Welcome to the Dollhouse: A Conversation with Human Ken, Justin Jedlica
Justin Jedlica was my last living doll to interview in the series (that is, if some of the others get back to me after this runs. HIT ME UP), and I was particularly excited to interview him. Ever since he appeared on an episode of 20/20 a few years back, I've followed his work on various TV shows including, but not limited to, Botched and My Strange Addiction, better known as two of my own strange addictions. I thought he was so eloquent in each of his interviews, and I was especially into the fact that he actually worked with plastic surgeons and the factories that produce implants to design each of the custom pieces he proudly wears. It was certainly unique for the living doll category, but like many of the other individuals within the group, Ken was never his end goal. After recieving media attention, the public sort of assigned him the title, but he takes it in stride.
He was especially accomodating when it came to arranging the interview, even offering to meet up while he was in New York City, but a freak snowstorm and bad planning on my end prevented that from coming to fruition. Once we were able to jump on a phone call, he was even friendlier than I thought he would be. We chatted how much it sucked to stick out like a sore thumb while growing up in the South—not to be the anti-Simba and not remember who I am, but his environment in North Carolina had some pretty strong parallels to the one I previously knew in Mississippi—and I appreciated how candid he was speaking about any subject. He was even open with me about his divorce, a topic most would usually shy away from, but he was dealing with it. Our talk sort of exemplified something I've been trying to do in my own life, where you talk about the thing (whatever it may be) openly and honestly, because if you don't talk about the thing at all, then it has power. I probably would have talked to him for much longer, birds were chirping in the background and it sounded pretty pleasant wherever he was, but someone came by to claim the conference room I had commandeered for the hour. C'est la vie, as the French and early '00s girl band B*Witched say.
Read on to see our conversation in full below.
I just remember after your interview, everyone was claiming the title of Human Ken. How did it come about for you?
Oddly enough, it was never intentional. There was a gentleman named Bill Tolendo—and I was with my partner when this happened, so I wasn’t really working, I was sort of a “house husband” at this point—Bill was looking to do an art piece featuring larger than life people in a photo series and he had several females he had shot who had an extreme amount of plastic surgery and very much customized themselves to their very own tune of what they found beautiful, not necessarily to adhere to Western ideas of beauty, sort of just defining it for themselves. He had females and a few trans people, but he didn’t have any men. I found out about it through some of my trans friends that he was looking for a model to shoot. He was legitimate and had a good body of work behind him, so I ended up shooting with him and he asked, if you have any friends who are modified and would be interested in shooting, let me know.
Three years pass, and he called me sort of out of the blue and reminded me of the piece. He said, I turned our artwork into a coffee table book and I was like, I thought you only shot four people? He said, well I ended up shooting so many people just from your referral and it was enough to turn into a coffee table book. He was calling it a new kind of beauty—people who remodeled themselves according to what they saw beautiful, as opposed to adhering to Western standards of beauty. He said, “20/20 approached me, and they wanted to do an interview with one of the models. Since you had been the most hands-on in your approach of a remodel.” I guess nobody else was as hands-on in conceptualizing their own surgery and designing their own implants, people have had a lot of surgery, but not in such a comprehensive way, so I agreed to do it. We reached out to 20/20 to shoot the piece, which was called "20/20 Going to Extremes." It included myself and Lacey Wild, who has the sixth largest breast implants in the world—we were shot separately for TV, but we’re actually good friends now from all the media we’ve done. When that released, the opening line was, "Meet our Human Ken doll Justin Jedlica, who has had his upper body filled with silicone implants.” The rest of the piece was just about my surgeries and it wasn’t about looking like a doll at all, so that’s how it started, and then it kind of went viral and was everywhere. That one girl Valeria Lukyanova was sort of dabbling in it, I saw a bit about her wanting to be Barbie in the press, but when that happened, the press sort of linked us together and it went through the roof on social media. It just kind of got bigger and bigger.
