"That's kind of the Barbie channel," says Steve.
He and Studley, a frisky Boston terrier, enjoy lives of fine decor, fashion, travel and glamour. But Steve's life hasn't always been so charmed.
As Studley hops down and romps around the room, panting and humping everything in sight ("We're getting that taken care of next week"), Steve gets a faraway look. He recalls a rainy afternoon visiting an aunt and uncle when he was eight years old. Steve retreated to the basement to play with his girl cousins' toys. He found Barbie in a wooden chest, atop a fabulous wardrobe.
"It was the most beautiful Barbie in the world," he recalls. Steve didn't want to pull her head off with his rowdy friends. He didn't want to hang her upside down. All those clothes and sparkles, he says, stirred something deep.
Steve's fascination was private, a secret kept to himself whenever he stole away to his aunt's basement to play. He spent hours scooting Barbie's red Ferrari across the tile floor, imaginary wind whipping her perfect hair. He slipped dainty stockings on and off her curvaceous legs. The boy zipped and unzipped her designer dresses, which fit perfectly around her tiny waist and generous bosom. All the while, he listened for creaking footsteps on the stairs.
"I always had a feeling of guilt when I played with her," Steve recalls. "She was a forbidden pleasure."
Steve eventually moved away from Osawatomie, Kansas -- "I was a small-town boy who wanted big-city ways," Steve sighs -- and settled in Kansas City. He came out as gay and bought a yellow Corvette. One spring afternoon, when Steve was 38, he chatted with a friend who owned a black Porsche.
"We've got Barbie cars -- like Barbie had," his friend quipped. The following week, Steve and his friend cruised in their sports cars, each with a fashionable Barbie posed in the passenger seat. "We did it as a gag," Steve says, "but it put Barbie back on my mind."
The doll that gazed vacantly out the passenger window of Steve's Corvette was pretty, but there was no chemistry. She was glamorous, but in a shallow way. Her clothes were fashionable but second-rate. Steve longed for the lined coats and dainty stockings he had tenderly arranged on that forbidden Barbie of boyhood days.
"I wanted to find one like my cousin had, the one with a blond ponytail," says Steve, now fifty. His quest began. He rose early on Sunday mornings to be first at the flea market, where he met other collectors huddled around battered Barbies on dusty tables. A Barbie club was forming in Kansas City, they told him. Would he want to join? More experienced collectors guided Steve through Barbie's complex world.
Beware the wrong Barbie head on the wrong Barbie body, they advised. If the doll has "made in China" stamped on the butt, don't bother. Sniff the legs as you press them together. Are they squishy? Good. Do they possess the distinctive trait of the early dolls, a crayonlike odor? Even better.
Steve perused Barbie Bazaar, a magazine for collectors, and eventually found the doll he longed to possess, known as "Barbie number three." Steve put $800 on his credit card, and soon Barbie arrived, boxed and beautiful, from California.
"It was like Christmas," he recalls. Steve displayed her in his living room for a while. Then he propped the doll up in the spare bedroom. His friends, he recalls, were "both envious and amazed."
"I thought that getting that would satisfy my appetite for childhood experiences I couldn't have," he says. "But it didn't." Like Barbie, Steve wanted to have it all.
By collecting Barbie, Steve says, he fed a psychological yearning for childhood experiences he could have only in secret. "As an adult, I didn't care what anyone thought; I could have what I wanted," says Steve.
"As a boy, I liked putting on her stockings; it was a psychosexual thing," he says. "It wasn't like I wanted a doll or to be like a girl." Steve was attracted to fashion as a child, and with Barbie, fashion was at his fingertips.
The best dolls, he says, came from women who had never played with them -- little girls who opened the box at Christmas, held the doll up for inspection and then tossed her aside for thirty years. When grown women haul those neglected Barbies out of closets decades later, some exchange them for enough cash to make down payments on dream houses of their own.
"Some of the best Barbies come from lesbians who never played with them while growing up," says Steve. Lesbian sisters can be particularly rich sources for pristine dolls. "The jackpot is when those Barbies belonged to twins."
When Barbie hit the market in 1959, girls' and boys' life options were as different as the toys they received. Boys got BB guns, and girls got Betsy Wetsy. Boys got Hot Wheels. Girls got Barbie. No surprise, then, that a style-conscious boy might carry unfulfilled childhood desires into adulthood. Unleashed, those desires ruled Steve's life.
"I didn't stop for ten years," says Steve, whose collection mushroomed to almost 400 dolls. "I kept five of them in a safe deposit box because they were worth a total of $45,000." Meanwhile, members of the Barbie club fueled one another's desire for the eleven-and-a-half-inch fashion queen. "When we got together, all we'd talk about was Barbie," Steve says.
While Steve was chatting on a sofa one day with a collector's husband, who saved old Playboy magazines, the man nudged Steve.
