vegas. Sometimes I found them fun but I used to find them more annoying than anything else. Sarah’s perspective changed all of that for me though. “You keep forgetting Adam, we live in the craziest city in the world. We shouldn’t shoo these people away, we should celebrate the fact that they are here because they add flavor and fun to the city! The crazier the city becomes, the more fun it gets and that’s what brings the tourists here!” She has a point…a very good one in fact. While the media is quick to jump on these folks when someone gets a little out-of-hand, we have to remember the media motto, “If it bleeds, it leads.” So for every negative story about the street performers there are a million fun ones of tourists who enjoy their presence and I’m the first to admit that much of my past negative opinion on the street performers was based on what I read, not what I experienced. As a capitalistic society we have to remember that if people weren’t tipping these folks, their industry would have dried up a long time ago. They are here, because people want them here. Say whatever you want about the street performers in Las Vegas, but love them or hate them, they are here to stay. In time more regulations will probably be passed requiring them to have permits and such, and that’s fine. The serious ones will continue to come out and the weaker performers will fall by the waste side. Whatever the outcome is, you have to admit that having your photo taken with a dancing guy in a bikini, a 400 pound drummer for Kiss, a gaggle of super heroes, or even a pot-smoking showgirl is just plain fun!
Special thanks to Sarah Jane Woodall for her contributions to this blog both in photos and editorial contributions. If you are ever looking to hire Sarah for any corporate event, she should be at the top of your list as her costumes and level of professionalism and entertainment value are second to none! Please be sure to read her blog at wonderhussy.com and for booking information email her direct at email@example.com
*Please note that no Minnie Mouses, Pokemon, or Smurfs were hurt in the photography or writing of this blog. They were, however, all tipped at least $1 for their contributions.
If you are coming to Las Vegas and are interested in getting some amazing photos to remember your trip, I specialize in shooting on the Strip for bachelorette parties, engagement photos, family photos, girls and guys night out, and more! When you want to book a shoot please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call today to reserve a time to make some memories that will last a lifetime!
11 comments on “Las Vegas Street Performers and Entertainers”
last photo is very good – adam sternberg photo
I just read your post. I found it informative and the photos were great. I love street performers I was pleased to see someone speak up for them. One bit of caution dont fall for the trap that permits are a good thing. It is a violation of our constitutional rights to free speech to require permits. There are virtually no street performing magicians (my favorite) in nyc because of the permitting. Remember the weaker performer today might blossom into quite a talent someday. I love vegas for the freedom it allows all of us.
I’m all for freedom of speech but there is a point where that freedom becomes a public nuisance. The problem is that the street performers regularly do business under the guise of “taking tips” while there is no doubt that they actually ask for the money no differently than if they were selling something. So where the street performers sell their services without a business license, they do so right next to businesses who are selling their goods or services legitimately and that’s not fair. Furthermore, all of the income these people make is 100% tax free. In addition, regulating their business practices is certainly not a violation of their First Amendment rights at all. Your right as an American citizen to free speech is regulated all the time. Everything from protests to parades is regulated by permit on a daily basis, for example.
It really gets out of hand sometimes. They harass you as you walk by, and sometimes even use inappropriate tones or language. Vegas isn’t Disney Land…there should be no reason for them.
I like the prank these guys did on a few of them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9Ka0SB10-Y
It wasn’t too bad of a prank I guess, but regardless, these character dressers need to be able to take what they dish out.
Thankyou for the positive post. I do ballet on the strip for more than just money. Yes cash helps me live. But ballet helps me be alive. As it stands, ballet culture is inaccessible to the mainstream person because it is so elitist that people cannot relate. This is why I do what I do. What better way to bring it to the people than in a fun, freestyle, casual way. And its free. As an artist I do not mind people taking pictures and walking. The only thing that saddens me is when we lock eyes and the person hurriedly snaps a pic and runs. They don’t have to do that. They don’t need to feel obligated at all. Ever. Tips are a gratuity and not an obligation. I want people to have a good time and not worry about that. Enjoy the art. People also have a right to walk thru NY dancing space. I accommodate by moving out if the way, or modifying my dancing. Its a public space.
I wouldn’t even begin to tell you how to go about that. You’ll have to spend some time in Google University to get the answer for that question.
If a tourist asks for permission to pose with a street performer for a photo, and the performer wants to earn a tip, should the performer mention tips BEFORE the photo is taken, saying something like, “people tip on average between 2 and 5 dollars”? By asking in advance, but without breaking the law, if the tourist does not agree to tip, the street performer can refuse posing with the tourist before the photo is taken.
If a street performer is harassed by an aggressive or drunk trouble maker taking unsolicited digital photos with a camera, other than holding up a sheet or jacket to obscure the view, should the performer ask them to leave the area first before calling police or informing security guards who walk the streets?
Hi Steve. My understanding is that they technically are not allowed to ask for tips. They can hint at it, imply it, etc., but they can’t just come out and ask for it because then that would mean they are generally asking for a payment in exchange for their service, and then it’s no longer a “tip” the way the law sees it. If a busker is harassed by a drunk, that’s one thing, but if someone is just bothering them trying to take a photo, that person has every right to do so because the street performer is in a public space and has no expectation of privacy.
This is hilarious! lol
I can assure you, a lot of the street performers earn way more than you think they do.