They're called "reborns": incredibly lifelike baby dolls that sell for up to $4,000 to adult women who collect them, change their clothes, and in some ways treat them like real babies. "It fills a spot in your heart," Lynn Katsaris told TODAY's Matt Lauer Wednesday in New York as she cuddled "Benjamin" and "Michael" in her arms. A realtor from suburban Phoenix, Katsaris is also an artist who has created 1,052 reborn dolls and sold them to women around the world. She was one of three grown women visiting the show with five of the the bogus — but eerily realistic — babies cradled tenderly in their arms. Dolls have been around for thousands of years, but the so-called reborn dolls, which are hand-painted and provided with hair whose strands are individually rooted in their vinyl heads, date back to the early 1990s. Since they first were created in the United States, they have become increasingly popular around the world, selling on dedicated Web sites and on eBay for $500 to $4,000, and even higher. A documentary on the phenomenon called "My Fake Baby" airs tonight on BBC America.
Cuddly … or creepy? Some people find the lifelike dolls downright creepy. But collectors, some of whom treat the dolls as real children, feel there’s nothing unusual about their passionate hobby.
Monica Walsh, a 41-year-old wife and mother of a 2-year-old daughter from Orange County, N.Y., has one doll – "Hayden." And, yes, she told Lauer, she plays with her doll "the same way a man might make a big train station and play with his train station or play with his sports car, his boat or his motorcycle." Fran Sullivan, 62, lives in Florida and has never had children. She brought two reborns to New York, "Robin" and "Nicholas," and said she has a collection of more than 600 dolls of all kinds, including a number of reborn dolls.
Sullivan told Lauer she rotates her dolls, choosing a new one to care for each day depending on how she feels. She talks to them as she would to an infant, but said it’s really not all that strange.
"Children talk to their dolls, and they express their feelings toward their dolls," she told Lauer. "And as a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old woman, you do the same thing. You’re still the same person you were when you were an 8-year-old."
"I have a 2-year-old daughter. I don’t feel that way at all that it replaces her. It’s completely different having a real baby," Walsh explained. "But I think she’s going to love the fact that I play with dolls. How much fun is it going to be for her?"
"Baby Sara Louise," a "reborn" baby doll, sports eerily lifelike hair.
Lifelike features The vinyl dolls don’t just look exactly like real babies — they also feel real. Their bodies are stuffed and weighted to have the same heft and a similar feel to a live baby. Mohair is normally used for the hair and is rooted in the head strand by strand, a process that can take 30 hours. A magnet may be placed inside the mouth to hold a magnetic pacifier.
To add realism, some purchasers opt for a heartbeat and a device that makes the chest rise and fall to simulate breathing. The dolls are made individually by home-based artisans like Katsaris, who start with a vinyl form that is either purchased or made by the artisan. The remarkable degree of realism is achieved by dozens of layers of paint, beginning with tiny veins and mottled skin. Each layer of paint is baked on in an oven to make it permanent.
Dolls may be one of a kind, or one of a limited series made from the same mold. Some customers order special dolls that are exact replicas of their own children who died at birth or in infancy. These are individually made from hand-sculpted clay forms made from photographs of the child.
The customers are almost all women. Some buy them because they collect dolls. Others buy them as surrogates for children that were lost or have grown and left the home. Some women dress the dolls, wash their hair, take them for walks in strollers and take them shopping.
They won’t grow up One woman in the BBC documentary, married and in her 40s, said she wanted a real baby, but was too busy to commit to caring for a real one. A reborn doll satisfies her maternal instincts, she said, without all the carrying on and mess.
Reborns, she said, "never grow out of their clothes, never soil them. It's just fabulous. The only difference, of course, is these guys don't move." At least one nursing home in the United Kingdom makes dolls available to female residents, who become calmer and less disruptive when "caring" for their infants. Sue, a British woman profiled in the BBC America documentary, admires a "reborn" baby doll. The dolls have led to some misunderstandings. In the United States and other countries, police smashed the windows of a car to rescue "infants" that had been left in booster seats in parked cars.
Walsh is among those who straps hers into an infant’s seat when she takes it out in her car. "They’re expensive and you gotta protect them. They’re valuable."
She added that she also may put her doll in a stroller when she’s with her daughter – "for fun."
Katsaris takes hers out in stroller, but for a different reason: to show them off to potential buyers. Sullivan said she doesn’t take her dolls out in public except to transport them to doll shows. But, she added, when she gets a new one, she shows it off.
"I take my dolls across the street every time I get a new one and show them off to my neighbors," she told Lauer. "I love to hear them say, 'Oh, that is such a beautiful doll! It’s such a beautiful baby!' "
Sullivan said she, too, talks to her dolls, but she does not carry on conversations with them. Walsh said her husband doesn’t think it strange that his wife plays with dolls. "He likes them too," she said. "He says when he holds the baby it makes him feel good. It reminds him of the day his daughter was born. Everybody likes to hold a baby. It makes you feel at peace. It makes you feel calm."
None of the women apologized for their love of reborn dolls or felt they were doing anything that is unhealthy. "I don’t really worry too much about what people think about me," Walsh said. "I just try to make myself happy, and it makes me happy to collect dolls. I feel like a little girl that just never stopped loving dolls."
By Mike Celizic
updated 10:00 a.m. ET Oct. 1, 2008