Singapore

'Reborn' dolls look so lifelike

This baby is a doll made to look like a real newborn. CHAI HUNG YIN speaks to fans of these intricately crafted replicas

She looks so lifelike, you would expect her to open her eyes and cry for milk.

Even though this doll is not a real baby, the process of its "birth" is almost as intensive as real labour.

First, there are layers - at least 40 of them - of paint to be slathered on the doll. And each layer has to be baked in an oven to heat-set the colour before the next layer is painted on.

This process takes at least two weeks for Madam Linda Ho, the only artist here who creates these "reborn" dolls.

She also paints blue veins and blemishes like those on newborns.

Madam Ho can only paint during daylight hours because she needs natural light to get that realistic effect.

The stay-at-home mother, 25, then puts in mohair, strand by strand onto the doll's head. This takes another two to three weeks.

In an interview with The New Paper on Sunday, Madam Ho says she decided to make her own because she could not get realistic dolls in Singapore.

 Cute or creepy?
LIFELIKE: Singaporean artist Linda Ho takes six weeks to make a reborn doll. To get that realistic look, she paints only in natural light. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Her attempts at buying these dolls from overseas left her disappointed. Under the name Linda Nursery, she now creates the dolls herself.

She says: "I tried to buy twice from overseas, but the transaction didn't happen.

"I was heartbroken because I just wanted one badly."

The mother of three children, aged three, five and six, says it started off as a hobby.

"I was amazed that it's possible to turn a blank sculpture into something so lifelike.

"It is like turning a blank canvas into something realistic by just painting. It intrigues me."

 Cute or creepy?
LIFELIKE: Singaporean artist Linda Ho takes six weeks to make a reborn doll. To get that realistic look, she paints only in natural light.TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Madam Ho is also a doula, a woman giving support, help, and advice to another woman during pregnancy and during and after the birth.

She says: "It's like having a baby who never grows up. I like babies, but they don't stay that way forever."

In total, she has spent more than $10,000 on more than 100 kits. Each kit, which she bought online, comes with a head, a pair of hands and a pair of legs.

"I was becoming a hoarder because I collected those that I liked."

UNEASY HUSBAND

But her husband is uncomfortable with the number of doll kits stashed in their three-room Punggol HDB flat.

This sparked the idea for Madam Ho to sell completed dolls locally.

She says: "I started to sell them as I realise there is interest here. I didn't want people who want such dolls to end up heartbroken like me."

Demand for the dolls has been rising since she started selling them early last year.

 Cute or creepy?
LIFELIKE: Singaporean artist Linda Ho takes six weeks to make a reborn doll. To get that realistic look, she paints only in natural light.TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

She says: "I showed it to my friends and they asked how they can get one, too."

But the orders have been so overwhelming that Madam Ho has stopped taking new ones for now.

So far, she has sold about 20 dolls. Her clients include teenagers, couples trying for a baby and the elderly.

A 25cm doll, which resembles a premature baby, costs about $200.

The bigger the doll and the more intricate the details requested, the more expensive it will be. The price includes clothes and accessories.

The doll's head, hands and legs are made of vinyl, while the body is made of cloth.

She says: "Those with full silicone bodies are at least US$3,000 ($4,100) and above. The vinyl version is the more affordable option."

Madam Ho feels that reborn dolls develop personalities as she paints them.

"I may find something missing and I'd add something, like a vein, and it looks quite nice," she says.

"It's tedious work. It hurts the hand and is straining on the eyes."

Then, there is the doll assembly. Its body is stuffed with fine glass beads and poly pellets (plastic beads). The stuffing is measured to ensure that the weight is like that of a real baby.

Madam Ho then dresses the doll.

To test how realistic her work is, she takes the completed doll out for a test run in a stroller and gauges the reaction of members of the public.

"The more people ignore it, the more you know it looks real," she says.

Once, she took a doll out for grocery shopping with her family.

Madam Ho says: "An elderly man started cooing at the baby, saying it is so cute, and even asked his wife to take a look. I told them it is just a doll and held it up to show them."

She does not mind the work and time spent on the dolls. She even delivered a doll with a stroller personally as a surprise for a customer.

"I feel very happy when I see the outcome. Some mothers tell me they love the dolls and thank me," she says.

"I'm happy and excited to see how the dolls turn out. Even if I have the same sculpture, each one still turns out differently.

"An artist cannot duplicate her own work, that's what makes it unique."

