Star Magazine

Dolls so lifelike they’re not assembled, they’re ‘reborn’

A customer at Ronda Cox’s Heavenly Touch Reborn Nursery shop in Independence recently considered buying one of the dolls as a Christmas gift for a granddaughter.
A customer at Ronda Cox’s Heavenly Touch Reborn Nursery shop in Independence recently considered buying one of the dolls as a Christmas gift for a granddaughter. Kansas City Star

For a newborn, baby Mason sure gets around.

He has been to the Plaza Art Fair, the Kansas City Zoo, Liberty Memorial, Union Station, Powell Gardens, performances at the Kauffman Center and Midland theater.

He has even flown to Miami.

A ticket agent stopped Grace Thornton as she carried Mason, swaddled in a blanket, onto the plane. Do you have paperwork for the infant? the agent asked.

Replied Thornton: “I don’t need it.”

Baby dolls don’t need airline tickets.

Mason is a Reborn doll, one of 10 in Thornton’s collection. The collectible dolls are made of vinyl and transformed — or “reborn” — with paint and faux hair to look as much like real babies as possible.

These are not cheap little baby dolls that wind up at the bottom of the toy box. Little girls do own them, but they are more popular with big girls, mostly because the dolls cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

On eBay last week a doll made by noted British Reborn sculptor Romie Strydom was offered for more than $13,000. The seller noted that she had to borrow money to buy the doll nine months ago and now needs the money to retire.

Thornton, a Hallmark Cards retiree who lives in Independence, bought her first doll more than three years ago and has spent, she estimated, more than $1,500 on her collection.

“I’ve taken a couple of them down to Branson, senior citizen heaven,” says Thornton, “and those women down there went nuts over them, because I take them to the shows and everything.”

When people ask why she has a doll with her in public, she says, “Well, he wanted to come.”

She knows it may seem odd — many collectors simply showcase their dolls at home — but she laughs it off: “I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum.”

Thornton isn’t the only Kansas Citian taken with the dolls. Kansas City is also home to a handful of “Reborners.”

The begetting

Natural-looking baby dolls started making a dent in the doll business in the 1980s. One of the first from a major toy company, Hasbro’s Real Baby, was the size of a 6-month-old and had a weighted body that felt like a human infant.

Then in the late 1990s, the story goes, a British woman disassembled a store-bought baby doll and painted on veining and a birthmark to make it look human, giving birth to the Reborn craze.

In the last decade the hobby has taken on a life of its own in America, where collectors share photos on Facebook and Pinterest, swap ideas in forums like Doll-Fan.com, join groups like International Reborn Doll Artists and hover over eBay, the most fertile doll-shopping ground.

The people who make these dolls are called Reborners, and Ronda Cox is one of them.

Her Heavenly Touch Reborn Nursery in Independence smells like a nursery, sweet and fresh like baby powder. A giant plastic baby bottle stands in one corner, and there are racks of baby clothes.

Inside glass-sided shelves lie an array of newborn-sized dolls resting on their backs atop colorful nursing pillows. Some look like they’re about to throw a tantrum — eyes squished closed, tiny mouths puckered up. The more angelic dolls — and the most popular with Cox’s clientele — wear sweet little smirks.

Each comes with its own birth certificate and costs at least $225.

Cox has made more than 500 Reborn dolls over the last decade and, largely through eBay, has sent them as far away as Ireland and Iceland.

“My clientele ranges from 18 months all the way up to age 99,” says Cox.

The nice thing about a Reborn is that when you’re tired of it, you can just put it away.

“It’s not going to come screaming, ‘I’m hungry!’” says the mother of five daughters.

She started making Reborns as a hobby out of her house. But her business grew so strong, largely through word of mouth, that in February she moved into a storefront just north of 23rd Street on Crysler Avenue. (Her husband runs his trucking business out of the back of the building.)

Cox first stumbled upon Reborns while searching eBay for a doll from her childhood. She fell in love with the first one she saw, but it was too expensive. The doll, with a starting bid of $585, eventually sold for more than $1,200.

Now she can make a doll in eight to 10 hours. It’s not nine months, but the gestation is quite involved.

She starts with a kit, which ambitious do-it-yourselfers can also buy online. Inside the clear plastic bag of each kit comes a head, two arms and two legs. No body, no eyes.

She paints on custom flesh tones and highlights features that make the doll spring to life — fat rolls, eye crinkles, folds around the wrists and ankles. In between each layer of paint she bakes the parts in an oven to set the paint.

She installs acrylic eyes, preferring their glossy appearance over the matte look of painted eyeballs.

“That’s what makes the eyes sparkle,” says Cox. “And that’s what you’d see with a real baby. When they open their eyes, they are kind of sparkly.”

The hair is time-consuming. She uses mohair, long silky strands that cost $80 an ounce. With a process called rooting she pushes each strand, one at a time, into the vinyl scalp with a barbed needle. It can take six hours, even longer, to create one cap of hair.

“I love it. It’s very relaxing for me,” Cox says.

She builds each doll around a cloth body filled with pillow-soft polyfill and tiny glass or plastic beads. The free-flowing orbs give the body heft yet leave it flexible enough to cradle in the crook of an arm.

Cox has taught others how to do this. She mentored Joyce King, a Honeywell retiree and grandmother of eight in Olathe who has sold her dolls on eBay for the last few years. King’s dolls cost about $175, though she has sold them for as much as $400.

