Rob Walker | Essays

Hyperreality Hobbying

A couple of years ago, Mandy Gernand was poking around on eBay for dolls, which she collected. Then she noticed something weird — among the listings for the dolls, she recalls, were ''all these pictures of babies.'' Of course, these were not actual babies being auctioned. They were reborn dolls. ''Reborning'' is the name that has emerged for a curious process of altering and enhancing a baby doll to look and even to feel as much like a human baby as possible. Gernand decided she had to buy one. Once she got it, she decided she had to make one. Soon she started selling her reborn dolls through eBay as well as her own Web site. (Occasionally the dolls are sold at fairs and the like, but the market is mostly online.) Recently she listed a doll that she named Alexandra, and the highest of the 21 bids was for $510. ''This whole reborn-doll thing is like this secret society,'' Gernand says. ''People don't find it unless they stumble upon it.'' 

Clearly, plenty of people have stumbled upon it. One Web site, Angelicreborns.com, where reborn ''artists'' and their customers congregate has about 1,000 registered members. The woman who presides over it, Dawn (Auntie Dawn) Garma, has made reborn dolls for about three years and says that hers routinely go for more than $750, and on one occasion for $1,379. Jenni Mitchell, editor of Doll Crafter magazine, says the practice has become particularly big in the past year and is an increasingly popular topic with her readers. The phenomenon is partly a novel mashing together of the collector mind-set with a kind of do-it-yourself artsiness, spiked by eBay's unique community-formation powers — but there's another element, too.

A little bit of David Lynch, maybe. At the very least, to the uninitiated there's something startling about the photographs of the incredibly lifelike dolls, particularly when paired with technical specs, ''birth announcements'' and sales pitches in online auctions. The process works like this: The reborner begins with a regular baby doll, sometimes a $30 store-bought vinyl doll, sometimes a pricier silicon-vinyl mix model. Those can cost as much as $140, Garma explains, but have a softer, more lifelike feel. Next the doll is taken apart and stripped of paint. It is then repainted, often using a blue that helps the artist achieve a realistically veiny look. Glass eyes may be substituted for the original plastic ones. Hair is removed and replaced, sometimes with hand-implanted mohair or even human hair. The dolls are also ''reweighted,'' often by filling them with special pellets to approximate the heft of an actual infant. A variety of retailers, particularly online, sell supplies for the craft, from whole dolls (regular and ''preemie'' size) to body parts to ''supplies to make umbilical-cord stumps.''

Once you get past the creepier aspects of all this, it's not too hard to see it as yet another medium of grass-roots creativity, like making scrapbooks or, for that matter, restoring or altering porcelain dolls, which has a long history. But why do people want to buy an extremely realistic baby doll? For some, Gernand speculates, it's a means of reminiscing — perhaps they have saved their actual children's clothes and enjoy dressing up the reborn doll to recapture a happy time. Garma says she thinks some others might want the dolls to ''fill a void,'' perhaps because they could not or did not have children. And there is probably the simple aesthetic attraction, heightened by the fact that many people just plain love babies. ''Some collectors have whole rooms set aside as a nursery,'' says Mitchell, the Doll Crafter editor.

One of Garma's most dedicated customers is Sharon Williams, who owns 41 reborn dolls, 18 of them Garma's. In the year or so since she first came across one of Garma's creations (she was outbid on that one; it went for more than $1,300), she has become a connoisseur. Williams says there are a lot of shoddy dolls out there. This may be because the reborn marketplace has been flooded with newcomers hoping to make a quick killing. Still, it's clear that Williams truly enjoys good work when she finds it. ''I like to hold them,'' she says. ''You can dress them, pose them in different ways.'' She laughs, as if she knows this might sound odd. But then again — whether the collected item is Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies or even the porcelain dolls that Williams used to favor — what matters to the collector is never what others think; what matters is the object of desire, however obscure.  

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, February 2, 2005.  

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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