It began with the filmmakers stumbling upon a Youtube clip of a woman named Julie. In the video, the Jocelyn Wildenstein look-alike complains about spending “another long day in a wig and a girdle”. The 30-second clip was grainy and almost unremarkable, until we see her pulling off what looks like a heavily Botoxed face from her jaw. Julie, as it turns out, is a man in a female mask.
This video became a seed for what would eventually turn into a captivating documentary project, The Secrets of the Living Dolls, which recently aired in the UK. In it, producer Luke Malone and director Nick Sweeney follow the lives of maskers, also known as 'living dolls', who are part of a hidden community of seemingly ordinary men dressed up in elaborate rubber suits as their ‘ideal fantasy women’.
Unlike transgender people, maskers do not necessarily identify as a different sex. Nor is their motivation always sexual. In fact, many see masking as a form of ‘escapism’ or just “a way to have fun”.
Maskers, by definition, are experts at obscuring their identities. But it’s not just in the silicone and latex masks that they achieve this, many of the men involved in this subculture hide the very fact of their masking from employers, friends and family. This doesn’t seem to be born so much out of shame as the worry that they’ll be held up to ridicule, or worse – alienation from loved ones.
There is an unexpected beauty and art to what these men are doing. Because maskers spend so much time and money on their masks, bodysuits (also known as Femksins) and outfits, the scene is evolving very quickly. Already, there is a whole body of codes and rules that address the unique challenges that maskers face.
Interestingly, it turns out that there isn’t a universal reason why some men become maskers. In fact, the social platform maskers use to communicate, Dolls Pride has upwards of 10,000 members who come from all walks of life. This diversity extends to the multitude of reasons men get into masking. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only common thread these guys share is a passionate dedication to their pastime.
Robert, 70, who dresses up as 40-year-old Sherry, is a divorced father of two who uses ‘masking’ as a way to fill his need for female companionship. Though it also runs a little deeper, with Robert saying he sees himself fitting somewhere along the trans spectrum.
Coming into cross-dressing late in life, he says he feels that he missed out on the opportunity to be a young, beautiful woman and grew increasingly frustrated that he “looked like an old man in a wig.” He was almost ready to pack it in altogether when he came across masking, which allows him to recapture a sort of feminine youth that he was never afforded before. He now spends his days dressing up as Sherry in the privacy of his Californian home and takes highly elaborate photo sets that he shares with his online fans.
Then there are those who are completely open about their masking hobby. 44 year-old forklift operator Jon, whose doll name is Jennifer, heads up Rubberdoll World Rendezvous in Minneapolis — an annual meet-up of dolls from around the U.S. As a family man with six daughters, his wife and girls are largely supportive of the fact that he dresses up to emulate the swimsuit models he idolised as a teen. “This does reflect my relationships, because I make my priorities and sometimes other people are not happy about my choices.”
By contrast, Rubberdoll World co-founder Vanessa lives a life in the shadows. His wife knows but prefers not to get involved and he has, for now, chosen to keep it a secret from his six children. Ironically, he sees masking as a way to become more ‘visible’. “You become one of the beautiful people and you draw a lot of attention,” says Vanessa, “And attention is not something I’ve had a lot of growing up and getting to the age I’m at.”
Whatever their reason for slipping on a female mask, one thing is clear about the living doll subculture. Far from the “freak” label many maskers are afraid of being saddled with, they are a community of men who manage to tread the line between being unexpectedly pedestrian and utterly fascinating. “They’re just like what they call “vanilla people”, says Barbie Ramos, the owner of body suit makers Femskin, “That’s you and me - except for at night or on special occasions, they like to put on a mask. Why not?”
Secrets of the Living Dolls airs on Friday February 28 at 9.30pm, on ABC 2.