“Those are creepy”
“They look like Bratz dolls.”
“That would give me nightmares.”
“Those look like, what's that movie called? Oh yea, Chucky.”
“Is that a voodoo doll?”
“They look like...um...Christina Ricci.”
“Will it come alive and kill me?”
I hear these comments a lot. All directed at my customized Blythe dolls.
Yes, I play with dolls. Not those “Reborns” (ick!!) or weird old porcelain dolls. No, I play with creepy Blythe dolls. I'll start from the beginning...
First, let's define doll. Oh, I know what you're saying...”listen, obnoxious Kenny Klein, I know what a doll is!” But maybe you don't. The above comment about a Voodoo doll, for instance, is improbable. “Voodoo dolls” are usually small cloth or wax figures used for magic. This would not be a doll at all, but a poppet. Poppets are usually cloth figures, including the representation of the head. Larger soft figures (your stuffed bear, for instance) are called Plush. To be a doll, a figure needs a hard head. It may or may not also have a hard body. So a cloth doll with a porcelain head is a doll, Kewpie is a doll, and Barbie is a doll. Your stuffed bear is not a doll, and Voodoo dolls are not dolls at all, but they may be Voodoo. The Pussy Cat Dolls are a whole different kind of dolls (though the term does come from degrading women by comparing them to Barbie et al). I'm glad we got that out of the way.
The doll that I collect and customize is called Blythe, and she is the grandmother of the entire current wave of creepy dolls. Blythe was released in the U.S. by the Kenner toy company in 1972. The doll featured a “Mod” look, a larger-than-life head, and a pull string that could change her eyes' color and attitude (she has four different eye colors, and she can look forward, to the right and to the left). She even had a Mod theme song!
How could a doll like this not be a huge success? you ask...I'll tell you how. Blythe's creepiness terrified little girls! Her huge head and big eyes were horrifying to sweet, innocent little Barbie fans. Kenner even tried giving dolls away in market promotions. No one wanted her. Blythe was taken off the market within a year of her release. Thousands of poor little Blythes sat in warehouses, suffering in silence and just wanting to be loved. (It was very like the plot of Life Unexpected on the CW).
Then, Dame Fortune smiled upon sweet little Blythe. In the 1990s, a photographer named Gina Garan was given a Blythe doll as a gift, and the doll became her muse. She released a book of her photos of Blythe, created a website around the doll and convinced clothing designer Alexander McQueen to use Blythe as an icon of fashion in ads for Target. Gina single-handedly created a new market for Blythe, not as a toy, but as a high priced collectible doll.
By the 21st Century two companies had licensed the Blythe mold and were marketing Neo-Blythe Dolls: the Takara company in Japan, and the Ashton Drake Galleries in the U.S. Currently the more collected of the two, Takara Blythes, sell from about $150 up to $450, depending on the model (Takara releases 12 models a year, each with a different theme, different hair color, make up scheme and clothing). When I customize Blythe, she sells for about $650. Original 1972 Blythes, which as you remember Kenner was once giving away, now command a thousand dollars or more on eBay, even in poor condition. I've seen '72s in great condition go for two grand! (If anyone was wondering what I'd like as a Yule gift...)
I've been interested in Blythe since I saw her as a kid, but being a 17 year old boy at the time, I was not really quite ready to play with dolls (I've grown much more confident in my manhood since then). Time marches on...twenty-eight years later, in 2000, I went to an L.A. Art gallery exhibit of Gina Garan's work. Gina's photos revived my interest in Blythe, and I began doing some internet research. What I found was this: Artists were taking Blythe and creating new rooted hair, changing the eye chips, and carving and painting the face plates, turning them into one of a kind creations. Some customized Blythes are subtly changed, giving just a different eye shape or thicker hair; others are completely changed, with new bodies, carved faces, some made into fantastical creatures, or given star quality make-overs. I was in art school at the start of the 21st century, and I was looking for a new art project. Blythe seemed perfect.
I am not alone. There is a growing community of Blythe collectors and customizers, and there are conventions, Internet groups and local meet-ups. I get very good ideas and inspiration by attending Blythe events and participating in on-line discussions, and I meet some great people (and a few complete loonies...but that's true in every community). My very favorite Blythe customizer, who sets the bar to which I hold myself, is a Spanish girl named Picara. You can see her work here. She is my inspiration at the moment. Her work is magnificent.
