The teens who look like dollsComment on this story
London - Porcelain pale, her enormous sky-blue eyes are framed by thick, dark lashes, and her mouth is as perfect as a rosebud. Her hair has been styled into tousled blonde bunches, which hang coquettishly either side of the ruffled collar of her Victoriana blouse.
You could be forgiven for thinking you are looking at a life-size china figurine. But Venus is a living, breathing 15-year-old girl, who chooses to style herself as a ‘living doll’.
And this isn’t something she does in the privacy of her British bedroom - she uploads footage of herself on to the internet and has gained a cult following around the world.
At last count, Venus’s free internet TV channel had around 30,000 viewers, and her social networking pages 20,000 followers.
Her online tutorials showing how to mimic her look have been watched 10 million times across the globe - including by a host of British schoolgirls desperate to imitate her image.
She says: “I get lots of messages from young girls. They tell me they love the way I look and they want to be like me.” It’s all rather strange and a little bit disturbing. But looking like a doll seems to be a growing trend.
In recent months, scores of teenage girls have amassed online followers after posting footage of their doll-like features and instructions on how to perfect the bizarre look.
Most have their own special doll name - in Venus’s case ‘VenusAngelic’ - and all look eerily as if they wouldn’t be out of place in the window of a toy shop, if only they were a tad smaller.
This trend, of course, could be seen as nothing more than a passing teenage fad - and one that is less worrying than most.
In an age where many of the role models available to young girls are overtly crude and raunchy, Venus might be accused of nothing more sinister than peddling a heightened version of fancy dress.
However, another description hovers in the background alongside ‘living doll’. It also begins with ‘L’ but has rather more sinister connotations. Yet Venus’s mother will not hear of her daughter being called a Lolita.
Margaret Palermo, 37, is fully supportive of her daughter’s eccentric hobby, and any suggestion there is something a little alarming about it astonishes her.
“This is not about Lolita - that’s the last thing she wants to be,” she says.
“Venus is an innocent girl. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she’s not even remotely interested in boys. She works hard at her studies.
“I would be far more upset if she was rolling around drunk in the street.
“This is not about attracting men. This is something she likes to do for herself and she enjoys it. Why would I stop her doing something she loves, that she’s good at and that is doing no harm? There is nothing sexual about this - she just wants to look pretty.”
Whether Venus’s look is pretty, or pretty odd, depends on your perspective. What’s beyond dispute though, is that Venus as a doll is incredibly convincing.
When I arrive at the small South London flat she shares with her mother, I see that Venus is as eye-popping in the flesh as she is staring unblinkingly out of a computer screen. She looks like what can only be described as a souped-up Tiny Tears, clad in a plaid playsuit with a frilly high-collared blouse, topped with that powder-white face.
The only difference with the plastic version is that this one speaks.
The voice is Tinkerbell on helium.
“Hello,” she squeaks, batting her heavily accentuated eyelids.
The look certainly requires dedication: Venus dresses like this full-time, day after day, resisting the usual teenage uniform of comfy sweatpants or jeans with steely resilience.
“I don’t even own a pair of sweatpants,” she says, her eyes widening to saucer-like proportions. “I would never dress that way.
“If I want to be cosy, I will wear my frilly pyjamas. I feel comfortable this way - I would not feel like myself if I dressed any other way.”
Her clothes are mainly purchased from high-street shops - including Topshop and Next - although she does buy some of her more off-beat items from internet sites.
“I don’t have many outfits, say ten” she explains. “But I can mix and match tops and bottoms to create lots of different looks.”
Her mother nods proudly. “This is absolutely her choice,” she says.
“Venus has enjoyed dressing up since she was a child, and this is just an extension of that. She has got her own mind.
“As a parent you have to understand that, in some instances, if your child is determined to do something, they will find a way to do it no matter how much you forbid them. Besides, I don’t see any harm in it at all.”
It is perhaps not insignificant that Margaret, who works for a local opticians, is the only parental influence. It’s hard to imagine the average father feeling comfortable with his daughter dressing this way.
As it is, mentioning Venus’s father is strictly off-limits. Margaret says firmly: “We don’t talk about him or even use that word.”
All she will say is that she met him in her teens while studying in Switzerland. After a whirlwind romance they got married and Margaret gave birth to Venus, her only child, when she was 21. However, the marriage did not last, and Margaret raised her daughter alone.
They stayed in Switzerland until Venus was 11, when Margaret decided to move to Tenerife then, later, London. And there is no doubt that mother and daughter have a close bond - Margaret admits that occasionally they still share a bed.
