Meet the Students Behind the Mask

Here's an inside look into the lives of students who wear the Bobcat suit for NYU’s mascot team.

The Bobcat has been NYU's mascot since the late 1980s. There are only two rules in mascoting — never speak when you are in the suit and do not take the suit off in public unless you are with your assistant. (Illustration by Alice La)

When you join this NYU club, you might be able to attend the premiere of a Broadway show for free or participate in a mechanical bull riding competition outside Madison Square Garden. Stay in the club long enough, you might even share glasses of champagne with President Andrew Hamilton at upscale NYU parties and be paid for your appearance. The condition? Secrecy, even from your closest friends.

“We are not allowed to tell people that we are the mascot,” Global Liberal Studies senior Fanny Yayi Bondje said. “It ruins the appeal. So I always brag about it to my mom instead.”

Yayi Bondje has upheld the NYU mascot team’s vow of anonymity more dutifully than some other members, who when asked, confessed they may have made their own exceptions to the rule. From her first event as the mascot’s assistant at an NYU 10-year reunion party (mascots travel in pairs, one in the suit and one as the assistant), the energy that a mascot could generate in the room magnetized Yayi Bondje.

“They were obsessed with the Bobcat,” Yayi Bondje said. “There was even one lady that wanted to marry the Bobcat, and we had to remind her that it’s a mascot.”

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For a club clouded in secrecy, the NYU mascot team is fairly easy to join. The only requirement is a 30-second audition.

“It was the chillest audition I’ve ever done,” CAS senior Olivia Zhong said. “I chose Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ and I just danced for 30 seconds.”

As the Bobcat, members have learned to define their own styles. There are only two rules in mascoting — never speak when you are in the suit and do not take the suit off in public unless you are with your assistant. How a mascot goes about engaging with the crowd is up to them. If they are a dancer, they can dance. If they are in a jokeful mood, they can pick a person to gently poke fun at and build a rapport. Inside the suit, the student ceases being themself and becomes the Bobcat, and any reservations about letting themself go disappears.

“People don’t know who’s in the Bobcat suit, so you can just be as silly as you want — dance, have the best time ever — and people love it,” Zhong said.

The freedom to express oneself has its price. The suit itself is stuffy and cuts off all peripheral vision from the student, which is part of the reason every mascot needs an assistant. Technical issues aside, the suit also makes it easy for people around them to forget that there is a person inside.

“There are some people that do a little bit too much,” Yayi Bondje said. “It is frustrating because I think people do forget we are people and to treat us with respect.”

That disconnect between the student as the person and as the mascot can sometimes feel surreal. As the mascot, the student’s goal is to build genuine connections with people at events. However, for those people, they are engaging with the Bobcat, and the connection disappears once the student takes off the suit. Meanwhile, for the student, the rapport they built lingers. It can be strange for the student to run into someone they recognized from the event, only to realize they do not know who the student is.

“My instinct will be to give them a smile, and then I realize they don’t know who I am,” said ex-captain and 2020 CAS graduate Malka Schnaidman. “They walk by me, and they don’t even register that they just spent all this time with me. It’s kind of sad but in a cool way.”

Each member has a favorite event they attended as the Bobcat. Yayi Bondje loved participating in the annual Children’s Halloween Parade. CAS senior Harry Zhu’s favorite event was graduation, helping families say their final goodbyes to NYU.

“The Bobcat is never the protagonist, but they are there to make the experience better for other people,” Zhu said. “So it feels good to be part of something that’s very meaningful for those graduating.”

The mascot team is a group of students who love bringing joy to others, and most importantly, enjoying themselves.

“You are going to be working with lots of fun, positive people, and there is just great energy, great vibes all the time,” Zhong said.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 28, e-print edition. Email Kevin Ryu at [email protected]

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