"Just think if Barbie were life-size," he whispered.
"We all knew collecting Barbie was a little kooky," says Steve, "but that's what made it fun."
Club members jetted to Barbie conventions in New York, Chicago and Dallas. One of Steve's friends accumulated $46,000 on her credit card buying Barbie and her accessories. Like many collectors, the woman lived as though the Barbie life were the only life.
Even the Barbie club fell prey to the doll's avaricious ways. A chasm formed between those who could afford vintage Barbies and those who settled for less. "It was kind of pitiful," Steve recalls. "You had to pull back your joy from having better toys than they did." The club members tried not to be elitist, he insists, but "you have to face facts."
Little by little, the Barbie club parties grew more extravagant. Lavish Christmas galas with Barbies in handmade designer dresses. Weenie roasts with Barbie and Ken decked out in camping gear at city parks. Tablecloths with intricate maps of all the places that Barbie might go. Eventually the club disbanded, buckling under the sheer weight of Barbie and her possessions.
A year ago, as Steve dusted off his 400 Barbies, he too felt the weight of his collection. He rarely found dolls that he did not already own, and Barbie was as high-maintenance as she was beautiful. Steve often had to make difficult choices: A week's worth of khakis from the Gap for himself? Or a pair of rare shoes for Barbie?
"I started to resent it all," he says.
Steve contacted a dealer in Florida, rented a minivan and boxed up all but a hundred of his precious dolls. On a Sunday morning, he headed south. It was time to let Barbie go.
Since her debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York, Barbie has been the queen of the prom, a fashion model, a writer in Manhattan and an astronaut. She served in Desert Storm wearing designer camouflage. There was even a "Barbie for President," dressed in a blue and silver lamé gown.
Yet controversy has dogged Barbie from the day she set pointed foot on American soil.
Some insist that Barbie was a rip-off of the German doll, Bild Lilli, a racily dressed blond modeled after a floozy in a risqué comic strip in Hamburg's Bild newspaper. Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, discovered Bild Lilli on a trip to Europe in 1957 and brought the doll to the States. Her nipple-phobic designers at Mattel made a few minor changes (such as filing off the tips of Lilli's anatomically correct breasts and loosening her pursed lips), and Barbie was born.
But before Barbie could charm her way into the hearts of little girls, she had to get to their mothers first. Women had to be convinced that their daughters needed a doll of a grown woman with voluptuous breasts and sexy calves.
In 1957, Mattel commissioned a $12,000 toy study from Ernest Dichter, director of the Institute for Motivational Research in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Dichter, renowned for "motivational research," represented a new trend in advertising that manipulated consumers' deep psychological cravings.
Dichter's study revealed two important facts: Kids loved Barbie. But their mothers hated her. "I know little girls want dolls with high heels, but I object to that sexy costume," one mother was quoted in the report. "It's hard enough to raise a lady these days without undue moral pressures."
Yet the heavy-handed gender roles of the '50s and '60s ultimately worked to Barbie's (and Mattel's) advantage. Dichter's marketing campaign targeted mothers' deepest fears: Their daughters might shame them by not growing up to be little ladies. Wasn't it better for girls to learn from a doll how to attract men with their looks than to end up unable to attract any man at all?
Mattel sold Barbie's well-groomed appearance, poise and grace. American moms eventually looked beyond Barbie's sexy form and warmed to the idea of a pretty doll who had it all.
The kids who played with Barbie over the years cared little about her shady fraülein beginnings, sordid past or shallow ways. She has been slammed by feminists for teaching girls to use their bodies to attract men, but Barbie has also served as a role model unlike any that came before. In many ways, she challenged the typical roles available to women in the era of June Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver.
Barbie wasn't limited to a career as a nurse or teacher. She could be an airline stewardess. She commuted to high-rise offices. Barbie supported herself, so she didn't have to marry. Instead, she hopped from job to job, lived in swanky apartments and traveled the world.
Barbie, for her time, was one of the hippest women around. When Mattel finally let Barbie lift her gaze to eye level in 1975 (prior to that, her eyes were side-glancing and cast downward) and handed her a bunch of new careers, she seemed almost invincible.
Yet Barbie's life in the fast lane nearly always careened to the same sordid end -- frazzled hair, shoeless feet and barely a stitch of clothing to cover her famous figure. So many Barbies, who had started out with such glamour and grace, too often ended up poking from trash bags in dark attics, left at the mercy of nibbling rodents.
On a typical Saturday afternoon, Sharon Mansell escorts five nude Barbies into her kitchen and snaps on the light. She hoists the dolls onto the kitchen counter and arranges them in a row. Then she cranks on the hot water and rolls up her sleeves.
