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Just a Doll

Sometimes giving back can be as simple as just a doll...

By Morgan Rhianna BlandPublished 2 years ago Updated 9 months ago 7 min read
the doll repaint that changed my life

When we think of giving back, we tend to think of donating outrageous amounts of money to charities, running long races to raise awareness for a cause, or attending fundraiser events alongside hundreds of other people. Not everyone has the means to contribute in one of those ways, and for those who don’t, giving back can seem daunting. But giving back doesn’t have to involve some grand, dramatic gesture, as I’ve recently learned firsthand. Sometimes giving back is as simple as a kind smile or a passing compliment. It can even be something as seemingly trivial as just a doll.

“Dolls ought to be intimate friends.” This is a quote from the book A Little Princess and something that I’ve always believed myself. As a child, my dolls were the closest things to friends that I had. They didn’t judge me for being the fat, awkward kid. They didn’t reject the love I had to give or abandon me the moment they saw just how weird I really was under the surface. They couldn’t hurt me the way real people could.

The doll I wanted most was an American Girl Kirsten. At that time, she was the only blonde in the historical characters lineup. She was the only one who had a pet cat. She was of Scandinavian descent like me, and like me, she was shy. I saw myself in her stories, and her doll would’ve been the ultimate friend. That doll cost about $100 at the time, and my parents didn’t have the extra money. I never got that Kirsten doll when I was little, but I did get the knowledge that would set me on the path to discovering a new hobby and a way to give back.


Since I couldn’t have an American Girl doll, I learned how to make historically accurate outfits for the dolls I did have. I wanted to learn to sew like Kirsten could in her books, so at the age of eight, I asked my grandma to teach me. My first attempts were less than perfect. The stitches were often too large and loose to hold together, and the seams were often on the wrong side of the fabric. Despite the mistakes, I kept practicing, and eventually I was able to produce decently accurate doll clothes. And I learned how to do so without using a pattern! You couldn’t just walk into a craft store and find a pattern of what I wanted, a doll-sized pioneer dress or colonial gown, for example. So I learned to look at photos of what I wanted and reproduce the outfits from memory.

By 2005, I’d gotten pretty good at making doll clothes, and it was then that I learned to combine that skill into doll repainting. This was not long after The Phantom of the Opera musical movie was released, and I was obsessed with that movie! One day while perusing the internet for Phantom sites, pics, and merchandise, I found an ebay listing for a Phantom doll that someone had created from a GI Joe. I wanted that doll so much because I practically was the Phantom… ostracized from normal society for my oddity and ugliness. I don’t recall the exact price the seller wanted, but it was upwards of $300. Once again, my parents didn't have the money, but I wasn’t ready to give up on having my own Phantom doll to love.

So I found an old Ken from when I was a kid. I used my allowance to buy paints, brushes, and fabric, and I made my own. I sewed a movie-accurate outfit and painted Ken’s face to match. The problem was that this Ken doll had a very toothy, un-Phantom-like grin sculpted into the face, so I wound up combining the deformities from the 2004 and 1925 movie versions to cover it. The end result didn’t look even half as good as the doll I saw on ebay, but it wasn’t bad for a first attempt at a doll repaint. More importantly, it was mine.

Since then, every time I’ve found a fictional character with whom I strongly identified and a licensed doll was unattainable, I’ve made my own. My methods for doll repainting are vastly different from the more established ones you’ll find in Youtube videos today, but keep in mind that I had to learn by trial and error. When I was starting out, I couldn’t just look online and follow a video tutorial because there weren’t any out there. I wasn’t a Youtube influencer looking for something to do for views or a bored housewife with too much time and money on her hands. I was a lonely kid in a low-income family. I had to work with what I had on hand. Over the years, I’ve developed methods to keep my costs down while still producing accurate and long-lasting doll repaints, things like using acrylic paints instead of water color pencils for the faces or dyeing the existing doll hair instead of rerooting or rewigging.

Those differences in methods are the main reason why I never tried to make any money off my repaints. I was afraid that my style wouldn’t hold its own against the more established competition, that I’d fail and be the laughingstock of those who never understood my affinity for dolls. I didn’t use my dolls to gain, but I did use them to give. On several occasions, I’ve done doll repaints as gifts for friends and family. Many years ago, I gave my grandma a doll repaint in the likeness of her favorite news anchor, and she still has it. I gave my cousin a doll repaint of her in her cap and gown when she graduated college. I even gave my friend, who supported me at a time when I needed it most, a Christmas elf doll made from a thrift store rescue Elsa doll and scraps of material I had lying around the house when I couldn’t arrange transportation to buy her a present.

But all of those doll repaints pale in comparison to the one in the top pic, the one I did for my favorite Broadway actor. Two months of hard work, of needle-pricked fingers, of chemical burns from paint remover and hair dye, of constantly rewatching videos of his performance to make sure I’d reproduced every detail as accurately as possible (with a few minor artistic licenses)… that the hair fell the right way, that the clothes were the correct color and texture, that the tie was knotted correctly. All of it was made worthwhile the moment I saw his reaction to my doll!

His kindness gave me the confidence to finally try selling my dolls as a way to give back to him and others. Since then, I’ve worked to hone my doll repainting skills and learn new techniques that I never would’ve attempted otherwise. My goal is to have an online shop established by the end of the year, which will feature an inclusive array of custom dolls in all shapes, sizes, skin colors, and genders. No order will be turned down based on the style of the doll. If it’s within my skill set, I’ll do it because creating dolls for other people is my way of saying, “You’re not alone.”

My shop will be called Just a Doll. The name is in part a reference to the work that inspired the doll that started it all and in part a jab at all those who have ever disapproved of my hobby by saying things like, “You need to grow up. It’s just a doll.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that a lot of good things can start with just a dream and just a doll.


About the Creator

Morgan Rhianna Bland

I'm an aroace brain AVM survivor from Tennessee. My illness left me unable to live a normal life with a normal job, so I write stories to earn money.

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