San Diego Matt McMullen says he was just an artist looking for an appreciative audience two years ago when he posted some snapshots of his female sculptures on the Internet. The online exposure generated a lot more interest than the San Marcos man expected. McMullen's silicone-rubber figures, it turned out, stimulated strong feelings in the people who viewed them. Most of these feelings seemed to be centered in the viewers' groans.
"I started getting all these e-mails from people who wanted to have sex with my sculptures," the 29-year-old says. "So I changed the design. I said, hey, if it's going to be a love doll, it's going to be a love doll. And it kind of took off from there."
McMullen is the creator of the RealDoll, a pricey, full-sized, eerily lifelike love toy that definitely isn't your dad's blow-up doll. Although the North County man works hard to keep a low profile locally, his Web site (www.realdoll.com) is one of the hottest niche emporiums on the Internet, attracting lovelorn clients willing to spend as much as $5299 -- $400 shipping and handling not included -- for the girl of their dreams.
Last year, McMullen, with the help of his wife Kimberley and her sister Shelly, turned out more than 300 of the custom-fabricated dolls at their Armorlite Drive workshop in San Marcos. In the process, McMullen's company, Abyss Creations, generated almost $1.5 million in revenue. Not bad for a kid who was working 9-to-5 for a Mira Mesa mask company a few years ago.
"We're doing well," McMullen says. "I'm not saying that we're not."
Customers who plunk down the cash for a RealDoll -- and they must plunk it all down because there is no payment plan -- wait five to six months before what can be described as the world's largest brown manila envelope arrives in the mail. Inside the locked, tamper-proof, padded 5´x 2´x2´ crate, Love -- or at least a silicone-rubber representation of Love, strapped down and wearing a mini-dress, bra, panties, and thigh-high stockings -- awaits.
Despite their high prices, the dolls come with no warranty or guarantee. But Dr. Goldfoot (not his RealName but a pseudonym of his choosing), a Bay Area-based RealDoll owner and founder of the largest owners group, says he hasn't heard many grumbles.
"Most of us have a very high level of satisfaction," he says. "Probably higher than Saturn owners."
As Internet-based companies go, McMullen's outfit is a modest venture. Its 1998 revenue is a fraction of the $1 billion, for instance, that Amazon.com, the Seattle-based online book and music retailer, generated last year. But while Amazon.com is expected to continue losing money for several years to come, McMullen predicts RealDoll will be profitable very soon.
"The gross money that's come in is over $1 million, but like I said, if you work all our costs into it, you know, it comes out right around $400,000 or $350,000 and a lot of it's going back in at this juncture.
"But if sales continue at the rate they're going, we'll actually start to see some good profits in the coming year."
And in the meantime, there's buzz. Lots of it. The dolls, and the Web site that features them, have caught the attention of the New York Times magazine, and GQ magazine. And the fan mail, which would make Robert Mapplethorpe blush, continues to pour in, including a gushing note from shock jock Howard Stern, who tried out one of the dolls on his radio show.
"Best sex I ever had," Stern says in an e-mail posted on the RealDoll Web site. "I could fall in love with that thing."
Visitors to the RealDoll Web site -- and the Web site is the only place the RealDoll can be purchased, there are no showrooms or catalogs -- are greeted by the (now standard) Netscape warning. "ADULTS ONLY: By entering this site you certify that you are over 18 years of age, wish to view or purchase sexual and erotic material, that this material is not prohibited in the community in which you live, and that you will not show this material to minors." But inside, things are pretty tame by online standards. The highlight, of course, is the "Dolls" section, where five RealDolls are displayed in various stages of undress in a series of about 80 snapshots.
The dolls are only eerily lifelike in the same way that Pamela Anderson is eerily lifelike. Dr. Goldfoot calls the RealDolls "big Barbies," which is not only true -- the huge breasts, tiny waists and slim hips are identical -- but proof that things eventually come full circle. After all, everybody knows that Mattel's impossibly proportioned toy was itself modeled on a popular German cartoon prostitute named Lilli, right? Anyway, people who have a problem with Barbie are going to have a RealBig problem with RealDoll.
Each doll is manufactured to customer specifications at the Abyss factory. Buyers can chose from three body types, six head combinations, five skin tones, five eye colors, eight hair colors and ten hair styles. The body consists of a skeleton of PVC and steel surrounded by pliant silicone molded from casts. The effect is remarkable. The newest doll, called Tami, is 5´10´´ tall, weighs 125 pounds, has 38DD breasts and a full "dancer" figure. On a 14´´ computer monitor, she looks like she might very well offer the "stress-free companionship" McMullen touts.
