Welcome to Creators on the Rise, where—in partnership with global creator company Jellysmack—we find and profile breakout creators who are in the midst of extraordinary growth.
As a kid, Joshua David McKenney wasn’t allowed to play with dolls.
His conservative household wasn’t big on the idea of boys embracing anything feminine in any form–which was a big letdown for McKenney, who was besotted with basically everything traditionally associated with femininity. He loved dresses and makeup, and though he wasn’t allowed to try either of them or have dolls, he was allowed to draw “whatever I wanted,” he explains.
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By the time he was an adult and could do what he liked, he’d decided to take his passion to Parsons School of Design. He enrolled for fashion design, then switched to photography, then decided he’d rather be a full-time illustrator. While working as an illustrator, he found himself drawn (no pun intended) back to his childhood love for dolls.
But just because he could embrace dolls didn’t mean there were dolls he wanted to embrace. At least, not in the way he’d dreamed of as a kid. The commercially available dolls like Barbies, Bratz, and Monster High sculpts just weren’t “doing it for me,” he says.
So he set out to create his own doll, and that’s how Pidgin Doll was born.
Pidgin Doll is a custom resin sculpt by McKenney, and if you don’t know what that means, all you have to do is take one look at any of his TikTok or YouTube videos and you’ll see Pidgin Doll in all her glory. She’s a round-faced, ball-jointed doll who stars in many of McKenney’s videos. She’s a canvas where he can try everything from different makeup looks to haircuts and dye jobs.
McKenney originally started posting about Pidgin Doll on Instagram. Then, when TikTok started gaining traction, he began recording his dollmaking and decorating processes and posting them as short clips set to music.
Those brought him an okay audience, but the thing that really kick-started his TikTok account was his voice.
McKenney had been pretty content doing videos set to music, but one night he couldn’t get the idea of a voiceover out of his head. So he rolled over in bed and spent a couple hours voicing over his latest footage. He posted it and went to sleep.
By morning, that video had over a million views.
These days, voiceover content is McKenney’s bread and butter. He posts regularly on TikTok and on YouTube, where his channel has gone from around 60,000 views per month in July 2022 to 58 million in August, 79 million in September, and 62 million in October. His subscriber count, meanwhile, has jumped to nearly 800,000 people.
Looking ahead into 2023, McKenney is working on a new, curvier Pidgin Doll, with plans to sell a limited number of them to collectors. He’s also got some sponsored content in the works, and wants to continue doing live streams where he draws for his audience.
Above all, though, he wants to “elevate the idea of what a doll could be in people’s minds,” he says.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: For anybody who’s reading this and doesn’t know much about you, can you give me a bit of background on you?
Joshua David McKenney: Sure. I moved around a lot growing up. I was born in California and then my parents moved to Florida and then they lived there until I was nine. Then we moved to Pennsylvania, where I grew up in Amish country in Lancaster County. That’s mostly what I consider home. I moved to New York for college to study at Parsons School of Design. Originally I wanted to study fashion design, and then I went into the photography program and did that for a little while. Then I dropped out and started working as an illustrator, and I had an illustration career for about eight years before I got into dollmaking.
I originally started, it was just a hobby. I was really interested in the idea of an art doll and elevating dolls to this higher level. It eventually took over everything I was doing. My husband started working with me as well; that was five years ago. We’ve been doing this together for about five years.
Two years ago, I was big on Instagram. Well, not big, but I had a devoted following of non-doll collectors that would do makeup looks inspired by my dolls and that sort of stuff. For the most part, I was selling my dolls to collectors as art objects and so they had quite high price tags on them compared to a commercially manufactured doll.
Joshua David McKenney: Then about two years ago, I started making videos about my work, first on TikTok, and then we brought them over to Instagram and now on YouTube. I started sharing my work and the process of dollmaking, just as a way that I could share where my art comes from, the feminine aesthetic that I’ve always had and used in my art and where that comes from and that sort of stuff. Making video content really, I think, helps people get a larger idea of where my work is coming from.
