For a real doll who has tons of friends, legions of fans, plenty of leisure time and fantastic legs, a 30th-birthday celebration is likely to trigger not a mid-life crisis but a wave of sartorial anxiety. Let other women fret about Retin-A and liposuction and the ticking biological clock: To the immutable Barbie, the question is, “What will I wear to the party?”
As always, the ageless mannequin came through with aplomb. At a recent “Pink Jubilee” black-tie gala thrown by Mattel at Lincoln Center, the guest of honor wore a dazzling rose confection with a tulle overskirt spangled in silver stars. A pink feather boa and lavish earrings completed the look. No one else in the crowd, which included toy manufacturers, collectors and Barbie fans, looked nearly as ravishing.
Barbie, though, is not just a doll; she is the diminutive doppelganger of Barbara Handler Segal, a Los Angeles woman who is the daughter of Ruth and Elliot Handler, founders of Mattel and creators of Barbie. Naturally, the parents named the doll after their own little girl. As her vinyl knock off hits 30, Segal, now a 47-year-old mother of two, finds herself uneasy about being Barbie. “It seems a joke at this point,” she says. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll. I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”
That may be understandable; living in Barbie’s shadow must be overwhelming these days. As the biggest-selling fashion doll in history, she—and her friends, like Ken—have earned millions for Mattel since Barbie’s introduction at a 1959 New York toy fair. Having proved herself in the marketplace, she is now receiving the sort of homage normally reserved for aging film stars and other pop-culture queens. This spring, the Smithsonian is expected to mount a Barbie retrospective. And five days after the Lincoln Center fete, Ruth and Elliot Handler were honored at a Manhattan dinner dance by the Toy Manufacturers of America. Says Mattel CEO John W. Amerman: “We are very fortunate to have Barbie.”
Segal is less enthusiastic. Divorced 20 years ago from Allen Segal, a real-estate developer, she lives in the palmy Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood and rarely speaks to the press. When the doll was introduced in 1959, Barbara Handler was just another shy 17-year-old at L.A.’s Hamilton High School. Afterward, she knew no peace; strangers quizzed her endlessly about her bubbleheaded namesake. “[They] would come up to me and say, ‘So you’re the Barbie doll,’ ” she remembers. “I did not like it. It is very strange to have a doll named after you.” Says Barbara’s 26-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who never owned a Barbie: “Mom doesn’t want to be special—she wants to be like everyone else.”
Ruth Handler, now 72, says that as much as her daughter dislikes the connection, Barbara really did inspire the wildly popular doll. She was 4 years old in 1945, the year the Handlers founded Mattel. After watching their little girl at play with her paper dolls—which were more mature-looking than their plastic counterparts and came with extensive cutout wardrobes—Ruth decided that girls needed a doll that looked like a teenager and wore stylish clothes.
Though Segal is no plastic figure, she by no means reflects badly on Barbie. Married at 18, she skipped college but went on to become the proprietor of a successful West Los Angeles bed-and-bath shop—something Barbie might have done if she were just a little bit taller. Two years ago Segal sold the business. She now spends most of her time immersed in Barbie-like pursuits that include golf, tennis and bridge. According to Cheryl, “Mom is very feminine and stylish. She has a great figure, plays tennis and skis. That is just what the Barbie doll is all about.”
Segal’s brother—yes, his name is Ken—seems less compatible with the doll bearing his name, and he doesn’t have much use for Barbie either. A 44-year-old New York real-estate investor, whose miniature counterpart was introduced in 1961, Ken Handler concedes that Barbie has made him a millionaire “several times over.” Still, he assails her for “having the wrong values.” Says Ken: “She should care about more than going to the beach…. She should care about poverty and suffering in the world. I wish she would work in a soup kitchen, but then she would never sell.” A bearish-looking father of three, Handler lives in Greenwich Village and is just completing a memoir with the working title The Ken Doll Talks. Yet he is not easily confused with his namesake. “Ken is Malibu,” he says. “He goes to the beach and surfs. I was the kind of kid who played piano and went to movies with subtitles. All the girls thought I was a jerk.”
Chances are they didn’t think that of Barbie, who, at 30, seems less like a toy than a one-woman industry. Five hundred million of the dolls have been sold in 67 countries, and little girls snap one up every two seconds, at around $10 each. Barbiephiles can choose among more than 200 accessories (including a $19 red Ferrari and a $155 furnished Dream House) and a wardrobe that grows by 100 outfits a year. Overseas, she is seen variously as Asian Barbie, Greek Barbie, Icelandic Barbie and even Peruvian Barbie. She has amassed a supporting cast that includes Skipper, her sister; Midge, her confidante; and Christie, a stylish black friend. Their exploits are detailed in Barbie magazine, which has a circulation of 650,000. She has inspired a glossy, coffee-table biography called Barbie: Her Life and Times (Crown, $25), written by the Parisian style maven known as Billy Boy. Like Elvis, Barbie is the focus of an annual convention; a September gathering in Seattle drew the faithful from as far away as Japan.
In spite of her success—or, more likely, because of it—Barbie has attracted her share of critics. Her resume includes stints as an astronaut, a veterinarian and the lead singer in an all-girl band, but feminists see her as an acquisitive do-nothing. “She’s a bimbo,” says Susan Reverby, director of the women’s studies program at Wellesley College. “I don’t want my daughter to think that being a woman means she has to look like Barbie and date someone like Ken.” If nothing else, says Marilyn Motz, an associate professor at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, the curvaceous Barbie sets an impossible physical standard. Motz reckons that if Barbie’s measurements were copied to scale, they would be 33-18-28—proportions that are, she says, “almost not possible anatomically.”
Yet for Barbie, anything seems possible. In a world shot through with uncertainty, she is an island of stability. Not for her the aesthetic indignities of aging; while her hair and hemlines may change with the times, she is one public figure who can be trusted never to lose the bloom of youth, never to self-destruct in a barrage of ugly headlines and sordid disclosures. Content with her place in the world, she knows her own mind. And if that little head seems filled with nothing but air, well, she never pretended to be Susan Sontag.
—Michelle Green, and Denise Gellene in Los Angeles