She has made dolls for some of her eight grandchildren.

“It’s fun to make them from a blank kit, and they turn into ‘almost real babies,’” says King. “I have a daughter who thinks I’m insane that I do this. And one grandson says, ‘Grandma, that’s just creepy.’”

King makes a special batch of dolls at Christmas, giving them as gifts and donating one to a local school auction.

One perk, King says, is that Reborn owners can buy real infant clothes and not have to invest in expensive doll clothes. A lot of those onesies and dresses are pink because in the Reborn world, baby girls tend to rule.

“I have trouble selling boy dolls,” says King.

The next generation

One of Cox’s favorite sculptors is Emily Jameson, 24, of Leawood.

“Every one of her babies is amazingly cute,” says Cox.

Like a lot of people, Jameson had never heard of the dolls until accidentally finding them on eBay.

“I remember the first one I saw,” says Jameson, who features her dolls on Facebook and sells them under the name Babies by Emily. “It was smiling. It had red hair, and I thought it looked really realistic. I guess that’s what drew me to it, because no other doll I had looked that realistic.”

Her parents bought her one of the pricey dolls for her birthday, but a few months later, when she asked for one for Christmas, her mom suggested: “Why don’t you make one yourself?”

Jameson found a Reborner online who helped her make her first dolls, which she fashioned out of ones from Toys R Us. She was only 14, and “there weren’t many people my age doing it,” she says.

“But now you’ll see a lot more people my age doing it. There are also a lot of really young girls, 12 and 13, who want a Reborn doll.”

Jameson had always been interested in art, and doll-making got her creative juices flowing. She took classes from local sculptor Kwan Wu, who created the life-size bronze of George Brett at Kauffman Stadium and the 9-foot bronze statue of University of Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen in front of Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

Wu taught her how to bring her doll sculpts to life, how to add dimension to flat faces and make the clay smooth as baby skin.

She works in polymer clay, using about three pounds for each doll. She sculpts the heads and limbs around tin foil armatures and bakes the clay sculpts in her kitchen oven.

“Usually when I start making a sculpt I have an idea in my head how big I want it to be, if I want it to be awake or asleep, maybe if I want a particular expression, like smiling,” she says. “But a lot of times it changes from what I originally imagined as I go along.”

She spends extra time creating the mouths.

“The mouth has the most muscles of anything on the face, so it can create the most expression.”

Even though newborns tend to have “pretty simple mouths,” getting them right can be tricky. Slightly open? A sucked-in bottom lip? Perfect rosebud lips? They require a lot of tweaking.

Jameson sends her clay models to a factory in China that turns them into the vinyl doll-making kits that she sells for about $75. Kits of the unpainted doll parts cost, on average, between $30 and $125.

“When I get the order from the factory, I get at least 250 of these kits, so I know there are going to be 250 of these dolls out there,” says Jameson, whose name is engraved on the back of each doll’s head.

People are starting to recognize her work, thanks in large part to Ashton-Drake Galleries, well-known in the collectibles world for its dolls. The company saw one of Jameson’s Reborns at a doll show in St. Louis in 2008.

“They asked me if I wanted to make some dolls for them, and I’ve been making dolls ever since,” she says. “I wouldn’t say my goal is to be famous, but if it happens …”

One of her latest creations, which recently hit the Ashton-Drake website, is for a category of “dolls” that collectors are clamoring for.

Think hairy.

Think a little funny-looking.

Think a monkey.

‘He’s real!’

Reborn collector Thornton gets a kick out of strangers’ reactions to her dolls: five boys, five girls, one named Carrie Ann after the song by the Hollies. Mason, the one who flew to Miami, is her favorite.

Once, at a movie theater, a woman didn’t believe that Thornton was carrying a vinyl doll.

“He’s real!” the woman insisted. “Look at his eyes.”

Another time at the movies, a couple sat down near her, but when they saw her doll they moved away “because they were afraid he was going to cry,” Thornton recalls.

She will let people, including little girls, hold her dolls.

“When you hold them, it’s the whole experience,” says Thornton.

Many then fall victim to what Cox calls the “rock and pat syndrome” — rock the baby, pat the bottom.

“They have been so much fun,” Cox says. “Even the gentlemen, when they see them. Some of them are creeped out, because they are so realistic. But others are just floored.”

About the creepiness part: yeah, Reborn collectors and makers have all heard the nasty comments.

The one that stings the most: These dolls look like deceased babies.

Ronda Cox has sold her Reborn dolls out of a booth at Independence’s Santa-Cali-Gon festival for several years, “and people are pretty rude with the comments,” she says. “We don’t even address them. We just say, everybody has different taste, and everybody is entitled to their own opinion. We understand that.”

This year a woman who came to her booth had tears in her eyes. She had recently lost a baby.

“Of course, my heart went out to her,” says Cox. “In her mind I think she saw what was, what could have been. She wasn’t saying anything bad, but it was just heart-wrenching for her.”

Once, Cox did make a Reborn for a woman who had miscarried.

“But I don’t do that all the time,” she adds. “And that’s not what I intend here. These are just baby dolls that feel good to hold.

“If I had something like this when I was little — oh my. I would have never stopped playing with baby dolls.”

Then she drops her voice to a stage whisper and says, “I’ve never stopped playing with baby dolls.”

To contact Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

  Comments