'People don't get it': inside the world of hyper-realistic baby doll collecting

Kelli Korducki

I’m not sure what I expected a collector of hyper-realistic baby dolls to look like, but Kellie Eldred-Smith isn’t it. On the frigid midwinter morning that I arrive at her Ithaca, New York, home, she greets me brightly in leggings and a cropped sweatshirt branded with the logo of a local Pilates studio. Her ink-black hair is pulled into a pert bun behind the most perfectly straight bangs I’ve ever seen. She just finished working out, she tells me, as she leads me past her husband and a trio of friendly spaniels into a spotless kitchen. A squeaky toy appears at my feet; its four-legged owner barks for a reaction.

“Please,” Eldred-Smith scolds the spaniel. To me, apologetically, she says: “She’s just a little crazy.”

“A little crazy” is the same way Eldred-Smith describes the vast network of doll buyers, sellers, creators and collectors she belongs to. From Sydney to Manchester, Tokyo to San Jose, its members spend upwards of $20,000 for one doll to add to their nurseries. Some of these collectors, like Eldred-Smith, have children of their own; many don’t. Most are women. They meet in web forums and on Facebook, through YouTube channels and, of course, in the niche online marketplaces of Etsy and eBay.

It was on eBay, way back in 1999, that Eldred-Smith found the doll that would change her life. Stripped of its factory-made features, this doll had been remodeled by an artist – or, in the parlance of collectors, reborn – to better resemble an actual infant. Its torso had been weighted with flour; Crayola box approximations of flesh tones were painted over in the bruised pulp palate of living human skin. In the shape of its eyes, the doll bore a striking resemblance to Eldred-Smith’s daughter Lexi as a baby.

“I’d never seen or heard of anything like it,” she recalls. Though she agonized over its $100 price tag, she couldn’t get the doll out of her head. While she’s bought and sold dozens of other reborns since, she still has her first.

In the more than two decades since Eldred-Smith discovered these dolls, the rise of social media has expanded the number of worldwide collectors by an order of magnitude. Today, more than 30,000 people subscribe to her YouTube channel, where videos of her cuddling, changing and talking about dolls have amassed more than 14,450,000 views.

The proliferation of these lifelike dolls has led to innovations in the dolls’ creation. Many of the latest dolls are custom-shaped from proprietary silicone blends and poured into molds that, in some instances, have been sculpted in the likeness of real newborns. The current star of Eldred-Smith’s YouTube channel, a reborn named Monroe, was made by a husband and wife team of dollmakers whose unique silicone feels remarkably like skin to the touch.

“See how, if you press down on her arm, it takes a second for the skin to settle?” asks Eldred-Smith. I press, gently, to feel the skin yield beneath my fingertips. Squeezy, I think. Like a memory foam stress ball. Like a fat baby’s face.

Monroe is one of two dolls currently on display in the powder pink nursery where Eldred-Smith shoots her videos (she now has some misgivings about the color choice; “It doesn’t always film too well,” she admits). There’s a rocking chair and a crib, a changing table and a dresser. Scallop-collared ensembles by the French children’s clothier Jacadi hang on tiny hangers. When I timidly ask about a baby bottle –white with what appears to be formula – perched alongside a tube of diaper ointment and talc, I’m assured that they’re all just props. “There are collectors that love to role-play,” she says. “I’m not that collector.”

Deeply entrenched as she is in the online spaces, this is a hobby she keeps mostly to herself offline. She doesn’t take the dolls out in public, like some collectors do. And, though she says her two adult daughters aren’t fussed by her collecting – she’s been into the hobby for most of their lives – her husband will occasionally let slip a derisive remark during disagreements.

“Because of the hobby, and the misunderstanding, not really getting why we love the hobby so much, I think it’s hard for family members at times and it becomes an easy target,” says Eldred-Smith in a 2019 video. Coping with outside judgment is a recurring topic on her YouTube channel, and one that’s echoed by other doll creators and collectors online.

By and large, however, Eldred-Smith thinks that finger-pointing from outsiders may have waned in recent years. If nothing else, the community’s increased exposure on social media has made more people familiar with it. But Eldred-Smith can’t imagine a future in which her hobby is accepted by the mainstream.

“Trying to explain to a non-doll collector this emotional attachment to an inanimate object, people don’t get it,” she says in one of her YouTube videos. Its title: “Why Our Hobby Isn’t Mainstream”.

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What are we to make of grown women playing mommy with these dolls?

It’s a question that Emilie St Hilaire, a humanities PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, has spent the last three years looking into. Her research concerns the “queer and uncanny” aspects of reborns as a subcultural phenomenon. She’s especially interested in the questions the hobby raises around non-reproductive mothering, adult modes of play and, concurrently, relationships with non-human surrogates. This means she often bumps up against the widely held assumption that reborn collectors are substituting dolls for children. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the hobby that belies deep-seated beliefs about a woman’s role in society.

“If you really try to unpack why a childless woman, particularly one who has something that looks like a fake baby, is threatening, then we start to get to what we see as the role of women: a successful woman is a successful mother,” she says.