How do you feel about the title?
I don’t think it’s a title that defines me in totality, but I have fun with it and it has brought me so many amazing opportunities. At first, I thought the title was a little bit silly and kind of dumbed down what I did with plastic surgery, because everything I did required a lot of time and effort and I view what I do almost as art. I do it for the purpose of being creative and I like that I can customize myself and set myself apart as an individual. That’s what I think is cool about it—the idea of being a nonconformist, and you’re not doing what everyone else is telling you. You’re sort of doing that for yourself, and you’re sculpting yourself in whatever image you see as beautiful or attractive in that moment. That doesn’t mean it won’t change—maybe in two years, you’ll change your mind, but you have that power to change and reinvent yourself in more ways than just your career or love life. You can mold your body and your frame, and in turn, that can shine through in so many aspects of your life. You can gain confidence and self-esteem in other ways.
I like that you had such a big role in designing the enhancements—that’s what I thought was so unique. You know a lot about the science that goes into all of this.
Yeah I mean, for me it’s very much like artistry. When I was a kid, I was very much into painting, sketching, and sculpting but always of the human form, male and female, mainly of the figure. When I started doing sculpting with clay, I was in my late teens, I was good at it naturally. I’ve always had an eye for symmetry and my form of beauty, whether or not other people agree with it, and it was interesting because when my teacher taught me, she didn’t allow us to start with a lump of clay and whittle it down. She made us study the anatomy—the bones and the muscles—and that’s how we built on our knowledge while she was pulling these pieces of clay and fit them like a puzzle into the base of a body we were working on. Fast forward years later to now, and that step in learning about art and sculpture helps out so much now because I had to learn the anatomy and the structure of the bones, instead of carving lines in there for no reason. I have to understand how they work together and why they look a certain way.
It’s cool how the pieces started to fit in place, and I got to use a lot of that artistry from sketching and sculpting and later on with sculpting people’s bodies. Now it’s become a much bigger thing than just working on myself. Because of all the media interest, people have started to contact me through my Facebook and website and they’ll ask for recommendations on implants and doctors. I’m the first person in the world to have three-piece shoulder implants and a four-piece back implant, and I have plans to do two piece quads, two piece calves, and I still want to do traps. That was my five year plan, but with my divorce, things had to change a little. It’s been very cool to say, not only did this have a place for me that I thought was a very positive thing for me and my growth as an individual, but also to have people come and ask for advice and helping them to get to where they want to be. I’ve also been going to plastic surgery conventions—for the past two years, I worked for one of the largest plastic surgery conventions, The Aesthetic Show, so it’s cool to be acknowledged also by people in the medical field saying, what you’re doing does have merit here and people are interested. To spin that off and also be able to create your own business is also really cool. I never could have planned that going into this. For me, it was never about hiding it because I never felt disdain for my body. The more I allowed myself to modify myself, it was actually very reassuring.
It is controversial, but there are people who dye their hair and change their wardrobe every year, and you do all types of things to either set yourself apart, or make yourself mesh. I think people sometimes get plastic surgery because they want to take away from a feature so they can mesh with the typical Western standards, or to rejuvenate or reconstruct. I’m none of those three—I don’t consider myself so much of a plastic surgery junkie as I am part of the body mod group. I by no means am emblematic of people who typically get plastic surgery, and that’s why I think it’s sometimes hard for people to understand my motivations. You look at fashion designers—people love watching those couture fashion shows, but it’s couture fashion, you can’t freakin’ wear it. It’s not functional. (laughs) It might be cool as hell to look at, but it’s insanely expensive, you’re never gonna wear it, and it’s gonna be there as a piece of art in your closet. For me, I’m constantly learning about my medium and studying up on the new injections and the different fillers. You have to learn what your medium is in order to continue to create new art. There’s nobody better to do that than someone who has been there, and trust it.