Now the focus has shifted and I’m not really even trying to sell dolls anymore. I’m more just creating content and sharing my work that way. I’m getting income from doing ads and sponsored content and that sort of stuff. It’s been a very unpredictable and wild ride, but it’s been great. I feel very fortunate to be able to have this audience and this way to share my work with people.
Tubefilter: Did you end up on TikTok first and then YouTube?
Joshua David McKenney: I ended up on TikTok. I was on YouTube first, technically. I had done a few longer-format videos about putting collections together. The short-format videos that really started on TikTok and then I brought them over to YouTube as well.
Tubefilter: Got you. Do you remember a specific video on TikTok that first took off?
Joshua David McKenney: It was the first video where I did a voiceover. I had started playing around with TikTok, and I would fill myself working and just upload the videos. You know how on TikTok, you can just select the video that you want to use and it will sync it up to music automatically? I was using that feature to create little videos, but I didn’t really have a lot of background in editing or short-format video creation. I started doing that. Then the more I was I was realizing about the way people use sounds and how to combine visuals with the audio. I had this idea in the middle of the night: How I could tell the story of creating a doll and have a little joke at the end?
I wrote it down and I was just about to go back to sleep. Then I was like, “You know what? Just film it now, you’re thinking about it now. You have nothing to do in the morning.” I spent two hours, probably, trying to do a voiceover in bed, and I’d never really done one before. Just going over and over again until it sounded right. I posted it and went to sleep and I woke up and it had hit a million views overnight. I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay, I guess there’s something here.”
Then I really started talking about my process of my work and using my voice to communicate that way, which I’d never really thought of before as an asset, but it was a missing link. People understood that these dolls were cool and had interesting outfits, but I don’t think they really knew much about where they were coming from. Once I started speaking, my audience grew exponentially.
Tubefilter: Got you. That’s very interesting that people are drawn to the voiceover content. I feel like it’s a really uniquely TikTok thing–and now YouTube Shorts too.
Joshua David McKenney: For sure. I’m not a public speaker and I’m not an actor, I really don’t consider myself any kind of performer. I shake in public when I have to speak. The fact that performing and using my voice so much was never something I thought I was even capable of. Now I’m much more comfortable and it’s been actually very effective tool for me.
Tubefilter: It does surprise me to hear that you were nervous, because in your current videos you seem very, very comfortable.
Joshua David McKenney: I’ve been doing it for about two years now, so I’m a little–
Tubefilter: You’re in the groove.
Joshua David McKenney: I’m in the groove now! I do lives a lot too, and I also hopefully get over my fears, that sort of stuff.
Tubefilter: What are your live streams like?
Joshua David McKenney: It depends. If I’m drawing something and I don’t have to film it for content, I’ll sometimes just turn on my live and interact with people and let them watch me draw. Every once in a while, I’ll do something interactive where I’ll start sketching figures and let people shout out what outfit they should be wearing or their hair or that sort of stuff. We communally draw together, which is always fun. I haven’t done that in a little while. Those are really popular. People stick around for those when I do have the energy and the time to draw with them. They usually last about two hours. When I’m done, I have to take a long nap because it’s very…
Tubefilter: It’s a lot of socializing. Got you. Are you still based in New York?
Joshua David McKenney: No, I’m in L.A. now. My husband and I moved to L.A. about three years ago. This whole internet, TikTok, YouTube wing of my career all happened since I moved to L.A.
Tubefilter: Like you mentioned, you had that specific voiceover video that went viral on TikTok and really kickstarted you. Did you have a similar video on YouTube? Was it the same video? Was it a different video?
Joshua David McKenney: I’m trying to think what started…Now I post my videos on a lot of different platforms, and it’s usually a lot of the same content. I’m trying to think, I was posting my stuff up to Shorts for a little while before it really got traction. I’m trying to think of what was the first video that really took off. Which one? Eric, my partner, he’s going to look over to see what it was.
