MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Move over Hello Kitty and Pokemon. The new pop culture craze from Japan is ball-jointed dolls, BJD's, as they're known to their human friends. In the past year, the number of Asian companies selling the dolls in the U.S. has quadrupled, with tens of millions of dollars in sales. But they're not child's play. As NPR's Nancy Mullane reports, the adults who collect these eerily life-like dolls are totally devoted.
NANCY MULLANE: The first time you see a ball-jointed doll is blink your eyes shocking. They're hand-sculpted, hand-painted, anatomically correct, and so realistic. They're perfectly human-looking, and the growing number of women who own them get together at conferences to share their love for BJD's.
Ms. JUDE WOLFF (BJD Enthusiast): I get really excited, you know, just to see other people. So when you go to conventions like this, you get really, really excited. Yeah.
MULLANE: Jude Wolfe and her mom, Char Southall, have just driven two hours to attend this, their first BJD convention. Now, they're in the lobby of San Francisco's Holiday Inn frantically changing their dolls out of their traveling clothes.
Ms. CHAR SOUTHALL (BJD Enthusiast): Yeah, 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 and when we go around then have a look at the different doll shops and see what they've got to sell. So that she can choose some more wigs and some more outfits and just look presentable.
MULLANE: Southall settles on a red and black striped hooded jacked and puts it on Soo Yun, her knee-high BJD.
Ms. SOUTHALL: The lovely thing about these dolls is that they are ball-jointed. They move at the feet, at the knees, at the waist, and then the wig comes off the doll.
MULLANE: When she changes her doll's straight black wig to a curly white one, Soo Yun looks completely different. No longer a Cher look alike, but a teenage Dolly Parton in hot pants.
Ms. SOUTHALL: She looks pretty now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MULLANE: And that's the beauty of owning a BJD. Owners can recreate a perfectly idealized version of themselves over and over again. Jennie O'Brien walks up holding Arabella Twig (ph), one of her eight BJD's. She says she loves being able to change everything about her dolls, their wigs, pants, feet, bust size, even their eyes.
Ms. JENNIE O'BRIEN (BJD Enthusiast): Eyes will bankrupt you. Eyes are anywhere from 30 to 100 dollars for nice eyes.
MULLANE: And having a doll to put the eyes in is even more expensive. People spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. Yanju Lim (ph) is foreign trade manager for Elf Doll, one of the larger manufacturers of BJD's in South Korea.
Ms. YANJU LIM (Foreign Trade Manager, Elf Doll): We are getting more retail in the United States and in Canada and the Germany, and really, everywhere.
MULLANE: And everywhere, it's an obsession. Jennifer Kohn Murtha is with the United Federation of Doll Collectors. When she starts talking about her ball-jointed doll, Kimora, it's as if she's talking about a child.
Ms. JENNIFER KOHN MURTHA (BJD Collector, United Federation of Doll Collectors): I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love, and I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist, who will take good care of her. And I've also ordered her a vampire I couldn't - I couldn't resist.
MULLANE: At the convention, BJD owners are shelling out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coat, black wrap-around pocket dresses, and garnet embedded jewelry for their dolls. Maggie Wagner is a psychotherapist and says she's crazy about her five BJDs, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Ms. MAGGIE WAGNER (Psychotherapist, BJD Collector): I'm 34 years old. I'm a grown woman, and I play with dolls. And it's OK to own it, you know? I'm all right with it.
MULLANE: There's another ball-jointed doll convention coming up later this month in Austin, Texas. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.
BLOCK: And you can find pictures of these hand-painted ball-jointed dolls at our website, npr.org.
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