Stress-free perhaps, but not entirely care-free. "The main challenge is that you have to be able-bodied to pick her up," Dr. Goldfoot says. "You can get used to it, but this is not for people with back problems." And while the crate would seem to make RealDoll road trips a snap, Goldfoot tells owners to leave their toys at home when they go on vacation. "I know one guy who took his doll to Vegas. Turned out to be a bit more of a hassle than he thought."
Like all the dolls, Tami's silicone flesh is said to be almost odorless. Although she has no built-in vibrators ("There's a good reason for that," the Web site says, "vibrators are not lifelike"), a natural vacuum effect is reportedly created inside her when she's penetrated, creating a powerful suction effect. "Some of RealDoll's users have reported intense orgasms due to this specific feature," the Web site says.
And because the bedroom can be a battlefield, Tami and all her RealDoll sisters are built like tanks. Their joints can handle up to 600 pounds of pressure, and the silicone rubber skin can withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees. (That's important: Because the silicone itself can be cold to the touch, users are encouraged to submerge the dolls in scalding water before sex to raise their body temperature. Once warmed, the silicone retains the heat efficiently.)
All in all, RealDoll seems to be an accommodating partner. She can be stored away from prying eyes in the casket-shaped crate she comes in, and maintenance is a snap. A turkey baster is included with each doll to aid post-coital cleaning.
Few outsiders have been allowed inside McMullen's San Marcos factory. (Although McMullen talked briefly with the Reader when we contacted him by phone, he politely declined to let us visit, saying he was not interested in any local media attention. "It's just a distraction," he says. "I just don't see us getting a whole lot out of it other than a whole lot of people who want to come up here and have a look around.") But Elizabeth Gilbert, a GQ writer, was allowed in and says the plant floor looked "as if someone had set off a bomb at a Lilith Fair. There were piles of hands, piles of feet, piles of heads."
Judging from the frequently asked questions McMullen has posted on the Web site, the people who stop by the site are pretty interesting, too. Consider some of their queries:
Question: What if I don't fit with RealDoll's sex parts?
Answer: RealDoll's vaginal and anal cavities are made snug to accommodate any insertion. The silicone flesh is soft, slippery, and very elastic. Any petroleum or water-based lubricants can be applied to ease entry. RealDoll's oral cavity contains soft silicone tongue and teeth. The oral cavity is as snug as the doll's other entries. All of RealDoll's cavities allow deep insertions.
Question: Can you pull on her nipples hard without fear of tearing them?
Answer: Yes, within reason. RealDoll's nipples can withstand approximately 400 percent elongation before tearing.
Question: How hard are the doll's nipples? Will they show through clothes?
Answer: RealDoll's nipples feel very much like real, erect nipples. They show through clothes.
Question: How flexible is the RealDoll?
Answer: RealDoll's silicone skin is extremely flexible and will sustain almost any reasonable position. There are some positions which are more stressful on both the silicone flesh and the internal joints. RealDoll cannot be "twisted into a pretzel," compressed into a tight fetal position, or squeezed into a small storage area.
Question: What happens when "the honeymoon is over" and I feel that the doll is not for me and wish to return it?
Answer: Although we'd like to fully satisfy all our customers, our firm policy is: ALL SALES ARE FINAL. Question: Do you sell just the head or torso, or any other body part, as separate items?
Question: Do you have any rejects or used models I can buy for cheap?
If that's what the window shoppers are like, imagine how weird the actual buyers are, right? But Dr. Goldfoot, the founder of the RealDoll Owners and Lovers club and the editor of the group's Doll Street Journal newsletter, insists he and his fellow "enthusiasts" are "about as vanilla, as regular as they come."
"A lot of [the members] are professionals," he says. "I'm not, personally. I'm actually pretty low income. I spent a big chunk of my savings to get my doll. It's just one of those things. I just knew immediately when I saw the Web site for the first time that I just had to have one. I had to find out what it was like."
Goldfoot -- his nom de whoopee comes from a series of Vincent Price films about a mad scientist who builds gorgeous robots to help him take over the world -- describes himself as an aspiring screenwriter who holds down a "McJob" to pay the bills. In telephone conversation, anyway, the 38-year-old comes across as a thoughtful, well-spoken, and disarmingly reasonable fellow who just happens to have a sex doll in his bedroom named Jenny that he dresses up like a Catholic schoolgirl.
"There was a time probably for every owner when they've wondered, 'Is this really okay? Have I crossed the line into terminal weirdness?' [But] this is actually a pretty harmless and I think pretty ethical way of getting some just basic sex without exploiting anybody," Goldfoot says. "Obviously, qualitatively, the experience of sex with a RealDoll can't be compared to sex with a real woman. But as far as convenience is concerned, it can't be beat."