The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Man who dreamed of being ‘human puppet’ dead at 20 *

* (restored)

at 16


Even before he found global fame as a human Ken doll, Celso Santebañes’ physical appearance had made him a star in his native Brazil. As a child, Celso Borges Pereira (the name he was born with) was feted for his beauty, his perfect features refusing to fade with each year that passed. At 15, he started entering — and winning — modeling competitions, eventually catching the eye of a Sao Paulo talk show talent scout.


at 17


The show gave him entry into the world of celebrity, and within a year, he’d taken up acting and changed his surname to Santebañes after his favorite Mexican sitcom character.



It was around this time that people started telling him he looked like a Ken doll. It happened so often that Santabañes became fixated on the toy, lining his bedroom shelves with dozens of the plastic figurines. He later explained that his family’s endorsement of the bizarre comparison inspired him to recreate himself as a “human puppet.”


at 18


“Obsessed with the perfection of physical beauty, Santebañes started to identify features of his face that didn’t look like the Mattel brand doll,” the Latin Times said. “(He believed) his nose was too wide and his philtrum — the crease of the upper lip — simply too natural.” Multiple plastic surgeries and an estimated $60,000 later, Santebañes had fixed his “imperfections” and joined a growing number of adult men aspiring to look like Ken.


at 19


In an interview with a Brazilian newspaper after he was discovered, the former miner said: “This is so magical. My life has changed. I feel like the whole of Brazil is supporting me. People are sometimes frightened by the way I look, and stop me to say how much I look like a doll. I do suffer a lot of prejudice. But the world is full of judgmental people, I don’t care.”



Before long he was charging up to $20,000 for public appearances at party houses, clubs, weddings and children’s plays, even launching a line of Celso dolls in Los Angeles, much to the envy of rivals Justin Jedlica (aka Ken 1) and Rodrigo Alves (aka Ken 3).



“He daydreamed about making a film with Valeria Lukyanova, the Ukrainian ‘Human Barbie,’” the Latin Times said. He was negotiating an “advertising campaign for a huge fashion house”. But despite his success, he said he wasn’t entirely happy. “I think I’m 90% of what I want to be,” he said last year. “I intend to do more surgeries, but do not know what. For now my investment is being in the gym, for Ken is strong and I am skinny.”


Human Barbie Valeria Lukyanova


But late last year, Santebañes received a reality check in the form of an unexpected cancer diagnosis. A rare and aggressive form of leukemia had been detected during blood tests in preparation for surgery to repair a leaky filler in one of Santebañes’ legs. He was only 20 and suddenly he was dying. The impact was immediate.



“Today, I start a new cycle in my life,” he told reporters in January. “I am starting chemotherapy and I admit I’m a little concerned about some side effects, like hair loss, nausea, my body’s rejection (of chemotherapy), among other things, but I am no longer concerned with the issue of aesthetics. For me that doesn’t matter. What matters is my health now, and I will fight for it.”



Santebañes was told he had a high chance of beating the cancer, and though finding out he had leukemia was surprising, the doctor’s words made him feel reassured. “When I’m cured, I plan to release a book,” he said in March of this year. “Before, I struggled and did everything to be perfect. Today, God is showing me that there are other values. I think each day of treatment will be a great learning experience. I’ll be a new person. Not that I was a bad person, but I will certainly be a far better person than I was.”



The Times observed: “In his five-month battle with cancer, Santebañes immediately had to confront his own physical deterioration, the undoing of what had become his personal identity and national image. It started with dark spots on his skin and bleeding gums, symptoms of the blood cancer. Once in treatment, his hair fell out. He’d later be confined to a wheelchair, a scrawny pale shadow.”



On May 18, Santebañes, wearing a hat and heavy makeup and close to death, reflected on his tragic quest for physical perfection. “Everyone who wants to be pretty, who wants to be perfect, to call attention to themselves, to supplant this lack of … of love, perhaps,” he told Hoje Em Dia. If he survived, he said, he wouldn’t do any more surgeries: “I wouldn’t do any more, what’s done is done.”


the last photo


“I want the simple pleasures of life and, if I am told I’m better, I will run to a waterfall,” he said.


interview in happier days


Santebañes died last Thursday after contracting pneumonia. He was buried in his native Sao Paulo over the weekend. His father, Celia Borges, told reporters: “When he was starting to fulfill his dreams, he discovered his illness and his dreams were interrupted. He had plans but God had others.”





