Valley of the Dolls
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.
"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.")
Today Baker and Ballard relate to each other as business partners as much as friends. The petite Ballard, whose Southern accent becomes more pronounced with each degree of excitement or frustration, consults the big-haired and gregarious Baker on everything. Together they plan and conspire. ("We decided to get some really wild-colored paper for our programs," Baker says. "Why not? No one can tell us that we can't do things.") They still spend a lot of time talking about Barbie: what new designers are working for Mattel, what the hot dolls of the season will be. But they also talk about what it's like to have your index finger singed by the flaming-hot liquid from an electric glue gun, or how fitting hundreds of tiny bracelets onto hundreds of diminutive doll wrists will eventually wear the skin right off the tops of your thumbs.
Among its many duties as convention host, the Fashion Doll Club of the Rockies is required to provide each attendee with a souvenir doll -- a limited-edition model wearing clothes designed by a contest-winning conventioneer and manufactured by Mattel (this year's convention Barbie costume is still top-secret) -- as well as to create a centerpiece a day for a hundred tables. Baker's cluttered basement has become their primary workspace; on many weekends, her driveway has been lined with long tables, around which club members construct clothes and accessories in daylong shifts.
"There's women over here all the time," says Baker's husband, Joe, who so far has served as the convention's carpenter, errand-runner, security director and centerpiece architect. A professed Barbie fan, "I'll be a bigger fan when this is over," he admits.
Barbie collectors and dealers aren't the only ones who have high standards, which adds to the pressure. Although the convention is not officially affiliated with Mattel, the toymaker retains some control over the way Barbie and her friends are represented; the bulk of the Denver convention plans must be cleared with both Mattel and the national convention steering committee.
"From a corporate point of view, we have to protect the name of Barbie and be sure that the product is represented -- because she is a product," says Mattel's Liz Kreneck. "We just look at everything to make sure that it's appropriate and features the dolls in a positive light. We've never come across a situation where we had to deny a design request because we objected to a design. There's almost an unspoken code. The collectors want to protect her as much as we do."
"It's almost like, for Barbie people, you wouldn't even want to do anything that Mattel would have a problem with, because we're all just looking out for the pink princess," Ballard says. "So you're not going to see anything that is overly based in reality. You're not going to see 'Divorced Barbie' on the competition floor; you won't see 'Eight Months Pregnant Barbie' or 'Heroin Addict Barbie.' People may choose to make that stuff and sell it out of their hotel room or their suitcase, but we have to be careful to keep that kind of stuff out."
Planning an event as complex as this convention involves an endless stream of excruciating details. It's compulsive work -- anal and irritating by necessity. And Ballard and Baker have encountered some disappointments along the way, the biggest of which came last month, when Barbie creator and Denver native Ruth Handler died at age 85. Handler's legacy is not as squeaky-clean as the doll she created (and named for her daughter, Barbara) after she moved from Colorado to Southern California in the late '50s. In 1975, following an investigation that revealed she had engineered an Enron-like approach to Mattel's accounting, Handler and her husband, Elliot, were forced to resign from the company they'd founded; three years later, she was indicted for fraud by a federal grand jury. Still, Handler remains a beloved figure among collectors. Baker, who met her during the 1996 convention in Orlando, says she and Ballard were "this close" to including her on the list of participants at their event. When Ballard announced Handler's death at the Doll Club meeting in April, the group observed a moment of silence in her honor.
"She was such a beautiful lady," Baker says of Handler, who in her post-Barbie life founded Nearly Me, a company that manufactured realistic-looking prosthetic breasts, and crusaded for breast-cancer causes. "It will be interesting to see what happens to the Barbie world now that she is gone."
In Baker's basement on a rainy evening, with only a few weeks to go until the convention, the tone is nervous but optimistic. Like Barbie, neither Ballard nor Baker has children ("Children are the bane of a doll collector's existence," Ballard says); they both admit that their spouses, dogs and friends have suffered some neglect in recent months. So have the women's jobs. Ballard's employers at Borders in Northglenn have allowed her some convention-related time off, but Baker, a customer-service representative for Coors, hasn't been so lucky.
"Most people understand that lots of things in life are just on hold right now," Baker says. "Birthday cards, presents -- all that stuff is just going to have to wait. But you still have to take care of the more mundane aspects of your life. It's been very challenging."
"We had some women who asked us both when we were going to quit smoking," Ballard says. "I was like, 'Huh? What? Talk to me on June 9, but for now, give me a damn cigarette.' I think some people who are on the outside of the Barbie world just do not get what we are going through."
Taking a cue from the princess herself, Ballard and Baker do their best to keep smiling. But they bicker, and they invariably wind up goading each other about their own differences as doll fans. Ballard is a de-boxer -- meaning she removes her Barbies from their packaging, even though doing so guarantees a decrease in value of as much as 50 percent -- while Baker is most emphatically a mint-condition, in-the-box collector. Most of her dolls have never been touched, let alone played with. Baker's two favorites -- dressed as characters from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- are talking Barbies, but since she's never dared to open the box or pull the string, she has no idea what they say.
