Arts & Culture

Becoming Leia: My yearlong transformation from nerd mom to Star Wars princess

The writer dons her Princess Leia gear for events and conventions.
The writer dons her Princess Leia gear for events and conventions. Courtesy of Jenny Davis

It was 1977, and like every kid in America, I was in love with Star Wars.

I distinctly remember my dad taking me to see that first movie of the epic sci-fi franchise. I was 6 years old, and we stood in line for hours outside the single-screen movie house in Phoenix.

I carried a metal Star Wars lunchbox. I dressed up like Princess Leia for Halloween. My mom even sent away for the first series of action figures, and when they arrived, my brother and I played with them until the dog chewed them up.

Over time, however, my obsession with that galaxy far, far away faded like the setting suns of Tatooine.

Until I had kids. Fast-forward about 30 years, and my husband and I decided to introduce our young daughters to the “Star Wars” franchise in a nostalgic hope that they’d enjoy it as much as we did at their age.

They did, and maybe even more so, since they had the added benefit of an expanded universe of video games, Lego sets and spin-off cartoons. My younger daughter, now 11, has aced all the video games, and my older daughter, now 12, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the characters, weapons and star systems.

We have themed Lego sets — so many Lego sets! — and one summer a few years ago, the girls even attended a Lego “Star Wars” camp in Washington, D.C., where they helped construct the entire topography of the Battle of Endor.

Our family definitely enjoys “Star Wars,” but we’re also pretty big fans of other fictional franchises, including Harry Potter’s Wizarding World and the long-running BBC TV show Doctor Who. When it comes to nerdy families, I’d say we’re pretty typical.

Recently, however, I reconnected with “Star Wars” in a personally significant way. With the help of things I didn’t have as a child — specifically money, a car and the Internet — I transformed from a general-interest nerd mom into a full-on, super-duper “Star Wars” fan.

This year, I even started costuming as Princess Leia, making public appearances as a member of an international costuming organization.

It all started when I chaired a fundraising gala in 2014 with a “Star Wars” theme.

While researching raffle prizes and decor ideas last spring, I discovered an event called Dallas Comic Con Fan Days, held at the Irving Convention Center. I had known about Comic-Con International in San Diego, of course — it’s been called the largest convention in the world for followers of science fiction and fantasy. But I hadn’t realized there was also a “Con” in North Texas. We totally had to go.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I will say this: I had no idea that right here in North Texas, there were so many nerds, geeks, dweebs, weirdos and crazy parents willing to put Yoda ears on newborn babies.

It was awesome. The convention center was packed more tightly than a Mos Eisley Cantina, and nearly every person there was “cosplaying,” meaning they had dressed up in costumes to play, or rather, to resemble (to varying degrees of success) their favorite characters.

It was here, amid this extensive and immersive hive of homespun heroes and villainy, that I decided I wanted to participate, at least a little.

Allure of the costumes

The “Star Wars” fandom boasts myriad entry points — toys, action figures, models, even tattoos.

For me, it was the costumes. Which makes sense, since, as fashion and beauty editor for the Star-Telegram’s luxury magazine Indulge, fashion has been my business for nearly a decade. I’ve always been interested in the transfomative power of style and the craft of making clothes, and here it all was, just playing out on an alternative runway.

I started small — a “Star Wars”-themed pashmina, R2-D2 earrings, platform booties with Stormtrooper and Darth Vader helmets for heels.

I’m not sure I ever would have taken the plunge into cosplay had our family not spent spring break this year in California. There, we joined an estimated 40,000 other fans at the official international convention known as Star Wars Celebration.

There must have been thousands of people walking around in screen-accurate costumes. Which basically means, their real-life costumes matched that of the on-screen characters they were channeling, down to the number of teeth in an Ewok’s mouth (between two and four) and the color of the embroidered Corellian Bloodstripes on Han Solo’s navy pocketless pants (red).

These movie-character doppelgangers were posing for photos, thrilling kids of all ages and clearly having a blast. It was as if they were all part of some kind of reunion — maybe a private club or a giant meet-up. All of which turned out to be true.

There are two volunteer “Star Wars” cosplay organizations that are, according to the language on their websites, “preferred” by Lucasfilm. The 501st Legion, also known as “Vader’s Fist,” is for the bad guys — think Darth Vader, Imperial troopers, bounty hunters and the like. The good guys join the Rebel Legion, which welcomes jedis, rebels, royals and other allies like wookiees, jawas and droids. Both organizations boast chapters around the world, all connected through websites and message boards.

The common cause binding these groups together is volunteering. Charity and trooping go hand-in-hand (or rather, hand in paw, clamp or robotic, lightsaber-severed replacement hand). Members of both organizations visit children’s hospitals, march in parades, attend events at public libraries and schools, and take an active stand against bullying.

In North Texas, The 501st’s Star Garrison and the Rebel Legion’s Kessel Base chapters actively support Make-A-Wish, and both groups operate fundraising booths at Comic-Con.

The costuming drew me in, but this charity aspect made me realize: This isn’t just a hobby — it’s a cause.

