Slate's Human Guinea Pig: Mascot for a Day

Slate contributor Emily Yoffe describes her recent experience as a college sports mascot — the inflatable, 10-foot-tall "Big George" mascot for George Washington University.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The players at the Rose Bowl got most of the attention, but how about those mascots? Once they were real goats or bulldogs or something, but now they're mostly costumed humans who jump and pump to inspire fans. Slate's human guinea pig, Emily Yoffe, takes on unusual jobs to tell us what they're like, a recent stint as a nude model at an art school, for instance. Well, Emily wanted to see what it was like to try to fill some very big shoes. She spoke with DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Emily Yoffe, welcome back to DAY TO DAY. Describe your most recent guinea pig experiment.

EMILY YOFFE (Slate): I wore the 10-foot inflatable Big George costume at a George Washington University Colonials basketball game.

BRAND: And so we sent a producer along to record you getting ready for your big moment. Tell us a little bit about what happened behind the scenes.

YOFFE: There were five undergraduates on the spirit mascot team to help prepare me for this. So I had to learn how to get zipped in the costume, get blown up and do my various antics, and I think we're going to listen to me first getting in the suit.

Are mascot uniform's like bowling shoes--you know, they spray something in between wearings or what happens?

Mr. JAY PATEL: Well, it's good to maintain the costumes, the characters, 'cause you want them to last as long as you can.

YOFFE: Right.

Mr. PATEL: And with any uniform you've got to maintain them, you've got to wash them.

YOFFE: OK. OK.

Mr. PATEL: Like a car you've got to maintain, so absolutely.

YOFFE: All right.

That was one of my hosts, Jay Patel. I have to say I cringe hearing myself ask that. I really hesitated to ask 'cause you just don't sound like you're in the spirit of things if you're asking about cooties in the uniform.

BRAND: Well, it is a pressing question. I would wonder about that, too. But your head isn't even in the head--Right?--because it's so big.

YOFFE: No, and it's this weird optical illusion. When you're wearing this thing, you see people looking up at the head, which is four feet over your head. I was looking out through what looked like a Colonial vest. You know, even adults, even though you know the person is not really 10 feet tall, the face just draws you in, but children have no idea where the real person really is. Russell Nemrov(ph), who's on the mascot team, gave me a little warning about that effect.

Mr. RUSSELL NEMROV: Keep in mind that sometimes you will have the aggressive fan, since Big George is known for his big bobble head. You can try and hit back, but Big George is a lover; he's not a fighter. So usually you know, if someone's going a little crazy trying to, you know, smack your head...

(Soundbite of demonstration)

Mr. NEMROV: ...you can see it's a little bit disconcerting.

BRAND: Did that actually happen to you?

YOFFE: It only happened once. This little boy came up. `Hi, Big George,' and he just hauled one into Big George's chest, which was my face. And Jay Patel actually intervened and thwarted the punch.

BRAND: So you go out there and what is the general response to you?

YOFFE: Well, Madeleine, from my perspective inside the suit, I was a huge success. People loved me, they wanted to be near me, kids wanted to hug me. So apparently, from the perspective of people who I was smashing into, knocking their popcorn on the floor and generally making their lives miserable, it was not such a big success.

BRAND: So why did you do this? Are you a huge sports fan?

YOFFE: No. I have a mental condition, although I don't think it appears in any of the clinical manuals, that renders me unable to follow any team sport whatsoever. And, in fact, I got into trouble with this because when I first came out--you know, I'm supposed to be leading these cheers, and I thought, `Whoa! I have to know which side is which,' and I saw that our dancers were wearing maroon halter tops and this team just made a basket and they were wearing maroon uniforms makes sense, right? So I started jumping and cheering. It was the other side.

BRAND: You know, I read a long time ago a spy magazine profile of a mascot, and in that profile they said the number-one thing they were warned against was unheading in public. You were never supposed to take off your head in public and reveal yourself. Did you get that advice?

YOFFE: Yes. At one point my foot came out, so I was kind of dragging my foot around. Jay Patel, my escort, hustled me into the hallway and zipped me out of the suit and fixed me up. You're never, never supposed to let them see the real person. However, George does have a rather odd feature in that you can reach up to the top of his head, get a strap and pull the head all the way into the body. Frankly, I wasn't strong enough to do it, so I kept George with his head on.

BRAND: To the delight of millions of fans, I'm sure.

YOFFE: Maybe five or six.

BRAND: Emily Yoffe is the human guinea pig for the online magazine Slate. Thanks, Emily.

YOFFE: Thank you.

CHADWICK: And that interview by DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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