This Model Turned Toymaker Is Diversifying the Doll Game

Mala Bryan says she had to work twice as hard to make it as a black model. Now she’s redefining beauty with Malaville Toys, her collection of black dolls with a range of skin tones, eye colours and hair textures

Ishani Nath
mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

All dolled up: Mala Bryan poses with Maisha, Mala, Malina and Mhina—four of the dolls from her Malaville Toys collection (Courtesy of Mala Bryan)

With the holiday season in full swing, we chatted with Mala Bryan—the 34-year-old international model turned toymaker—to find out what inspired her to create the magical world of Malaville Toys, an exclusive collection of black dolls with a range of skin tones, eye colours and hair textures.

Her four dolls—Maisha, Mala, Malina and Mhina—debuted earlier this year, and Bryan has since received orders from all over the world, including right here in Canada. So we also caught up with one mother in Toronto who totally made her daughter’s day with an early Christmas gift of a Malaville doll that looks just like her—and one more waiting for her, wrapped under the tree.

You are originally from St. Lucia. Was skin tone a big challenge there?
Growing up, I didn’t experience it. That’s why having only white dolls never bothered me. I never thought of colour or race or anything like that. When I got out into the world at age 18, especially when I joined the modelling industry, that’s when my eyes were opened up to being placed into a category—and it was not a good feeling. 

mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

(Courtesy of Mala Bryan)

What was your experience as a model that made you more aware of your skin tone?
Having less castings than the white girls; they would have 10 for the day and I would maybe have one or none. I would go searching for an agency and they would say, “Sorry, but we already have a black girl.” My agency told me that as a black model, I had to work twice as hard to make it into the industry.

How did that experience translate into you wanting to create a line of diverse dolls?
Being in modelling, it’s an extremely competitive industry and most of the time you’re travelling alone and it can get very lonely and depressing. I am an only child; growing up, dolls were a form of therapy and kept me company, so I started collecting again. I didn’t realize the lack of diversity was such a big deal until I wanted to add Afro dolls to my collection and couldn’t find any. I Googled tutorials to put in weaves for the dolls, and did that first, but their hair was too heavy. Then I found tutorials where you could re-root all the hair, taking it out and replacing it—but it would be super expensive (like $90+) and take days. As much as I love my dolls and crafting, it became so frustrating and I realized that parents shouldn’t have to do that.

mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

(Courtesy of Mala Bryan)

You launched Malaville Toys in early 2016, and the idea quickly went viral. Why do you think it resonates with people?
Because of the time that we’re in right now. It’s like being in the modelling industry and needing this thing to say that you’re not alone in this world. When the dolls launched, there was a lot of protesting and news around the Black Lives Matter movement. Black people needed something to say “This is ours.”

You also designed the dolls to be fresh faced, with no makeup. Why was that important to you?
One of the complaints a lot of parents have is that dolls have too much makeup. I wanted to show that you can have dark skin, with no makeup, and look beautiful.

mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

(Courtesy of Mala Bryan)

With ideas like this, there will always be critics. For instance, an Instagram user said that your darkest-skinned doll, Maisha, wouldn’t sell. You jumped on and explained that Maisha is the second best-selling doll, but how did that incident make you feel?
I always have a soft spot for very dark skinned people because of the stigma against them, so when I read that comment, I just flipped. It was painful to read. Words carry frequency, and I felt how angry this person was—but why do you have to be angry at someone because their skin tone is much darker? It was just a reminder for us as black people to send some extra love to darker skinned people because they suffer even more than us. I posted it as a reminder because we need that every once in a while. 

mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

(Courtesy of Mala Bryan)

Going into 2017, you have six more dolls coming out. What is your message going forward?
The message, especially for black girls, is that you’re beautiful, no matter what others say. You have to live within yourself and know that you’re beautiful. For people of other races, my suggestion is to buy black dolls for your children. Parents should pay attention to the diversity that goes on in the children’s play world, because it’s very important to their real world.

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mala bryan malaville dolls black dolls

Kimberly Lansdowne and her daughter Yahannah with her new Malina doll (Photo: Cayo Whyte)

Improving a child’s play world, and hopefully, in time, her real world, was exactly what motivated Toronto mother Kimberly Lansdowne to order three Malaville dolls this holiday season.

Lansdowne, who describes herself as “white as white can be,” grew up playing with classic blond Barbies, but as the mom of a 2-year-old biracial daughter, she found herself looking for dolls of a different colour.

“As a mum of a daughter that looks physically different than me, I know I have to put myself in that reality and think about what needs to be different so she can have the same feelings that I did growing up,” says Lansdowne. “I wanted my daughter to feel valued in her own appearance. We’re really fortunate that there’s lots of women of all colours in her life that are setting a good example, but walking into a toy store is depressing.”

Lucky for Lansdowne, an internet chat group pointed her toward Malaville Toys. “They had natural hair, no overdone makeup, and they were from a black-owned business, so that ticked all the boxes for me,” says Landsdowne.

“My daughter, Yahannah, is fairly light skinned so I specifically wanted the very dark doll Maisha, who resembles many of her Jamaican aunties and relatives—so that was the first doll I had set out to purchase. Then I realized that she looked quite similar to the lighter skinned doll Malina, so I wanted her to have that one too,” says Lansdowne. “Then I was thinking, when we give toys, we don’t always think about these things—it’s hard enough to do when we provide for our own kids. So I bought a third doll for a toy drive.”

And Christmas came early for Yahannah, when Lansdowne let her young daughter unwrap her Malina doll a few before the big day.

“She reacted just as I thought, very excited and fascinated with the natural hair,” says Lansdowne. “She wanted to use her own comb to do up dolly’s hair.”

We think Lansdowne and Bryan may have just won Christmas.

Related:
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