That’s the way Mark Vaughn feels. The father of two from North Richland Hills has been a Stormtrooper for 12 years and member of Vader’s 501st, and he says helping children has always been his favorite part of the gig.

“All Stormtrooper helmets have a frown on the outside,” he says. “But on the inside, it’s nothing but smiles.”

I definitely wanted in. After all, I thought, how hard could it be?

An exclusive club

Quite hard, as it turns out. Membership into a “Star Wars” cosplay organization hinges on being approved by a costume standards committee, and the bar is high. I decided to go with a Princess Leia costume from Episode IV — A New Hope for a number of reasons.

I didn’t want to be a bad guy, and when it comes to the good guys, Princess Leia is a boss. She’s both a princess and a senator. She’s outspoken, she can calmly belt out orders in the midst of a battle, she has great hair, and she can weld.

It also helps that her outfit is figure-forgiving and moderately comfortable, and a quick Google search revealed that it might not be too difficult to find the requisite gown, belt, boots and wig pretty quickly, and at reasonable prices.

I found a woman through Etsy to sew the gown for about $150. I won an eBay auction for a pair of fabulous matte-white leather boots for $50, and my mother-in-law made me a belt using vinyl, silver buttons and cardboard from a Talbots box.

I found a center-parted wig online for around $50 that came with a free wig cap.

I definitely had it easy, costwise. Stormtrooper gear, which is custom-made from specialized molds, costs thousands of dollars. I heard of a Darth Vader who spent more than $7,000 putting together his one-of-a-kind costume, and everyone says Boba Fett, the ne plus ultra of “Star Wars” cosplay, is an even bigger investment.

My rejection email from the Rebel Legion Costume Team was kind but firm. My costume simply wasn’t screen-accurate. The belt proportions were off, and my boots weren’t supposed to have a heel.

I tried again, but this time it was noted that the hood placement along the neckline of my gown wasn’t correct. Both emails included suggestions, links to templates and photos, and words of encouragement.

At this point, I had a decision to make. I could have simply kept my costume as-is and worn it to Cons, parties and special events like Concerts in the Garden.

But I was determined. As Yoda says in Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not — there is no try.”

That said, I understood the reason behind the scrutiny. People have to be able to see the character, not the costume. They have to believe. And you must have the buy-in, the commitment, to believe it, too. Paraphrasing Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I — The Phantom Menace, your level of focus determines your reality.

So I got focused. By the time I submitted my third round of photos, I had swapped out my homemade belt for one made by a professional propmaker in California ($120), and I had purchased a new pair of ugly-yet-compliant boots.

I called in a favor from one of my favorite hair and makeup professionals to rework my wig in exchange for eternal gratitude and a vente Starbucks, and my amazing mother-in-law pitched in with a seam ripper and a Singer, reworking my gown.

It was all worth it. On Oct. 8, 2015, my Princess Leia costume was officially approved, and I became a member of the Rebel Legion.

Connecting with fans

In the weeks since my approval, I’ve tried to sign up for as much as I can. I’ve posed for fundraising photos at ComicCon, roamed the halls at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and participated in the Snowball Express party honoring the children of fallen military parents.

I am continually amazed by how much people connect with Princess Leia. When I was at the museum a couple of weeks ago, a little boy ran up to me, followed by his grandmother and his grandfather, who was in a wheelchair. Among the sweet boy’s many questions: “Can you use The Force to help my grandpa stand up again?”

At the Snowball Express party, a young woman told me that she wished her husband could have come, because Princess Leia had been his first crush.

I can’t wait to volunteer even more, but I am also eager to keep perfecting my costume. I recently purchased a replica of Leia’s Defender Sporting Blaster on Etsy, and I plan to rewrap my wig to make the buns a bit taller.

I’ve discovered that costume approval is only the beginning. That’s pretty common, says Alex Bean, who serves as Kessel Base’s North Texas regional captain. He’s always been a Jedi Knight, but he says his costume has completely changed since his initial approval.

“When you start hanging out with other costumers, you start seeing people who went the extra mile, and you want to be better, too,” Bean says. “It’s not that you looked bad before. You just want to step up your game.”

Soon, I am going to submit another costume for approval, a glowing-eyed jawa from the Outer Rim planet of Tatooine. I discovered that smiling for hours makes my face ache and that my white gown gets dirty pretty quickly, so I thought it would be nice to have a second costume, especially one that had a mask and wasn’t white. (An added bonus: Jawas are eligible for both Rebel Legion and 501st membership.)

I found a jawa costume fabricator in Houston through the Rebel Legion message boards, and I happily plunked down $350 (plus about $100 for long black gloves and a leather bandolier). The costume arrived last week, and I hope to have it fully operational soon.

I also plan to help my husband get his Episode III — Revenge of the Sith Obi-Wan Kenobi costume approved. That way, he can volunteer with me, and we can troop together this summer when we head to our second Star Wars Celebration.

But this week, it’s all about the real Star Wars. Our family will be at the premiere of Episode VII — The Force Awakens (in costume, natch), making our own movie memories like I did with my dad so many years ago.

Because I discovered that the words of Obi-Wan in Episode IV — A New Hope are true: The force will be with you, always.

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