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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, a trip to Barbie's world. Last week, the 28th National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention was held in Washington, D.C. Barbie was born 50 years ago this March, and half a century later, remains one of the most popular dolls in the world. According to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, 90 percent of young girls own at least one Barbie doll. And around the world, there are well over 100,000 avid Barbie collectors.

We wanted to find out what makes Barbie so popular for so long, so we travelled to the convention to get a sneak peek of what's new with Barbie this year. Mattel's director of marketing for Barbie Collector, Liz Grant, was kind enough to show us around.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. LIZ GRANT (Director of Marketing for Barbie): You're so welcome. I'm so glad you came today.

MARTIN: I understand that you are also a collector.

Ms. GRANT: Of course.

MARTIN: How did you catch the Barbie bug?

Ms. GRANT: Well, you know, when you're around Barbie all day long, I get to keep all these amazing samples in my office, and some special ones I choose, I buy and I take home.

MARTIN: So what was your first Barbie? Do you remember?

Ms. GRANT: Superstar Barbie, 1977. She has a gigantic diamond ring and she can put her hand through her gorgeous long, blond hair.

MARTIN: All right. Let's go see some Barbies, shall we?

Ms. GRANT: Great. Let's do it. There's so many fun displays around the lobby, and just a treat before you walk into the sales room. One of my favorites is the Volkswagen Bug that has been custom detailed in Barbie hot pink and has a lot of fun stuff like makeup in the trunk, every girl's dream car.

MARTIN: I see a Barbie surfboard, and I see a Barbie bicycle.

Ms. GRANT: Yes, a blinged-out bicycle. So these are all special things Mattel brought down to the convention. But before we walk into the sales room, I have one other exciting thing I want to show you. We're going to go upstairs, up the escalator, and here we are in front of the Generations of Dreams gown. And I'd love for you to meet Robert Best, who's actually the designer of the doll and the designer of this amazing gown we see right here.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Robert, thank you for joining us.

Mr. ROBERT BEST (Designer): Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So we can't pretend that we don't know that you were on "Project Runway," the Bravo reality program? So…

Mr. BEST: Well you could, but yeah, exactly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEST: But I was, yeah.

MARTIN: And so Robert, describe the dress for them.

Ms. GRANT: I don't think I can do it justice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEST: The dress is a…

MARTIN: It's pink. There's a lot of pink.

Mr. BEST: There's a lot of pink. It's a strapless, beaded bustier over a full, sweeping ball gown skirt in pale, pink satin. And on the satin part of the skirt, there's sort of a collage of different patchworks that represent Barbies through the years, along with different sort Barbie logos. And each of these patches has been embroidered with crystals or sequins. And then all of this is over, of course, a petticoat of pink tulle and organza and very frothy, very girlie, and very glamorous.

MARTIN: Forgive me. I know it's a stereotype, but the fashion world does have a reputation for being a little bit catty.

Mr. BEST: Mean-spirited.

MARTIN: A little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And does anybody ever tease you for designing for Barbie?

Mr. BEST: You know, actually, people are generally jealous. I thought that they would be very like, oh, step down.

MARTIN: Step down. Yeah.

Mr. BEST: But, in fact, people are just kind of like, oh, my God. I wish I had that job. And they're like, how did you get it? What can I do?

MARTIN: See, but your models don't complain about their pay and…

Mr. BEST: Right. And you're really able to kind of let your imagination run wild. You don't have to be like, well, they hate this in the South and you have to think of the Northeast weather and blah, blah - you know, like all the real concerns. It's, like, Barbie can wear anything, anywhere. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: That's true. Robert, thank you so much.

Mr. BEST: You're very welcome. It was a pleasure.

MARTIN: Okay, Liz, I don't think I was prepared for this.

Ms. GRANT: It's overwhelming, isn't it?

MARTIN: Yes.

Ms. GRANT: So this is the heartbeat of the Barbie convention - all dealers from all over the world. So we've got amazing vintage Barbie dolls, very rare and unique specimens. We have…

MARTIN: I see a "I Love Lucy." I saw a Lucy and Ethel Barbie.

Ms. GRANT: Yes. Love Lucy. And you know what I have right here?

MARTIN: I see an astronaut Barbie.

Ms. GRANT: This is a number two doll, almost mint, very good condition. And a doll like this is selling for about 45, a hundred dollars here at the convention.

MARTIN: Avid collectors. And men are also collectors. I'm not sure if everybody knows that, and you actually are going to introduce us to a man who's an avid collector of Barbie.

Ms. GRANT: Yes. His name is Bill Greening. He's a vintage expert, and he's a really nice guy.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I'm relieved to hear it. So Bill, how many Barbie's do you own?

Mr. BILL GREENING (Mattel Designer, Barbie collector): I'm probably over 500 dolls in my collection. I focus mainly on vintage, so usually dolls from '59 to about, I kind of stopped about the mid 70s.