"It's fine with me to know that people take her out of the box," Baker says. "I understand it. But I cannot just sit there and watch someone de-box a doll. I won't do it. I turn my head."
"Well, my girls are free. Hell, yeah!" Ballard responds. "But it's different. Debbie has some dolls that are worth a lot of money. I don't. But I don't care. I would never sell my dolls. They are so beautiful out of the box. I just want to be able to take them out and display them and enjoy them.
"And it's not like it's something that I would want to do in front of someone else," she adds. "I always wait until no one is around -- maybe I'll do it late at night or something."
According to Ballard, the divide between boxers and de-boxer cuts right through the Barbie world: "You'll see some T-shirts at convention: 'Set that doll free!' There is definitely a friendly rivalry between the two groups."
The Barbie world splits even further along specialty lines: At any given convention, you can expect to see enclaves of people who covet Ken, Barbie's smooth-crotched boyfriend; Skipper, her freckle-faced little sister, or Midge, her original best friend. Some collectors seek out African-American dolls like Christie and Julia (the first black Barbies, introduced in 1969), as well as one-of-a-kind dolls that sport clothes fashioned by designers both renowned and obscure.
Conventions provide the rare chance for them all to come together -- not so much to compare and appreciate one another's wares as to shop in tandem. The event is not short of educational opportunities, including daily workshops on doll care (many of which carry macabre titles like "Limb Reattachment" and "Hair Rerooting"); competitions, judged by carefully appointed experts from within the Barbie world, are popular as well. But at their heart, Barbie conventions are consumer orgies where hundreds of dealers show up to meet a frenzied demand. Ballard estimates that each conventioneer will spend an average of $1,000 on Barbie merchandise during her stay in Denver.
Some will spend much more than that: One-of-a-kind dolls, including many designed and donated by fashion-world luminaries such as Vera Wang, Todd Oldham, Versace and Bob Mackie, typically sell for thousands of dollars at convention auctions; last year's top doll went to a dealer for $18,000. (Each year, proceeds from auction sales benefit a charity selected by the host club; the Fashion Doll Club of the Rockies will donate those monies, and everything else that's left after the club covers expenses, to Angels Unaware, a Colorado-based non-profit that supports families affected by AIDS/HIV.) Non-conventioneers will have a chance to do some Barbie browsing of their own on Saturday, June 8, when the salesroom opens to the public.
Many convention-goers drive to the event, the better to transport goods once it's over. "We drove to the Detroit convention, and on the way back, I could not tell you what was behind us," Ballard remembers. "There was stuff piled on top of the car. Stuff piled up in the back window, stacked to the ceiling. I was the only one who wasn't holding anything, and that's because I was driving."
"It's one-stop shopping: You find that one-of-a-kind doll and you get her," Baker adds. "That's the first thing you learn. If you see something you want and you've been looking for, get it. Because it will not be waiting for you to make up your mind. You just see so much pink -- the Barbie pink -- everywhere, and so much Barbie merchandise, from the second you get there. You go into the hotel and you see pink hats. It's just a wonderful feeling for a collector."
Wonderful even though myriad writers, artists, cultural critics and feminist theorists view Barbie -- with her unattainable figure, her stoic submissiveness, her Anglo-centric facial structure -- as the sworn doll-world enemy of all womankind? Ballard and Baker say they have too much on their minds, including finding the time to slip 500 pairs of hose on the still-bare-legged souvenir dolls, to worry about Babs-bashers.
"I think maybe people in the world tend to focus on the negative, on the overly serious," Ballard says. "I've had some people come over -- we're talking really cynical people -- who once they get here just want to touch everything and play and know all about it. I can't imagine anyone, unless they are opposed to Barbie for political reasons, not responding in a positive way.
"I honestly have never met someone who was opposed to Barbie. Of course, I don't hang out in Boulder much."
Barbie conventions provide the doll's primarily female fan base a chance to cut loose, be their fanatical selves, share in a ritual that's almost a modern form of goddess worship. "It's like taking a trip to Hawaii with your best girlfriends," Ballard says. "We party. We have a good time. You make friends with people you know you'll stay in touch with. Because it's not just women bonding; it's women bonding about Barbie. I would say the friends I've met through Barbie are as important as my collection itself."
As for their friendship, Ballard and Baker are confident that it will endure after all of the conventioneers have packed up their pink suitcases and headed home.
"I'm sure we'll still call each other every day," Ballard says. "But, my God, what will we talk about?"
Baker looks around her basement, absentmindedly stroking the hair of a doll in her lap. "I guess we'll be more like normal people," she says. "We'll talk about our husbands. We'll talk about dogs."