TOWN OF ULSTER–Robert Tonner admits he may lose some of his loyal fan base over his latest collectible based on transgender teen celebrity Jazz Jennings, but he said that’s a risk he’s willing to take.
The world-famous, Ulster County-based entrepreneur and owner of the Tonner Doll Company launched Jazz at the Toy Fair in Manhattan in February, and ever since, the emails and messages have been rolling in from all corners of the globe.
“For the most part, the public has been very positive about it,” Tonner said on Wednesday at his new digs at 1094 Morton Boulevard in the town of Ulster.
“I’d say a good 60 percent are like, ‘Right on. This is what should be happening. This is a progressive way… to look at the world.’
“We had 20 percent who just didn’t understand it, and then we had probably 20 (percent) who thought it was the end of the world–literally.”
Tonner, headquartered in Ulster County for about 30 years, said he has even gotten a few threats since debuting the world’s first transgender doll.
“It’s a doll for crying out loud,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
For those outside the loop, Jennings is the 16-year-old star of TLC’s “I Am Jazz.” Born a male, Jazz has identified as female since she could talk–something her parents told Barbara Walters on “20/20,” where their daughter appeared as a guest in 2007.
Jennings, an LGBTQ advocate, was named one of Time Magazine‘s “Most Influential Teens” in 2014 and 2015 and is the youngest person listed in The Advocate Magazine’s “Top Forty Under 40.”
Tonner calls her courageous and can’t wait to see how the product does on the market.
Right now, the molds are being made at his overseas factory in China. The 18-inch doll is based on Jazz when she was about 10 years old. Tonner expects to produce the dolls in a limited-edition test run in mid- to late-summer.
At the moment, he is unsure if Jazz will be sold strictly as a collectible or make her rounds into the general population as a play doll, but she will be safety-tested for ages 8 and up.
“I didn’t want to hide the word ‘transgender,’ but I also thought in this day and age, does it even matter? Jazz is a kid who’s an entrepreneur. She’s written books. She has a TV show, so I figured that’s more than enough, but with some of the response we’ve gotten, there’s more education that has to be done. I would love to get it out to the general population. I hope it does get out to the kids who really need it.”
Tonner, formerly a top designer for Bill Blass, said Jazz is among his dolls based on characters that shatter stereotypes. He calls them “socially transformative heroes.”
In 2002, he created a doll modeled after Emme, the plus-sized supermodel. The doll sold out in both the London and New York stores where she was unveiled.
Eight years later, Tonner introduced the first gay character, Andy Mills, and in 2014, he debuted a doll in the likeness of Carmen Dell’Orefice, the world’s oldest working model, who, at the time was 81.
“These are people that…instead of putting them in a box, they transform how people think about a certain segment of society,” he said.
After watching the “20/20” segment 10 years ago, Tonner said he was immediately impressed by Jennings and tucked her story in the back of his mind.
Over the years, he watched her achieve celebrity status and decided about three years ago to reach out to her parents with the idea of crafting a doll in her image.
The parents talked to her, and she gave her stamp of approval, Tonner said.
The 64-year-old Stone Ridge resident considers himself somewhat of a trailblazer in the doll industry because he is willing to take chances and make indirect bold statements with his stylish dolls.
“I have the opportunity to do it. I have the resources to make this product. I don’t have to worry about a board of directors or pleasing stock holders and all that. If I want to do a project, I can just go after it.”
As for those who say the concept of a transgender doll is perverted, unhealthy and even confusing to small children, Tonner said while he respects everyone’s views, he will charge ahead with Jazz, even if it means losing a few customers.
“If you’re doing something that you believe and there are people who don’t want to come along on that journey or don’t want to educate themselves, that’s their issue, not ours. We’re going to do what we think is right.”