Tubefilter: Thank you, Eric!
Joshua David McKenney: I’d been posting for probably a month or two before all of it. All of a sudden I looked at YouTube I was like, “Oh, wow. I’m really starting to get a lot of views here and a lot of engagement.” The tone of the engagement from YouTube versus TikTok was very different too. Like super…not that people are rude on TikTok, but my YouTube audience is just really positive and really engaged and really likes to interact with me and that sort of stuff. I noticed that I was starting to be referred to as a YouTuber as opposed to a TikToker, which is funny because I am those things, but I consider myself like an artist first and foremost.
I think it was my drawing videos that really started taking off on YouTube first.
Tubefilter: Those are the ones where you do like five figures, your figure drawing?
Joshua David McKenney: Yes. I do it a little faster. I started making those videos just like filler content, just because the demand for videos is so high, and for me to complete a doll from start to finish and make a video about it takes a week minimum. It was very serendipitous. I started using these Posca paint pens, which are basically markers that have paint in them as opposed to like an ink. They’re okay and you can draw light over dark.
I started using those to create quick fashion illustration videos just to show my aesthetic and get a little more variety, because the Pidgin Doll sculpt is only one doll just cast in different complexion colors, and I paint her differently each time. To get more variety, the figures and their proportions and that sort of stuff, I started drawing dolls as well as making physical dolls from start to finish. It was really at first just so I could post a little bit more, but they became their own thing. It’s a really fun way to communicate. I’d never really worked so fast before, but I was just kind of trying to meet a demand for content originally, but it became something.
Tubefilter: Those videos are so interesting. Seeing you get to do different proportions and different weights and heights and sizes, I think those videos are really, really intriguing.
Joshua David McKenney: Thanks. With the drawings, I’m able to get a lot more variety and the way the figures look and be a lot more inclusive, which I think is super important moving forward as a modern person in fashion. So many people are just tired of seeing fashion on the same tall, leggy silhouette. Of course, a fashion illustration is always a little stylized, but I always feel that as long as somebody can see my drawings and not feel excluded from it, I could never do that. The fashion should be fun for everybody. I really believe that, and that’s what I wanted to express with the fashion illustrations.
Tubefilter: That definitely comes across.
Joshua David McKenney: Thanks. Oh, Eric’s talking. He says the first videos of my YouTube to go viral was the one I did about the origin of Betty Boop. I don’t know if you watched that one. I always thought it was a really interesting story. I always thought it would be an interesting movie actually, but Betty Boop the cartoon character, she started out as a doll, but her voice was modeled after this woman named Helen Kane, who was a white woman. She took the animators of Betty Boop to court claiming that they had basically stolen her accent.
In court, they were able to prove that she had actually seen this other Black performer in Harlem, Baby Esther, and that her act was inspired by Esther’s, and so Betty Boop’s origins or the sound of her voice is really inspired by a Black woman. It’s like shouting out to that. I think that was the first one to go viral on YouTube.
I like to try to talk about history and things that I care about with the doll videos as much as I can. I also did a doll hair color video inspired by my favorite bubble gum flavor when I was nine. I guess that was my second most viral one on YouTube. I pull references from whatever I’m thinking about at the time, but I’m also really interested in hair color and hair in general. I do a lot of videos where I’ll make a wig out of alpaca hair. Because it’s an animal fiber, you can actually use human hair dye, and you’d style it, but it’s more to scale to a doll. I do a lot of videos where I make wigs or dolls and style them, and that was one of them.
Tubefilter: Do you have any stylist training or is that something that you self-taught?
Joshua David McKenney: I’ve always dyed my own hair. That’s how I got my first start. I started to dye my hair when I was 16. I have very strong resilient hair, so I learned a lot about bleaching and toning, and I would play with it a lot. I guess that’s how I first started doing that. I do not have any formal training. Before I blew up on TikTok or any of this, I actually did a show that was produced by Hearst Media on Snapchat, Tiny Hair.
