The Love Doctor

Anatomically alluring RealDolls keep thousands of lonely men company around the world. But the lifelike figures can get damaged. And when that happens, those men call Slade Fiero. Meet America's sex-doll repairman.

If you go to Davis, California, and try to pay a visit to Slade Fiero, it's quite possible that you will drive right past his house. Because of his peculiar line of work, one that gives him a unique vantage point on the wormy root cellar of the male psyche, you might expect to find him somewhere dank and drippy and catacombed. A place, maybe, like that tumbledown Victorian in Fight Club. But what you'll find instead, under a cloudless blue Sacramento Valley sky, is a well-tended suburban house. There's an orange tree basking in the sunshine and a wrought-iron fence around the lawn. There are tinkling wind chimes and cacti in terra-cotta pots. Elementary-school kids float down the street in a bicycle squadron just as Fiero opens the front door.

It's all very Blue Velvet, an impression that only increases when Fiero appears. He is shirtless, his torso wrapped in tattoos, and he makes his way down the front path with a motion that might be described as a sidewinder's wobble.

When he shakes hands and says, "Please take your shoes off before you hit the carpet," there is something about the whispery precision of his enunciation, the popping intensity of his gray-blue eyes, and his blend of gentility and menace that reminds you right away of Dean Stockwell's character in David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is all about how you never really know what's going on next door, and the same could be said of Slade Fiero's own façade of domesticity. Even though Fiero is a world-renowned specialist, a lot of his neighbors have no idea what he does. In fact, so rare is the nature of his expertise that he may qualify as the ultimate specialist.

For almost a decade Fiero, who is 48 years old, has made a comfortable living as the RealDoll Doctor. Which means that if you happen to own a state-of-the-art sex doll, and your doll has, in the course of your amorous pas de deux, somehow managed to snap, tear, sag, go all blotchy, or dislocate a knee, Fiero is the man you call to repair it. Think of Geek Squad. Now think of synthetic nipples.

Since 1996, the year that a young entrepreneur named Matt McMullen launched Abyss Creations, the Southern California company has manufactured about 4,000 RealDolls, shipping them around the world. "The original concept I had was actually not a sex toy at all," says McMullen, who is 39 and has a background in sculpture and drawing. "It was intended to be a poseable mannequin, or simply a form of art." He quickly noticed that a lot of people saw the dolls in an erotic way. The company makes about 300 RealDolls each year. A standard-issue model sells for $6,500, while a meticulously customized one can go for as much as $50,000. Painstakingly sculpted in silicone and hand-painted to feel and look like real women—or at least real centerfold models—the dolls have become a cultural phenomenon. They're a perennial source of amusement on Howard Stern's radio show. They've made appearances on Nip/Tuck and Boston Legal. Art exhibits have featured haunting photographs of the dolls and their tender paramours, and in 2007 Ryan Gosling starred in Lars and the Real Girl, an Oscar-nominated portrait of one lonely man's love for his silent and synthetic companion.

With their smoothly engineered curves, their expectant lips, and, yes, their eternal willingness, the dolls are—there's no getting around it—hot. They are also, according to the company, resistant to heat, water, staining, and stretching, but there is one "real" aspect of the dolls that doesn't get a lot of play, because it has a tendency to disrupt the fantasy: Every now and then, they get sick.

Just like human beings, RealDolls are vulnerable to maladies, to aging, and to abuse, and thanks to his skills and the nature of his personal obsessions, Slade Fiero has become something of a miracle worker: If a doll falls ill, this part-time tattooist, art collector, and onetime pot dealer who lives alone on a quiet street in Davis may be the only person who can nurse her back to health. Many of Fiero's customers are rich and will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the most minor patch-and-stitch job. One flew him to Las Vegas, put him up for a few days, and bought him tickets to Siegfried & Roy. "Slade has a very important place in the doll world," says Elena Dorfman, a photographer who documented that world in her 2005 book Still Lovers. "People are sending him their beloved—or at least a sex partner that they paid a lot of money for. They're trusting him to fix her. It's like sending someone you love to the doctor and hoping they'll come out all right."

Fiero likes to keep his house dark inside. "I can see better that way," he says. One of the first things you notice, after your eyes have adjusted to the crepuscular gloom, is a display case full of skulls. Several of them are human. Down the hall, at his work station, he points out a thin gash along a doll's right thigh. She's small—just a quarter-scale toy model that Matt McMullen has had on display in his office near San Diego—and the injury is probably the result of nothing more than an unfortunate encounter with office supplies. But Fiero wants to show what his labor entails. First comes the cleaning. There are doll faces scattered all over the floor. Fiero grabs one with ruby-red lips, unscrews a one-gallon can of acetone, dabs some on a sponge, and begins to wipe the grime off the cheekbones. Anytime a full-size doll arrives at his doorstep, the scouring needs to be more thorough. "I hang her in the shower," he says. "I have an attachment on the end of a hose—I shoot steaming-hot water into her body." He also injects acetone into her three orifices with a syringe. "I wear rubber gloves, so it's really not that big of a deal for me," he says. "I don't see gobbles of goop rushing out."

