Living Doll

The days (and nights) of Debra Rueb's Tammy

The first thing you need to know about Tammy is she's not a doll in the traditional sort of way. Not in the cutesy-poopsy "dress me up all pretty for a date with Ken" kind of way. Or the "what if I get my precious Malibu hairdo wet when I go swimming?" kind of way. Forget about it, sister. Tammy lives a little more than that. Tammy is a vixen, an adventurer, a free spirit and a heroine. She wears combat boots, bounces on trampolines, goes hiking in Big Bend and certainly doesn't limit herself to short, plastic men with painted-on underwear.

And while that little miss priss Barbie was busy deciding which shade of pink would best suit her million-dollar Dream House, Tammy was getting a tattoo buzzed on her shoulder. She's so cool she didn't even cry.

Well, to be honest, Tammy didn't cry because Tammy can't cry. Because Tammy is, after all, a doll. Just don't tell that to her friend and alter ego, photographer Debra Rueb.

Tammy Says It Tickles
Tammy Says It Tickles

"I am very protective of Tammy," says Rueb, a Houston-area artist who began posing and shooting her childhood Tammy doll in strange, sweet, often eye-catching positions as a graduate student at the University of Houston ten years ago. Tammy, a doll sold briefly in the 1950s as an alternative to Mattel's Barbie, is a brunette with big eyes and a cherubic face. A face that appeals to Rueb over the more popular Barbie's gaunt, post-plastic-surgery look.

"She's got a sweet innocence," Rueb says of Tammy. "We all know Barbie is pretentious, even if she's not alive."

Rueb, who has exhibited all over Texas, was working on a series about swimmers when she hit on the idea of posing her Tammy doll. The swimming series had become somewhat "exhausting," as there was often little control over the subject matter. What would be the perfect model? Someone who would sit, stand and lie down for hours on end, wouldn't move a muscle and would allow Rueb to dress her in any type of outfit and place her in every situation. Rueb dug out her childhood Tammy doll, which she had received as a gift from her parents as a young girl (her two sisters had received Barbie and Midge dolls so as to avoid fights over which doll was whose). Rueb knew that Tammy, even after years of being stored away in various closets, was the subject she'd been looking for.

But that doesn't mean the Tammy series is any less tiring on Rueb. To play with the perception of Tammy's size, Rueb often has to contort her own body into odd positions, lie on the floor or work from different angles. Rueb often needs the assistance of friends to hold or support Tammy's body while she shoots. And then there are the odd looks she gets when she pulls out Tammy at the beach, in parks or public places and begins to pose her (although Rueb says she often connects with other former Tammy owners who recognize the doll). And, as Tammy can't heal or grow, if there's an injury, it's permanent.

"Her feet have started to dimple from the G.I. Joe boots she wears," Rueb admits.

She always keeps a notebook handy to scribble down ideas for Tammy as well as suggestions given to her by friends and family. Rueb likes playing with words as well as images and incorporates metaphors and clichés into her work. For example, in Tammy Gets Level Headed, Rueb posed Tammy with a carpenter's leveling tool resting on the top of her head. But whatever the subject matter, Rueb works to give Tammy as realistic a feel as possible. Depending on the angles Rueb uses, in some Tammy shots the doll appears eerily human-size.

"I want to confuse you," says Rueb. "I want you to question what's real and what's not real."

To Rueb, who firmly refers to Tammy by name only (never as "my doll"), Tammy can be a sort of extension of herself, the parts that Rueb might never let show. Rueb herself might never get a tattoo, but Tammy will. Perhaps Rueb won't wear a bikini to the beach, but Tammy wants to. Rueb wouldn't steal away someone's boyfriend, but Tammy just might get her claws into Ken and happily kiss him in public.

To create even more "reality" in her shots, Rueb has started to incorporate Photoshop technology into her art. In one piece titled Tammy Feels Hot Tonight, Rueb used Photoshop to superimpose a shot of a negligee-wearing Tammy over an old photograph of Rueb's college boyfriend lazily smoking in bed with a come-hither look on his face. In another, Tammy Wrap Dances, Rueb placed a silhouette shot of Tammy's head over a dancer making moves Tammy's plastic body would not allow her to do. With Photoshop, "there will be no bounds to her abilities," Rueb insists.

And no bounds on where she goes, either. When it came time to celebrate Mardi Gras, Rueb insisted on bringing Tammy along with a group of friends, just in case a photo opportunity presented itself. Rueb's friends weren't exactly thrilled about the plan.

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