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This ‘Human Ken Doll’ Does It for the Art

Justin Jedlica isn’t trying to be Barbie’s boyfriend—he modifies his body as a form of self-expression

Justin Jedlica, aka the “Human Ken Doll,” wants you to know that he’s more than plastic. He’s an artist who uses his body as his canvas, much like Picasso. But Picasso didn’t make one painting and then put down the paintbrush: “So why do people tell me, ‘When are you gonna stop?’”

The 41-year-old could easily pass for being in his 20s, with a surgically chiseled face and exaggerated, sculptural muscles on a skinny frame. His cheekbones are sharp and straight, his features elven and slightly alien, a synthetic beauty that takes you back. He speaks about his surgeries with exuberance, happy to take off his shirt at a moment’s notice, showing off his shoulder implants to me even over Skype.

Jedlica lives in L.A. and works part-time as a plastic-surgery consultant, helping his clients design custom implants and even accompanying some into the operating room, where he helps the surgeons markup their bodies. He spends the rest of his time traveling or selling clips of his most recent operations to TV networks, which relish the extreme nature of his body modification.

It was, in fact, the media who gave him the title of the “Human Ken Doll.” When 20/20 discovered a photo of Jedlica in a book by photographer Phil Toledano, they approached him to be a part of the show. Jedlica was happy to volunteer: “I was so proud of my work, because for me, it’s like wearing my art on my body.” He thought the segment would document his surgical process: how he works closely with surgeons and sketches and creates his own custom implants. Instead, the show dubbed him the “Human Ken Doll” in a 2012 episode called “Going to Extremes.” The piece instantly went viral, and the title stuck.

The transformation all started in Westchester, New York, where he was born to parents from the Bronx. He lived in upstate New York until the 10th grade, when his family moved to North Carolina. In high school, he was a misfit, “totally nerdy,” with over-plucked eyebrows and super long hair. He was creative and a little “cray cray.” He didn’t fit in and liked it that way.

He also had a bulbous nose, and thought it might be an obstacle to obtaining the kind of life he wanted: that of the rich and famous, like he saw on TV. He idolized Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers, whose surgically enhanced features seemed more like caricatures than reality. He stapled photos of them inside his closet while he dreamed of escaping the confines of his turbulent, working-class upbringing.

Jedlica’s father didn’t drink or do drugs, but he did have a temper. If Jedlica broke a rule — like leaving his snowy boots at the door, his father would pick up one of them and slam Jedlica in the back of the head with it. Somehow, he was worse toward Jedlica’s mother, and so, as Jedlica got older, he became well-versed in calling the police and filing assault charges and restraining orders. His mom tried to leave with Jedlica and his three siblings, but her religious family didn’t condone divorce and she was too poor to seek other opportunities.

He thought changing his appearance could be his way out: Getting a nose job, marrying rich and taking life into his own hands. He prepaid for his first surgery when he was 17 by collecting $3,500 that family friends and relatives had gifted him, adding it to the money he made as a waiter at a local golf club where his mom worked as a personal trainer. (He credits the job with teaching him the manners and habits of the rich.) Paying for the procedure himself — which he got just three days after his 18th birthday — was one of the most gratifying parts of the process: “I know that sounds silly: How could writing a check for a plastic surgery do that to you? But it validated that I was important to myself and that I was worth it.”

Jedlica’s parents divorced not long afterward, so he moved to his own place in North Carolina, where he started a business doing faux-paint finishes (e.g., trompe l’oeil) for interior designers. He also started playing with drag, performing regularly at Legends Nightclub in Raleigh. He loved the idea of modifying himself like an illusionist. “You start to feel like a celebrity in your own little world,” he says. “But I also think I was putting on a mask, hiding who I was.”

Eventually, Jedlica moved to New York City to seek romance. He found what he was looking for when he was 27, with an older married man who lived in Chicago. The man was “very validated by sex, and I was very validated by money and being taken care of,” Jedlica says. They were a good pair: Jedlica got to play the role of a “house husband,” and with a partner who was eager to provide, he started experimenting with more intense surgeries. For Christmas, he asked for pec implants — for Jedlica, it was a big step and “a little scary.” He’d always been skinny, and felt that surgically adding muscles would help him gain access to a masculine kind of beauty.