Fiero opens a tub of silicone. It's clear, like gelatinous water. With a tongue depressor he spoons a couple of ounces into a plastic cup and then sprinkles in some flesh-colored powder so that his sealant will match the hue of the doll. He places the cup in what looks like a transparent domed popcorn popper. He flicks a switch. An engine hums. The device is a vacuum pump, and it sucks air bubbles out of the silicone. Then it's time for the silicone to "cure," or solidify. "I want this to be more the consistency of toothpaste," he says. While he waits, he shows off a loop of silicone that's been shaped like a vagina, with a two-inch penis attached at the top. Apparently one doll owner has a thing for she-males, and Abyss asked Fiero to affix the custom attachment. "He wanted a hermaphroditic-vagina type of thing," he says. He goes back to the small doll, which is lying on a foam bed, smears the silicone over the cut with another tongue depressor, and wraps the injury with a tourniquet fashioned from a yellowish strip of vinyl.

"In order to have a knack for repairing anything, you have to have an interest in its original design," McMullen says. "Some people work on cars and are able to just take a whole carburetor apart and put it back together. That's one of the biggest factors with Slade—he was truly intrigued by the design of the doll itself." McMullen and Fiero got to know each other in the late nineties, and Abyss started sending customers to Fiero because the company has a strict policy against taking back used dolls. On a deeper level, Fiero's craftsmanship is tangled up in his psychological fixations. You get a sense of this from exploring his house—and while you do, there's a good chance he'll be firing up a foot-long bong stuffed with prime California weed.

In his bedroom are portraits by Jock Sturges, the controversial photographer who is best known for his black-and-white pictures of naked children and adolescents. Nearby are a pair of paintings by the Japanese artist Masami Teraoka of a snorkeling blonde being groped by a spotted octopus. Catharine Clark, the owner of the art gallery in San Francisco that sold Fiero the paintings, remembers swinging by his house one afternoon. "I knew Slade because he came to my gallery and bought artwork from me," she says, "but as I drove into this oddly suburban neighborhood, I thought, God, am I crazy? Is this guy really a serial killer or something? And when he opened the garage door, there were all these bodies hanging from the ceiling." Down the hall are giant movie posters—walls gleaming with the catsuited hips and thighs of Aeon Flux and Lara Croft. On a bookshelf he's got The Materials and Methods of Sculpture, the Eyewitness guide to the human skeleton, American Psycho. Elsewhere are hundreds of G.I. Joe-size figurines topped with the heads of celebrities, as well as a menagerie of human fetuses in jars of formaldehyde. Fiero is so obsessed with physical form, human and otherwise, that the house comes across as a shrine to skeletons, muscles, and skin.

"I went out to my deck one day and there was a plastic bag sitting on a bench," he says, reaching into the display case and pulling out a skull with tusklike fangs. "I'm like, "What is that?' I open it up, and all I catch is this giant whiff of death. I look inside the bag and it's the head of a tiger." Fiero had wanted a big cat skull for a long time. He has a lot of friends in odd occupations, and one of those friends had been thoughtful enough to remember his wish. (Never mind how that friend happened to come into possession of the cranium of a freshly decapitated tiger.) Fiero drove the head down to a medical facility to store it. Later, he and another friend dissected it. "Then I boiled the skull and got all the stuff out and prepared it," he says. "Now it's part of my collection."

Strangely enough, the tiger story helps explain how Slade Fiero got into the doll-repair business. Years ago, he decided that another item he simply had to secure for his home collection was a mannequin. He had a girlfriend at the time; his interest was purely aesthetic. "Women are cool-lookin', right?" he says. "I wanted a mannequin that would stand up in my house and look badass." The problem was that mannequins don't move. "If you buy a mannequin, she is going to have one solid pose," he says. Finally a friend made a suggestion. Fiero had never heard of RealDolls, but "being the king of eBay," he says, he impulsively dropped $3,500 on a used one. When the doll arrived, its fiberglass jaw was broken. "I'm not afraid of much," he says. "So I got out tools and knives. And then I cut her open. At that point in my life I had already participated in 15 human autopsies"—yet another friend worked at a coroner's lab—"so I made an incision up the back of her head, pulled all of her skin forward, and then started removing it from the skull." Fiero fixed the jaw and patched up her head. He was so proud of his surgical mastery that he put pictures of the "RealDoll autopsy" on his website. "I did her face up really nice," he says, "and that doll was beautiful when I got done."

They're known in the doll world as "blems." A blem is a doll that has some kind of blemish or defect, and as more and more people began to discover evidence of Fiero's craftsmanship online, he found himself becoming the Bones McCoy of the blems. People heard about this self-taught central-California painter and sculptor who could bring a blem back from oblivion, and before long, Abyss was selling its damaged-at-the-factory dolls to the man in Davis at a bargain-basement price. Fiero would fix up the dolls and resell them on eBay for a profit. Soon he began to hear from doll owners who were desperate for him to "heal" their housebound concubines.

By now, Fiero can tell you all about their illnesses and injuries. There is, for example, doll leprosy—patches where the silicone surface has dented slightly. "It's a skin disorder that happens with the dolls," Fiero says. "They've been fighting that problem for a long time." There are creases and rips that can occur when a doll has been perched for too long in the wrong position. "If her legs are pushed too close together," he says, "she'll have compression fractures on the outsides of her vagina lips."