p.s. Hey. ** Colin, Hi, Colin! Yes, I loved ’99 Stories about God’. Did you read that new story of hers in … the New Yorker? I can’t remember where exactly. Really glad you like the Michael Lally. I’m really happy that the book has basically the entire volume of poems I published by him with Little Caesar ages back, ‘Hollywood Magic’. I hope all is great with you, maestro. ** Scunnard, Hi. Really? Even though I forgot to mention that Ashbery was shitfaced drunk? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. She is very wise. Thanks, David. God knows you know a good anecdote when you see it, so I’ll take that as a big compliment. ** Bill, Hi. Wow, I hit anecdote pay gold, who’d have thunk? Williams is a god. ** Steve Erickson, Oh, great. Thanks! I have to try to not tear myself away from work today, but I’ll delve in that psych feast over dinner or something. Oh, okay, yeah, on the list’s gayness. I was mostly joshing. Excellent about the interview. I’ve been putting together a Schroeder post, so those tidbits are very timely. Awesome. Assuming the post appears in early 2019, which is the thought, I can link to your thing, cool. ** Robert Siek, Well, hi there, Robert! What a pleasure! And a coincidence since your new book just arrived in my mailbox yesterday. That’s almost spooky. Oh, shit, sorry, yeah, I still have this bad habit of not looking at the previous posts’ comments. I really have to get over that. Thanks about my back. It’s being an annoyance, but it’ll behave one of these upcoming days. Oh, yes, Penny Marshall RIP. I never watched ‘L&S’, weirdly, but I remember liking her as a snarky, amusing talking head. Enjoy the family Xmas and the New Years’ sequestering. Sounds nice. I’m at a loss about what my Xmas will be. It usually just comes and goes over here, although I will get to open the big window on my chocolate advent calendar. Take care! ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, B. It’s a joy. Oops, I didn’t even intend to do that. It is. ** Misanthrope, It’s excellent, a primer, all of that. Yes, I do indeed know young fuck ups who are now adult or middle-aged or even geriatric goody two shoes. Sounds nice: your plans. Lowkey and fun with emphasis on the latter. I’d like to meet Karen. Surely there’ll be some reason to go to DC one of these days. I haven’t been there in, like, 25 years or some shit? Nothing planned for Xmas day. Probably eat a buche. I usually like to go for a long walk because it’s pretty much the only day of the year when Paris gets completely quiet and all-but deserted. ** K$$T$N, That’s like an escort name. Nice. I just sit in my plane seat, click on the first blockbuster movie I haven’t seen, watch, and then click the next one, etc. Since they’re usually, like, 2-3+ hours long, it does eat the time, which needs to be eaten when you’re usually flying all the way from here to LA. I was chased by a shark in Hawaii once when I was 14 years old or something. I think I almost got eaten and died. I felt its teeth scraping my kicking toes. I totally forgot about that. Ha ha, naturally I like that form your Xmas story is taking. I mean what’s not to like theoretically? ** Kyler, Hi. You usually skim the writing sections? You get demerits. See, that’s what you get for being honest. Obviously I’m kidding. Ponchito’s! I love Ponchito’s! Almost every time I’m in NYC I force someone to eat there with me. I think the fact that it’s still open even though it’s vast and always very uncrowded is very suspicious. It must be a mafia front or something. ** Okay. The post today has been restored due to a special request from a reader of this place. Re-enjoy. See you tomorrow.


  1. JM

    Like a character. Tasteless f me to say but.

  2. David Ehrenstein

    A sad story.

    Meanwhile. . . .It’s Edith Piaf’s Birthday

  3. Robert Siek

    Oh cool! I must have a psychic connection with copies of my book. Thank you for getting a copy, Dennis. I hope you like it. I’m way prouder of this one than of the first book, which I guess is kind of natural. BTW, in the older comment I posted that got buried on a previous post, I mentioned that I am reading at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in LA in late January. Do you remember that bookstore from when you lived in LA? If so, cool place? I love that it’s near Whisky a Go Go. I’ve never been to LA, so I’m excited about the whole damn thing. I’m probably going to make my boyfriend, who has been there two or three times in the past, do all sorts of touristy shit. It’s like tourist revenge on another city for all the annoying tourists I have to deal with in NYC just walking around Midtown by my job. Someone told me I should definitely rent a car, but the thought of driving in LA is not really enticing. I think I’d rather just take Ubers everywhere that is too far to walk to. Anyway, glad to hear your back is improving. And BTW, I never told you how much I enjoyed Permanent Green Light. We kind of flew out of the theater after the screening in NYC, so didn’t get to say hello, but I was mesmerized by the characters and their actions in the movie. The end scene caused me to jolt out of my seat and then I had to sit there and settle down and absorb what happened. You and Zac are definitely mastering film. Looking forward to what comes next. Well, hope the rest of the year is spent doing pleasurable things. I think someone needs to write a novel about a human Ken doll, if it hasn’t been done already.