MARTIN: And how did you get bitten by the Barbie bug?

Mr. GREENING: In high school, I kind of saw some old Barbies at an antique shop. I loved the art on the boxes and just the vintage fashions and the detailing and so…

MARTIN: Are you a designer by profession, or a…

Mr. GREENING: Well, I design for Mattel.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. GREENING: So I am on the Barbie Collector design team. So, definitely, my collecting of Barbies lead to my career in designing for them.

MARTIN: Now I have to ask, because you are a guy.

Mr. GREENING: Yes.

MARTIN: Do any of your guy friends find your interest strange?

Mr. GREENING: I think when people see the doll collection, they really respond to it. Everyone has some kind of memory of Barbie, whether it was like your sister's Barbie or your own Barbies. The reaction's always good.

MARTIN: And how do you display it?

Mr. GREENING: Well, we have a second bedroom in our apartment. It's like the Barbie/office room. It's painted pink, has some beautiful glass display cases, so the dolls are primped and primed dressed in their vintage fashions.

MARTIN: I bet your little nieces and nephews…

Mr. GREENING: The glass doors are closed. But I always make sure the kids around me always have Barbies to play with. But…

MARTIN: They have real - okay, they have Barbies to play with.

Mr. GREENING: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Bill, thank you so much.

Mr. GREENING: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And Liz, I did want to ask, when was the first African-American or Latino or non-white Barbie?

Ms. GRANT: In the early 1960s. You might remember the TV show featuring Diahann Carroll as "Julia." Mattel was one of the very first sponsors of that program, and we also did a doll of "Julia," which is still highly collectible today.

MARTIN: And I understand that you're introducing a new line of diverse dolls. Let's go - can we go check it out?

Ms. GRANT: All right. Let's find her.

MARTIN: Let's see if we can find her. This is not - people are not easy to find in this crowd.

Ms. GRANT: So Michel, I'd love for you to meet Stacey McBride. We're here at her table. She's got this amazing line of dolls I was telling you about called "So In Style."

MARTIN: Well. Stacey, thank you for joining us.

Ms. STACEY MCBRIDE (Doll Maker): Hi. Thank you.

MARTIN: And, so how did you catch the Barbie bug?

Ms. MCBRIDE: She was my inspiration as a little girl. I loved playing with Barbie until I was around 13 years old. I know that's kind of old, but I want to bring that fun back to little girls because I know they're growing up really fast. So I created this line of dolls called "So In Style" and these girls are sisters. They mentor their little sisters. And I wanted these dolls to have the different skin tones that are representative to the African-American community.

MARTIN: In fact, there's one sister here who I think could be Latina.

Ms. MCBRIDE: Correct.

MARTIN: And certainly could be Latina. Was that intentional?

Ms. MCBRIDE: That was intentional, because…

MARTIN: It kind of represents the Afro-Latina experience.

Ms. MCBRIDE: Exactly. Trichelle, she could be part Hispanic, part black, part Asian part black. And little Kianna, she has blue eyes. I wanted the dolls to have the fuller lips, the facial features. I gave them curly hair, little afro puffs on one of the little girls. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: And, of course, we do have to talk hair because hair, as you know, is a very big issue in the African-American community, and my question is…

Ms. MCBRIDE: Exactly. I go every straight hair…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, okay there you go. But straight hair the idea that this sort of Eurocentric beauty ideal…

Ms. MCBRIDE: Yes.

MARTIN: …is one that African-Americans kind of feel that they're forced to emulate. And how did you navigate that issue?

Ms. MCBRIDE: That was also by me, as a little girl, I loved playing and combing the hair. But I was forgetting that we needed to represent our powerful black women with curly hair, too, to let little girls know that curly hair is beautiful, too. You can wear those afro puffs and look really cute.

MARTIN: When are the dolls available?

Ms. MCBRIDE: They'll be available in September in mass market.

MARTIN: Have you seen your doll in a store?

Ms. MCBRIDE: I have seen my doll in a store.

MARTIN: How exciting is that?

Ms. MCBRIDE: It is so exciting, and my daughter's excited, too.

MARTIN: All right. Congratulations.

Ms. MCBRIDE: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. Liz, thank you so much for joining us. So I don't know. I don't know how you're going top this. I mean, this has been the big 50th. What can you possibly do for an encore?

Ms. GRANT: Oh, well we have Ken's 50th coming up in 2011. So just wait.

MARTIN: Liz Grant is Mattel's director of marketing for Barbie Collector. Barbie, of course, is celebrating her 50th anniversary this year, and Liz was kind enough to give us a tour of the 28th National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention meeting in Washington, D.C.

Liz, thank you much.

Ms. GRANT: Thank you for coming.

MARTIN: To see photos of the different Barbie dolls that we've talked about and the designs that were shown at the convention, please go to our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and no, I'm not wearing Barbie pink. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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