The Secret World of Men Who Dress Like Dolls
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.