It's 4 PM in Williamsburg, and I'm sipping a cocktail with Matt James, or Pearl, as he's widely known since season 7 of RuPaul's Drag Race, when he first sauntered into our living rooms worldwide. The laid-back queen became notorious for refusing to play into the squawking, weave-grabbing game of his fellow contestants, instead maintaining an image of steely calm.
Fans of the show flocked to Pearl's side even as the judges questioned his investment in the competition, and since his season ended, Pearl's been on an explosive skyrocket to fame. He was signed by the modeling agency Wilhelmina, performed on Drag Race tours, and, now, has launched his latest creative venture: a high-fashion, novelty doll named Vladonna.
After seeing images of the doll on Pearl's Instagram, I had to find out more about the making of it. As it turns out, Vladonna's journey began over a decade ago, when Pearl was just a child. "I started drawing before I could read or write or do anything," he says. "I drew witches and mermaids as a child. Then I started drawing Old Hollywood, supermodels and actresses. Then I became super obsessed with plastic surgery -- botched plastic surgery."
Is this from an obsession with Botched, I wonder?
"They used to have those shows that were more on the medical side than Botched," Pearl explains. "People lost 200 pounds and had all of their skin cut off and restitched. I started thinking of everybody as this weird science experiment, like Frankenstein's monster, walking around. Which I think is hysterical."
From his drawings, Pearl turned his vision into a multi-dimensional work of art. "I'd repaint dolls' faces as a child, rub their faces off with acetone, reroot their hair," he recalls. "I started sculpting a bit, making weird heads out of clay and painting them. And then I started doing drag."
Enter Gina Garan. The doll photographer and creative mind has been profiled by Forbes and various art blogs. Her images of the Blythe doll (pictured, below) originally manufactured in the '70s and remade in the '00s thanks to Garan's work, caught the eye of a prominent art agent. While the doll, an eerie, sad-looking little thing, not exactly endearing to children, failed in its first incarnation, limited releases of Blythe in this century have been best-sellers.
Garan and Pearl met through a mutual friend and fellow Drag Race alum: Season 5's Detox.
"When Pearl and I met, we had an immediate connection," Garan says. "I'd worked under corporate labels before, but I'd been thinking of doing my own thing. And then I saw Matt's aesthetic. And we've been married ever since."
The duo are now gearing their product towards a niche market, rather than for mass consumption. "We had an Adam's apple in the first drawing, and we wanted to do a tuck, but then we decided not to, " Garan explains. "If she's trans, great. But we didn't want her to be an exclusively gay doll. Just a doll."
After showing around clay prototypes, Vladonna was picked up by Kidrobot, maker of collector's novelty toys, to be made into a real limited-edition doll. "I've done stuff with Hasbro, where they really keep you in check," says Garan. "So this is a dream." Vladonna will be the first truly femme doll the company has produced.
And femme she certainly is. Vladonna's breasts and butt are enormous, with a waist pinched in to near nothingness, and lips puffed up to look like pillows. Naturally, we don't recommend you follow the same diet.
"It's obviously a joke, and we're calling attention to the oversexualization of girls' toys," Pearl says. "If people don't get it they miss that. We obviously don't think girls need to actually look like this." Garan adds: "With Barbie, and stuff, where the proportions are closer to normal, that's where girls get confused."
Vladonna is now going through the production process, and the creative pair has other plans for the doll. Pearl is working on a puppet show that may or may not include elements of Vladonna's warped style. And he could see a Vladonna coloring book, or even an animated cartoon, as an exciting next step.
"We just found these old sketchbooks," Garan says, "From when Matt was a teenager, and there was all this amazing stuff." Pearl would fill pages with boobies and corpulent aging ladies. "I don't draw men," he says. "Women... you can just do so much more."
All drawings and photography courtesy of Pearl and Gina Garan.