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Barbie's Mane Man : Ken is not the only guy in this doll's life. Someone else is running his fingers through her tresses. And he gets paid to for it too.

August 26, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Stephen Tarmichael gets an emergency summons to Malaysia, China or Indonesia, it's apt to mean one thing: Barbie's having a bad hair day.

Tarmichael, 29, is Barbie's hairdresser.

Officially, he's a senior creative hairstylist for Mattel Toys. His "salon" is a corner of Mattel's top-secret design center in El Segundo, where he and a staff of five tame the tresses of not only Barbie, Ken and friends, but Pocahontas and her Disney cousins and the Cabbage Patch Kids.

"We work on anything they want to put hair on," explains Tarmichael, noting that he was once asked to create hair for a mod shark. "We actually came up with, like, a long Mohawk."

But Barbie, the world's most famous doll, the fantasy alter ego of millions of little girls worldwide, is the object of his special affections. An errant strand of Barbie hair? Unthinkable. Barbie is glamour.

Being Barbie's hairstylist, he'll tell you, was "not the kind of thing I aspired to." A licensed cosmetologist, he was doing hair and was also assistant cosmetics manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Woodland Hills when a friend told him about an opening at Mattel.

Seeking an upward career move, he took the job, which was to ready toy samples for the international market. But word spread that there was a hairdresser in the house and by 1988 he found himself coiffing Barbie.

"There is nowhere to go to learn this technique," says Tarmichael, deftly stitching circles of shimmery blond Kanekalon, a modacrylic fiber made in Japan, onto the crown of a bald Barbie head in a technique called "rooting."

He's seated at a sewing machine-like device, feeding it strands of curly hair as they spiral out of a tube in which they're encased like a sausage. In minutes, the Barbie head sports a wild mass of blond curls. "Big hair, Texas hair," Tarmichael says. Plopping it on a little wig stand, Tarmichael goes to work--with a wire dog brush.

When it comes to Barbie's hair, nothing is left to chance. Prototypes, designed and styled in El Segundo, are shipped to production plants in Asia complete with "engineering specifications." These include rooting patterns, color, hair fiber--either Kanekalon or hollow saran, a shimmery plastic--and step-by-step styling photos.

Together with the two perfect prototypes--one for tearing apart, one to be kept intact as a model--the specs go to Mattel facilities in Malaysia, China and Indonesia. In turn, the overseas plants send back a dozen coiffed Barbie heads for evaluation before production begins. "We have strict guidelines, to make sure Barbies aren't bald," Tarmichael says. "We weigh all the heads" for grams of hair.

He and the El Segundo hairstyling team also make sure each Barbie coif is based on 10 complete rooting circles, and that those circles are spaced just so and have the requisite number of stitches per inch. Mattel's quality assurance lab then administers "pull tests." (Consider that entry level age for Barbie collectors is 3 or 4.)

Sometimes things go amiss on Asian production lines. "After all, they aren't hairstylists," Tarmichael observes, so he'll hop over to conduct hands-on how-to.

Barbie's hair must be trendy, but not too trendy, which is tricky, as her styles are created a year before she hits toy stores. Barbie would never have dirty-looking hair and, Tarmichael says, "Spikes would be too trendy." He adds: "And I can't see us doing Ken with a Mohawk."

The pricey limited edition Barbies, including those with hand-sequined Bob Mackie gowns, get more high-style 'do's, French twists and loops of don't-touch curls. They're to be seen, but not played with.

But for the garden variety Barbie and her friends, who come in various ethnic and racial incarnations, Tarmichael finds inspiration in magazines such as Black Hair and Soap Opera Hair. He holds up a little clump of dark hair, explaining that he'd been experimenting to get "a dreadlocky kind of curl," which he finally managed by "actually beating the hair on the side of a table."

He sits in on focus groups of teen girls, checks out their hair in malls and at the beach, in Paris and London, and eavesdrops in the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us.

His secret styling weapons: Tiny rubber bands deftly hidden, hair spray and an industrial convection oven for relaxing Barbie curls. Barbie has a distinct advantage over you and me: She's what might be called a natural bouffant. While, like Barbie's, human hair also grows in circles, Tarmichael explains, it's "lying down in circles," whereas Barbie's is rooted at a 90-degree angle, unfairly upping the volume factor.

The Barbie salon at El Segundo has attracted some high-profile visitors. Demi Moore, a Barbie collector, once spent 45 minutes talking Barbie hair with Tarmichael. Sophia Loren also stopped in. "She wanted to see how Barbies are made."

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