The Fresh Dolls: Interview with Dr. Lisa Williams

The Fresh Dolls are a new line of diverse dolls that embrace multiculturalism and come with an array of fabulous clothes that are interchangeable with Barbie’s wardrobe. The Fresh Dolls were created by Dr. Lisa Williams, a top African American academic and publisher, to ensure that children of color can see themselves presented in their playthings.

Dr. Lisa carefully designed each doll’s face sculpt, skin tone, and hair texture to reflect authentic representation. The effect is a gorgeous collection of dolls that embrace the beauty of Black and Brown communities.

Dr. Lisa recently discussed her experiences creating this brand via an exclusive interview.

Megan Meehan (MM): You started your career as a college professor, so what was your primary area of study and how, if at all, did your career and academia influence your creativity?

Dr. Lisa: My primary areas of study were marketing, supply chain management and research methodology. In research, there is a little creativity per se, it’s very scientific and analytical. So that’s why watching the recreated segment of the groundbreaking Doll Study of the 1940’s by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark grabbed my attention. Rooted in research, it was found children preferred white dolls and assigned positive characteristics to it, compared to black dolls. Even though decades have passed since the initial Doll Study, findings revealed some bias still exists and positive attributes are associated with lighter skin tones, and negative attributes with darker skin tones. This was the paradigm shift for me, and ultimately led me to this path. I literally had to move from being an analytical left-brain thinker to a creative right-brain thinker. It’s similar to being right hand dominant and then one day you have to switch and start to write with your left hand. It was quite a challenge to shift my thinking, and I’m glad I did because of the impact I’m having on the lives of little brown children today.

MM: You have been designing dolls since 2003 when you formed the World Entertainment Publishing and Inspiration. So, how did you first get into the toy industry?

Dr. Lisa: Well, it wasn’t exactly a straight path to the toy industry. As a professor, I had written several articles and books. At the time, my most current research involved identifying factors that lead to success. I interviewed CEOs from several Fortune 500 companies. One of the CEOs was H. Lee Scott from Walmart. Once the book was published, I was asked if Walmart could sell the book in their stores. After less than a nanosecond, I said yes! The book did well and I was asked to write children’s books. As a professor I was accustomed to teaching executives, MBA and PhD students, I wasn’t familiar with children’s literature, so I initially said no. It was only after much thought and consideration that I recognized the unique opportunity to support children’s literacy and at that point I was all in.

So, the inception of EPI KidBooks began and I started hiring authors and illustrators. The books grew into successful collections highlighting diversity and inclusion of African-American, Latina, Asian and Caucasian children. Then I was asked to create a line of dolls in the image and likeness of the characters in the books. Believe it or not, I actually said no again. Not once — not twice — but three times! It was only after seeing a recreated segment of the groundbreaking Doll Study of the 1940’s by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which found children preferred white dolls and assigned positive characteristics to it, compared to black dolls. My mind and heart were changed when I heard a chocolate little girl point to her black doll and say her doll’s skin is nasty, inferring the same about her skin. I was instantly compelled to begin making black, brown and mixed-race dolls for multicultural children. From here my work in the toy industry began.

MM: How did you come up with the concept for the fresh Dolls and what was the toughest thing about designing each one?

Dr. Lisa: The toughest thing about designing dolls is ensuring each one has their own look, personality and style. It’s similar to writing characters in a book. You begin with an idea of the character’s role and personality, as the book develops, the characters evolve. Oftentimes characters progress in a direction the author has not planned. Well, this is similar to The Fresh Dolls, as the product line expands, so do the doll characters, and nuances of their personalities and fashion styles. Another challenge was ensuring each doll was authentic. This is why great attention was given to create custom facial sculpts, skin tones, hair, and bodies to represent the beauty and diversity of different ethnicities. Across collections, each facial sculpt is a unique piece of art. Our African-American face is different for our Afro-Latin face, which is different from our Caucasian face. Our custom blended skin tones have rich, warm, gorgeous undertones to mirror the beauty of different ethnicities from around the world.

The most fun challenge was designing hairstyles. We know hair play is a key factor for children, therefore selecting washable, style-able, playable hair was critical. To represent multiple ethnicities, we have a variety of hair textures and styles such as curls, waves, braids, and straight hair. Children can have endless hours of play and increased fun with our dolls because the hair can be washed and styled in a variety of hairstyles similar to the child’s real hair.

MM: These dolls come with some truly beautiful and fabulous clothes! Do you design their wardrobe, too?

Dr. Lisa: Yes, we designed the clothes too. We’re constantly coming up with new fashion styles that represent each doll’s unique personality. We want them to be trendy, fashionable, and fresh. We actually call our style “trendy elegance.”

MM: The clothes can also fit Barbie, right? How important was that cross — brand play option to you?

Dr. Lisa: Having cross-brand play options is very important because its vital children have diversity in their toy box. Our doll bodies have fuller, more representative bodies than traditional fashion dolls. We wanted all dolls in the “dolly-universe” to be able to exchange clothes, just like sisters and friends do in real life. Therefore, we design fashions that are trendy and fashionable, and also adaptable to various doll body shapes. We’re bringing diversity to the toybox, in a unique way that allows fashion cross- play.

MM: What is some of the best bit of feedback you’ve received about the dolls?

Dr. Lisa: The best feedback is when I see little girls run to the dolls screaming, “mommy, mommy, look she looks just like me!” That makes my heart leap for joy. Another piece of feedback, honestly, I wasn’t prepared for, is when I see mothers and grandmothers come up to me with tear-stained faces thanking me for doing this. They share testimonies of how having a doll that looked like them would’ve helped them with their self-esteem as a young girl. They give me hugs, send prayers for me to continue the good work, and share words of inspiration. Hearing little girls scream with excitement and listening to the stories from the adults really touch my heart. I didn’t expect people to be moved so deeply by these dolls. I am deeply humbled.

MM: How did you break into the major big box stores and drive up interest in this brand?

Dr. Lisa: Walmart has been an amazing partner from the very beginning because they saw the benefit and importance of having representation in the toy isle. It all started with their forward thinking to allow and outlet for my multicultural dolls. Having the doll line available in Walmart offered credibility and was a launchpad to creating interest in other retailers.

MM: To be honest, do you have a favorite doll and a favorite outfit? If so, which ones and why?

Dr. Lisa: Well, that’s like asking a mother to pick between her children. I honestly cannot answer that question. hey each have a special place in my heart and they each represent a little piece of me.

MM: How do you hope the fresh doll line expands in the future?

Dr. Lisa: I love dreaming about this! We have Fresh Dolls, for girls, and Fresh Squad for our boys. I want to see more ethnicities, more body shapes, more hairstyles and textures for both collections. I want to see the Fresh Dolls and Fresh Squad on more items to create sacred spaces for children. I want multicultural children to see their beauty and brilliance reflected back to them everywhere they look. I want comforters, towels, shower curtains, toothpaste, toothbrush, sweatshirts, backpacks, pencils, hair ribbons, placemats, notebooks, apparel and shoes. You name it! If it touches a child’s life, I want a Fresh Doll representing that child on it!

MM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

Dr. Lisa: Yes, we have exciting projects on the horizon. More to come in the way of doll collections, diversity of characters, books, media outlets, etc. I’m particularly thrilled to share Fresh Dolls and Positively Perfect Dolls will be featured in the film, “Black Santa!” It will be released next year on Lifetime. It’s going to be exciting seeing children interact with our dolls on the small screen. What fun!

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To learn more, visit Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TheFreshDolls and Dr.Lisa Instagram.

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author of novels, short stories, and poems. She is also a produced playwright and an award-winning modern artist.