Normally reserved for private play, these high-end, anatomically correct dolls are getting big-screen exposure with the recent release of "Lars and the Real Girl," an offbeat, surprisingly chaste comedy about a lonely introvert (Ryan Gosling) and Bianca, the silicone object of his affection.
Bianca, a freckle-nosed brunette, was born just east of San Diego at Abyss Creations. The 11-year-old company that makes RealDolls will ship 400 dolls to the U.S. and abroad this year - at upward of $6,500 (4,550 EUR) each.
RealDolls can be actresses, lovers, photo subjects or companions. Customers can choose from 10 body types, 16 faces and 17 hairstyles to create their dream girl. They specify skin tone, hair and eye color, makeup palette and nail-polish shade. The dolls have interchangeable faces ($500;350 each EUR), so with the pull of some Velcro and the flip of a wig, she's like a whole new gal.
They're made from soft silicone that takes two days to cure to a somewhat flesh-like feel. With jointed skeletons they're entirely poseable - "They move in the same places people move," company spokeswoman Bronwen Keller says - but they can't stand up on their own. They range in height from 4'10" to 5'7" and weigh 75 to 115 pounds. There is also a male doll, "Charlie," who stands 5'8" and weighs 130 pounds.
The artists who spend about 80 hours crafting each doll all started out in the Halloween industry, says creative director and chief executive officer Matt Krivicke, 36. Before working with RealDoll, he made Halloween masks. (O.J. Simpson was his most popular.)
For many doll owners, and for Gosling's character in the film, the dolls are more like companions, each with her own personality and presence.
"She looks like a person," says Rob McKay, 55, a writer who owns two dolls, Lily and Eden. "Even though she's not a breathing person, psychologically you feel like someone is with you. They're like a balm for loneliness or aloneness."
McKay and other doll owners, who share their stories and photos online at DollForum.com, compare the life-size ladies to "teddy bears for adults."
"That's where she's done the most good, reducing the feeling of solitude," McKay says, adding that he prefers intimacy with a live partner but hasn't had a girlfriend since 2001. "Just having her there to hug or just to have somebody close by, even though it's not, obviously, a warm body."
A member of DollForum.com who goes by the name Doll Luvr says his doll "is far more than just an expensive sex toy."
"She sleeps with me, watches TV with me, sits at the table and has coffee with me," he writes. "Just having a female shape laying next to me in bed is very comforting."
Gosling's character gets emotional, but never physical, with Bianca. But whereas Lars is delusional and believes the doll is alive, most doll owners "know where to draw the line," McKay says.
The dolls "inspire imagination," he says. "You put what you think into the doll, so you're projecting part of yourself onto this inanimate creature and making her seem more lifelike."
Stacy Leigh, 36, a married photographer who lives in New York, uses her two RealDolls as photo subjects. Both are petite and "could fit in all my clothing, same shoe size and everything," she says, noting that one doll has a more curvaceous figure. ("The one with the big boobs is the sluttier of the two," she says.) Leigh owns six faces and more than 30 wigs and divides her time between shooting real models and shooting the dolls. She staunchly defends her fellow doll owners.
"Most guys just need it because they just want to feel somebody in the bed next to them, even though it's not a real person," she says. "I feel bad for those guys."
Doll owners tend to be "older men with disposable income," Keller says, adding that the dolls are also popular with couples and artists. RealDolls have been used in movies, music videos and by a forensic studies program as models in sex-crime scenarios, Keller says.
Chicago-based artist Amber Hawk Swanson had a doll made in her exact likeness as part of a multimedia art project. The 27-year-old says she didn't anticipate the relationship she would form with Amber Doll.
During the nine months it took for her doll to arrive, "I really did picture her as real," Swanson says. "Not that I imagined her walking around my house, but I just couldn't wait. I just imagined cuddling up with her."
Swanson is continuing her art project, but she now has a live romantic partner who's "thankful that I've moved past the time when I pictured my life with this doll and not with a human."
She says doll owners can identify with "Lars and the Real Girl," which she describes as "a movie starring a RealDoll that's true to the way many people interact with their dolls : in a partnership way."