Take a look at her hair, it’s real
And if you don’t believe what I say, just feel
I’m gonna lock her up in a trunk
So no big hunk can steal her away from me
Cliff Richard wasn’t referring to Living Dolls in his 1959 hit of the same name, but the lyrics are a sentiment that some ‘mask-wearers’ might relate to. These Living Dolls are men who frock up in latex suits to look like walking, talking dolls.
What lies beneath the masks is a secret society of men pursuing inner happiness and self-expression, as Sydney-born, New York-based filmmakers Nick Sweeney and Luke Malone discovered.
A group of real life Living Dolls star in the new Australian-produced documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls, which airs tonight on ABC 2 and premiered to an audience of 3.7 million viewers on the UK’s Channel 4 last month.
The New Daily’s life editor Michael Harry spoke to Malone ahead of the show’s premiere and got an insight into a fascinating subculture.
Where are you from in Australia?
Nick and I both hail from Sydney.
You’re a journalist?
I’ve worked mainly as a print and digital journalist for places like The Atlantic, Salon, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and also homegrown outlets like The Sydney Morning Herald along with a bunch of others. I also produce video and dabble in radio.
How did you meet Nick?
Nick and I have been friends for years, and used to live together. We have a very similar sense of humour and outlook on the world, so it makes sense that we’d eventually collaborate on something.
When did you first come across the Living Dolls?
We stumbled across YouTube videos of masking and were just in awe. We played them again and again, completely taken by the performative nature of these videos.
Had you heard of masking before?
Nope, and when we would talk about it every so often we were always surprised no one else had uncovered it. The subculture exists unto itself, but we feel pretty lucky we were the ones to bring it to a broader audience. It’s nearly impossible to do that nowadays, with everything explored and exploited half to death.
Was it difficult to convince people to speak on camera?
At first, yes. Many of these guys have built complete double lives and avoiding detection is second nature. However, once they knew we were legitimately interested in their stories and not out to make some sensational exposé, they were very open and generous with us—which we never once took for granted.
Were there ever any moments where you felt… this is getting out of control?
All the time, but in the best way possible! It was a surreal experience to say the least. These are normal guys doing something most consider quite strange. We had a ball.
How long did you spend working on the project?
All up about a year. Though we had been speaking to several maskers on and off for a few years.
Was it important not to judge your subjects?
Very. As a journalist, it’s not my job to judge when it comes to a story like this. It’s not some savage takedown, but an exploration of a weird and wonderful subculture. I’m relentlessly curious about people and find humans, in all of their permutations, pretty fascinating.
It’d be closer to empathy than sympathy; we got to understand their motivations in more detail, which is all we ever wanted to do. The fact that they lead lives that are on the fringe makes them very open and compassionate people, so it can be a little frustrating when others don’t extend them the same courtesy.
Would you say you’re fairly unshockable now?
I’d say Nick and I have always been impossible to rattle. It’s part of the reason we’re friends and probably why the masking community trusted us as much as they did. We weren’t shocked, just intrigued.
The doco was picked up by UK station Channel Four. How did the deal come about?
Our executive producer, Jes Wilkins of Firecracker Films, has a strong relationship with Channel 4. Jes, the entire Firecracker team and Channel 4 were extremely supportive of us and how we wanted to present this community. We couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of collaborators.
Is the reaction overwhelming/exciting/unexpected… all of the above?
It’s been amazing. The debut brought in 3.7 million viewers in the UK, which is mind blowing. We knew people would be interested, but of course we’re glad that so many people were so interested. After it airs in Australia it’ll air in the US and then in most other regions around the world. You can’t keep a good doll down!
What’s next? Will you and Nick keep working together?
We have a new project in the works that we can’t yet talk about. And then we have our own stories that we’re also working on. It’s the best of both worlds.
Secrets of the Living Dolls premieres on ABC2 Friday, February 28 at 9:30pm