the secrets of the living dolls
Female maskers are men who dress up in complex rubber suits to turn themselves into living dolls. Unlike other shaded subcultures, this has less to do with fetish and is centred more on expression of beauty.
The 'dolls' are extremely passionate and take immense pride in this all-consuming hobby, but for most of them it has been a side kept hidden… until now. Director Nick Sweeney and producer Luke Malone scoured the world, meeting these unique characters for the upcoming Channel 4 documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls. From 70-year-old Robert, who lives with his teenage daughter and masquerades as 'Sherry' behind closed doors; to FemSkin, the family owned company who manufacture this ultra-lightweight body suit, Sweeney and Malone shine a light on this colourful community.
So Nick, how did you first come across female masking?
Years ago, a good friend showed me the most incredible YouTube video of a masker named 'Julie'. When I told her a few years later that we were making a documentary about it, she claimed to have no idea what I was talking about. So, I don't actually know.
What prompted you to make a documentary about it?
The producer, Luke, had been working on a print story about masking but soon realized it would be better told visually. I'd been talking to a British production company - Firecracker Films - for some time about a completely different project. Luke and I took female masking to them and they were utterly captivated, as were Channel 4, who have a history documenting subcultures. It's a never-before-seen-world with incredible human stories behind it. To show an audience something for the very first time is a real privilege. Masking is also visually striking, and with part of my background being fashion film (including a recent one featuring i-D covergirl Grace Bol) the dress up and beauty elements were exciting to document.
Most of the dolls are heterosexual. Do you think sexuality plays a part in this at all?
All of the maskers featured in the documentary have female partners or kids - six daughters in one case. Sexuality plays some part, but I wouldn't call masking a "fetish", nor "gay" - two common misconceptions.
If it's not a sexual/fetish thing, what do you attribute female masking to?
I think it springs from a desire to be "perfect", to have the "ideal form". It's about the pursuit of beauty. And identity. According to the dolls, it's a lot of fun too. There's a huge community of female masking admirers out there, so there is an attention seeker element as well.
You've travelled around the world meeting some of these dolls. Apart from female masking, what do they all have in common?
They all spend an enormous amount of time and money becoming dolls, and are all very passionate about it.
What's the craziest thing you saw when filming this documentary?
There was something so incredibly crazy and shocking that we weren't even able to include it in the TV cut. It's something called a "saline infusion", and it's going to be a web-extra on the Channel 4 site. I've watched it hundreds of times now, and it still makes my jaw drop.
Luke, who was the most memorable doll and why?
You know how people say everyone is unique in their own way? This couldn't be truer of the dolls. Though Sherry is a definite standout. He's fun to be around, but it also stems from the fact that he lives with his daughter who, when we first started, had no idea about his masking. He came out to her during the course of production and it was genuinely heartwarming to see her react so positively to it.
I heard you went to a convention where they all got together. What was that like?
They were incredibly gracious in letting us crash their event. You've got to remember that for many of them it's still a hidden part of their lives, so to witness the sheer joy these guys were experiencing was contagious. It was especially fun heading out to a club with them all and watching the public's collective head explode. Nick and I kept saying to each other, "I can't believe this is our job."
What's the reaction from the community towards these dolls?
Mainly curious. At first people stand back and size them up, trying to figure out what's going on. Then they rush them; many a fake boob is squeezed when you're out with a doll in public.
Is this still a secret for most of the dolls or do their families/friends accept it?
It's a mixed bag. Though it skews more towards hidden. One of our contributors, Jennifer, however is totally open. Even with some of the guys at the factory where he drives a forklift. One of the guys from the UK actually comes out to his friends in the documentary. It's a pretty special moment.
Tell us a bit about Femskin and the family that make this product.
It's a female bodysuit you wear like a second skin. It's the brainchild of Chuck Ramos, who passed away a few years ago. His wife, Barbie, and their sons continued on with the family business as a way to honour his memory. It's more than a business for them, and they take pride in the fact that their product makes a big difference in the lives of their customers. How many of us can say that about our work?
At any point, did you think this is something you could get into? Or were you very much observing as an outsider?
I get kind of claustrophobic, so it's nothing I could take on full-time, even if I wanted to.
Do you see this subculture permeating the mainstream in the future?
Well, Steven Meisel shot Carolyn Murphy in a female mask for a Vogue Italia cover a couple of years ago, and a very female masking-looking mask was worn by actress Jamie Brewer in the Halloween episode of American Horror Story. But our documentary takes things to a whole new level. I don't think we're going to see scores of dolls flooding the streets, but we hope it will give some of the more isolated maskers the knowledge that they are not alone - not to mention provide fodder for excellent costume ideas.
Secrets of the Living Dolls airs on Channel 4 in the UK, Monday 6th January at 10pm.
Text Paul Bui
Photography Richard Ansett