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Photos: (Un)living dolls

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  1. Reborn again

    That silky hair … those delicate veins … at first glance, these sweetly sleeping, bonnet-and-bib clad infants could pass for the real thing. Called "reborn babies," the disconcertingly lifelike dolls are crafted in vinyl or made from a silicone material and have become popular acquisitions for doll collectors. The babies are also coveted by those who seek to fill a more emotional need: nostalgic grandparents, grieving parents, childless women. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Precision painting

    Reborners say that the hobby began in the early 1990s in the U.S., although it has now spread around the world. Artists would take old dolls apart, strip the paint off, and then repaint. Nowadays, people use doll kits to create one-of-a-kind dolls that run in the $400 to $600 range, but can cost up to $4,000. Here, Fountainhall, Scotland-based reborn artist Deborah King carefully paints the nails of one of her creations. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Doll parts

    Reborn dolls are painted several times to approximate the mottled appearance of newborn skin. The process starts with "veining," or painting the veins in before adding the flesh layers. After each coat of paint is applied, the doll has to be baked to make the color permanent. You might say the process gives new meaning to the phrase "one in the oven"… (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Baby hair

    To approximate the fine texture of infant tresses, artists use mohair for the dolls' hair and eyelashes, attaching every strand individually with a special needle. The body is made from soft cloth and is weighted to make it feel as heavy as a human baby. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Seeing double

    Reborn dolls are so lifelike that they are even used sometimes as body doubles on television programs. But the advantages to using the fake dolls are obvious: These tiny guest stars don't cry, soil their pants, or fuss when it comes time to get "dolled" up in the makeup room. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Buy, buy baby

    Some dolls' bodies can be fitted with electronic devices that mimic breathing and a heartbeat. Others are made with warming pouches so they feel warm when held. But the dolls remain a niche product, sold over the Internet rather than mass-produced for retail stores. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Making babies

    Reborn dolls are made and collected by an online community of enthusiasts. Here, Phoenix-based realtor, doll collector and reborn artist Lynn Katsaris poses with one of her creations. She has been making the dolls for the past nine years, and she says the hobby has evolved into a side business. (TODAY) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Forever young

    Doll collector Monica Walsh, 41, shown here with her doll Hayden, toldAOSFU98AQEWTASKFDNA0ADGAG2#@$A, "Buying these dolls is like buying a Michelangelo original painting. They are worth a lot because they are the customized, and there’s only one like it." Walsh says of her fellow doll collectors, "We never really grew up, and never stopped playing with dolls." (TODAY) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'My Fake Baby'

    Reborn dolls are the subject of a BBC documentary, "My Fake Baby," which profiles people (like the couple here) who have incorporated the dolls into their lives. Reactions to this behavior are mixed: While some people consider them to be works of art, or believe in their ability to provide "cuddle therapy" or to fill an emotional void, others find them creepy, unnatural or even morbid. (BBC America) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rockabye 'baby'

    Sue, another woman profiled in the BBC documentary, is shown here watching over her reborn baby. (BBC America) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Baby Lauren

    She looks real, but Lauren is a "reborn" baby doll, as are all of the "babies" you'll see on the following nine slides. All were crafted by artist Deborah King in her home near Edinburgh, Scotland. King sells the dolls on eBay and maintains a gallery of her creations on her Web site, reborn-baby.com. (Courtesy of Deborah King) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Baby Natasha

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Baby Sara Louise

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Baby Katie

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Baby Abigail

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Baby Ellen

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fairy Baby Bramble

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Baby Helena

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Baby Joshua

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Baby Summer

    (Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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TODAY contributor
updated 10/1/2008 10:00:54 AM ET 2008-10-01T14:00:54

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.

Image: A "reborn" baby
Courtesy of Deborah King /www.re
"Baby Sara Louise," a "reborn" baby doll, sports eerily lifelike hair.
“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?”

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.

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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.

Image: Parts of dolls and paints to use on them are displayed on a table
David Moir  /  Reuters
Parts of dolls and paints to use on them at the home of "Reborn Baby" artist Deborah King at her home in Scotland.
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.

Image: Sue watches over "reborn"
True North / BBC AMERICA
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!’ ”

Slideshow: (Un)living dolls (on this page) 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.”

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