Diversions

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

She doesn't look it, but Barbie has just turned 47. And wouldn't you know it? That just happens to be about the average age of the Barbie collector. When hundreds of those collectors recently descended on Los Angeles for their annual Barbie convention, reporter Gloria Hillard was there.

GLORIA HILLARD reporting:

Imagine a 25,000 square foot showroom with tens of thousands of Barbies staring back at you - blonde Barbies, brunette Barbies, bridal Barbie, Malibu Barbie, astronaut, teacher and waitress Barbie. There's so much pink, the place has a rosy glow.

Collector Arlene Redgate is wearing pink, and lots of Barbie bling. Like most of the collectors here, she says she got hooked on Barbie in her childhood and today she owns - how many?

Ms. ARLENE REDGATE (Barbie Collector): I don't know. I'm scared to count. Hundreds. Hundreds. Probably close to a thousand.

HILLARD: Are you just into Barbie, or do you have the extended family of Barbie?

Ms. REDGATE: Oh, absolutely the extended family. Francie, Stacy, Skipper, Scooter -

HILLARD: A nautical-looking Ken in a plastic pink boat caught my eye. Dealer Hillary James was selling him.

Ms. HILLARY JAMES (Barbie Dealer): And Barbie sits next to him. It even floats. And it's worth about $225.

HILLARD: He does look a little uncomfortable in that seat.

Ms. JAMES: He does. His legs don't bend yet. That didn't happen until next year. He's from 1962.

HILLARD: Barbie made her debut three years earlier.

Ms. JAMES: Some of the first ones that came out in 1959 are very hard to find. Little girls played with them so the condition is always pretty poor. They took them in the pool, they took them in the bathtub, they buried them in the backyard. Their brother, their very mean brother, cut the hair. So if you find one that just happened to survive, the price is up there.

HILLARD: She had just sold one, in its original box, Barbie in the black-and-white knit bathing suit, for $15,000. Leaving in the showroom at the end of a long hallway, two Barbies were leaning up against the wall next to a neon Yes, We Are Open sign. Inside, Reynaldo Caldona, a big, beefy guy from Jersey City, was working on decapitated Barbie heads.

Mr. REYNALDO CALDONA (Barbie Repairman): I repair those.

HILLARD: Think auto repair shop, but instead of auto parts, Caldona is surrounded by Barbie parts - legs, torsos, heads.

Mr. CALDONA: These are some of the features. They are in bad shape, so what I do, I restore them.

HILLARD: Caldona says he used to collect G.I. Joes, but everyone was asking about Barbie.

From G.I. Joe to Barbie?

Mr. CALDONA: Exactly.

HILLARD: Across the hall was renowned Barbie makeover artist Matthew Sutton, his decked-out, dressed to the nines Barbies were selling for $350.

Mr. MATTHEW SUTTON (Barbie makeover artist): I take an existing product and I will remove all the original face paint. She gets a complete facial and makeover, all hand-painted. I restyle the hair, and then I will design and create an outfit. I'll use, you know, sometimes antique fabrics or beautiful, you know, this is an Italian silk.

HILLARD: Maybe it was because I never owned a Barbie, but I was getting a little Barbied out. But everyone else here was anything but. Crowded into a darkened ballroom, a few hundred people were intently watching a home slide show dedicated to one of Barbie's hairdos in the 60s called the bubble cut. On the screen were two examples of the tiny coiffed and hair sprayed head.

Unidentified Woman: Look at the hair color on the doll on the left, too. The one to the left is a 62 bubble. The one on the right is a 61 copper bubble. Look at the difference in the haircut.

HILLARD: And just so you know, another way you can tell a 1961 Barbie with a bubble cut from a 1962? The '61 Barbie has red lipstick.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.

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