Hyper-Accurate Celebrity Dolls: Gorgeous or Burn-Them-With-Fire?
“I’m a one-man doll show.”
That’s not normally a declarative you hear from an adult man that makes you want to ask more questions. But then again, you don’t normally happen upon an Instagram feed like cyguy83’s, where the bio reads “Doll Maker, artist, Motherf*cking sorcerer” and the account features Barbies that have been transformed into frighteningly accurate tiny celebrity replicas.
Under normal circumstances—well, as normal as a circumstance like this can feel—I would have given an audible “NOPE!” and ditched this nightmare feed. See, when I was a kid I was terrified of mannequins. More specifically, I was terrified of mannequin heads. That’s not an unusual fear (I think), but I know my personal terror was born under unique circumstances.
My grandparents owned a chain of beauty schools close to where I grew up, and each school had an instructional room for demonstrating hair styling techniques. One wall in these rooms was always dedicated to the white board, but the other three were lined with mannequin heads. Three or four shelves that wrapped around the room, stuffed with mannequin heads.
When you’re only about five-years-old, standing in the flickering, sick glow of aggressive fluorescent lights and realizing you’re trapped in a hell of lifeless faces is a truly paralyzing scenario. Arya Stark does not know fear like I knew fear in that moment. It smelled like dry erase markers and plastic – the most artificial ambient aroma this side of airport cabins – and I was sure all those dead-eyed humanoids were staring right at me. I was so scared I couldn’t even scream, and after I ran out the door I avoided those mannequin ossuaries until my grandparents sold the schools years later.
All of this is to say that when cyguy83’s Instagram was brought to my attention, I felt that familiar fear rise in my chest. An endless scroll of itty-bitty mannequin faces looking back at me, sometimes with the artist holding their tiny, disembodied heads in his hand. Back demons! is what I couldn’t shout. But where terror would typically force me away, the obvious amount of dedication required to craft such unexpected works of art kept me ensorcelled. These weren’t just toys. They were tributes.
“I am obsessed with creating a perfect likeness when I am making celebrity dolls,” says cyguy83, whose first name is Cyrus, and who you might know if you were following his cousin, Jay Duplass, on Twitter in October of 2013. “I will keep working on a doll until I am really satisfied with it. These are one-of-a-kind, and each doll takes me about a week to create, with some of the more complicated ones taking several weeks.”
Cyrus’ love of dolls runs deep. He’s been collecting toys since he was four years old, and he credits his artist mother with always encouraging his creative inclinations. He started out by drawing pictures of friends during the slow hours at his unfulfilling retail job, and got into making the dolls because he was dissatisfied with the stock options available to him.
Looking at the meticulousness of his creations, it’s easy to see why Cyrus found the Toys “R” Us-level options lacking. That Hasbro stuff is truly some basic shit compared to his voodoo-specific replicas. To perm the hair, he boils it and then styles it with gel. All the outfits are hand-sewn. By him. For “portraits,” he delicately poses their plastic limbs in front of character-specific backgrounds. Katniss Everdeen stands in front of a tiny wall of flames in her transforming Capitol gown. Madeline Ashton (you know, the role Meryl Streep played in Death Becomes Her) wears a silk peplum top in front of an opulent, one-dimensional hallway printed on photo-quality paper. The hairstyles are right. The cheekbones are right. Even the damn eyebrows are right.
Most of the Cyguy dolls are women and most of those are Madonna – Rebel Heart Madonna, 1995; Versace Photoshoot Madonna, 1991; LA premiere of Truth or Dare Madonna; A League Of Their Own Madonna. Desperately Seeking Susan Madonna even has the right teeth! (And let’s just kick back to the part about the clothes being hand-sewn.)
Cyrus’ keen focus on Madge is a little distressing when you first scroll through his portfolio. But what is he doing with them…?! you wonder. Then you step back and realize that, by inhabiting so many different characters (and caricatures) over the years, pop’s queen of the rebirth certainly lends herself to an endless amount of doll-making possibilities. Cyrus confirms as much. These days, he explains, he works almost entirely on commission. He’s a “big Madonna fan” himself, but she is also his most popular request from clients. And Cyrus says there are lots of clients—enough to build up weeks-long backlogs at times—paying somewhere between $250 and $1500 for his creations.
But don’t be blue if you’re not a Material Girl fan. His Old Hollywood collection is flat out uncanny—-as though he shrunk down Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake and Audrey Hepburn to keep them forever in conversation inside a Golden Age of Cinema diorama. You know, for those nights when you just have to re-watch Humoresque. And he’s even got an array of super heroes on display, with a newly minted Gal Gadot Wonder Woman (there’s a Linda Carter version in the archive, as well) and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (because, yes, we are calling Rey a super hero).
As we’ve learned from so many Kardashian Instagram posts, shading and contouring can do a lot to emphasize bone structure, but to replicate such distinct faces as Angelina Jolie, Divine, David Boreanez, Lyra from the Marvel Legends series or, yes, Kim Kardashian, Cyrus has to do some custom mold work, too.
“Early on there were a lot of mad scientist messes. Now I have a process that works well, but it was a journey,” says Cyrus. “Sometimes I use an existing doll head mold, strip off the factory paint, and repaint it. Often, though, I cannot get the likeness I want with a factory head sculpt. In those cases, I will sculpt a new head myself, cast it in a mold, and go from there.”
Painting is the most time-consuming step. For that, he uses size 0000 Cotman brushes from Winsor & Newton, which is basically like using a few strands of your own hair. For the shaping the heads, which are made either out of resin or a “polymer-clay-vinyl hybrid”, Cyrus says it’s just “a basic steel micro-sculpting tool set.” This all goes to show that it isn’t the size of the tools, but the skill of the artist that matters.
If you’re wondering whether Cyrus is creating these dolls during his lunch hour at a boring 9 to 5, the answer is no. There is, blessedly, an Internet full of obsessed people out there who’ve helped Cyrus turn his hobby into a full time job. “It has basically taken over my life,” he explains. “They sell well and my profession as a doll artist, creator, mad scientist is something that I am really passionate about.”
To devote yourself to this kind of job, you’d have to be passionate about it. An intensely honed skill set and eagle-eye attention to detail are required, but the subtle distinctions Cyrus finds in his subjects’ faces can only be the product of total devotion to the work. And that’s what gives his dolls their surprising life. He’s somehow managed to put light behind their plastic eyes.
I am still afraid of mannequin heads. That will never change. And Cyrus’ elite-level memorabilia pieces could still be little prisons for human souls. Who’s to say? But at least they’re strangely beautiful; it’s clear that the care he puts into creating each one rivals the appreciation his clients have for their favorite stars.
“I am definitely in love with this craft,” says Cyrus. “I can’t see myself doing anything else now.”
And for that special Breathless Mahoney fan in your life, let’s hope he never changes his mind.