Barbie turned 50 this year, and she's been celebrating her birthday with a whirlwind world tour, christening a new store in Shanghai and strutting the runways of New York's Fashion Week. As curvaceous and sprightly as ever, the petite doll even paid a visit to the nation's capital for a recent weeklong convention, and the reception there proved that much of the world still has a love affair with the leggy blonde.
The 29th annual Barbie convention sold out in two days, and lit up the District in the doll's signature hot pink, drawing Barbie-lovers ages 13 to 80 from all over the globe, including Russia, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Britain and France. A trio of sisters trekked from Mexico in order to be around other passionate Barbie fans. "There is no Barbie club in Mexico," said the oldest, Leonor Vidal Rosada.
There was no shortage of Barbie paraphernalia at the event cases and cases of Barbie and friends, one Barbie impersonator, even a life-size hot pink Volkswagen Beetle, complete with a pop-out makeup trunk. "Barbie girls can't go anywhere without being able to get glam at a moment's notice," says Liz Grampp, director of marketing for Barbie at Mattel. Collectors even had a heated debate about how to best maintain the value of Barbie; some say a mint-condition Barbie should include the original plastic wrap and cardboard box, while others claim that Barbie can only be fully appreciated if removed from her stifling packaging.
Many convention attendees turned 50 with Barbie this year, and fondly recalled their childhood memories. "I grew up with Barbie," says Nancy Parsons, 50, president of the Western Pennsylvania Doll Club. "That was my toy. We lived out in the country. My brothers had their G.I. Joes, and I had my Barbie." Parsons put 500 of her dolls on display, only a fraction of her entire fleet. Though every doll is beloved in her collection, over the years, she says, she did sell a few for extra cash, which helped put her sons through college.
The glitter and glam of the Barbie gathering at the Marriot Wardman Hotel may have seemed out of touch with the nation's economic woes, but "the Barbie market is very, very strong," says Sandi Holder, owner of the world's sole Barbie-only museum, located in Union City, Calif. And she should know: her biennial Barbie auction did well this year, despite the economy. Holder, who gave up her career as a pediatric intensive-care nurse in order to pursue her Barbie passion, even takes the cake with a world record: in 2004 she auctioned off for $27,000 a "#1" Barbie, the first-ever Barbie doll, which debuted in March 1959 at New York City's World Toy Fair.
Barbie collecting can be an expensive habit. The latest coveted version, released by Mattel for Barbie's 50th, is valued at $50,000. In the style of "#1," Barbie is decked out in 34 carats worth of white and black diamonds, which sparkle down to her heels, complete with a 24-karat-gold chain bracelet on her left wrist. The convention did boast some lower-priced vintage dolls, ranging from $500 to $2,000 a pop. Collectors could even find Barbie accessories: one Barbie toaster with two pieces of toast, $3; an authentic Barbie silver-bodiced dress, $195; and long brown gloves with a fur-trimmed scarf, $45.
The fascination with Barbie has kept countless numbers of people in work. Oklahoma artist Debbie Curtis has built a career around painting Barbie portraits, Texans John and Cindy Prewitt run a business selling handmade furniture for Barbie, and North Carolina's Bradley Justice runs a specialty Barbie shop.
But along with the many loyal fans Barbie has won over in her five decades, she has her fair share of critics. The group Anti-Barbie was formed in 2002 by former Barbie collectors "who finally had enough of the negative impact Barbie was having on today's society," as their website states. Anti-Barbie is not the first to complain that the skinny doll instills in young girls impossible ideals of beauty. Numerous studies have looked at the effect of Barbie exposure on females of all ages, and many of their findings have not been pretty. A study published in 2006 by Developmental Psychology, an American Psychological Association journal, drew a link of body worries and low self-image in young girls to the influence of Barbie dolls.
Still, Barbie's backers believe the message she conveys is quite the opposite. "Barbie epitomizes a little bit of what everyone wishes and aspires and loves to be," Holder says. And that was the echoed sentiment from all convention-goers: "It's really about pretending what it's going to be like when you're grown up. Barbie has had over 108 careers, so you can be a doctor, a policewoman, a firefighter, even a television chef," says Grampp. "You really can be anything."