The Story Behind ‘Secrets Of The Living Dolls’, And The Bizarre Subculture Of Masking

We interviewed the Australian director behind the viral hit, which airs on ABC2 this Friday night.

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“I added the hair to make the vagina a little bit more realistic. I used the clippings from my hair,” says Robert. Robert is a successful Californian property entrepreneur in his 70s, who in his spare time sprinkles a latex body suit with talcum powder and transforms himself into a female rubber doll.

Welcome to the world of masking: Secrets of the Living Dolls.

Directed by Australian Nick Sweeney, and airing this Friday on ABC2, Secrets Of The Living Dolls is a highly quotable shock documentary commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK – the network known for such sensational fare as My Baggy Body, Sexting Teacherand that perennial pillow-to-the-face, holy-shit-this-is-disgusting show, Embarrassing BodiesTheir latest venture, Living Dolls, is about “masking”: a subculture in which mostly straight men don wigs, latex suits and vampish outfits to transform themselves into female dolls.

Nuanced examination of masculinity and gender it is not, but astonishing it is: the show got close to four million views in the UK when it aired in January, and swiftly went viral. As in, Buzzfeed-viral.

Australian Director Nick Sweeney stumbled upon the subculture almost accidentally, after a friend showed him some YouTube videos… he thinks. “Later on, when I went back to her and told her I was doing this documentary, she had no idea what I was talking about.  So I actually don’t know how I found about it!”

Once he decided to make the film, it took a while convincing people to take part. One of the biggest challenges the people in the documentary face is whether to take their past-time from the private to the public sphere. The next challenge is exactly how to do that. “It was a very long process,” Nick says. “Luke Malone [producer] and I spent a long time approaching the key figures in the community — that took about six months to a year.” Tracking down members of the community was one thing, but getting them on camera was even harder. “They’re revealing secrets about themselves to the entire world. To get people to agree to do that was extremely difficult. It took enormous bravery on their part.”

This should come as no surprise. Transphobia and homophobia notwithstanding (and those are two enormous forces that should never be dismissed), most people posses at least some understanding of the drag world, and of people who identify as a different gender. But masking is new, and different.

What makes it even more complex is that the maskers themselves, with their frozen, latex features, are visually shocking. Even by the end of the documentary, the sight of these men is still jarring.

Also suprising? All of the men featured are straight, and most have families.

Yep. I had my doubts too. But filmmaker Nick didn’t. “My gaydar was never going off about any of the contributors who had wives and children; they were genuine relationships,” he says. And those featured in the doco were representative of the wider community, too. “We encountered very few characters who identified as gay. I’m a gay man and I assumed that all of the people we would encounter would be gay. It was very surprising for me at the outset.”

In fact, while the vampish costumes and garish makeup may be reminiscent of drag queens, many maskers, according to Nick, are treated with hostility by the LGBTI community. “I put that down to unfamiliarity. Even in the gay community this a very new thing, it’s a very new subculture; it’s a niche within a niche,” he says. “That was the story they all told: that they weren’t particularly warmly received by traditional drag queens. It doesn’t intersect in the way you’d expect it to. They’re not naturally linked.”

As a 45-minute TV documentary, the question of exactly why these men do what they do — beyond their love of the female form — is never really asked or answered. More camera time is dedicated to the kookiness of these characters, and the careful manufacture of nipples, vaginas and faces. Given this, it would be easy to write the show off as exploitive. But Nick was keenly aware of the potential harm the documentary could cause his participants. “We were very frank with them. I think there’s an obligation as a documentary filmmaker to be very upfront with contributors about what your intentions are.”

According to Nick, masking burst into the mainstream after the show aired in the UK — and maskers themselves warmly welcomed his work. “We’ve been incredibly lucky, in that they’ve all loved the doco. Everyone that was in the documentary and people who didn’t get to participate have all loved it, stood by it, and done press for it. Which was almost unexpected,” he says.

And with that, a fairly recent film school graduate — he only finished in 2012 — made an international hit with his first documentary, with plans for a few follow-ups: a doco on female bodybuilding, and top-secret UK projects that he won’t discuss. Naturally, I cursed him.  Then I asked him for the key to his success.

“Stalking,” he says. Influential people, production companies — anyone he could find to give him a leg-up. “Never be too afraid to approach somebody at the very top. People often get caught in hierarchies and get lost in the assumptions of what their level of skill would be, because they’re young or just out of university. It’s not a bad idea to sometimes completely forget about that, put yourself out there and approach someone you think wouldn’t give you the time of day — because most often they’ll be impressed.”

Secrets of the Living Dolls airs this Friday February 28 at 9.30pm, on ABC 2.

Callum Denness is Melbourne-based freelance writer who makes films, takes photos and watches television. He studied film, art, and journalism, so knows a lot about completing degrees with very poor job prospects. You can Tweet him @CalBD.