This happened right after I moved to L.A. We did three seasons of it, and I would just fly back to New York to shoot it, but they built a miniature salon for my dolls and would make these shows where we do like celebrity-inspired hairstyles. I would make the wigs ahead of time. They had a miniaturist build a whole salon set with a working sink and little mini blow dryer, and we would take the doll through and do them in real-time, like a hair makeover. We did that a lot. Those were sponsored by Pravana, and they would have somebody come in.
I knew a lot about the hair and how to do it, but they would make sure that it looks visually like how it would happen in the salon. I learned a lot. I really polished up my hair knowledge working on that show with the stylists from Pravana as well.
Tubefilter: Can you walk me through when you’re making a doll, how do you source some of the parts? What is the start to finish of making a doll?
Joshua David McKenney: The doll is my own sculpt. A lot of people who make doll content will take an existing commercially manufactured doll, like from Monster High or Bratz or whatever, and wipe it clean. That’s not how I work. I sculpted my doll from scratch. She’s what’s known as a ball-jointed, so she’s cast in resin. She’s strong internally with elastic. Each part is like its own separate piece, and it’s the elastic that holds it together, and it’s what makes her capable of a very wide range of poses.
I work with a casting studio. How it starts is I sculpt the doll, break it up, make joints, engineer it. I send that to a casting studio and they make molds in silicone and cast the dolls for me and send them back to me blank. That’s where I start my videos, is these dolls that I’ve already made that are blank. It just depends on what I want the video to be or what I’m feeling, and oftentimes I don’t even know. I’ll just sit down and I’ll have a face, and I’ll just think about what makeup I’m interested in or what kind of shapes I want to make, what haven’t I done before?
I’ll just start painting the face and then once I got the face, also I think about the hair. Sometimes I’ll pull from wigs that I’ve already made in the past or existing commercial wigs. Then I also have a lot of clothes at this point, because I’ve been doing this for 10 years that are made for Pidgin. I’ll either dress her in those, or I’ll make something good depending on what the video is. Everybody is a little bit different, but everything I’m making and pulling from is something I’ve either made myself or have produced myself. None of it is a commercially playline doll stuff.
Tubefilter: Very cool. I thought you sourced ball-jointed doll parts for her.
Joshua David McKenney: No. I make them myself. Pidgin Dolls is an original sculpt by me. I’m getting more and more into sculpture. I got my own 3-D printer this month.
Because I sculpt digitally. I actually started with the most old-fashioned style of dollmaking, which is porcelain dollmaking. Well, tmaybe not the most old, but it’s very old. My first Pidgin Dolls were porcelain, and they were engineered like a European fashion doll. They had a sculpted head, hands, and feet, and then the body was fabric, like plush. That’s how I first started making her and producing her and photographing her myself. Then I got into resin casting, and I was casting my own dolls in the basement of my apartment building in Brooklyn for about three years. That’s how I would sell.
I would just do everything myself. It’s a completely handmade doll by me. It would take me so long to just finish the physical doll before it was done that I needed to start outsourcing the production of the doll. That’s when I found a casting studio that works with artists like me to help them produce on a very small scale, resin ball-jointed dolls. I sent them my sculpts and they sent them back to me blank now. That’s how I work. With 3-D printing now, I’m able to do more like one-off dolls and change sculpt and do little tweaks here and there. That’s one of my future projects will be more like, I think.
Tubefilter: How does your current video production schedule work? Are you aiming to post a certain number of videos per week? How often are you filming?
Joshua David McKenney: It’s different every week. It really depends. My husband and I, we work together and he helps a lot. It really depends. Things will come up. I’ll write a schedule down. I’m like, “Okay, this is my goal. I want to try to do like three posts this week. Two drawing and one thing. All of these longer-term projects.” I’m not always sure when they’re going to be done because there’s a lot of like, I’m not quite sure how long things are going to take, like how long it’ll take me to print this thing or to sew this dress.