Once, Fiero encountered a doll that had developed a breast tumor. A customer wanted a boob enlargement, so extra silicone was injected into the doll's nipples at the factory, but it failed to solidify by the time the doll was sent out. The doll wound up with a lump the size of a golf ball. The infuriated customer sent the doll back. Fiero kept that lumpy doll in his house for a year; he says he developed a platonic crush on her. "This doll was stunning to look at," he says. "Her face was amazing. The way that they'd done the breasts was rad." He named her Jenna. Later he sold her on eBay for $7,000.

Sometimes Fiero has found himself fixing six or seven dolls a month; lately, with the economy tanking, his orders have slowed to a trickle. Either way, he can't help but be appalled by some of the grotesqueries he's seen. "If you care for it, if you treat it right, you can crank her knees up to her shoulders and bang away at that doll with good hard intercourse and come out shining. But clean her out," Fiero says, his voice rising with indignation. "Clean her off. If you've got a hairy chest, you're going to leave hairs all over her. If you've got a cat, she's going to pick up cat hair. You want to take care of what you've got." And Fiero knows more than he'd care to about customers whose treatment of the dolls tips into abuse. He recalls one in particular. "He told me the doll was in great shape," Fiero says, "and she wasn't. In this guy's doll the jaw was so displaced it was in the back of her head. How the hell do you get somebody's jaw—it was on the outside, behind the doll's neck! And her left breast was hanging on by less than a half an inch of still-attached silicone. Her breast was practically ripped off. Her fingers were ripped off. It saddened me to think that somebody would spend that kind of money and treat something like that, when it's basically a human object. I had one guy from Berkeley who had sex so hard with his doll that he ripped the leg off it. The doll was less than a year old, and destroyed. Her calves, from below the knee, had what looked almost like knife puncture wounds. Hundreds of them. I don't know what this guy was doing to this doll." Fiero has his principles. He repaired the doll from Berkeley twice, but after the customer's second visit, Fiero instructed him never to make contact with him again. "Amazing," he says, "that there are human beings out there like that."

If Fiero has a wellspring of empathy for blems, it may have something to do with his own condition. In 1995 he learned firsthand what it means to be broken. Two days before his 35th birthday, Fiero went skydiving; it was something he'd done scores of times. Being a man with an appetite for extremes, he jumped out of the plane and waited until he was only about 1,000 feet above the ground before he pulled his rip cord. He wanted to see what that felt like. He found out. His parachute opened in time, but so did an emergency-backup canopy. The lines from the two chutes got tangled up, and Fiero slammed into the ground. "On my birthday I woke up in an ICU a brand-new guy," he says. "My back was busted. I was paralyzed all over the place. I had tubes and wires comin' out of me." He could walk, eventually, but only by twisting his torso around so that the muscles of his upper body forced his legs forward. Other things he could not do. "My dick didn't work, and I couldn't perform sexually," he says. This, of course, lends a layer of irony to Fiero's life. "He's able to repair the dolls," muses Elena Dorfman, "in a way that he is not able to repair himself. I think that that is his way of maybe working through his own stuff."

Fiero can get an erection, but only by popping a Viagra or Cialis pill or by injecting Caverject, another erectile-dysfunction drug, into the side of his penis. He sees this situation as a form of enlightenment. He likes to theorize that his erotic wiring is now more like a woman's; if he's going to be attracted to someone, he needs to be stimulated mentally and emotionally. Which means that Fiero spends his time surrounded by speechless sex dolls that turn him on only aesthetically. "I didn't get the dolls because I was into the sex thing," he says. "I got 'em because I was into the art thing." He had sex with a doll once, and he enjoyed it, but his principles prevent him from making a habit of it. "I'm not going to be fucking dolls and shipping them to other people," he says. "That's fuckin' rude. What kind of businessman would I be if I did that?"

Within the Lynchian chambers of Fiero's house, there stands only one RealDoll that he considers his own. She goes by the name Blue, and that is what she is: She's a gamine, small-breasted elf with pointy ears and skin that could make her an honorary member of the Blue Man Group. A few years back, Abyss Creations decided to launch its first male doll, a chiseled hunk named Charlie with washboard abs and adjustable penis size. The company brought in Fiero to sculpt a model. For a few months Fiero lived close to the doll factory and devoted himself to the task. When he was done sculpting Charlie, McMullen and his team offered him a special gift. "They were like, "Dude, any doll, any body style that you want,'" Fiero says. "I said, 'Make her blue. Give her pointed ears, and make her look like she came off of EverQuest.' When I saw the head of the doll I started doing cartwheels. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen." Fiero flew to Amsterdam and bought Blue a body-hugging rubber gown garlanded with zippers. It cost him close to $1,000. This leads to an inevitable question—a question that Fiero answers before you even work up the courage to ask. The answer is no. "Never," he says. "Never ever." Blue, it turns out, is the last thing you'd expect to find in this dark house on a quiet street in Davis. She is a virgin.

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