When Olivia Mears was 11, she designed her first costume: Link from Zelda.
Unfortunately, a lot of people mistook her for Robin Hood.
But the experience flipped some kind of switch, because Mears now makes incredibly striking costumes for a living.
Fast forward to her last year at Western Carolina University, where she was double-majoring in fine arts and arts education. She submitted a photo of a costume she’d made entirely out of Taco Bell wrappers (clean ones obviously) for a contest that megachain was holding.
Taco Bell got back to her right away.
In the years since, she has appeared in two taco bell commercials (and counting). And this week, Taco Bell put her on the homepage of its website relaunch, ta.co.
“From our food to our marketing, we’re always looking to our fans for inspiration," a Taco Bell rep said in a statement to me. "Olivia is a perfect example of someone who brings the Live Mas attitude to life with her passion for Taco Bell and costume design."
Mears, 24, now runs her own costume design business, Avant Geek. Her clients range from high-schoolers looking for prom dresses to regional nonprofits, and she says she is in talks with a national beer company. She also won the grand prize in a national contest Schick held to promote its new moisturizer ribbon women’s razor.
It is Taco Bell that has dubbed her “Taco Belle,” but she is not complaining.
“Because of all the exposure [Taco Bell] has gotten me, I can’t even really say [how much I’ve made] from them,” she said.
Mears is a model of independent entrepreneurship in the 21st century. While she is clearly gifted, she takes advantage of every conceivable costume and design-oriented opportunity she can find. (She also has a steady gig as education coordinator for Cullowhee Mountain ARTS, a nonprofit).
And in addition to her website, she has accounts on every social media platform you could think of.
“If you want to get your work noticed, you have to really put it out there — shameless advertising on social media, Reddit, Imgur etc.,” she said. “If it's good, usually no one will mind that you're showing it off.”
Mears is also proving that in 2015, you can gain something close to a national profile from anywhere. A North Carolina native, Mears now lives in the town of Cullowhee, population 6,228, on the Tennessee border. But nestled as it is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mears says she can do photo shoots in her backyard “that look like they’ve been planned for weeks.”
She continues to participate in cosplay, though she considers it just a hobby, despite having created uncannily detailed reproductions of movie and video game heroines:
Right now, Mears is working on several different projects, including a costume for a regional fairy fashion show, as well as her Halloween costume for this year: Tarecgosa from World of Warcraft in half-dragon form.
But she says she expects to continue her relationship with Taco Bell.
However, she hasn’t gotten free food from there for life.
“That would be living the dream too much I think,” she said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.