I don’t know if you can see, but I’m making Christmas cookies right now, like doll inspired Christmas cookies, like gingerbread cookies. They’re not amazing. I’m always trying to do new things and switch up the content so it doesn’t feel repetitive. I don’t know, just to make it interesting. This project came out of a drawing that I started last week where I just drew gingerbread people as fashion illustrations and then people really wanted to see them as real gingerbread people. I was like, “Okay, I’ll try.” That’s what I’m doing now. A lot of it happens really organically. One post will lead to the next and then the other one, then we also do like paid content. Especially on TikTok, we do a lot of paid content. We just finished ad for Pop–Tarts.
That was our second ad, where we did two dolls inspired by flavored brown sugar cinnamon. Eric made the whole 1970s variety show set for them to stand on at the end. It was like a whole production. When we get jobs like that, that’ll suck up my personal content when we’re doing that sort of stuff. It’s really, really different from week to week, what’s going on. I got this new printer, so now I’m using that. I’m starting to use that in videos. There’s certainly not a schedule. I try to keep a schedule, but the further out I schedule things, the more I realize, “Oh, I can’t,” because new things pop up or things don’t work or whatever. It’s very organic.
Tubefilter: I know you said that you don’t sell to collectors as much anymore, but do you take projects or commissions very often?
Joshua David McKenney: The only collection, the only projects that we really take now is when it’s like a sponsored post. I’ll do custom, like we just did one for Netflix, and we did one for American Horror Stories on FX. For those, I’ll do a custom doll and those usually take a really long time because there’s an inspiration source, so I have to figure out how to miniaturize the outfit that they’re wearing, how I’m going to scale down the hair, if I’m going to custom make any of the shoes or anything like that. That’s really the only custom orders I’m taking right now.
When it’s sort of a larger video, they don’t get those dolls either. I keep them. They end up in the archive of my dolls. It’s slowly growing. I’m releasing my first collection probably in a year, that I’m working on now, and they’re all handmade, hand-painted, hand-sewn dolls with this new version of Pidgin Doll I’m going to call Pidgin Doll Luxe, which is a little curvier.
Tubefilter: Oh, cool!
Joshua David McKenney: That’ll be my first doll that’s available for sale, probably this year. It’s a project that I started two years ago, but it’s just taken me this long to get the clothes looking right, really make it look how I wanted it to, because content creation takes up the majority of my schedule now.
Tubefilter: Somehow I’m not shocked. Keep in touch about the next Pidgin Doll, because that sounds very cool.
Joshua David McKenney: Thanks. Yes. There’s already one up. It’s on my YouTube and on my TikTok, she’s called Pidgin Doll Luxe, but she has two other looks that I haven’t posted about yet. After I post them, then I’ll put them up on my website. It’s a really limited run. There’s only like 30 dolls total. There’s a good chance that I’ll probably only sell them to my existing collectors just because they’re used to the engineering of a ball-jointed doll, whereas most people are expecting it to be more like a Barbie doll or a Monster High doll or something that’s a little more user friendly.
Tubefilter: Got you. She’s fragile, right?
Joshua David McKenney: Yes. They’re a little more…It’s a combination between, like, resin feels like a cross between plastic and porcelain. It’s very heavy as opposed to plastic, which is light. It’s very durable, but it does crack like porcelain, if you really impact it hard it will snap. It’s not flexible the way vinyl is.
It’s usually for people’s own benefit that I try to keep the people that buy my dolls to people who understand what they’re buying. Because they’re all handmade there’s a pretty high price as well, but I want to make sure people know what they’re getting into when they buy from me.
Tubefilter: How have things changed for you both personally and professionally since you started growing this platform?
