Karen lavishes love and money on her baby. Just one problem. He's not real
Lookalike: Karen with Daniel, one of her many 'reborn' dolls she has designed and made herself
Daniella’s face is flushed pink with sleep. Her mouth is a perfect Cupid’s bow and she lies in a crib on a rose-embroidered blanket. Her arms are splayed and her tiny fingers are furled as babies’ are when they’re asleep.
The walls are painted in pristine pastels. A mobile plays Brahms’s Lullaby. Daniella is not alone in the nursery. Other babies — some recumbent; some emerging from sleep; some wide-eyed — share the room. If you were to glance casually into the nursery, you might think it contained a dozen living babies.
But a closer look reveals that, in fact, they are dolls. Not toys, but eerily life-like replica babies, known as ‘reborn’ dolls.
The dolls belong to Karen McAllister,
43, and her daughter Erin, 16. They inhabit a room in their beautiful
six-bedroom Suffolk home. Their immaculate real-baby clothes hang in a
double wardrobe. Their bottles, nappies, ointments, teething rings and
toys are ranged neatly in cupboards and colour-coded wicker baskets — a
perfect facsimile of a living baby’s world.
‘I dress them according to the
seasons, and I prefer to buy designer clothes,’ says Karen. ‘I’ve got
little gilets with fur collars, fleecy jackets, leggings and tiny Ugg
boots for winter.
‘It doesn’t bother me that I’m buying
the clothes for dolls, but I did care when someone asked me, “Is that
for your granddaughter” I just said, “No it’s not!” I was so upset that
they thought I was old enough to be a granny.
‘I used to explain I was buying the
clothes for my reborn dolls, but I’d get funny looks. So now I don’t
think its worth going into it.
‘I don’t take the dolls out or discuss
them other than with other collectors at reborn doll fairs. There
everyone is happy to talk about them. You see hundreds of women pushing
their reborns round in 1,000 Silver Cross prams.
‘It doesn’t feel weird at all in the context of the show, but some people do get fixated and treat them like real babies.’
Since the first reborn doll was
created in the U.S. in the early Nineties, the phenomenon has spread to
Britain and a vast industry with its own curious customs has grown up
around them. Karen and Erin not only collect and trade the reborns for
ever-more sophisticated models, they also make them. As such, they are
known as ‘reborners’.
From component body parts that you buy as a kit — limbs, torsos and heads — dolls can be custom-built. Heads are weighted with stainless steel balls or fine glass granules so they simulate real babies’ heads and have to be supported as if they were living newborns.
Up to 20 layers of paint are applied to the dolls until they precisely mimic human skin tones. Hair is painstakingly ‘micro-rooted’, strand-by-strand. An entire head can take up to 60 hours.
Products of their labour: Karen and her daughter Erin with their Reborn babies, from left, Ruby, Dylan, Daniel, Ellie, Joshua, Annabelle, Daniella, Max, Charlie, Amber and Maddie
Cherubic lips are moistened by tiny bubbles of ‘saliva’ created from paper glaze. Fake tears are made to well in wide, glassy blue eyes fringed with individually-rooted mohair lashes.
Magnets are attached to mouths so the reborns appear to suck dummies. Electronic devices mimic heartbeats and make tiny chests rise and fall in an eerie imitation of breathing. Heat packs recreate the warmth of real babies. Voice boxes produce human sounds.
Freeze-framed in mid-stretch on his changing mat is reborn Joshua. Erin designed him and he looks so real I find myself gasping. He even smells like a human baby. From a pipette Karen squeezes a perfumed essence scented like Johnson’s talcum powder onto his sleep suit.
Absolute verisimilitude is the goal of every reborner.
‘The dolls keep getting more and more life-like,’ says Karen, who has spent 5,000 on her reborns. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever stop collecting them and my aim is for each new one to be more realistic than the last.’
But opinion on these extraordinary simulacrums of infant life is polarised, to say the least.
‘I have a very good friend, Julie, who is absolutely freaked out by the dolls,’ says Karen. ‘She thinks they look like dead babies. But everyone is intrigued by the dolls. One friend said, “Oh, don’t bring them anywhere near me!” but her sister couldn’t wait to cuddle them.’
