Movies

Meet the brains behind Barbie

The iconic toy’s had many makeovers in her time, including some Kiwi inspo

As the world’s most-recognised doll, fans might think there’s nothing they don’t know about Barbie. After all, she’s been part of children’s lives around the globe since 1959.

There’s been Tropical Barbie, Peaches ‘n’ Cream Barbie, Malibu Barbie – and in more recent times – even a Dame Valerie Adams Barbie!

But it turns out the iconic doll – all 29cm of her – has had a secret life all along and it’s about to be revealed, with the release of the Barbie movie, starring Hollywood heavyweights Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

In the film, narrated by Helen Mirren, Barbie gets expelled from Barbie Land for being a less-than-perfect looking doll and from there, well, the plot gets a little mysterious.

“Whatever you think it is, it’s not that. It’s something else,” teases Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera, who also stars in the film.

Ryan and Margot bring the figurines to life.

Whatever fate Barbie meets on the silver screen, there’s no denying the origin story of the Barbie doll is intriguing. Back in 1956, US businesswoman Ruth Handler was holidaying in Switzerland when she spotted a doll called Bild Lilli.

The doll was based on a German comic strip character of the same name – a post-war, gold-digging buxom broad who went through life seducing wealthy men.

Bild Lilli dolls were marketed to adults as novelty gifts, but Ruth figured that little girls might also appreciate this kind of toy.

At the time, girls were usually presented with baby dolls – make-believe versions of the babies they were expected to one day give birth to and care for. Instead, Ruth thought, why not let them play with a make-believe version of their future selves?

She took the idea to toy company Mattel and within three years the first Barbie, complete with pneumatic breasts, an impossibly tiny waist and ridiculously long legs, rolled off the production line.

Kiwi Karen’s designer life was worthy of a Barbie!

Mattel also purchased all the patents and copyrights to Bild Lilli and “retired” her in 1964, paving the way for Barbie to rule the roost.

And rule she did. Sixty-four years later, it’s estimated that more than 1 billion Barbies have been sold worldwide. Mattel claims the brand has more than 99 percent global awareness.

The very first version of the doll was Ponytail Barbie and many more versions followed. So did the accessories, like her pink corvette and, of course, the Barbie Dreamhouse.

Over the years, some things about the doll’s appearance changed: from the 1960s, they began making Barbies of many ethnicities. In the ’80s, Barbie’s job options went from being a babysitter or surfer to something more akin to a yuppy.

In the ’90s, the first disabled Barbie was launched, although that came with a couple of hiccups: the doll’s tresses often got tangled in her wheelchair and the chair itself didn’t fit into the lift of Barbie’s Dreamhouse.

The figurine’s preposterous proportions also came under fire. At one point, the company released Slumber Party Barbie, which came with a set of scales set permanently to 110lb (just under 50kg) and a diet containing one morsel of advice – “don’t eat”.

Two years after Barbie first burst onto the scene, figurines of her boyfriend Ken also became available.

Mattel made very little effort to market Ken dolls to boys because the whole point of Ken was that he only existed as another accessory for Barbie.

In fact, the only time Ken developed a life of his own was in 1993, when Mattel issued an inadvertent “camp” version with a purple mesh top, peroxide hair and an earring. The doll became something of a gay icon and when the toy company realised it had cast an unintended light on Barbie and Ken’s relationship, it stopped production.

Over the years, as traditional beliefs of what is beautiful and feminine have been challenged, Barbie has been adapted – although critics say even the “curvy” version of the doll still equates to a size 8. As in many countries, the average woman in New Zealand is a size 12-14.

But Kiwis have certainly not gone unnoticed by those who control the Barbie empire.

In 2019, Black-Fern-turned-sports-journalist Melodie Robinson had a Barbie doll made in her image as part of Mattel’s Role Model programme, aimed at inspiring young women.

In a recent story with the Weekly, Melodie admitted she’s misplaced her lookalike!

Since then, Kiwi fashion designer Karen Walker and New Zealand beauty brand founder and CEO Brianne West have also been honoured with their own Barbies – as has Kiwi shot-put legend Dame Valerie Adams.

“I’m six foot four [1.9m]. I’m a big Pacific Island woman. Never would I have thought something like this would be possible,” Valerie said when she received her version of the doll, complete with freckles, hair bun, shot put, sports bag and gold hoop earrings.

Related stories