Can you tell me about your childhood? Was there a moment aside from your art classes when you decided you wanted to do all of this?
I was born in 1980, and that was the year Michael Jackson and his plastic surgery were such a huge thing in the news. I remember Joan Rivers and Dolly Parton, and they were all very iconic, visible celebrities to me. I’ve always had a huge attraction to the celebrity world, but I grew up poor, so I always envied people who had more than I had. Fame always seemed, in my brain, to go in tandem with money, whether or not that’s totally true, but as a kid it was to me. The one thing all these people had in common was that they used plastic surgery to almost become a caricature of themselves. They were unmistakably them, right? You wouldn’t walk past one of them and be like, hey I have a wife or girlfriend who looks just like you. They made themselves look so different, and I loved that about them. Also, to be able to purchase that as a luxury item, it was very emblematic of wealth and celebrity. I had my first operation at 19, which was a nose job. In a way, I thought the worst part would be writing the check, but actually when I wrote the check to the plastic surgeon, I had this amazing feeling of euphoria—this was actually the best part of the whole thing. It wasn’t even the outcome. It was like I was saying I was worth it to myself and my whole life, I always shared everything as a kid. There were six of us in a three bedroom house on a dirt road, and there was never any extra to go around. To spend that kind of money on myself, everyone said I was nuts, but it made me feel important and special to myself. It made me feel like I was important and special and I was making an investment in the person I wanted to be. I saw how my parents were, just working to survive, but in a way, it might sound silly, but it was my way of saying hey, this is the person I want to become. I looked up to those iconic figures, right? I thought maybe if I do this, I can fake it until I make it and eventually, I’ll be introduced to the right people and the right groups. For me, I thought of this as changing my social standing.
I wanted to move to New York City because I thought, well I want to be cultured and want to broaden my spectrums from North Carolina, and the one thing all these women I became friends with had in common with me was that I was this 22 year old who had lots of plastic surgery, and I connected with these housewives in the same way. I think that helped me enter into another group I wouldn’t have otherwise been privy to. When I looked at all the lifestyles I wanted to have, plastic surgery was part of that lifestyle. It was something you did and was a given. If people knew you could spend that much money on your body, then you were probably doing it in so many other areas—that might not always be true, but it’s the illusion you have, I think, if you have a lot of plastic surgery. I thought about that a lot as a kid, and it was a way of class jumping almost those certain expectations people have of you.
I think when I started to do my chest implants, those were my first body implants and that was the first time I had customized them. I asked the doctor if I could make them taller, and the price difference was only $300. I was like, are you serious? Why don’t we just do that? He didn’t think they’d be right for my frame, but I wanted them taller. To this day, he still doesn’t like it, but I love it!
I grew up in upstate New York and then moved down South near Raleigh, North Carolina. I didn’t come out as gay until I was 19, and all through high school, I was very much ridiculed and teased because of the way I talk and my mannerisms. Even before I knew I was gay, people would call me gay and pick on me. After a while, I was like, why do I keep trying to fit into this role? It’s not going to work and I just look more awkward, so I went the exact opposite direction. I did drag for a while, and I even started to think I wanted to transition. People started messing with my head and I allowed all of that negativity into my head, and I wasn’t sure even about my gender identity because everyone was picking on me for it all the time. When I had my pec implants, it was very much an ownership of the fact that I was okay being a guy, and the idea of almost masculinizing myself gave me more confidence in being a young man. I think that it did good things for me, and had I not done that, who knows what could have happened because of the things people kept telling me? I never felt like I was a woman, but you can’t help but listen to other people sometimes. I had my pecs done, then my biceps and triceps. Then, I met my husband and money was a little more free-flowing, so I got to go a little more crazy. I would get an idea, pitch it around to different doctors, and that’s when I started to become my own guinea pig. If I didn’t like it the first time, I’d go back and tweak it again.
