How Sonny Angel Became Gen Z's Darling
From doctor’s appointments to meeting new friends at the park, the bizarre, pantless doll is helping young people navigate adulthood.
Kayla, a 24-year-old studying at Hunter College in New York, got her first Sonny Angel doll as a Valentine’s Day gift last year. “I got Mouse that day, and he remains one of my most special angels,” they say. Kayla now has roughly 65 Sonny Angel dolls, which she posts about on her dedicated Sonny Angel Instagram account, @SonnyGram. “It’s hard to pick an all-time favorite because it changes just about every day, ” she continues. “Most of them sit on my overcrowded bookshelf, besides other figurines I like to collect, like Funko Pops and Nendoroids.”
Sonny Angel dolls — created by Japanese toy designer Toru Soeya and released in 2005 — have seen a bizarre rise to popular culture cult status recently, with Bella Hadid even posting them last year in an Instagram photo dump. The two-year-old cherub was designed to be a companion for working women in early adulthood dealing with stress, and it has done just that, capturing the hearts of young people like Kayla all over the world. Retailing for around $10 a piece, part of the appeal of Sonny Angel dolls is that they come in blind-box packaging and themed collections, like animals, fruit, and vegetables. This means you won’t know whether your doll will have a radish hat or carrot headpiece until you open it.
The Sonny Angel community in the US has recently transitioned from primarily online via dedicated Sonny Angel Instagram or TikTok accounts, to dedicated in-person meetups. Kayla has been to three of these events so far, in both Washington Square Park and Astoria, Queens. “I went to the meetup with a printed list of the Angels I was looking for, and while I did find some of them, I also ended up trading my Angels for any others I thought were cute,” they say. “I even began trading just because someone else expressed how much they wanted an Angel I had for trade, and made a lot of new friends that day.”
For a demographic that’s often called the “loneliest generation,” Kayla says Sonny Angel dolls help young people to “escape the mundane” and let their “inner child smile.” Trading the dolls also gets people outside and having face-to-face conversations after connecting online. “Loving Sonny Angels has become especially accepted publicly because while yes, they are silly little toys, there seems to be a common understanding: they bring us happiness,” she explains. On TikTok, people often share videos of their Sonny Angel dolls on an adventure, whether they’re hanging on a keychain from a belt loop, perched in a car window, or hidden in the front pocket of a handbag.
Erika Saito, a 20-year-old student at NYU, first started her Sonny Angel TikTok account in November 2022 after going through a rough breakup. “I was having a tough time and needed something to distract myself that brought joy,” she says. “Immediately after starting my page, I felt so supported and loved by the Sonny Angel collectible community and, while not everyone knew about my breakup, those who did would send me sweet supporting letters alongside our trades.” Saito says that her mom even has five Sonny Angel dolls, and that the only person in her life who has ever been unsupportive of her Sonny Angel obsession was her ex-boyfriend. “Him insulting Sonny Angels helped me find the courage to break up with him,” she says.
Saito organized her first New York Sonny Angel meetup in December of 2022, and has since hosted a few more. “I love how the simple act of collecting Sonny Angels has brought this many people together,” she says. “What started as a meetup for 10 people, turned into 20, which transformed into 150, and our most recent meetup had around 1000 attendees.” Saito says that whenever her friends make plans, the first text after they decide where they are going is: Which Sonny Angel are you bringing? She uses the dolls as outfit inspiration and takes them to Trader Joe’s. “I feel like growing up and being a young adult can be really scary and isolating, so having emotional support Sonny eases us through this time of transition,” she explains, adding that she’s taken Sonny Angel dolls with her to the club, the emergency room, and the passport renewal office.
Considering that Gen Z has grown up extremely online, thrust into navigating the digital and political landscape from an early age, the current desire to focus on something tangible and community-oriented is understandable. The fact that Sonny Angel dolls have an ethereal and wholesome quality has made the dolls the perfect medium to express this desire. It also signals a new era of collecting, where the focus remains on joy and community, as opposed to exclusivity or clout. After all, Sonny Angel dolls are low-cost and designed to be opened, thrown into bags, or showcased on your desk. People even customize their dolls with jewels, by putting them in tiny jorts, or making them into keychains.
Yunuen Cho, a 24-year-old working in marketing at a children's book publishing house, says she’s not a Sonny Angel collector, but rather, the Sonny Angels are her friends. Cho’s Sonny Angel TikTok, where they call themselves “the Sonny Angel influencer,” now has over 26.7K followers. She’s also organized in-real-life meetups, spreading the word on social media. She also often assigns personalities to the “plastic babies.” “The blind box element feels like a horoscope to your day, as well,” they say. “If my friends and I pull ones we don't like, we like to pretend it's an omen.”
Whether you use your Sonny Angel dolls as a horoscope or keep one in your bag at the doctor’s office for emotional support, the strange, pantless doll has gone viral among young people for the very reason that it was created — to hold their hand as they ease into young adulthood, entering into an increasingly precarious economy. But perhaps the true power of the doll is that it has connected people with a community of actual humans to also hold hands with along the way. “I think the Sonny Angels translate to making friends and meeting new people,” Cho says. “Without the funny little doll, I wouldn't have been able to meet the unique, interesting, and amazing people I know today.”