Not so pretty in pink: Barbie – A real-life tale of greed, debauchery and suicide | Films | Entertainment

It is one of Hollywood’s biggest gambles of the year: an £80million throw of the pink fuzzy dice, betting that audiences will embrace the adventures of an 11 1/2-inch plastic plaything brought to life. Margot Robbie stars as Barbie, the most popular doll in world history, opposite Ryan Gosling as her boyfriend Ken.

In a bright, candy-coloured world they lead a pre-teen girl’s vision of the American Dream, soaking in the Malibu sun, cruising in Barbie’s bubblegum pink Cadillac convertible, and modelling fabulous fashions.

Indeed, the construction of Barbieland, which is almost entirely fluorescent pink, from the lifesize versions of the doll’s famous Dreamhouse to the roads and lamp-posts, caused an international shortage of pink paint. But behind Barbieland’s neon facade something is deeply wrong.

The living doll finds she no longer floats down effortlessly from the penthouse of her Barbie Dream Home, her bathroom shower suddenly runs cold, and – oh, the horror – her stiletto-ready arched feet are inexplicably flat!

Her shiny, happy world is collapsing, and Barbie is presented with the same existential choice that faced Neo in The Matrix: “You can go back to your regular life, or you can know the truth about the universe.”

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Margot Robbie stars as Barbie

Margot Robbie stars as Barbie (Image: Warner Bros)

Except instead of choosing between a blue or red pill, Barbie must decide between pink stilettos and earthy Birkenstock sandals.

Barbie chooses to remain in her fake world, but is forced to leave anyway, travelling with Ken in her pink camper van, pink speedboat, pink tandem bicycle, pink snowmobile and pink space rocket before reaching the real world, where she has a rude awakening.

But in the same way that Barbie discovers life’s harsh realities behind her world’s pink plastic gloss, so does a dark side hide behind the real-world creation of the queen of the toy box.

The myth, 64 years in the making, is that Barbie was the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, named after her infant daughter Barbara.

The Ken doll, arriving three years later, was named after Handler’s youngest son. Barbie’s design was perfected by a former missile engineer hired by Mattel – Jack Ryan – and was an instant smash success.

But like the movie, reality was very different, tainted by drugs and debauchery, greed and betrayal, fraud and suicide – scandals that might shock many parents whose children innocently play with the long-legged doll.

Ryan Gosling with Margot Robbie

Ryan Gosling with Margot Robbie (Image: Warner Bros)

Barbie’s creators agree that she was inspired by a near-pornographic burlesque doll from Germany named Bild-Lilli that Handler came across while holidaying in Switzerland in 1956. Handler also claims to have been inspired by watching daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and wishing for better. “If it hadn’t been for Barbie, I would have never come up with the idea for the doll,” Handler claimed.

She hired Jack Ryan to design Barbie based on the Teutonic toy who Ryan said was “looking like a hooker between performances”. When the first Barbie prototype arrived looking too sexy, Ryan filed off her nipples.

With Barbie a toy store triumph, Ryan was quick to claim credit, saying he had designed the doll to look more like a real woman. He had developed the technology that gave her flexible arms and legs, and gave Barbie her hourglass shape. He even claimed that Barbie was named after his wife, Barbara.

Handler meanwhile dismissed Ryan as merely “someone who had done some of the design work”. Ryan, an independent designer rather than a Mattel employee, had wisely foregone a salary in exchange for a 1.5 percent share of Barbie’s gross revenue.

Selling 100,000 dolls a week, within three years Ryan was earning $750,000 annually and began living like a Roman emperor – Caligula.

He raced through five disastrous marriages, including one to Zsa Zsa Gabor, indulging his passion for wild sex orgies, prostitutes, and cocaine. At Mattel, he hired shapely young women to help his designers “be more creative and thrive”.

Jack Ryan with wife Zsa Zsa Gabor

Jack Ryan with wife Zsa Zsa Gabor (Image: Shutterstock)

More than one billion Barbies have been sold worldwide, but Handler grew greedy. She was indicted for securities fraud, and pleaded no contest to manipulating Mattel’s stock price by falsifying sales and earnings records.

She was sentenced in 1978 to five years probation, 2,500 hours of community service and fined £46,000. The ensuing shareholder lawsuit cost Mattel another £24million. She was forced out at Mattel in 1975, and died in 2002, aged 85.

Handler’s daughter Barbara wearied of her namesake doll. “I think of her as a bimbo,” says Barbara, now aged 82. “It bothers me. I really don’t like her.” She never gave her own daughter a Barbie to play with, and admits: “I’m tired of being Barbie doll.”

Ken, a New York property developer, insisted he was nothing like his beach-loving vapid doll doppelgänger, saying: “I was a nerd. All the girls thought I was a jerk.” His two daughters never played with Barbie either, preferring stuffed animals. “I really don’t like her,” he added. Ken died of a brain tumour in 1994, aged 50.

Inevitably, Barbie has her own dark side. With an impossibly tiny waist and breasts so large that in real life she would topple over, she has been criticised by feminists for serving as a sexualised and unattainably curvaceous role model to impressionable little girls.

Mattel Barbie dolls

Mattel Barbie dolls (Image: Getty)

There have also been some questionable versions of Barbie, including the Slumber Party Barbie who came with a diet book titled ‘Don’t Eat’; the talking Barbie who hated maths; and Barbie’s pregnant friend Midge – played in the movie by British actress Emerald Fennell – with expandable abdomen, withdrawn from sale after American mothers complained that she encouraged teen pregnancies.

In recent years Barbie has been redesigned with a thicker waist, and given more aspirational professions – astronaut, scientist, computer engineer, presidential candidate – to accompany her more than 200 jobs including fashion model, waitress, flight attendant, secretary, floral designer and babysitter.

This year saw the arrival of Down Syndrome Barbie.

A toy industry phenomenon since her debut in 1959, Barbie continues to sell more than 58 million dolls a year in 150 countries, and the coming movie is expected to set sales soaring.

It’s not unusual for a star to be hiding a scandal or two, but parents looking to the Barbie film for good, clean fun might want to take another look at her dark, depraved and dubious origins.

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