The re-release of Blythe in 2000 paved the way for several other creepy collectible dolls. The next generation of Blythe style dolls was called Pullip, and was made by the Korean company Jun Planning. Pullip, which means “young leaves” and is a euphemism for teenaged girls, has a slightly smaller head than Blythe, only one set of eyes which can wink and move from left to right, and is more articulated, meaning the arms and legs are fully jointed, so the limb movement is much more human-like than Blythe's body. The company also put out a smaller girl, Dal, who is really creepy! I'm talking completely creepy! And they also produce a boy doll, called TaeYang (nowhere near as creepy as Dal...take a look to the left!). Some customizers work on Pullip dolls, and I have put Blythe heads on more flexible Pullip bodies (this also makes Blythe taller). Pullip and her kin are a little more affordable than Blythe (but still high), at around $80-100. There are dozens of models (as Takara does with Blythe, Jun Planning releases twelve models each year) which vary by theme, hair and eye color. Among the new releases are licensed anime and game figure Pullips and Dals. There was also a series of Audrey Hepburn Pullips (I own a Breakfast at Tiffany's).
But all of this pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of doll collecting: Ball Jointed Dolls, or BJDs (heavenly angelic choir sings here). These are VERY expensive Asian dolls that are generally proportioned exactly like humans, and pretty much every joint we have in our bodies is represented on a BJD body. They are also anatomically correct (THAT's not creepy...). They come in both genders, although many of the boys look like girls (except , as I mentioned, where it counts). The human-esque BJD was first released in 1999, and the enormous popularity of BJDs in the last few years has caused companies to create fantasy creature BJDs of all types as well as the human-like dolls.
Several companies make BJDs. Volks is possibly the best known, though I like some of the smaller companies like D.I.M. Doll, Impldoll and Soul Doll. These dolls come in a vast array of sizes, from teensy (like the size of the old Troll dolls I had as a kid, but made of resin and fully jointed) to 60 cm, which is about two feet tall. You can get some even taller. Most often they are made of resin, which is easy to paint and customize. You can buy tons of hand made clothes for the little darlings on Etsy and on eBay (there of tons of Blythe clothes there too). A finished 40 cm doll (my favorite size) and a full set of clothing will set you back at least $500, and can go over a thousand depending on the company, the detail and the size (Check out dolls and prices at http://denverdoll.com). In a word, you can go completely broke with a habit like collecting BJDs (I refer to my Blythe dolls as “adorable money pits,” and they are a fraction of the price of BJDs!!).
Perhaps the ultimate Internet authority on BJDs is my friend Lanie, who has an entire youtube channel dedicated to collecting BJDs. She has been collecting these dolls and video blogging about them since she was a teen, and there's almost nothing I can tell you about BJDs that she does not cover in her video blogs.Another source of BJD information is the chat group Den Of Angels.
So why does a grown (straight) man play with dolls? Most important reason: I like them. They are beautiful, and I can create something artistic and unique out of a Blythe doll. I also love experimenting with costumes: I can create a Blythe doll from any historical period or with any fantasy theme I can visualize (I work with an excellent costumer who is also a puppet maker, and who loves sewing for my dolls). Yes, I get odd looks, even from the ranks of my fellow (mostly female) collectors: until they see my dolls. Then they warm up to me pretty quick (more often than not...there are hold outs). I've recently started running doll meet-ups at the cons and ren faires I work, which allows me to show my work as I get people together over a common interest. It's win-win.
If you want to see my Blythe dolls, go to www.kennyklein.net/dolls.html . I also have a new photo folder on my Facebook page with a bunch of my dolls in it. If you are interested in owning a Blythe, I recommend www.thisisblythe.com which has tons of info and a very good chat forum. Pullips are available at Denver Dolls (link below). If BJDs appeal to you, watch Lanie's youtube posts, and visit http://denverdoll.com/ to see pretty much every type of BJD that's available. For a “big picture” view of doll collecting, see http://www.dollreader.com .
Oh, and I like when you tell me my dolls look like Christina Ricci. Don't say that other stuff.
From NOLA, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.