Personalized Playmates

Published Dec. 20, 1995|Updated Oct. 5, 2005

Just call them The Stepford Dolls.

They look like you. They dress like you.

They have the same hair color, the same skin tone.

If you have a spray of freckles across your nose, so does she. A teeny-weeny mole? So does she.

And should you wear glasses, she will too, staring out at the world through unblinking eyes.

Holiday Barbie may be this season's hottest, hard-to-find mass appeal toy, but for a bevy of toymakers, Barbie's perfected sameness is just too dull.

For them, there's dollars in diversity.

Highly customized dolls _ some created from an extensive description of your child; others using an actual photo printed onto a canvas "face" _ are boasting booming orders this holiday season.

"We've been inundated," said a rushed Jeanette Rivera of the Flagship Group, which makes My Twinn, a line of handmade, hand-painted, time-intensive dolls.

After Flagship placed an advertisement in People magazine, the small company in Colorado began receiving more than 2,000 orders a day for the $135.95 version of the doll, which comes with a special holiday dress. Each customized doll is based on a photograph of the child who will receive it and a 10-point profile that asks for details such as birthmarks, freckles and hair texture.

The company was so swamped by its first nationwide campaign that it stopped taking orders Dec. 8.

"All we're doing right now is concentrating on filling the orders we have," Rivera said.

Pleasant Company is reporting a similar sales boost in its new American Girl of Today collection. Known for its line of historical dolls, books and accessories, the large Wisconsin toymaker decided last year to launch a "contemporary girl."

"But the problem with a "contemporary girl' is how do you decide what is contemporary?" said Julia Prohaska, public affairs manager.

Instead of coming up with one doll with a predetermined hair, skin and eye color, the company decided on 20 dolls, all with different looks, including African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American dolls. It also offers several light-skinned dolls, with different hair and eye color combinations.

And as with My Twinn, a steep price tag hasn't deterred sales: American Girls are $89 each. Prohaska wouldn't give exact figures but said the new line sold "twice as many as we expected." Many were sold out by early December _ the Asian doll was especially popular _ and were placed on back order.

At $19.95, Make Your Own Doll by Toys to Grow On is one of the cheapest of the new dolls, but also one of the most challenging. The doll's soft cloth body and clothes are blank, and the child creates her own likeness with markers, buttons, bows and yarn for hair.

Two other companies, PhotoPals and Forever Yours Baby, sell dolls that have a photo of the child for the doll's face.

"We are concerned about children's values," said Erica Hall of Toys to Grow On. "We are very conscious of bias. These dolls help children be aware of her own uniqueness."

Marisa Gordon, an analyst with the Toy Manufacturers of America, said that for years toymakers have been working to develop more diverse dolls. Cabbage Patch dolls may have spurred the latest trend of individualization since children could choose their Cabbage Patch doll's features, outfits, hair, eye color and name.

"There has been an awareness and, yes, criticism that children were not playing with dolls that looked like them," she said. African-American dolls often have had distinctly Caucasian features. Asian dolls have been hard to find.

"What you want to do is foster self-esteem," Gordon said. "Wouldn't you love you have a doll that looks like you?"

Ellen Kimmel, a psychologist who chairs the Department of Psychological and Social Foundation at the University of South Florida, isn't so sure.

She said diversity, as in the American Girl dolls, is very positive. But extreme customization, as in My Twinn or dolls with photo-faces, is gimmickry.

"I think it's designed to get more money from parents," Kimmel said. "I don't think you have to look at a doll to know who you are."

If off-the-rack won't do

Here are some toy companies that sell personalized dolls. It's too late to order for Christmas, but each company said it would issue a gift certificate with a catalog for an under-the-tree treat.

My Twinn by Flagship Group, Englewood, Colo.: Call (800) 4-My-Twin or (800) 469-8946. These 23-inch dolls are based on a 10-point profile and picture of your child. $119.95 for a doll in a casual outfit; $135.95 for the holiday edition. Add postage and handling for each. For an additional $30 to $40, the child can get a dress to match her doll's.

The American Girl of Today by Pleasant Company, Middleton, Wis.: Call (800) 845-0005. Choose from 20 dolls with different hair, skin and eye colors and ethnic features. The 18-inch doll comes with six blank books so a child can write her own stories. $82 plus postage and handling.

Make Your Own Doll! by Toys to Grow On, Long Beach, Calif.: Call (800) 542-8338 for a complete kit to make a 15-inch soft canvas doll. The doll comes pre-sewn, but children and helpers make the hair and decorate an outfit with fabric markers, beads, buttons and four colors of yarn. Appropriate for girls 6 and older, but the younger children will need help putting the pieces together. Three skin tones to choose from. $19.95, plus postage and handling.

Forever Yours Baby by Joy Hinkley, Spring Hill, Kan.: Write to the company at 507 N Webster, Spring Hill, KS 66083. A 19-inch baby doll dressed in a sleeper outfit will have your child (or your!) photo image printed where the face is. The price is $79.95, but write for a catalog first.

Baby PhotoPal by PhotoPals, Solano Beach, CA.: Call (619) 259-8690. The Photo-Pal line of dolls ranges from 16 inches to almost 6 feet. All the dolls are hand-sewn and dressed. A baby doll, with a photo imprinted on the face, costs $45 and is dressed in a gown.


Some of the 20 dolls offered by American Girl of Today.

Dark skin, textured black hair, dark brown eyes.

Light skin, blonde hair, blue eyes.

Light skin, black hair, dark brown eyes.

Medium skin, textured black hair, dark brown eyes.

Light skin, red hair, blue eyes.