I went on Botched, and they filmed me in one of the recovery houses, which was actually a house my husband and I used to rent. Usually I’d get free reign once a year to do a surgery I wanted to do, so not only would I book the surgery and work with the doctors and the factories to create these custom implants, but then I’d get to book the house. So, I had my mom and friends out, and we treated it like a recovery vacation. I do believe in the power of positive thinking and being around several other people you love having around, and it really did make the recovery much easier because you’re not focused on all that. I view the whole human process and even the scars after as badges of honor—like it takes a lot of gumption to push through that, and then accepting the new version of who you are, whether or not it resulted in what you wanted. It’s exciting, but it’s also a little scary.
Your family sounds very supportive, too.
Yeah, my mom and my siblings are really cool. My parents are divorced, so my dad hasn’t really been in the picture a ton. He doesn’t really get it, but that’s okay. He never really got any of it, though, me being gay, moving to New York City, and buying a house with my husband. He’s been blue collar his whole life and lives in his bubble, that’s what’s comfortable and that’s what’s safe to him. I try to be completely different from what my dad is, so sheltered and narrow-minded, so I thought, I’m going to go 100% in the other direction. (laughs) Because that’s not me and that’s not my life—to play it safe for so long, you never have any growth. It’s only when you risk big things, you can receive big rewards and big returns. Every time I go under the knife, there are risks involved for sure, and not just aesthetic risks. I’m blessed that I heal quickly, but when those things go well, you’re rewarded 10 times over because you know how much you risked, and anyone who has ever gone out on a limb in their life can see that. Maybe not in the same way I do, but if you’ve gone about taking that risk, you know the feeling you get when you succeed and prove everyone else wrong. You grow from the inside out, it’s amazing.
Do you still get scared before a surgery?
Not really, I feel like my life has been really good, and I never imagined it to be as good as it has been. I’ve been blessed to do so many things that even my brothers and sisters haven’t had the opportunity to do, so if I kick the bucket tomorrow, that’s okay, especially if I’m doing something I love. I don’t expect that to happen, but I would never say I had regrets for it. If you’re doing what you love and it’s your passion, it’s fine. I’m never really like, oh what if they don’t get the implant in correctly and I have to wait 3 to 6 months to heal before they can fix it? I know that if I wake up and I’m not happy, I can live with it for a while. It’s part of the journey, and that’s cool, as long as I have the money to be able to go back and tweak things, it’s fine. My back implants, it’s been a year and a half since we’ve made the samples and I’m finally agreeing with the implants being made, but I don’t have any qualms about it. It’s a discovery process, and it’s also kind of trial and error, so you learn things as you go. I wouldn’t say I regret anything about it, but I’ve had five nose jobs. Maybe I wasn’t 100% happy with the first try, but I wanted more of an exaggerated look, and it’s hard to find doctors willing to push it to give you more. I don’t take it too seriously, it’s not like I’m committed to this form. I love it now, but with trends being so cyclical, things sometimes change in a few years. You have the power to do whatever you want to do with it.
What do you have to say to people who might not agree or think what you’re doing is weird?
Well it’s good, because they’re the ones that keep me famous. (laughs) If everybody agreed with me, I wouldn’t be anywhere! I think a lot of that comes from the financial portion of things, which I can understand coming from the background I did. I think some people don’t get it because they think the money can be spent in a better way, or they prioritize something else first in their life, and that’s fine. For some people it’s cars or clothing, there’s something that validates everyone differently, and this is just my way of being validated. I also think the confidence I’ve gotten out of it is great, and if you’re not the type of person to express yourself creatively through your looks, then you’re not gonna get it. I don’t have any tattoos just because I never got the pull for it, but I can understand modifying your body and making it yours, setting yourself apart from the masses of society. I get it, but I’m just not a person who has tattoos. I always jokingly say, you know, keep on hating, because they’re the reason people keep coming back and are interested.
