A doll awaits presentation at Dollectable.
A doll awaits presentation at Dollectable. Nancy Mullane/NPR
A little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll: Doll enthusiast Char Southall changes the look of Soo Yun (pictured above) with different wigs and outfits.
A little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll: Doll enthusiast Char Southall changes the look of Soo Yun (pictured above) with different wigs and outfits. Nancy Mullane/NPR
A vendor display at Dollectable features BJDs trying on clothes.
A vendor display at Dollectable features BJDs trying on clothes. Nancy Mullane/NPR
Move over, Hello Kitty, Pokemon and manga. Make room for the new pop culture craze from Japan: ball-jointed dolls, also known as BJDs.
Already huge in Japan and South Korea, these hand-sculpted, hand-painted, anatomically correct and eerily lifelike dolls are gaining popularity with American enthusiasts. In the past year, the number of Asian companies selling the dolls in the U.S. jumped from 25 to more than 150, with tens of millions of dollars in sales and a side industry of doll conferences.
The conferences attract doll fans like Jude Wolff and her mother, Char Southall, who recently drove two hours from Sacramento to San Francisco to attend their first BJD convention, Dollectable.
"I'm actually dressing my doll just so that she's going to look OK when I take her downstairs to meet all the other dolls," explains Southall as she selects an outfit for Soo Yun, her knee-high BJD. "When we go around and look at the different doll shops to see what they have to sell, she can choose some more wigs and more outfits so she can look presentable."
Southall settles on a red-and-black-striped hooded jacket for Soo Yun and replaces the doll's straight black wig with a curly white one. Suddenly Soo Yun looks completely different: No longer a Cher look-alike, now she's a teenage Dolly Parton in hot pants.
That's the beauty of owning a BJD; because they are so customizable, owners can re-create a perfectly idealized version of themselves over and over again.
Jennie O'Brien, who has eight BJDs, says she loves being able to change everything about her dolls, including the wigs, hands, feet, bust size — even their eyes. But this level of customization comes with a price:
"Eyes will bankrupt you," says O'Brien. "Eyes are anywhere from $30 to $100."
Nor are the dolls themselves cheap: People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.
For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:
"I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love," she says. "I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I've also ordered a vampire for her ... I couldn't resist."