When 70-year-old Robert looks in the mirror, which he does often when dolled up, he sees a beautiful blond woman, voluptuous in her yellow halter dress and chunky heels. Her name is Sherry and she passes the time taking selfies in the courtyard of her Orange County mansion and floating topless in the macaroni-shaped pool.
Sans costume, Robert (not his real name) is a property developer, recently divorced, and living with his 19-year-old daughter. But when he powders his latex and silicone suit and climbs in, pulling a frozen, doll-faced mask over his head, and throwing on a wig and a dress, he’s Sherry. “That’s me in there,” he says, gazing entranced at his reflection. “That’s one of the things I have to keep telling myself: That’s me inside that female.”
Robert is a masker, leading two very different lives: one in the so-called vanilla world of his family and coworkers; another dolled up as a life-size figurine in the privacy of his own home, or, occasionally, out with other cross-dressers and fellow mask-wearers.
Hours before the new documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls premiered Monday night on Britain’s Channel 4, Robert was nervous he’d given too much away. “Could you identify me, you think, if you saw me on the street?” he asks me on the phone. The 50-minute film, which will air in the United States in the coming months, follows Robert and two other men as they attempt to merge their everyday lives with a desire to don lifelike bodysuits and almost cartoonish masks to masquerade as full-figured female dolls. And he has reason to be concerned—masking is one of the last taboos among gender-bending subcultures, misunderstood and alienated even by the cross-dressers Robert goes out with.
Robert began dabbling in cross-dressing 15 years ago, not long after finding some discarded women’s clothes in a rental property. But he hated the way he looked with a face full of makeup and had nearly given it up until he donned his first mask. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t see myself, I saw a fairly attractive woman, and that changed everything for me,” Robert remembers.
Then, six years ago, he purchased a full suit called a FemSkin. It came from a family-owned and -operated business running out of Wildwood, Florida, where Barbie Ramos and her three sons build and deliver $1,800 realistic custom-made skins to clients across the globe.
Robert calls the purchase “a life-changing experience,” and he slips into his FemSkin once a week or so for elaborately costumed photo shoots in his house, which he posts on Sherry’s Facebook page. The novelty of occupying a feminine body never wears off. “It’s still as shocking to look in the mirror and see myself as a female as it was then,” he says.
For the past six years, dozens of dolls have descended on Minneapolis for the annual “Rubber Doll World Rendezvous,” reveling in a community and acceptance they’re hard-pressed to find at home. “Safety in numbers,” one leather-clad participant says in the documentary. The two-day convention hosts seminars that range from “introducing this activity to spouses, dealing with friends, raising children and addressing strangers,” to “latex repair and maintenance.” At night, they hit the clubs together, posing for pictures with amazed patrons.
John, the convention’s co-organizer, is a father to six girls. They paint his nails and help him dress as he transforms into Jennifer, a towering doll with wavy brown hair and a black leather bodysuit. It’s a bonding experience, he says. But his penchant for being Jennifer has caused trouble in the past. The failure of his first marriage was due in part to the rubber doll habit, his second one has had similar issues, and Child Protective Services have even been called to his house. (They deemed his hobby harmless.) But John, who notes his masculine job as a forklift operator, doesn’t think he should have anything to hide. Like other maskers who have braved the outdoors, he enjoys a turn in the spotlight.
"When I’m in my male mode, out in public I just blend in,” John says in the film. But as a doll, “you become one of the beautiful people—you draw a lot of attention, and attention is not something I’ve had a lot of growing up and at this age.”
Robert, attending his first Rubber Doll World Rendezvous this past year, donned a gold bikini, gold gloves, and a shiny blond wig to greet fellow maskers with whom he’d only had an online relationship until then. Still a scattered and hidden bunch, maskers keep in touch via online social networks such as Doll’s Pride.
For producer Luke Malone, 32, and director Nick Sweeney, 31, the world of dolls and masking is a topic they’ve mulled for six years, fascinated by a popular YouTube account of a masker named Julie. Less than a year ago, the pair, who’ve known each other since attending university together in Sydney, Australia, decided to pursue the little-known subject.
The community of maskers, normally wary of outsiders, warmed quickly to the filmmakers. “A lot of these guys don’t tell anybody—they don’t tell their wives, children, workmates—they’re living with a very closeted secret, so to have somebody come from outside who is interested and intrigued and not at all turned off, they’re hungry just to have an ear to talk to,” Malone says.
They paint his nails and help him dress as he transforms into Jennifer, a towering doll with wavy brown hair and a black leather bodysuit.
Since masking is such a new and unusual lifestyle, they’re viewed as strange even by similar subcultures. The practice is still “very much on the fringes,” says Sweeney. “They say they’re not welcomed by a lot of the GLBT community yet, and I think that’s more to do with unfamiliarity than anything else.”
Even participants in the cross-dressing scene are visibly uncomfortable around the mask because of its horror movie connotations. “Masked, to them, I’m some sort of strange weirdo,” Robert says. And he also struggles to understand his penchant for dressing up. “I wish to hell I knew,” he tells me. “I don’t know what it is, why I started doing it, why I continue doing it, or why it’s become such a compulsion.”
He’d like to refute the stereotype of maskers as perverted or weird. “These are really just regular people trying to live their lives,” he says. But in his own life, he keeps Sherry’s identity hidden away. His own daughter has adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” defense since he revealed his habit last year. “I’d think she’d be interested enough to ask some questions, but she’s never asked even one question,” Robert says.
Some families and significant others, including John’s wife and daughters, are more accepting. Joel, a 28-year-old British masker, has been dressing up—while hiding his suits from his parents—since he was 15. He’s spent some $16,400 on costumes, considering it an extension of another persona. His live-in girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind the unusual hobby, though Joel knows better than to test her acceptance out in the wider world. "I wouldn’t walk 20 steps down the road dressed as a doll," he says in the film.
But Malone and Sweeney say fears of discrimination were unfounded when they went out with the dolls and a film crew. People “weren’t scared, they were more titillated,” Malone says. Once they were interviewing a doll when a tough-looking man walked past and demanded to know “what the fuck was going on.” Malone, thinking the guy was going to throw a punch, explained the costume. The guy took a long drag on his cigarette. “That’s fucking cool,” he said.
The documentary’s most touching scene is when Robert introduces Sherry to the outside world for the first time, walking around his old stomping grounds of Newport Beach in his full doll getup. “He is beautiful,” one accented passer-by says to the camera. “I know he’s a man, no? Yes, he’s beautiful.”
Robert may still be confused about his hobby and nervous about preserving his anonymity, but he isn’t putting on the brakes anytime soon. “I’m 70 years old,” he says. “The goal is whenever the hell I’m getting ready to kick the bucket I say, ‘Goddamn it, I’ve done everything that I ever wanted to do and I’m ready.’”