First, Sharon buries unblinking eyes in her fist and twists off a head. Brusquely, she tosses it, hair flying, into the soapy water. One of the dolls has no hair at all, but the bald head pops right off. These dolls are the real thing, says Sharon, but she admits that in her searches, she's come across a few "Hong Kong Barbies." One has to be careful, she warns. "There are some Barbies with nipples out there."
Sharon, who has collected Barbies for five years on a secretary's salary, has learned to be resourceful. She can't always buy dolls in mint condition.
"Some of them have had their noses bitten off by dogs, kids, mice, you name it," says Sharon. "You hardly ever find one that's perfect." Sharon has learned to re-root hair, repaint body parts and perform plastic surgery. "I don't play with them," Sharon insists. She admires them.
"I like them for the fact they survived being blown up with firecrackers, having their hair cut off and getting their fingers and toes chewed up."
Sharon holds up one of her better Barbies, which wears a pillbox hat and red coat. "This one's dressed like Jackie Kennedy," says Sharon. "Barbie always reflected what was going on at the time.
"In the '50s and '60s, women used to dress up when they went out," Sharon continues. "Barbie did too." She gestures toward the American Girl Barbie manufactured from 1962 to 1964. She is indeed glamorous, draped in a coat trimmed with real mink. "That outfit she has on is worth $1,200," says Sharon. The shoes alone cost $300.
Sharon has spent about $30,000 on Barbies and accessories in five years, but when she figures in how many she's resold, the deficit drops to around $10,000. Sharon spends at least three hours a day shopping and selling on eBay and e-mailing other collectors on her Internet doll list.
Although Sharon never owned a Barbie as a child (she was fourteen when the first came out), she says that most collectors begin the hobby by searching for the doll they played with when they were young. Like Steve, many of those collectors are gay men. Neither Sharon nor her gay acquaintances are particularly interested in Barbie's boyfriend.
"Ken's always been just an accessory for Barbie," says Sharon.
"This is Mod Ken," she says, holding up a long-haired doll wearing a suede fringe jacket. "He came out about the same time as Mod Squad." Then there was Totally Hair Ken, whose long hair sprouted domelike from the top of his head.
The most controversial, though, was Earring Magic Ken, who came out in 1993. Mattel's designers had noticed well-dressed men strolling about big cities with pretty metal rings on chains around their necks. Soon Ken was sporting a similar necklace and an earring.
Little girls liked Earring Magic Ken, but the people at Mattel eventually realized that the little necklace charm was something known among the oversexed as a "cock ring," a device that enables men to maintain prolonged erections. Sharon says she once had an Earring Magic Ken, but not for long.
"Some gay guy probably bought him from me," she says. Many gay male collectors are serious, she says, noting that many seem driven by childhood longings. One collector told Sharon that he had convinced his mom to buy him a Barbie when he was a child. "Don't tell your dad," the boy's mother had warned, then pried a board loose from the floor to create a hiding place for the forbidden toy.
"You wouldn't believe how many gay guys on my [Internet] list say it just killed them when they were five or six years old and their sisters got Barbies," Sharon says. "Those boys wanted to play with those Barbies so bad."
A shiny red Ferrari with flashing headlights zooms forward as a sexy blond passenger waves her arms. The driver is smiling, one hand on the wheel, the other on the woman's bare thigh. But the engine of the sports car isn't roaring; instead, it whirs, stops and starts as the car jerks forward and then spins around before backing.
Dave B. (who prefers not to use his last name) towers above the plastic car in his basement, punching the remote control. "I'll never drive a Ferrari," says Dave. "But Barbie will."
The basement of the house where the 36-year-old restaurant manager lives with his mother is a shrine to the Barbie lifestyle, home to at least a thousand dolls. There are four shelves of wedding-theme Barbies and three levels of Harley-Davidson Barbies. Barbie sports cars and powder-blue airplanes. Kens, Midges and Skippers frolic with black Barbies and X-Files Barbie. "This is Ferrari Barbie dressed in red leather," Dave says. "I think she looks like a dominatrix."
Dave holds up a Black Francie doll wearing the "Wild Bunch" outfit, an orange fake-fur jacket, orange hat and leggings. "When this doll came out in 1967, they originally called her Colored Francie," Dave says with authority. "And this is Totally Hair Ken." He gestures toward a doll wearing lavender pants and a wild shirt. "How gay does he look?"
Dave's obsession with Barbie began when he and his ex-wife won a shopping spree at a local mall five years ago and bought a collectible Barbie at J.C. Penney. "That's when I got the real bug for it," says Dave, although he admits he played with Barbies as a child. "I kind of did it in secret, up in my room and down in my basement," Dave recalls. But he also played with G.I. Joe, Wonder Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man. Barbie seduced him as an adult, says Dave, because "the things that I can't do, I do vicariously through Barbie."