    • Tosh Berman

      Robert, Uber or Lyft will be fine in Los Angeles. I don’t drive, and I pretty much take the bus/subway or Lyft. It’s easy in Los Angeles. And Book Soup is a fantastic bookstore.

      • Robert Siek

        Okay, cool. Thank you! I hate renting cars while away. And definitely more excited hearing so many good things about Book Soup. Best to you Tosh!

  4. Steve Erickson

    Do you know about the white man from Brazil (I think that’s the right country) who has gotten plastic surgery to make himself Korean? This guy’s fixation on remaking himself with extreme plastic surgery brought him to mind.

    I feel like an idiot, but I pressed the wrong button on my digital recorder, trying to turn the volume up, at the start of transcribing the Schroeder interview and erased it! I am waiting to hear back from his publicist about my options. The best one would probably be sending him the questions again via E-mail. I wanted to turn this in by Friday, but since THE VENERABLE W. doesn’t open in New York till Jan. 4th, I have a bit more time.

  5. Marcus

    Hey Dennis — Like Robert, I commented too late and guess I missed ya.
    I used to comment frequently on your blog about three years ago (like, fall 2015 – spring 2016), when I was an undergrad. Then I did some work for Andrew Durbin and helped copyedit some of Kevin Killian’s books. Anyway, checking in again – I’m writing a lot more now, working on new projects (I’m out in the wilderness these days so there’s a lot more time to get stuff done), and I was wondering if you’d be open to me interviewing you, briefly, about cinema and stuff. It would really be an honor. If so, you can write me at (my anonymous email) and I’ll give you all my *real* (lol) info. Hope to chat soon!!

  6. Nik

    Hi Dennis!

    Ugh, I stayed up so late working on essays that my comment ended up being after you posted this one. Yikes. I’m just gonna copy and paste the comment here.
    Fortunately, the worst of my essay writing is over, so I can spend the next few days really getting lost in the work of fiction writing when I’m not packing to go back to NJ, although Joy Williams whole “I am too wary about writing to enjoy it” thing is kinda resonating with me right now, in a good way I think haha. Also, do you know the lit journal Conjunctions? It’s a pretty old journal that is based out of Bard, and I’m going to be interning there during the next semester. It’s published a lot of writers you admire pretty early in their careers (Foster-Wallace in 88, Lutz in 96) and is kind of a boon for great work that I’d only really heard of since coming here. They seem really interested in their interns opinions if they’re plugged into current writers, so I’m gonna share some of the writers I’ve found through here with them in hopes they’re interested in reaching out. I’m also probably spend most of the break reading some of their more recent issues to get sense of what they’re into right now. I’m curious, I know you’ve worked as a journalist, but have you ever worked for lit journals outside of Little Caesars? Do you know how it is at all? I’m so clueless about the business behind literature it’s ridiculous haha.
    Yeah, right, the Ahwesh/Lauterbach combo!! It’s super ideal. I’ll have to learn how to use the equipment for making films over the break. We have a screening every Tuesday, I’ll make keep you updated with all the Vampire specific movies that we watch.
    How’s the script treating you guys this week?

  7. _Black_Acrylic

    Celso’s story is a sad one and “the perfection of physical beauty” thing is sad especially. He reminds me of Shaye Saint John in a funny way.

    This is me back home in Leeds for the Xmas season. I’ve brought a fair few books down here with me and I intend to start some writing over the coming days too.

  8. Misanthrope

    Dennis, This post reminds me that I’m not ambitious enough. See, I just dream normal shit, like being Timmy C.’s friend or something. (Not really, but you know what I mean. ) I need to aim higher!

    We have decided for our Christmas get-together to watch the movie KRAMPUS. You’re Krampus King, have you seen it? It’s a horror movie and I’m sure it sucks, but it’d still be fun to watch it, I think.

    Man, I’m fucked. Nothing serious and too long to go into. I’ll just say that I didn’t think that going without this one tiny little med that I usually take at 8 p.m. would fuck me this bad. It’s for OCD and my med refill appointment got kind of delayed -their fault, not mine- and I wasn’t proactive and thought I could just go a week or so without it, but I didn’t anticipate the side effects, like feeling like total shit and not being able to sleep. Having said that, my appointment is next Wednesday and I’m starting to feel better and I’ll be fine. No worries. Funny it didn’t occur to me. I’m usually way up on that shit. But yeah, I’m fine. It’s actually funny to me.

  9. Key10

    haha oh to be young again 175 an hour since 75 lol. seems like all of them are escorts many just dont charge. freakiest thing ive heard in a while lol. the sharks in fl like to bite feet. haha i have flight etiquette issues i only watch other peoples movies. many of the boys i fall for i suspect are elvin they typically exude anise candy smell. i think i was visited by a ghost not sure. heres to santas egg nog. happy thursday

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