Enter Instagram's uncanny valley of the dolls

Meet the tribe of Southeast Asian doll collectors turning a line of Jason Wu toys into an online phenomenon

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Paris In BKK via Flickr

@chocho_dolls came into my life like most of my Instagram friends do: he once stumbled on to my profile, liked a couple of photos and left. When I first clicked on his profile to see who he was, little did I know that I was at the doorstep of a well-knit online community – one as interesting as bronies or Fitblr, if not more.

Anyone who came of age in the 90s is no stranger to non-Barbie dolls that dwell on female glamour. Remember the fairly convincing Doll Spices from back in the days of Spice Girls? Even TLC were immortalised in their space-goth outfits from the "No Scrubs" music video. Actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker have dolls modeled after them; there are even some DIY home-brewed Carrie Bradshaws on Flickr. 

But Chocho is different. The dolls on the Bangkok-based collector's profile – named Fashion Royalty Dolls, I’d later learn – are similar to Barbie, but not quite. When it comes to femininity (or rather, hyper-femininity), FR Dolls easily overtake good old Barbara.

With their Kardashian manes, Miami club-ready make-up and easy-to-position ball-joints, Fashion Royalty is massive in Southeast Asia. Most collectors are based in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, although manufacturers Integrity Toys are quick to state on their website that the line has "made its way into the collections of even the most discriminating doll collectors worldwide".

More than a decade into its existence, a whole quasi-industry has sprung up around the Fashion Royalty doll. Some people call themselves as doll fashion photographers; others are more invested in designing clothes, be it original designs or exact replicas of last season Elie Saab gowns. Enthusiasts offer hair and make-up services, and share doll beauty tips. There are beauty pageants, conventions, fanfiction, and obviously, online blog communities.

These collectors themselves define their dolls through fashion more than anything else. They may have a point: the line was originally created by Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu back in 2000. At the time, it claimed to “celebrate the glamour and excitement of the fashion industry” with “couture-quality garments”.

Each different character – Isha, Vanessa, and Agnes to name a few – has a Real Housewives-esque backstory: a factory bio that often details the feuds between warring dolls as well as their career aspirations, love interests and fondness of “gorgeous frilly things and power”. Wu has expressed his love of dolls before, and got his first break in fashion designing a RuPaul doll at the age of 21; he went on to create six doll versions for the drag queen and has collaborated with Colette and Bergdorf Goodman on limited edition dolls. 

Indonesian collector Leo Christian was first inspired by America's Next Top Model to photograph dolls (he proudly mentions that Tyra Banks now follows him on Instagram). The Jakarta-based fan, who describes himself as an artistic fashion photographer, has shot dolls since 2010.

Christian explains that his favourite thing about FR Dolls is their ability to pose just like real models. He shuffles through the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar for shoot inspirations; finding dolls on mock fashion and lifestyle magazine covers is not uncommon. 

"I treat my dolls as my daughters, and equally," he replies, when asked if he has any favourites. "I take photos of them all and try to make them look their best. That’s because they represent me, my art, my photography skills.”

But unlike the carefree childhood activity of playing with dolls, photographing them is no easy ask. Christian says it takes him up to two hours to do their hair, and anywhere between one and three hours to perfect the mise-en-scene before he even starts shooting. Then there's the actual photography process, selects and the editing process. 

Other doll collectors like Choncho make it a daily practice; he spends at least an hour shooting dolls every day. Flickr photographer Jacob Webb says that photographing one good image takes up to a day.

In between the time and effort doll owners put into producing photo shoots and the eye-popping sexualized narratives they stick faithfully to, the community surrounding FR Dolls is awe-inspiring, to say the least. Considering the number of adult collectors, do the dolls speak to something deeper in us beyond our preteen years, regardless of gender? Or are they simply a doll-enhanced form of male gratification? 

Despite the lack of androgynous, ambisexual fashion in the FR World (I’d kill for a Hood by Air doll, for instance) and their often perfectly put-together looks and poses, it's hard to miss the element of very personal identification involved in doll collecting.

The fans, mostly men in their twenties, put up photos of their dolls having a party on their own birthday. Declarations like "my dolls are my life" are common, while the comments under each Instagram photo blooms with compliments on how sexy each doll looks, and how beautiful the styling (or lack thereof) is. Many users simply ask where they can purchase the dolls.

Christian says he sometimes gets negative reactions for posting nude images of the dolls. "I try to picture the doll as art," he says, "not porn."

With almost 10,000 Instagram photos tagged #fashionroyalty, these dolls embody 21st century girl power: its users don't see themselves as neither fighting or serving the man, and their images are not degraded by the nudity or eroticism evolved. Rather, it's the royal right to be as half-naked and sexually provocative as wish – in plastic as well as in the flesh.

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