The Women Building the Uncanniest Valley of the Dolls

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The Women Building the Uncanniest Valley of the Dolls

When Carrie Frantz finally freed herself of an abusive marriage, she still had to figure out how to pay her bills. She had spent 20 years as a stay-at-home wife, had never gone to college, and didn’t have enough work experience to land on her feet. She was living with her three children in Bolingbrook, Illinois—a suburb 45 minutes south of Chicago. In addition to her overwhelming new life, she was also depressed, and struggling with a degenerative spinal disc disease that made physical tasks difficult. And then, in a late-night scroll through Facebook, she found a website advertising dolls uncannily reminiscent of actual babies.

Ebay sellers referred to them as“reborn Berenguers,” an ode to their original 20th century manufacturer. Though the original dolls were made of porcelain, dressed in little sailor hats or delicate white dresses, they’d changed immensely by the time Frantz stumbled on them. The dolls were vinyl now, wearing actual baby clothes, with faces so lifelike they could confuse passersby. She was mesmerized, and in her fit of depression, splurged on one for Christmas in 2017.

After a short time with her own doll, Frantz took a gamble: she was going to try and make one, with the hope she could sell them for a livable income. She was broke, but she spent what she had on start-up supplies. “I figured I had nothing to lose at that point,” she told me. Katina Lee, another artist from Olton, Texas, was working part time in a daycare center and going through a divorce in the early-aughts when she asked God to grant her the ability to provide for her family. Her son was in Pre-K, and with her marriage ended, she desperately wanted a way to stay at home with him. Like Frantz she found the dolls through ebay, sold online, that enabled one to make the dolls at home. She spent a few honing the craft of painting acrylic over the inside of the doll, stencil paints being used to “blush” the outside, in moments between work and raising her children.

Both Frantz and Lee’s journeys mark a timeworn phenomenon in a country where working class women have always carved out livings on the fringes of the economy—picking up piecemeal work crafting things to sell amongst women like themselves. It’s also a familiar story among Reborn artists: The dolls
make impossible lives possible.

The dolls that would become Reborns were first brought into the world amidst the catastrophe of World War II. Perhaps seeking to fill the Europe of 1944 with something beautiful amidst the devastation of the war, Jose Berenguer began creating lifelike porcelain dolls in Spain. Across his home country, the creations were widely regarded for their exquisite detail, and gained a following soon in war torn Europe. The success of his workshop allowed dolls like the “Pepin,” a young boy with rosy lips and full cheeks, to jump across the Atlantic alongside with “Chelito,” a young girl commonly dressed in white. There, they were snapped up by collectors.

Chelito and Pepin. Photo:todocollecion (DollsandDolls)

In the ‘60s, after nearly 20 years sculpting his creations, Jose handed the business over to his son and apprentice Salvador—but by then the style had expanded. As commercialism turned Christmas into a corporate enrichment vehicle, toys were becoming more and more ubiquitous among American children. JC Toys, a competing company, which entered the U.S. market with their own line of collectible dolls in the ‘80s, acquired Berengeur dolls in the ‘90s. To this day Salvador works as the company’s lead designer, endlessly sculpting life from nothing.

Unlike other manufactured dolls, a “Reborn” doll is distinctive for its incredible realism. Artists will use paint to give the dolls’ skin texture and depth. Hair is individually rooted through the scalp.

Unlike other manufactured dolls, a “Reborn” doll is distinctive for its incredible realism. Artists will use paint to give the dolls’ skin texture and depth. Hair is individually rooted through the scalp. Layering delicate amounts of heat-setting paints is also time consuming, but then there’s the drying, which is done in oven. (One artist had an early doll catch fire in hers, which is an image as morbid as it is amusing.) Interestingly enough, Lee told me the glass and resin eyes she uses have remain unchanged since the early aughts, when artists first began pulling apart JC Toys dolls and reselling them.

Back then, Ebay was the only outlet for hobbyists creating lifelike Reborn dolls. In 2001, early adopters of the craft would purchase store bought dolls, strip them of parts, and repaint them. Artists like Lee would then sell their “reborn” Berengeurs—a spiritual nod to the half-life of the replica Berengeurs produced by JC Toys—online through eBay, or marketplaces like, launched in 2003. A few years into the trend, New York Times writer Rob Walker caught whiff of their popularity online, and accused the dolls of being “a little bit David Lynch.”

Katina’s early dolls, circa 2001-2003 Photo:Katina Lee Dolls

Crafting the dolls was newly possible because of a sub-economy of sites giving would-be toy makers the ability to sell their wares online. Dave Stack, a web developer who’s spent two decades in the collectibles business, launched Bear Pile in 2001. It was, he told me, by mistake. A neighbor had commissioned him to create a platform for re-selling collectible teddy bears, as Stack previously had done with a record selling platform. Building a proto-webstore for adding listings and managing inventory was easy. But the neighbors ghosted Stack, so he took his work and launched his own storefront for the teddy bears. It was a hit, and the appeal amongst the “tight knit” resale toy industry, it seemed, was their ability to sell directly to their customers without the wholesale cost, or the frustration of retailers marking up their bears. He attempted to emulate this success with Doll Pile, a replica of his stuffed bear marketplace for dolls of all sorts.

