Like any good superhero, Leah Pennell has an alter ego, and her name is Callie Cosplay.
Her lair’s in Kissimmee next to a cow pasture, and her super power is being able to transform from a normal-looking 22-year-old into some of the most recognizable comic-book and sci-fi characters in the universe, from Wonder Woman to She-Hulk to Dana Scully of “The X-Files.”.
“It’s really this amazing feeling when I’m in costume,” Pennell said. “You get to step out of who you normally are. … When I dress up, I feel wonderful.”
This weekend, Pennell will appear — in an array of costumes — at the Orange County Convention Center for MegaCon, one of the largest conventions in the Southeast dedicated to comic books, anime and sci-fi television and films.
As Callie Cosplay, Pennell has dressed as more than 50 characters — Spider Woman, SupergirlSuper Girl and Lara Croft — since starting to “cosplay,” which is short for “costume play” and involves dressing up to look like fictional characters. Her latest character is a female version of the Winter SoldierSolider, the metal-armed, Soviet assassin whose nemesis is Captain America.
“I put my own spin on it,” she said. “I have never done a fem version of a male character.”
Earlier this week, Pennell sat at her kitchen table painting a bright-red star on the faux-metal arm. Pennell, who taught herself how to sew, crafts almost all of her costumes without the help of patterns, using photos from the Iinternet as guides and fashioning them from materials she finds on sale at Michael’s and WalmartWal-Mart. The costumes often take days to create.
After she finished painting the arm, Pennell changed into the black, leather-looking Winter SoldierSolder costume, complete with a mask over her face and dark make-up around her eyes. She strapped on the “metal” arm — with help from her husband, Ben Pennell — and posed for a few photos in the couple’s living room, which doubles as a photography studio.
Even before she became Callie Cosplay, Pennell, like millions of millennialsMillenials, enjoyed elements of geek culture such aslike video games and comic-book-inspired cartoons. Pennell’s husband described her as the “quintessential nerd,”, though she had modeled in the past.
In 2012, at the urging of her husband, Pennell dressed up for the premiere of “Marvel’s “The Avengers.”. Pennell went as Black Widow, wearing a form-fitting, black outfit that mimicked the costume worn by Scarlett Johansson’s character in the film.
“I didn’t look like myself at all … I was Black Widow,” said Pennell, adding that fans surrounded her at the theater, complimenting her on the outfit and asking to pose for photos.
“I don’t care what any cosplayer says — you love to see other people’s reactions,” said her husband, Ben, who also dresses up for events.
Soon after, Pennell, who at 5-feet-115’ 11” and 140 pounds says she isn’t a “twig,”, combined her knowledge of modeling with her uncanny ability to look like certain “curvy” superheroinessuperheriones, and Callie Cosplay was born.
“I think this is a way for her to tap into what she’s been her entire life, but kind of spin it around into something positive,” her husband said.
Pennell chooses her cosplay characters with care, picking her favorites from the world of nerd-domnerdom and trying to find those she resembles. Her favorite, so far, has been Wonder Woman, though her fans — more than 60,000 on Facebook alone — seem to enjoy all the characters.
“The love and support I get from people online is just incredible,” she said.
One fan from Canada commented on a photo of Pennell dressed as Marvel’s Black Cat: “You are, hands down, my favorite cosplayer.” Another fan from Ohio commented on Pennell as DC’s ZatannaÖ: “Got me two prints ordered, and I can’t wait to get them.”
Pennell has turned cosplay into a full-time job by selling signed prints of her characters for $15. She also gets paid to blog about cosplay and to appear at conventions. Most of her income goes toward new costumes for Callie Cosplay.
“I don’t think I’ll have enough years in this lifetime to cosplay as every character that I could.”
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When: 1-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Orange County Convention Center, 9800 International Drive, Orlando
Cost: Online sales have closed. On-site tickets are $30 for one day and $70 for three days.