I had a Catholic background, my mother is very Catholic and so was my father, but that moved in sort of the direction of basic Christianity. I think there’s this overwhelming thought like, you should be happy with what god gave you, or who are you to play god and change the beautiful creature he has brought into the world for a certain reason. I think for me, it’s been a very empowering and positive thing. I’m not necessarily religious at all in my life, but I’m my own, and I’m in charge of my own destiny. I’m responsible for the faults and problems it causes in my life, but I’ll also take on the accolades and positive things it has done for me. In my brain, there’s no sort of higher power dictating what I should be except myself, so if the closest thing to having god complex is that I’m the creator of my own form, then I think that’s fine.
I get it – you’re sort of taking control of your own image, and throwing those preconceived standards in their face.
Totally—more than half of my clients that I work with are divorcing, or are newly-divorced females. They’re looking for a new lease on life, and give themselves something to help regain their confidence and be like, I still got it, Eddie! If putting a syringe into their lips helps them feel like that, it may not change the way the rest of the world sees them, but it changes how you see yourself. I think that’s the biggest change I saw in myself was that I expected the rest of the world to see me and notice my nose, and those compliments before the television were very few and far between. I noticed those changes, though, and every time I changed something and was happy, I saw it in the mirror and I stood a little taller. I think I walked with more courage and confidence, and that feeling shines through to all the people in your life.
When I met my partner, the first thing he said after we had been on a few dates that the most amazing part of my body was my chest, which was funny because at the time he had no clue I had chest implants. It was so adorable and I laughed, but I waited two more days and told him, you know I had some work done. After that, he was sold and was on the operating table a month later to get himself a set. (laughs) I was like, I hope people don’t think I’m making you do this. He went on this crazy binge of plastic surgery, he was about 16 years older than me, and I was like, I hope people don’t think you’re doing this because of me, I love you the way you are, but if it makes you feel good, I’m not going to stand in your way. Did I think he looked better after his surgery? To be honest, not really. His body was good but when he started working on his face, he always looked regal to me and I thought some of that got a little lost. Still, it didn’t change my love for him, and he was happier after with himself after he did it. Beauty I think is something that’s very subjective, and I’m not saying my way is the only way, so who are we to judge. You’ll never make everyone else happy, so you have to do it for yourself first.
I’m a beauty editor, so I have to ask—do you have a beauty or fitness routine that you want our readers to know about?
I haven’t been to the gym in 7 and a half years. (laughs) I’m blessed with being very tall and lean for sure, and I don’t really diet. For my beauty routine, I do Botox and laser. It’s a lifestyle thing for me—you go to your dentist every six months, and for me, I put my Botox appointment on the calendar every four months. I’ve been getting it since I was 25, and skincare is really important, but I’m the last person to say I spend a lot of money on products. Of course I moisturize and exfoliate, but I do the Pixel laser every 4 to 6 months to stay looking fresh. I use the Retin-A, it burns some of the skin off so you always have fresh skin. I use the tools with the buffing brushes, like the Clarisonic, but what I do is I take the brush and I put it on a screwdriver. (laughs) I do! Because I feel like with the machines, I push and then it stops rotating, so you can do both directions on a screwdriver. They showed it once on TLC with the crystal buffer pad on the screwdriver, and I was like, I don’t know if we should show that because I don’t want people to poke their eyes out, but they did anyway.
What do you think is the most impactful thing you’ve learned about beauty as a whole?
I think it can be a blessing or a curse. If you’re lucky enough to be born beautiful, you still fight a lot of stigma, that doesn’t mean life is easy for you. On either side of the coin, you’re going to have trials and tribulations, but for me, I definitely think owning your image can help you get a leg up on life. You have to define what beauty is for yourself, though. There’s no one thing that is beautiful, and if you don’t have it, then you’re not beautiful. It doesn’t work that way. At its core, beauty comes from confidence and personality. You can gain some of that by changing the exterior, but it comes from the interior at its core.