Barbie's Life-Sized Malibu Dream House

Happy Birthday Barbie! The iconic doll turns 50 Monday. As part of a marketing bonanza, Mattel has commissioned a life-sized Barbie Dream House in Malibu.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's report next on a kind of monument to childhood. You may have heard that a certain national icon is celebrating her 50th birthday. The Barbie doll made her debut on this day in 1959. As part of its marketing, Mattel has commissioned a life-sized Barbie Dream House, so we sent our own glamorous blond from NPR West in California, Melissa Jaeger-Miller.

MELISSA JAEGAR-MILLER: The original Barbie dream house actually looks a lot like my shabby Hollywood apartment, down to the wood paneling and cardboard furniture. The dream house from the '80s - that's the one the rich girls at school got to play with - came complete with a bright pink elevator. Today's life-sized version is more like that one.

We're sitting here perched on top of a cliff in Malibu and all we see is Pacific Ocean and sun.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Designer Jonathan Adler helped choose this location which is so beautiful it's hard to believe it's real. Adler's a judge on the TV reality TV Show "Top Design" and he's known for goofy takes on traditional decorating motifs. Walking through the front door of the Barbie House, there's a dream-like explosion of color.

Mr. JONATHAN ADLER (Barbie Dream House Designer): What we are looking at is this over-the-top orange roundabout poof that has a centerpiece of giant ostrich feathers cascading out of it like five feet high.

JAEGAR-MILLER: A starburst mirror above the fireplace is made of a dizzying spin of dolls. Below, two giant poodles lacquered pink, an actual genuine Andy Warhol portrait of Barbie, is on the wall, and from the ceiling hangs a chandelier made of an unusual material.

Mr. ADLER: It is made out of blond hair.

JAEGAR-MILLER: That's right, hair.

Mr. ADLER: It is kind of demented and it definitely walks a fine line. It's the kind where at first you see it and it just looks like traditional chandelier and you get closer to it and you see that it's all made out of blond hair.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Adler shows us to the kitchen, which exists solely for the purpose of making cupcakes. Next, the bedroom, a tent of rich pink fabric. And Barbie's closet? Neatly lined with 100 identical pink patent leather high heels. So where does Barbie go to powder her nose?

Mr. ADLER: Why would - you know, Barbie doesn't go to the bathroom. Are you crazy?

JAEGAR-MILLER: Designer Jonathan Adler says the project for him is a sort of redemption.

Mr. ADLER: I did not play with Barbies, but in my case, my sister played with Barbies and I remember ripping the head off her doll and burying it in the backyard.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Just one of the indignities the doll has suffered at the hands of children over the years.

Mr. ADLER: I think everybody has a weird, inappropriate Barbie experience that they carry with them throughout life.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Some lucky grownups get to play make-believe at a party at the Malibu house tonight. This NPR producer is back to her 800 square foot apartment and stories about bank failures.

Melissa Jaegar-Miller, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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Mattel Hopes Shanghai Is A Barbie World

The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. i i

hide captionThe world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. There is no mass-market Chinese doll, but Mattel created a special Barbie with what the company calls "a pan-Asian likeness" (left) for the opening. One thing is certainly correct: Shanghai women are famed for their shopping abilities.

Louisa Lim/NPR
The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai.

The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. There is no mass-market Chinese doll, but Mattel created a special Barbie with what the company calls "a pan-Asian likeness" (left) for the opening. One thing is certainly correct: Shanghai women are famed for their shopping abilities.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide i i

hide captionRichard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide, is in charge of the opening of this multimillion dollar, six-story shrine to Barbie. He says Mattel chose Shanghai because, in Shanghai, "not only little girls, but teenagers, moms, even grandmas had a connection to the brand, really unlike any other country."

Courtesy Mattel
Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide

Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide, is in charge of the opening of this multimillion dollar, six-story shrine to Barbie. He says Mattel chose Shanghai because, in Shanghai, "not only little girls, but teenagers, moms, even grandmas had a connection to the brand, really unlike any other country."

Courtesy Mattel
A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. i i

hide captionA wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. Three Barbies are sold every second worldwide, but battered by the economic crisis, Mattel's profits were down 46 percent last quarter.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie.

A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. Three Barbies are sold every second worldwide, but battered by the economic crisis, Mattel's profits were down 46 percent last quarter.

