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The Man Who Would Be Ken : Collector from Orange has almost 300 Barbie dolls. And, did we mention he wants to be buried with his favorite?


ORANGE — Hi, my name is Jim and I have played with Barbie dolls.

I feel better now, having got that off my manly chest. As is probably the case with most of the males out there, it's not too difficult a thing to own up to, since I was chiefly doing gross guy things with the dolls.

Namely, while our sisters may have been playing "Barbie Goes Shopping" or "Roman Holiday Barbie" with their dolls, most of us guys were playing "Hershey Syrup Barbie Meets Fang the Dog," "Barbie's Nudist Camp" and "Barbie Gets a Haircut With Toenail Clippers."

Michael Osborne, however, is a braver sort. He loves his Barbie dolls, and doesn't hide the fact. The 24-year-old washes their hair with shampoo and gives them little perms. He's taken a three-foot tall My Size Barbie to work with him on the bus. On his phone machine he has animated conversations with his Talking Barbie. He has hundreds of America's favorite doll in his small apartment. He even has once been mistaken for her, he says.

"I'd gone to a Toys R Us store here," he said in a breathless voice. "I had on a leather motorcycle jacket that was kind of a salmon pink color and at the time my hair was very blond. I walked in and this little kid screamed and said, 'Mommy, look! It's Barbie!' It was the funniest thing. I thought I was going to die. The poor woman was mortified, so I turned around and said, 'Don't worry about it, happens all the time,' and just went off to the Barbie aisle."

When he started collecting the dolls 13 years ago, Osborne believes he was one of the first serious male collectors. Since then it has become a more acceptable hobby for men, and concurrently a higher-stakes game, with a mint 1959 Barbie in the original box going for up to $5,000. In 1992 the collection of one San Diego collector Osborne knows was stolen and later retrieved by police. It's value: $1 million.

Osborne's collection is far more modest, but substantial enough to be pretty scary.

"When you're getting to know someone, it's not like one of those real casual things where you mention, 'Oh, by the way, I have a dog.' It's, 'By the way, I have 200 Barbies in my living room. I hope you like pink,' he said.

Along with the standard Barbie and her nearly countless variations and outfits, Osborne specializes in collecting samples and prototypes, some of which are justifiably one-of-a-kind.


There is one with silver-and-black Emmylou Harris hair, except a chemical process makes Barbie's silver strands turn lavender in the sunlight. Another has Raggedy Ann-like hair of pink yarn, while a half-finished Ken doll that only has a burr of hair going around the side of his head was dubbed the "Male Pattern Baldness Ken" by Osborne. Some of the differences are ones only a true fan would note, such as a Totally Hair Barbie prototype where the hair is center-parted instead of being in bangs.

"And this is the one I want to be buried with," Osborne said, pointing out a striking prototype My Size Barbie with brown skin, blue eyes and platinum hair. He refers to the doll as Ru-Paul Barbie, or Ru-Barbie for short.

"I don't know what they were thinking when they did this, but it's really great. I like collecting the samples and prototypes because they can be so different."

So, does he spend his weekends rooting through Mattel's Dumpsters or what?

"Actually I do not, because they have video cameras," he said. "I do have friends who worked there and some who still do, and they get me stuff. And then some of it, like Ru-Barbie, I've found at auctions and doll shows."

It was from his Mattel sources that he got some eerie featureless Barbies, which never had lips or eyes painted on, and a hairless version of Barbie's sister Skipper, not to mention rows of heads mounted on a dowel rack, like little victims of Vlad the Impaler.

Osborne said, "A friend of mine actually had to leave here, he was so freaked out by them, saying, 'That's not the way Barbie's supposed to be!' "


There has been some ruckus in recent years over just what the doll is supposed to be. In 1992, for example, a group of women educators complained that a Talking Barbie that declared "Math class is tough!" could condition girls to do poorly in math.

In her 35 years, the doll has been branded a symbol of consumerism, a tool of male domination, the wasp-waisted source of eating disorders, a bimbo and worse, but Osborne won't hear anything of it.

"You know, math was tough for me too. I got in a discussion on the way to work just this morning with someone who said (Barbie) represents everything that's wrong with America, because she's a clothes-horse and blond and empty-headed. Barbie isn't just this blonde: I have Hispanic Barbies, Hawaiian Barbies, Asian Barbies, African Barbies. One thing I wanted to do with my collection is show that she's everything.

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