Joshua David McKenney: I would say the biggest change has been shifting from existing in this very niche world, which is like art doll collecting, into something a lot more mainstream and having this much larger audience. It’s changed how I think about my work and the priorities that I have with it. In a good way, I think. I’ve enjoyed it. I get recognized when I go places now, and I take pictures with people. My audience is very young, so I get a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds of artists, aspiring creatives, and they come up to me and want pictures and show me their work. Having a mentor role has been really amazing and really rewarding. I think it’s one of my favorite parts about all of this, shifting from selling dolls.
The nice thing about when we were doing stuff in the doll world is Eric and I would travel internationally together to different doll conventions and meet collectors. It was a fun period of a career, and now it’s a lot more solitary. Most of the work I do takes place in my studio, which is part of our apartment. The projects that I’m doing take a lot longer because I have to film everything I’m doing now. I don’t create anything without filming it, which is a blessing and a curse. In general, I’m really grateful for the audience and the eyeballs, and all the love I get from people. I get so much positivity from people and encouragement in people that find my work inspiring and that sort of stuff. It’s been a great ride so far.
Tubefilter: I wanted to touch back on something. You said you don’t want to slight your TikTok audience, but there’s a difference between your audiences, and you find YouTube’s audience to be a little more positive and supportive. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Joshua David McKenney: Yes. In general, the difference is definitely more…It’s just a feeling. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it. I get a lot of love and support on TikTok as well, for sure, but I feel like there’s a lot of policing that happens on TikTok that doesn’t necessarily happen so much on YouTube. People seem a little bit more like just accepting of the way things are. People will have their ideas if I’m doing a certain look. For example, I did a doll inspired by gyaru, it’s a style developed in Japan, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, in the ’70s.
It was a reaction to Japanese beauty standards, and it’s like the opposite of pale skin and dark hair and very gentle beauty, and going the opposite and doing like super tan, blonde hair, big eyes that are really in your face. I did my own interpretation of it, and on TikTok, people were like, “That’s not correct.” They had their own ideas about what they thought gyaru was. Gyaru has been around since the ’70s, so there’s all these different versions of it in reality, but people wanted to police how they thought I was interpreting this. Then I did a more mainstream…This is a very silly thing in general, but I did a more typical gyaru makeup and then that was received a lot better.
The negativity I get is never really that serious. It’s just art critiquing and that sort of stuff. YouTube just feels like a more positive place. It feels a little younger too, so maybe that’s part of it. Technically you have to be older to be on TikTok, like over 16 or something, whereas YouTube, I think I get a lot of kids that are just happy to be there.
You can tell that it comes from a good place on TikTok. They’re trying to hold people accountable and trying to keep conversations going. You don’t want to disrespect it, but it can be frustrating when you’re just like, “This isn’t that serious, but okay.”
It comes from a good place and they’re trying to make the world better and help people to grow, and I get that.
Tubefilter: Is there anything that you’re looking forward to, aside from your collection, in the next year or so? Goals you want to hit?
Joshua David McKenney: We’re always looking to grow our audience, grow the reach, do cooler things with dolls. The reason I got into dollmaking is because I grew up in a really religious home with very strong gender roles, and my love for femininity was always something that was…I was allowed to draw whatever I wanted, but I was never allowed to do any gender play, dress as a girl, play with dolls, that sort of stuff. By the time I got into dollmaking, I was an adult and what existed commercially just wasn’t doing it for me.
That’s why I started creating my own dolls, because I really wanted to elevate the idea of what a doll could be in people’s minds. I really think it’s such a cool and beautiful artform, and just really fun. There are just so many directions to go with it. I would say one of my biggest goals is to just contribute to that. I’m not the only artist who works with dolls, and I think there’s a movement toward it. I think that’s my goal, in general, is to elevate this idea of dolls, make it something really expressive, and I don’t know, also just really queer, really touch on that side of queer culture. Most of my audience is queer. I just think it’s a very undervalued queer art form, so I want to keep pushing it.
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