Louisa Lim/NPR
House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults. i i

hide captionHouse of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

Louisa Lim/NPR
House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations. i i

hide captionA mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations, including president, NASCAR driver and ballerina.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations.

A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations, including president, NASCAR driver and ballerina.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 i i i

hide captionEven the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 inch doll.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 i

Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 inch doll.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Barbie Turns 50

Barbie Takes To The Road i i
David Gilkey/NPR
Barbie Takes To The Road
David Gilkey/NPR

Life may really begin at 50 — especially if you happen to be Barbie.

Every second, three people in the world buy a Barbie doll. Barbie has been a NASCAR driver, an astronaut and an inspiration to Andy Warhol, among many other things.

Now, toymaker Mattel has spent millions on the world's first House of Barbie in Shanghai.

The House of Barbie, which opened Friday, is a six-story, hot-pink shrine to the 11 1/2 inch doll, built around a wall of a thousand Barbies, each adorned in her own specially designed fuchsia dress. Its cost is a closely guarded secret; Mattel staffers will only say it's in the "multimillions," though they stress it's less than the $33 million in some reports.

"This is clearly the first ever Barbie flagship store, where the brand truly comes alive," says Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide. "Girls can design their own Barbie, they can become a stylist, they can do stage shows, there's a Barbie cafe where you can have birthday parties — it truly is an epic center for the Barbie brand at retail."

The store's strategy includes luring an older crowd into Barbie's pink glow. So it offers adult Barbie-inspired fashion, a spa offering pink face masks and — on the sixth floor — a bar serving cocktails, which are, of course, Barbie-themed.

"We have the Barbietini, we have the Malibu Barbie, we have the Bikinitini, a Glamourpolitan, the Pink-me-up," says food and drink consultant Andre Lense, as he dusts chocolate powder through a Barbie-shaped silhouette onto the surface of the fuchsia Barbietini. He cavalierly bats away the notion that men might shy away from the hot-pink sensory overload.

"Wherever there's a Barbie, there will be a Ken," he says.

The lure of the China market was one reason that Mattel chose Shanghai for its first House of Barbie. It's aggressively pursuing developing markets, such as Eastern Europe, Russia and India, which aren't already Barbie-saturated. But when deciding where to place the House of Barbie, Shanghai beat other contenders — including London, Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles — because of its strong cross-generation reaction to the doll and the brand.

"There was an amazing connection to Barbie's values," Dickson said. "Barbie in this culture represented a world of possibilities for girls and for women. She's had amazing careers, she has the cars, she has the plane, she has the boyfriend — and she looks fantastic doing it."

But is Barbie facing a midlife crisis? Stiff competition from younger opponents like Bratz dolls has led to a slump in U.S. sales, which are down an average of 12 percent a year over the past five years. Last quarter, battered by the global economic crisis, worldwide Barbie sales plummeted 21 percent, and Mattel's revenues were down 46 percent.

But Dickson says he's confident.

"Barbie, despite the fact that [she] had challenging statistical results in the last few years, particularly the last year, still remains the No. 1 fashion doll in the world, the No. 1 toy in the world. Certainly the economic crisis suggests we need to be much more price-sensitive. I think we've reached a new moment in time where value really truly becomes not only just the speak, but the name of the game," he says.

Here, dolls range in price from $10 to $200 — for a Barbie in a Vera Wang wedding dress. But is Barbie too blond, too expensive for the China market? At a Shanghai primary school, opinion is divided.

"She's really pretty," says Wang Yiqi, looking longingly at Barbie's pink frilly miniskirt. The 11-year-old is a marketer's dream: she recognizes the specially designed $35 Shanghai Barbie and can't wait to go to the store. Others aren't quite as positive.

"I've got one just like this at home," says 7-year-old Yang Fangchen, "and it only cost $3, and she has a set of extra clothing."

Mrs. Wu, who's picking up her granddaughter, is horrified to hear of the price. "People of my generation find that really expensive. It's definitely not worth it."

In China, Barbie's world is likely to be full of impersonators. Xu Quanning, secretary general of the Shanghai Toy Trade Association, says that Barbie look-alikes for just $1 or $2 were far outselling the real doll.

As she seeks to conquer new frontiers in China, Barbie's blond ambition might find itself tested by the hard reality of cheap copies.

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