Although money is tight, Margaret has saved enough from working to enable them to travel far afield on holidays. In 2008 they went to Japan, where Venus first encountered the cult of ‘anime’ - highly stylised cartoons - that inspired her look. By then, she was already a keen performer, having attended dance classes from an early age. When she was 13 she set up her own YouTube account, posting footage of herself dancing and miming to music.
Her clips attracted a large group of followers, among them a number of Japanese fans who told her she looked so much like a doll that she should start to dress up like one. Spurred on by their comments, Venus started experimenting with make-up to mimic doll-like features.
It’s something you might imagine would ruffle the feathers of the average parent. Not Margaret, though.
“I wasn’t alarmed,” she says. “Why would I be? It was incredibly innocent. When she was a little girl, she loved frills and ribbons. The make-up was a natural progression.”
Yet there is, of course, nothing ‘natural’ about Venus’s look. It is highly contrived, from the opaque contact lenses to make her irises look bigger and the baby powder to lighten her skin to her bleached hair and eyebrows.
She is helped by her mother, who whips out the peroxide bottle every month to lighten her daughter’s naturally dark locks - which were beautiful in their natural state, judging from early photos of Venus.
But the teenager says: “I didn’t like my hair that colour. I’m very pale and some of my fans told me I looked like a corpse. I much prefer it blonde.”
Statements like this contribute to the strange combination of naïvety and knowingness that hovers over proceedings.
Venus is switched on enough to mastermind her enormous following, and navigates her state-of-the-art computer like a professional.
Yet she also seems much younger than her years.
Her bedroom is notable more for its fluffy toys than boy-band posters. And she insists she is not interested in having a boyfriend.
“I don’t need to rush - I’ve got lots of years ahead of me, so time is on my side,” she says. “I know a lot of other girls my age have a boyfriend but I don’t think it’s right.”
That has not stopped Venus attracting her fair share of online admirers, presumably some more dubious than others. It’s hard not to see a site like hers appealing to paedophiles, although Margaret insists she has proved effective in blocking any unwanted visitors.
“When Venus first asked to set up her own YouTube channel, I said no because I was worried about the sort of people it might attract,” she says.
“I didn’t give in for several months, and when I did it was on the basis that while she could have artistic freedom, I would see everything before she posted it and monitor all the comments.
“There were some bad messages from older men who were trying to meet her, but I blocked them immediately and quite quickly they stopped. I am incredibly vigilant.”
But Margaret can do little about the glances of lascivious older men when she and her daughter are out in London.
Venus, however, insists that the reaction to her is almost always favourable. “No one has ever been horrible,” she says. “Old ladies in particular love it, they tell me they think it’s very sweet.
“Even teenagers are nice. Some make horrible comments online but in real life they have all been very complimentary and ask me where I get my clothes from.
“And to be honest I don’t care if some people think it’s odd. I don’t think it’s creepy, but cute. It’s fun and sweet.”
It’s not a big surprise to learn that Venus is home-schooled. It’s hard to picture her sitting behind a desk at an average comprehensive.
Margaret claims that the decision was thrust upon them after the local authority failed to provide Venus with a place.
She and Venus have now made a virtue out of necessity, with Margaret giving lessons when she’s not at work, and letting textbooks do the rest. “It’s perhaps for the best because I think it would be difficult for Venus to go to a conventional school,” Margaret admits.
In fairness, Venus is far from a dunce: she speaks five languages, including Spanish and Japanese, and is articulate and thoughtful behind the child-like gaze and bat-squeak voice.
But she also seems rather isolated. Apart from the ‘online community’ she interacts with every day and some Japanese penpals, she has no real friends. Margaret admits: ‘I do think it would be healthy for her to meet people her own age. Of course that would normally happen at school but we are looking at her joining some clubs or dance classes so she can socialise.’
Admittedly, it is hard to see Venus shooting pool at the local youth club. And soon she may not have the time to do so anyway. Such has been the growing interest in her unusual appearance that, in recent weeks, she has been approached with a number of potentially lucrative commercial offers, including becoming the face of a skin-care line in Japan. The thought is highly attractive to her. “If I can do this as a job I would be very happy,” she says. “I enjoy it so much, and what better thing than to make a living doing something you love?”
One factor is against her, though: time. While she now looks much younger than she is, in reality she can only carry off the Living Doll look for so long. However, Venus is emphatic that she will not grow out of it - but that the look will instead grow with her. “There is a way of adapting it as I get older so it remains true to the spirit of the idea but is in keeping with my age,” she insists.
“I don’t think I should be wearing my hair in pigtails when I’m 18.”
Some people may think that 15 would be a good time to remove them - but there seems little chance of that.
As I take my leave, Venus is back at her computer, answering questions from her online fans. And the word that springs to mind is ‘bizarre’. - Daily Mail