St Hilaire points out that, of the dozens of reborn collectors that she’s surveyed worldwide, none think of their dolls as “real” babies. (And, contrary to what many assume about collectors, she estimates that half of them already have children of their own.) Instead, St Hilaire has observed that the dolls tend to satisfy an imaginative itch in collectors, whether they’re making reborns from kits and online tutorials or merely choosing how to dress them. In her view, the dolls aren’t child substitutes so much as companionate props in something like a large-scale roleplaying game.

“It doesn’t make me want to have babies, at all,” says Stephanie Ortiz, a maker and collector in her mid-30s. She and her wife Nicki ship the reborns they create in their Fresno, California, kitchen – where doll arms, legs and heads of all hues hang on the walls like surrealist cabinetry – to buyers in the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada and New Zealand. The YouTube channels where they show off their wares have about 400,000 subscribers altogether.

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With her forthcoming manner and faux-hawk, Ortiz describes herself as a lifelong tomboy. But for as long as she can remember, she’s had a fascination with dolls. “I remember when I was a kid, I just wanted the most realistic baby [doll] I could have,” she recalls. “Even as I was beating up my cousins who were boys.” To her, the dolls are about indulging her inner child and having fun; kids are a responsibility. As she wryly points out, a doll “doesn’t turn into a teenager who wants an iPhone 11”.

St Hilaire has found that some collectors get a kick from bringing their dolls into public spaces and watching strangers mistake them for real babies. “It’s like having a secret,” she says.

Recent pop cultural depictions tell a different story. An episode of the HBO series High Maintenance chronicles a woman’s descent into quasi-maternal delusion after buying a silicone reborn she names “Baby Nico” and whose care and companionship become increasingly central to her life (to the chagrin of her baffled, yet supportive, husband). She changes the doll’s diapers, talks to it, takes it out. When the woman and her husband forget Baby Nico’s stroller outside a hardware store, its dollness gets a heartbreaking and very public reveal – and becomes a proxy for the woman’s unspoken loss and regret.

The new Apple TV+ series Servant serves up a much less oblique indictment of reborn collectors’ psychological states. In it, a couple take in a doll they name Jericho and treat as a human baby, replete with a mysterious live-in nanny. Turns out – spoiler alert – that the couple is mourning the recent death of their actual baby (also named Jericho), and the doll is the bereft mother’s only guard against a grief-induced state of catatonia.

Though the fake baby trope is wildly misleading, it’s true that reborn collectors don’t see their reborns as merely toys. Most, says St Hilaire, echo Eldred-Smith’s emotional attachment to their dolls. St Hilaire describes this dynamic as “a kind of synthetic relationship”.

Lucenda Plancarte and her husband sit with their reborn doll, Joseph. Photograph: Daniel Hollis / The Guardian

“The feeling that you get from that,” she says, “isn’t so different from a real relationship”– that is, one with a human counterpart. Across social media, collectors speak openly of the special bond one can develop with certain reborns, as well as the grieving period that sometimes follows once a doll is let go (as with many collecting hobbies, reborns are commonly bought then sold or swapped out, changing hands within the community). In reborn relationships, St Hilaire sees promising implications for the future of artificial intelligence and forms of non-human or humanoid companionship.

Then, there’s the biological response that’s triggered when handling a realistically proportioned, lifelike baby doll. Studies suggest that doll therapy can reinforce feelings of attachment and emotional wellbeing in some patients with dementia. Many reborn collectors similarly point to the therapeutic benefits of their dolls for managing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

“There’s comfort in cuddling and physically holding something that feels like a baby, even though it’s not a baby,” says St Hilaire. “It can release some of the same endorphins.”

For Lucenda Plancarte, who is a friend of Ortiz and a reborn collector in her early 30s, the hobby’s therapeutic benefits are twofold.

“I have polycystic ovarian syndrome and stage four endometriosis,” she explains from her home in Compton, California. “And I’ve been proven infertile. I’ve already had multiple treatments, surgeries, seen different doctors. [Having children is] just not in my cards.”

Stripped of her plans for biological motherhood, Plancarte fell into a deep depression. She couldn’t walk past the baby departments of her local Target and Walmart without being reminded of her unlucky draw. But, as fate would have it, a solution emerged in 2012. And in an unexpected place: An episode of the TLC reality series My Strange Addiction. The show had featured a reborn collector; Plancarte says she was “intrigued”. It was her husband’s idea that she buy one for herself, despite the $120 price tag.

“Then she arrived, and it was the most magical experience ever,” says Plancarte. “I was in love. It was amazing. I was like, how in the world have I never owned a reborn before? And it gave me a sense of purpose.”

Plancarte loves being able to shop for her dolls in the same baby departments that were once a reminder of the things she was missing out on. Caring for them, she says, is a “coping mechanism”.

Plancarte knows she’s risking confrontation when she takes her dolls out in public. “It comes with the territory,” she says. When people ask questions, she answers: the dolls are objects of art, and they make her feel good. They’re not replacements for children.

“Right now, fostering and adoption – it’s not the right time for me,” she says. “And when it is, then I’ll pursue that path. But right now, my path is collecting reborns, minding my own business, and sharing it with the world on Instagram and YouTube.”