Working together: Karen and Erin prepare the dolls, which includes everything from applying paint to make cheeks look flushed, to fitting them with voice boxes to recreate human sounds
The word ‘creepy’ is often applied to
reborns. Department stores refuse to stock them because they fear they
will provoke such an antipathetic reaction, so the dolls are traded on
eBay — where the most life-like models fetch more than 7,000 each — and
at reborn fairs.
of the rest of the family How do Karen’s husband Ian, 43, a company
director, and son Daniel, 12, view the hobby that encroaches on their
Daniel’s bedroom is
next to the nursery. Karen has named one of the reborns — the only one
she made herself — after her son. ‘He was mortified!’ she cries.
shows me her son’s alter ego, perpetually frozen in time, aged six
weeks, in denim dungarees and striped socks. ‘I’m really pleased with
how my boy has come out,’ she says, cradling his head and inhaling his
distinctive baby-powder scent.
Real-life Daniel, meanwhile, is a charming adolescent, his hair gelled, who wears a Superman sweat shirt and likes guitars.
When I ask him what he thinks of his reborn namesake, he rolls his eyes. ‘I just put up with the dolls,’ he says. ‘It’s not as if I have to see them or interact with them. I’d hate that. I try to ignore them. Most of the time the nursery door stays closed and I just walk past it.’
Ian has been married to Karen, who has a part-time catering job, for 19 years and for more than half their marriage — since 1999 — she has been collecting reborns.
Karen and Ian even share the marital bedroom with a crib containing two reborns, one of which — a particularly weedy specimen called Dylan — is premature.
‘A lot of people don’t like him,’ says Karen. ‘They think he looks like a little old man. But I had to have him. His face has character. And look at his cute little legs!’
Designer wardrobe: Karem buys lots of clothes for her Reborns… but resents it when people ask her if they are for her grandchildren
She peels off his Babygro to reveal
stick-like limbs. Karen persuaded Ian to buy Dylan — who is formed in
the image of a baby born about 12 weeks early and weighs around 3lb —
for her as last year’s Christmas present: he cost 150.
most expensive doll was 300, although those she and Erin have made —
because of the painstaking hours of skilful work invested in them — are
‘I like the fact that Karen and Erin have an interest to share, but it is a little strange,’ says Ian with studied understatement. ‘I know people who think it’s unsettling, but I’d describe my attitude as indifferent.’
Karen’s parents are far more caustic. Her mother Ann, 71, was horrified when Karen spent the money she’d been given by her parents for her birthday on a 70 baby changing unit.
‘She said, “Oh for goodness sake! You’re not throwing away your money on that,” ’ recalls Karen. ‘She can’t understand the whole doll thing. My dad is exactly the same. Whenever I buy a new one he says, “Not another bloody doll!” ’
A 'reborn' doll recently sold in the UK for 11,000
There is no apparent psychological
reason that underpins Karen’s reborn obsession; no unresolved yearning
or loss. Except for her dolls, she is a typical affluent, middle-class
wife and mum.
She has two
delightful children — Erin is studying for A-levels — and has no
immediate desire for grandchildren. She has just loved dolls since
childhood: ‘I had my first doll, a Tiny Tears, when I was a toddler.
When I had Erin I was glad she was as interested in dolls as I was.’
It was 12 years ago, when Karen was trawling the internet looking for dolls for her daughter, that she first spotted the 120 reborn that inspired her to begin her collection.
Although Karen considers herself merely a collector, there are women, she concedes, who use the dolls to assuage sorrow; either because they are empty-nesters or, more tragically, have lost children.
Psychologist Dr Vivian Diller knows of both women — and, more rarely, men — who have used reborns to alleviate grief. ‘People who buy a reborn doll following a miscarriage or loss of a child may be choosing a comforting, harmless way to ease the mourning process,’ she says.
‘But becoming deeply attached to a reborn doll can interfere with the acceptance of reality. The doll is not a true substitute and cannot bring back the loss.’
Dr Diller adds: ‘People who cannot let go of their attachment to the reborn doll, or collect them obsessively, can ultimately become disconnected from reality and show evidence of psychosis. It’s really a matter of degree.’
On a website Karen shows me her ideal: a reborn called Krista with flaxen hair, winsome blue eyes, a button nose and cherry lips. Krista costs 7,000. For reborners like Karen she represents an apotheosis — unless, that is, reborns become so realistic they are indistinguishable from human babies.
And if that day arrives, there is little doubt about it: Karen will covet the ultimate — nothing less than a crying, talking, sleeping walking, living doll will do.