Doll Pile would have been a disaster had Stack not noticed a trend of hyper-realistic baby dolls populating his web store—often the only ones to sell. After some research, he re-launched the site as Reborns, and it’s now among the leading marketplaces for the work of artists like Frantz and Lee. This is a mark of pride for Stack, who believes in a mission to empower the women, most stay-at-home mothers, who make a living from operating storefronts on Reborns. He doesn’t charge a commission on sales, instead opting for a free-to-use model where artists can pay a fee to aggregate their storefronts higher up on the site’s main page.

It isn’t a perfect system—sellers with cash to spend could (and do) abuse this function—but artists who sell through Reborns told me that they’ve maintained consistent income without ever paying for higher placement on the storefront. Instead, they rely on word of mouth, social media, and the day jobs that supplement the dryer months (mainly, every month but Christmastime). It’s also through the network of forums and Facebook groups around the site that they learn the craft. Like Angela Hogan, a former animator from Folsom, Pennsylvania who found them while “watching some new stuff on YouTube.” The craftsmanship and outright strangeness of Reborns soon pulled her. “I was like, I have to look into it.” She told me that in talking to other women, she learned to price her dolls anywhere from $250 to $450. It’s enough to offset the cost of modernized pre-made doll kits, which cap at $100, as well as art supplies. Genesis Heat Set paints, Angela’s favorites, sell “reborning” kits for $30, with a variety of shades for contouring, creating veins, and sculpting other realistic features.

After ordering some kits, Hogan taught herself how to delicately brush layer after layer of acrylic paints using the skills she’d picked up from her father, an animator. “Growing up, I was always in and out of his office and working and helping him do some early computer art,” she says. Although the leap from animation to hand-making dolls might seem strange—Hogan admits that some see her as a “weird doll lady” now—both require artists to stack various layers of paints or pixels on top of each other to achieve the desired effect. Hogan felt that her talents could easily translate, and looking through photos of her recent work, she was absolutely right.

Hogan’s father closed his animation business in 2012, the same year Dave Stack launched Reborns. Like others, Hogan found a thriving community of women through the site making a living up-cycling the same dolls the Times had described as a Lynchian horror. And despite having no clear purpose except to line the shelves of avid hobbyists back in 2001, they’d since found a purpose.

Angela’s recent work. Photo:Angela Hogan (Adore Reborns)

Lee told me that when she eventually picked up reborning again a few years ago, as Katina Lee Babies, she learned that some of her customers used her creations to overcome depression or the grief of losing a child. Likewise, Hogan’s dolls, through her store Adore Reborns, were a hit at a nearby nursing home, where doctors would use them in therapy with patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The dolls provide a similar function as therapy dogs. They could help patients lock on to times in their lives when they (or their kids) were younger, grounding them amidst the confusion of losing touch with themselves.

All she had done her entire life was raise children, and with her kids growing up, she asked herself: “Who am I?”

When I asked Frantz, who now runs Carried Away Cuties, what it was like to create her first doll and what about the experience helped pull her from a severe depression, she told me it was in part to help deal with her shifting identity as a mother as her children grew up. All she had done her entire life was raise children and with her kids growing up, she asked herself: “Who am I?” In making the dolls, she “got to shop for baby clothes again and do all the fun things” with her new boyfriend, which was therapeutic for Frantz as she recovered from her past relationship.

Artists I spoke to also heralded the close-knit community of women who hold court over the doll marketplace. “Bickering is common wherever you group more than three people together,” a mother from Ohio told me, but more than anything, respect and mutual support is expected. They share techniques and art supply recommendations, boost each others channels, and hone their techniques on various online forums. Because of this, word spreads quickly among the community, and in the process of reporting this story countless women reached out to me to share how Reborn-ing has changed their lives.

Reborns and sites like it are not the only marketplaces for the dolls. JC Toys still exists, boasting 750 employees and manufacturing facilities in China and Spain—where Jose Berengeur once sculpted his creations in the aftermath of the war. But unlike JC Toys, the artists of Reborns don’t need factories overseas, they just need stamina. Reborning, which takes anywhere from three days to a week, is taxing and meticulous. Artists I spoke to said they were lucky to finish a handful of dolls a month.

Yet Frantz believes that through the dolls, she’s found her purpose in life: Helping others find the same freedom and happiness she found through reborning. It’s a sentiment shared by many of the women I spoke to, who genuinely believe in the work. The money doesn’t always last through the drier months. But despite this, I was shown letters and notes from customers who stay in contact long after a doll has been baked alive (metaphorically speaking) and shipped across the country. Children with cancer who’ve documented their lives with the dolls, or families who are grateful for the renewed vigor in parents grappling with dementia.

Modern times might have exacerbated the gig economy, but working class women have always founds ways to survive in places inhospitable to them. Since even before the internet, they sold their crafts at flea markets, or went door to door with makeup, or stumped for Tupperware at dinner parties. Reborning might look (and feel) like an extreme, but these dolls are more than uncanny representations of human life. They’re a safety net when they can no longer break their bodies down cleaning homes, or working long hours in a daycare. More than anything, these small, vinyl lifelines have given their makers an artistic freedom they’d never had before.

Correction: An earlier version also incorrectly called the dolls silicone; they are actually made of vinyl. This post has also been updated to more accurately reflect the artistic process of Reborn artists.

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