Just as Clark Kent is unrecognizable as Superman while wearing glasses, Jessica McClure of Sycamore is incognito when out of costume and dressed “as herself.”
McClure is the secret identity behind characters such as Wonder Woman, Cinderella and Belle from “Beauty in the Beast” for her business, Parties with Character. While in costume, McClure attends five to 10 events a week, including birthday parties, character play dates and public events. She also visits children in area hospitals with the organization Holiday Heroes.
McClure met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss how she brings magic to life with her costumes and events.
Milton: Tell me more about the characters you portray.
McClure: My first official event was on April 23, 2016, when I portrayed Supergirl at the NIU Huskie Bowl. I wanted to appeal to boys and girls, men and women. I think that it’s important to have a variety of characters to appeal to everybody at any age. Little boys might love princesses, too, but they may have some hesitation approaching me at a public event. Everyone loves superheroes, and Wonder Woman is my most popular costume. Other characters include Disney princesses, Princess Leia, Hermione and a pirate.
Milton: How do adults react when they see your characters?
McClure: Adults get just as excited as kids do. I was attending a Holiday Heroes charity event gala fundraiser at the Museum of Broadcast Communication. There were only adults in the room, and it was a black tie casino night theme. I made a character change three times. When I was Belle, grown women were gasping, pushing and shoving to take pictures with me. Meeting one of your favorite characters is a magical experience for everyone at any age.
Milton: Are you often recognized out of costume?
McClure: All superheroes have secret identities. Nobody can recognize Clark Kent as Superman, even though he’s just wearing a pair of glasses. I have never been recognized by kids as myself. It makes me feel good about my costumes and wigs. When I am in costume, I am always immediately recognized as the character, not as myself.
Milton: Will you add more characters soon?
McClure: I have 12 characters, and I am so busy with those 12, I think I have enough for right now. When I first started, I had custom character options based on what people wanted. Now I only do characters that I can realistically portray 100 percent authentically. I won’t portray child characters because I’m an adult, and I want to be completely believable.
Milton: What kinds of research do you do to get into character?
McClure: A birthday is a child’s most important day of the year, and I take that very seriously. I do a lot of research for characters. … I think about what kids are familiar with, the merchandising, the film or show and books. I would watch the movie and take pictures of the screen, showing all angles of the outfit. I make sure that all of the costumes are appropriate and family-friendly and as accurate to portraying the characters as possible.
Milton: Do you make your own costumes?
McClure: I make and sew my own costumes. I received a sewing machine two years ago as a Christmas present, and taught myself. I didn’t know how to sew at all before that, and now I’m making my own costumes and Halloween costumes for my kids.
Milton: Why do you make your own costumes instead of purchasing them?
McClure: I want them to be as accurate as possible. I could buy a custom-made costume on Etsy for about $1,000, but if I make my own costumes, I can choose and make my own designs. I choose designs based on what children are exposed to and will recognize, down to every last detail. I want to look like I stepped out of the movie and came to life.
Milton: Do you wear makeup and wigs?
McClure: I always make sure my makeup is tasteful and not over-the-top. I want to look real, not theatrical. The makeup always coordinates with the costume and character. Princess Leia has pink blush and Elsa has purple eyeshadow. Since I am blonde, some of my characters have my own hair. For other characters, I use wigs. I style my own wigs to make them look like real hair. I want everyone to know who I am in an instant and be convinced.
Milton: What questions are you asked while in character?
McClure: Everyone asks me to tell stories. They ask me, “Where is that other character, why didn’t they come?” I take that question as an opportunity to add to the character’s magic and make it more believable. I’ve been proposed to by a lot of little boys. You never know what they’re going to throw at you. It’s important to have engaging responses and be confident. You can’t stall when answering a question. You are that character, why wouldn’t that character know information about themself?
Milton: What do you like most about being in costume?
McClure: I use the characters and their stories to teach important lessons. For example, as Ariel, I ask if going to a sea witch for help is a good idea. As Belle, I ask them if I should have gone into the Beast’s room and touched his belongings. I believe that there is a good lesson to be learned from any character. … My goal is for them to walk away from the birthday party or event and feel like they are friends with that character. They are so special, so important, that the character came from France or Themyscira or Metropolis just to be with them. Everyone wants to feel important, and I like being able to offer that in character form.
Milton: What do your parties include?
McClure: I have a wide variety of package options. All include a meet-and-greet and photo opportunities. I can also help plan their party, offer a makeover, play party games or read a book. I always tell stories about the character and sing. I don’t consider them “performances,” they offer quality time spent with that character. … I attend birthday parties, story time at libraries, fundraisers and corporate, business and public events. I have also visited senior homes and hospitals in Chicago. I love being able to participate in superhero parties for kids in the hospital with Holiday Heroes. We can give them a sense of normalcy and give them happy memories while in the hospital.
Milton: Tell me more about the real Jessica.
McClure: I have a fantastic and very supportive husband, he is the love of my life. He is the man behind the stories and my Prince Charming. We have three kids: a 9-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter and I have a 17-year-old stepdaughter. … My children do research with me, my son helps zip up my costume and my daughter keeps me company when I sew. To them, I’m not those princesses or superheroes, I’m mom. They appreciate my hard work and are proud of me.