After Dave and his ex-wife bought that first Barbie, he tacked up a sign in the restaurant they owned: "Old Barbies wanted." Eventually he received a call from a mysterious woman who claimed to have a "number one Barbie," an original from 1959. Dave asked all the right questions.
"What's she wearing?" Dave queried.
"Black and white swimsuit. White sunglasses. Blond hair in a ponytail."
"And her feet?" he asked.
"Pointy. Holes in the bottom. She's standing on her little stand."
"Singing into a microphone?"
Within the hour, Dave and the woman sat in his restaurant, haggling over price. "I assumed her family had been well off because she had the whole wardrobe for that year of doll. She had all the outfits, all the accessories," says Dave. Finally, they settled on $2,000. The woman folded up her check and left. Dave swept up his number one Barbie and went home to play.
"I was so excited. I put her in all the different outfits," says Dave. Still, he craved more of the dolls. And with any Barbie comes her flamboyant lifestyle. There was the fashion shop for $300. An Austin Healy sports car for $25. Barbie's dream house for $265 and Twiggy for $400. An overpriced Barbie, Midge and Ken gift set for $2,000.
"I became obsessed with it," Dave says. "I wanted to have this, I wanted to have that." Dave's wife grew concerned about how much money he spent but had no clue of the extensive collection he kept hidden in his parents' basement. There were some who scoffed at his new passion. "Not everybody is a Barbie lover or a Barbie person," Dave admits.
"Are you gay?" people asked Dave when they found out about his obsession. "I lied to them and said no, that I was collecting them for my little girl," he says. Eventually, Dave's collection was worth nearly $20,000. On a Christmas visit to Dave's parents' house, his wife ventured down to the basement where Dave kept his secret collection.
"I went downstairs expecting maybe ten Barbies, but there were a hundred of them down there," says Dave's ex-wife (who asked not to be identified). As jet-setting Barbies lounged on plastic beds and drove flashy cars in Dave's Barbie world, his marriage was crumbling. Dave's Barbie addiction, says his ex-wife, placed a financial strain on their marriage that eventually led to separation and divorce.
Dave and his ex-wife are now good friends, but the divorce was tense. When it came time to settle up financially, Dave hoped to keep his prized Barbies. When he omitted them from a list of assets, Dave's wife ratted him out to the judge.
"You need to sell those Barbies!" the judge decreed.
"I was ready to move on, so I sold them," says Dave. "But I missed it." Dave missed his Barbies, but he misses being married sometimes too, he says, even though his attempts at a heterosexual life proved futile.
"Women are emotionally stronger, and they'll see things through more than men, whether those men are straight or gay. I don't think the day is that far away when we'll see a woman president," he muses, gesturing toward his Barbie for President doll.
In just two years, since his divorce, Dave has amassed the new collection, which is based more on quantity than quality. His vintage Barbie days are gone, says Dave, but he prefers newer Barbies anyway. Now he can have as many as he wants.
Dave suspects that fashion is what draws some gay men to Barbie. Most of his gay friends think his collection is impressive. "At least the ones who are secure with themselves," says Dave, although one ex-boyfriend "had some issues." But that never stopped Dave from living a vicarious life of luxury.
Dave stands in the basement beside Barbie's Dream Mansion, a tri-level house with interior lights and a glowing front porch. He presses the doorbell, and chimes reverberate through the home as roomfuls of Barbies cock their stiff necks in anticipation. Dave switches off the tiny porch light.
"I'll probably never live in a big mansion," he shrugs. "But Barbie will."
Steve and Studley may never live in a big mansion, either. But they've got a better shot at it than Dave. After Steve sold most of his collection to the dealer in Florida, he returned home with enough money to pay off his house. His ten-year run of Barbie collecting, Steve says, had fulfilled the unmet desires of his austere childhood.
"When I sold my collection, I guess I got that out of my system," says Steve. He kept a hundred or so of the dolls for sentimental reasons, but even they are now packed away. Now fifty late-model Barbies, decked out in designer dresses, gaze out from behind a glass-doored curio cabinet beside his front door.
Sometimes, Steve goes out to his garage and surveys the remnants of his Barbie days -- and of his closeted childhood. He holds up a dusty metal box with Western images. "This was my Roy Rogers lunch box," he says proudly. But then he lifts up a more recent acquisition: a white metal box with "Campus Queen" painted in pink and Barbie promenading with her friends. "And this was my fantasy lunch box."
Steve has a new project, a small-scale dream house of his own creation, modeled after the Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe, a German architect. Steve plans to furnish it with one-sixth-scale midcentury furniture purchased from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I'll seek out chairs I can't find for myself and furnish my Barbie house with them," says Steve.
With fewer expensive Barbies cluttering his own home, Steve feels like a new man. Using the money from his collection, Steve is remodeling, rearranging and renovating the house to be as impressive as any place Barbie would call home.
"Now that I don't do Barbie," says Steve, "I get to live like Barbie."