Anatomically Incorrect

Annie Neeley is a former Rochester courtroom sketcher and police composite artist now living in Florida. She’s been working on this one guy for quite some time. When she met him, he was attractive enough, but hardly dream man material… more of a fixer-upper, really. At first sight, Annie knew she was up to the task. A few short months later, he’s romantic, sexy, and almost the spitting image of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. And now that she’s got him just as she wants him, she’ll do the same thing she did to all her dream men before: Auction him off on eBay for around $1,500.

“Jack the Pirate” is fifteen glorious inches of fashion-doll makeover, and Annie Neeley is one of a growing number of doll artists making a healthy income selling One of a Kind (OOAK) repainted dolls.

OOAK repaints are commercially purchased dolls—Barbie, Bratz, Gene, and so on—that get stripped of their original paint and costuming and completely made over. While she was working in the Rochester transit system, Neeley was a collector of regular dolls when she stumbled into the world of artful reconstruction. “I saw the repaints for sale on eBay and I thought ‘I can do this, and I can do it better,’” she told me.

It’s something like cosmetic surgery for dolls. The procedure may include erasing the doll’s facial features with nail-polish remover and repainting her face; taking her head off and removing her hair in order to re-root a different ’do; straightening bent arms or bending straight ones by making an incision in the arm with a razor blade, boiling the arm in water to soften the plastic, arranging the limb to the desired position, and then filling in the cut with putty; or using putty to augment facial features. Perhaps the most disturbing of the makeover processes is the “boil perm,” in which a doll’s hair is set by boiling her head.

DIY plastic surgeons find help and solace in the work of Jim Faraone. He is the co-chair of the International Fashion Doll Convention, an organization that sponsors a contest and maintains an email list dedicated to repainting techniques. Do you need to know how to rethread Barbie’s hair? Detach her head, and use a piece of wire as a needle. If the wire gets lost in there, you can use a crochet hook to retrieve it. “The wire held up well and it only took me about three Star Trek episodes to reroot the whole head,” wrote Laurie Samford. Several books have also been published that compile this wealth of information.

There is a brisk market for remade dolls. “I’d venture to say there are twenty-five to thirty repaint artists on eBay who do this,” Neeley explained. “And there are probably ten of us that do the best and have the top sales. There’s a little niche of very wealthy ladies who collect these dolls, and they will fight each other tooth-and-nail for them. Sometimes I think it’s a gambling thing.”

In other words, this can be not only a spendy habit, but a highly addictive one. Neeley slyly confides that she has one repeat client who has sixty of her dolls stashed in her bedroom closet, while a special doll showroom is being added on to her house.—Sarah Sawyer