Mattel’s Buzzy New ‘Drag Queen Barbie’ Is No Cross Dresser
Her plastic hand may not have movable digits, but Barbie’s been pushing buttons for most of her 50 years as a pop-culture icon. But few iterations of the doll have received the dizzying amount of press being given to the new The Blonds Blond Diamond Barbie, better known by the watershed moniker bestowed on her by the press: The first “Drag Queen Barbie.”
Styled with glamorous Marilyn makeup in a barely-there, platinum mini-dress—the showstopper part of which is a bejeweled, corseted bodice—and draped with a floor-length white fur, the Blond Diamond Barbie is designed by New York City fashion duo the Blonds. BarbieCollector.com, which sells the doll, calls it “pretty, provocative, and magical.” A slew of major media outlets—among them TIME, ABC News, Entertainment Weekly—and countless smaller blogs call it “Drag Queen Barbie.” That title is not exactly accurate, but the doll is progressive—albeit controversial.
It’s not clear where the false nickname originated. (Certainly, and by tradition, there are no genitals on the Blond Diamond Barbie.) But a side-by-side comparison of the Barbie and one of its creators, Phillipe Blond, reveals why the nickname may have taken off. Most often found out and about in sky-high heels, sweeping blonde hair, showy makeup, and glitzy dresses, Phillipe epitomizes the design that eventually became the Blond Diamond Barbie.
“Usually when he is dressed to go to a fashion show, he looks like Barbie,” David Blond, Phillipe’s partner and co-designer tells The Daily Beast. “The comparison is inevitable. But the Barbie is actually Barbie, and we treated her just like she was one of our clients.”
The resemblance is uncanny, Sharon Needles, a drag performer who won the most recent season of the LOGO reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race tells The Daily Beast. “Had I not known Phillipe Blond had designed it, I would’ve said that Mattel ripped off Phillipe,” she says. “It rings true to his sense of design and personal style. But it wouldn’t have been called a drag queen if he didn’t design it.”
The Blonds and Mattel never intended for the new Barbie to be a drag queen. The partnership between the Blonds—best known for designs worn by the likes of Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga—and the toy manufacturer began when the partners were among the 50 designers to create a look for the 50th anniversary Barbie Runway Show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2009. The collaboration went so well that Mattel commissioned Phillipe and David to design a new collector’s Barbie this year.
That the doll would become so widely known as “Drag Queen Barbie” “was not expected,” a Mattel spokesperson says. “The term was both created by and incorrectly perpetuated by members of the press.” Even the Blonds were caught off guard. “It’s a surprise to all of us,” David says. The goal was to create “an outfit so over the top that she wouldn’t have it in her closet,” he says. “It was never Drag Queen Barbie.”
Mainstream companies like Mattel typically would be expected to brace for controversy and backlash after the drag queen label took off. “I can almost hear the complaints of uptight parents already who think Drag Queen Barbie is an abomination of the sanctity of the Barbie world and playrooms everywhere,” writes Michele Zipp at The Stir. Yet the company isn’t rejecting the branding. In not-so-thinly-veiled language, Mattel could even be interpreted to be endorsing it.
When asked specifically whether the company embraces the “Drag Queen Barbie” title, the Mattel spokesperson tells The Daily Beast, “Barbie has the unique ability to spark cultural conversation.” Cathy Cline, vice president of marketing in the U.S. for Mattel’s girls’ brands, goes a step further in an interview with The New York Times: “Barbie doesn’t worry about what other people think.”
But there are certainly those who do care what Barbie thinks, and who view this “Drag Queen Barbie”—whether or not that’s an accurate description—as a message. “Designed by someone living his life his own way, this Barbie will be seen by some as a celebration and others may be offended,” says Tanya Lee Stone, author of The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us.
The risk undoubtedly is there, particularly with Barbie’s more traditional consumers. “What parent in their right mind is going to buy their child a drag queen doll?” says David Caton, founder of the Florida Family Association, in an email. “The doll may sell well among the transmo market, but will skid in the family market.” He says Mattel is “playing Russian roulette” with its marketing of the new doll.
The biggest surprise is that across most of the web—where commentary so often devolves to snark and seizes on controversy—the reaction largely falls between ambivalence and celebration. While jokes about “tucking and shaving” and “Ken in heels” abound, writers cheer, to varying degrees of enthusiasm, the design. “Drag Queen Barbie looks just like regular Barbie,” says Hillary Busis at Entertainment Weekly. Actually, “Drag Queen Barbie is the most fabulous Barbie yet,” adds Carmel Lobello at Death and Taxes. “She’s faaaaaaabulous,” concludes Meredith Carroll at Babble.
Though they never intended for their design to be attached to such a button-pushing phrase, the Blonds recognize the value of it. “It gets people talking and it gets people less ignorant,” says David.
And while the name “Drag Queen Barbie” may raise some eyebrows, the warm reaction to it certainly shouldn’t. The doll has a long history with the two demographics the Blond Diamond Barbie most blatantly represents. The gay community and the fashion industry have championed Barbie for decades—stretching back nearly to her introduction. Fashion guru Tim Gunn, best known for his role as a mentor on the design reality series, Project Runway, once even called Barbie “the ultimate gay icon.”
“She symbolizes style, beauty and innovation, and the gay community as a whole responds to Barbie because she is a personality that transcends sexual orientation, race and age and sends a message that you can be whomever you choose to be,” says Kristin Noelle Weissman, author of Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal.
The doll’s release and the ensuing hubbub come as drag is entering the mainstream. RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show that catapulted Sharon Needles to fame, closed out its fourth season to record ratings; the season four finale was seen by more people than the number who watched Dustin Hoffman’s HBO drama Luck, and episodes of the Food Network series, Chopped, E!’s talk show Chelsea Lately, Conan O’ Brien’s TBS program. As The Atlantic Wire’s David Wagner points out, drag documentaries like Paris Is Burning also are enjoying a cultural renaissance.
“Most American adults know what a drag queen is, but as they’re portrayed in films like Dressed to Kill and Silence of the Lambs,” says Sharon Needles. They’re thieves, murderers, hookers, trying to pass as women, or jokes. The popularity of Drag Race is changing that.
Will “Drag Queen Barbie" be a success? Its price tag could be a setback. The collector’s doll, which will be released in December, costs $125. Mattel would not reveal pre-order information; a spokesperson would say only that “the doll has been very well received by the Barbie collector community and fashionistas alike.” The conversation it sparked could help buoy it to greater sales than the typical collector’s Barbie, Weissman predicts.
Regardless of what its official title or press-given nickname is, the Barbie should sell, says Phillipe Blond, “She couldn’t be more beautiful. Other dolls can’t compare.”