Valley of the Dolls

A journey into the heart of pinkness: the upcoming Barbie convention.

On the eve of her entry into adult life, Debbie Baker had a change of heart that would alter her destiny.

"I didn't like Barbie when I was a little girl," she says. "I liked baby dolls to play with."

All of that changed in 1978, when a friend gave Baker a set of Sun Lovin' Malibu Barbies as a gag gift for her eighteenth birthday. "I just thought they were a hoot," says Baker, now 42. "At that time in my life, I decided that I should start collecting something, so I decided to collect Barbie. Thinking back on it now, that's a big decision to make when you're eighteen.

Debbie Baker (left) and Shantel Ballard, all dolled up at Baker's home in Golden.
John Johnston
Debbie Baker (left) and Shantel Ballard, all dolled up at Baker's home in Golden.
Thinking inside the box: Ballard displays her favorite "girls."
John Johnston
Thinking inside the box: Ballard displays her favorite "girls."

"The first ten years, those were the good times," she adds. "Back then, the prices were reasonable. It was fairly easy to build up a comprehensive collection."

After 24 years of Barbie times both good and bad, Baker now has a collection of nearly 3,000 dolls, pulling from the early-model Barbies, the play-line varieties currently sold in major department stores, and every blond-haired, blue-eyed epoch in between. Inside two glass-case-lined rooms that dominate the lower regions of Baker's split-level home in Golden, Barbie and her friends live out a multiplicity of existences as flight stewardesses and doctors, career women and horse lovers, characters from literature and film, even presidential candidates. They all stand upright on tiny feet forever fitted for high heels; most are immaculately dressed and groomed. Claiming a shelf of her own is Baker's oldest, and rarest, possession: a 1959 first-run Barbie that bears a strong resemblance to Bild Lilli, the Aryan fantasy figurine sold to men in Germany in the '50s, upon whose design Barbie was based.

Shantel Ballard's collection hovers at a more modest 600, although her Barbie love dates back further than Baker's. As an only child growing up in Kentucky, from an early age she loved playing with -- and destroying -- the dolls. "I cut their hair. I marked them up. Oh, the things I did," she recalls. "At least I didn't have any brothers. That's where the stories tend to get ugly."

Unbeknownst to Ballard, her mother saved her well-played-with childhood collection, providing Shantel with a starter set when she began collecting in 1987 -- "the year I got married," she says. Ballard's husband, Mark, had noticed that she often gravitated to the Barbie aisle in stores like Kmart. "He said, 'Why don't you just buy a Barbie already?' He really encouraged me, and he's been very supportive," she adds. "But I don't think he had any idea that it would ever turn into this."

Ballard's husband can be forgiven for not seeing the "this" that was coming. At 37, his wife is in love with a tiny plastic woman who is six years her senior. (Although the miracle of marketing and molding allows Barbie to seem forever young, she turns 43 this year.) And for the past two years, Ballard and Baker have been planning the biggest party in Barbie's honor that the world has ever seen.

For four days in June, the two women -- along with the 58 other members of the Fashion Doll Club of the Rockies -- will host the 22nd annual National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention at the Adam's Mark Hotel. More than a thousand doll-lovers, from countries including the United States, China, Japan, France and Singapore, will envelop Denver in a mass of hot pink from June 5 through June 8.

"Ours will be the biggest doll show yet," says Baker, who's been going to conventions since 1986. "When we decided that we wanted to do this, we made a real effort to do everything different. For Barbie people, convention is something you look forward to all year. But that also means that we have a lot of pressure to make it just as perfect as it can be."

"It's like planning a big family vacation," Ballard says. "At first we thought, 'Well, we already host our doll-club meetings.' So we just said, 'Instead of doing it for sixty, we'll do it for one thousand.' There's something really exhilarating about having that many people hanging on every move and decision that you make. We're kind of wading in the water now, baby. We're in it."

Ballard and Baker met at the Fashion Doll Club, a Mattel-sanctioned collectors' group that gets together once a month at a public library in Cherry Hills. Two years ago, with the help of the club, the two friends submitted a bid to host the 2002 convention. Their proposal featured Barbies of the mod era as a theme, replete with plenty of peace signs, tie-dye and go-go boots. When, to their surprise, their bid was accepted by the National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention Steering Committee, Baker and Ballard stepped down from their posts as the Fashion Doll Club's president and vice president, respectively, to devote themselves to planning the convention. When the announcement was made at last year's gathering in Oklahoma City that the Barbie boosters would be coming to Denver in 2002, Ballard set the tone by donning a brightly colored '60s flip wig. ("We're just like that," she says. "We're really into dressing up.")

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