The surgery led to another major discovery as well: He could customize his implants (at the time, for only $350 extra). “It opened Pandora’s box,” he says. He realized he could design anything he wanted, not just use standard sizes and shapes. (His pec implants are rectangular and high on his chest.) The following Christmas, he asked for bicep and triceps implants from his still married boyfriend, and began changing his skinny body into something molded, muscled and conspicuously male.

The “Human Ken Doll” designation that followed, though, isn’t without its drawbacks. Namely: He’s just one of many such Kens. And while they often share mutual friends, the relationships can be combative. “We don’t always wish the best for the other one,” says Jedlica. “We’re competing for the same media pieces about who spent more money on their body.” (For Jedlica, that number is $500,000, about 60 percent of which he’s spent himself; the rest was gifted or comped by surgeons and media.) His biggest “rival,” U.K.-based 34-year-old Rodrigo Alves, has spent more than $700,000 on surgeries.

When he was younger, Alves told InStyle he was “fat, ugly, misshapen.” He was bullied for not fitting in, and he turned to plastic surgery to transform himself. He aspired to look like a Disney prince — his own version of a doll — with artificial features that mesmerizes strangers. In 2017, he entered the Guinness World Records for “Most Cosmetic Procedures” with 51 surgeries and more than 100 cosmetic procedures. (Most recently, he’s sworn himself off additional surgeries; anything more would jeopardize his health.)

Though the title of the “Human Ken Doll” suggests the idea of a platonic, ideal male beauty, both Alves and Jedlica look unconventional and pride themselves on standing out — despite the “freak show” treatment it typically engenders. Once, for instance, Jedlica was featured on a show called New Money, in which his body won the number one spot for the tackiest way to spend newly made riches. Meanwhile, his Instagram posts are rife with trolls. “This gonna give me nightmares,” wrote one commenter on a photo of Jedlica and Alves at a party. “Two human monsters,” read another.

Aside from getting criticized and judged by strangers, Jedlica thinks there’s something “very superficial and narcissistic” about being called a “Human Ken Doll.” “It demeans the talent and skill set I’ve developed over the years, learning about plastic surgery, body modification and aesthetics.”

Though Jedlica has no formal medical training in plastic surgery, there’s a “personal feeling that goes into it,” too, says Paul Chugay, a plastic surgeon in Long Beach, California, who collaborates with Jedlica in designing custom implants for his patients. “Some of the artistry is definitively something you can’t teach.” Either way, the work feels rewarding to Jedlica. “People sense that what I have to say is something important,” he says.

Needless to say, regular procedures have become “blassé, passé and boring” for Jedlica. On the flip side, though, spending $78,000 and undergoing multiple surgeries over four years for a never-before-attempted latissimus dorsi back implant is a thrill, even if he ended up removing it because he didn’t like the way it looked. The graphic nature of the procedures no longer daunts him either: For some superficial surgeries (procedures that go under the fascia, not muscle), he even forgoes general anesthesia. “The hard part is you feel the tugging and smell the burning flesh when it’s cauterizing. But you can tolerate it as long as you’re mentally prepared.”

Sometimes, however, Jedlica has moments of doubt — especially when he looks at all the other patients in the hospital who didn’t choose to be there. “They’re all cut up and cut open, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be cut up and cut open and in pain, but I’m doing it to myself…” Still, Jedlica has been lucky: There haven’t been any major complications during or after any of his procedures. He doesn’t take it for granted either, building a celebration around each of his recoveries. Once, he had an incision that went from one ear completely across his forehead to the other ear. Throughout his recovery, he rented a big house and hosted a kind of “destination party.” “Here I am with 100 staples in my head. Twenty-five boys come over after the bar and are naked, jumping in the pool… I loved that!”

In the end, it’s exactly the life he envisioned for himself — jet-setting around the world, staying at luxury resorts, wearing a 5-karat diamond ring atop his finger, recovering from his procedures among friends and naked men. All thanks to a scalpel. In this way, plastic surgery is the closest thing to realizing a God complex. Or as Jedlica puts it, “I have the choice to change myself, change my life and completely mold myself the way I want.”