Focusing on dolls can lead to collapse of relationships

 

Collecting realistic-looking baby dolls may be fun for some. But for others, the need to own them runs deeper.

Jenny (not her full name) spent $400 on a realistic-looking baby doll, but lets it sits on her desk.

"I look at it as a artistic piece," says the 19-year-old Singaporean student.

Her newborn-size baby doll, termed a reborn doll, does not have a name.

"Holding it makes you feel more relaxed. It's therapeutic," says Jenny.

She ordered her reborn baby last April after seeing pictures of other dolls on Madam Linda Ho's Facebook page.

Jenny says: "I wanted a reborn baby because they look so realistic and I was fascinated by them."

MORE THAN DOLLS

But to some people, these dolls are more than just art or toys.

Mrs Alice Winstone, 39, has 50 such dolls filling up several rooms in her house in the UK, reported the Daily Mail.

After her fifth baby, she was told she has a blood disorder which would make pregnancy unsafe.

Unable to have another baby, she turns her maternal instincts on these fake babies. Her children are aged between 12 and 22.

In seven years, Mrs Winstone has spent £12,000 (S$24,000) collecting them.

After the first doll, which cost £180, she bought 13 more in quick successions. Her most expensive dolls cost £1,200.

Mrs Winstone says: "I tried taking in kittens and even fostering children, but I couldn't bear the part where I had to say goodbye.

"I began looking after the dolls like I would my own babies - they are so life-like and I feel such a close bond to them."

Her obsession drove her husband out of the house five years ago.

Mrs Winstone says: "I tried telling him how happy they make me, but he just thought it was a stupid obsession.

"They soon started to affect our sex life as I would want some of them to come to bed with us, but Chris refused."

The dolls freaked out her husband as they look so real.

Says Mrs Winstone: "I wouldn't have given up my dolls for Chris - we come as a package."

Another British woman, Ms Kerrie Williams, 33, splurged £20,000 on seven dolls after she suffered a miscarriage in January 2012.

The mother of two says the fake babies comfort her when no one else would.

She says: "I was 12 weeks pregnant when I miscarried and I hit rock bottom afterwards. I just desperately wanted another child."

But the dolls caused her ex-partner to split up with her.

DANGER

Experts here warn of the danger of going beyond keeping the dolls as a hobby.

Dr Thomas Lee, consultant psychiatrist and medical director of The Resilienz Clinic, says: "It is strange and unusual to regard an inanimate object as a real thing.

"In some way, it is akin to animism, which is the belief that non-human objects possess a soul or spiritual presence.

"To treat dolls as substitutes for real persons or real relationships is entirely a different thing which can indicate a deeper psychological issue."

Also, the person's attention is taken away from real relationships, resulting in the breakdown of marriages or bonds with real children.

Dr Lee notes that these dolls "can be a useful short-term tool" to deal with the grief and emotional pain resulting from children who were lost or have grown up.

But not for long.

He says: "...If this persists for too long, when the person has grown overly attached to the dolls, it can indicate that the grief has not been resolved, or worse, a psychological disorder is developing."

So lifelike, dolls even 'breathe'

The trend of making realistic reborn dolls started in the 1980s in the US.

It later moved to the UK and Australia and is now gaining a following here.

In the early days of such dolls, a doll artist would take a cheap vinyl toy doll, remove its hair, eyes, limbs and paint, and replace them with more realistic ones.

The technique in making lifelike dolls has evolved over the years.

Aside from realistic-looking features, you can now get a "breathing" doll that has a "heartbeat".

These dolls come with mechanical hearts and a mechanism that makes their chests rise and fall.

Their US-based manufacturer, Bountiful Baby, which claims it is the largest reborn supply store in the world, actually makes sculptures from moulds based on the 3D scans of a real baby.

Reborn artist Silvia from Silvia Creations in the US even makes personalised birth certificates for her dolls.

A professional group, International Reborn Doll Artists, was set up in 2005 to support the industry. Its members include artists, doll dealers, suppliers, collectors and sculptors and it has a set of code of ethics for its members, which include "speaking honourably of every doll that has been sculpted, manufactured or reborn".

It also holds conventions and conducts online classes to keep members up to date with "cutting edge" techniques.

Hundreds of dolls are being offered for "adoption" by reborn artists all over the world on sites like eBay and Etsy, niche marketplaces such as reborns.com and forums like reborndolls.com.au.

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