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Fantastic, Though Plastic

Photographer Nancy Ellison strove to give Barbie 'a soul' in her new book, a tome intended for adults. She's a doll women can relate to, says the self-described 'feminist artist.'

November 27, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How bad is it--in our post-feminist, Hillary-not-Bill-rules times--that her wedding dress is a swirl of satin and lace, glammed up with choker pearls and white Manolo Blahnik-like mules? That she's aglow and spread-eagled in an artfully bubbled bath or about to open a blue Tiffany box that's the right size for a ring in the upper carats?

Not bad enough to stop gossip columnists and others from actually talking up Barbie--that politically incorrect, feminist punching bag--who stars in the new book "Barbie Live: The World's Most Famous Doll Having the Time of Her Life!" (Universe Publishing). The book features glowingly lit Barbie-comes-to-life shots--if life, that is, included Vera Wang gowns, summers in Martha's Vineyard and "Wizard of Oz" fantasy scenes in a blue gingham dress with a plastic Toto. Not to mention a solo audition before a wry Sting--a friend of the book's photographer, Nancy Ellison--sitting on a graffiti-marked bench as Barbie "plays" guitar in a thigh-skimming fuchsia dress and trippy pink platform shoes.

"I wanted to bring Barbie to life," Ellison says. "I wanted to give her a soul, to make her in photographs what she is in children's fantasy lives. I wanted to find what makes Barbie so brilliant to people."

Rosanna Arquette, 41, reportedly wants Ellison to shoot her in a Playboy pictorial because she liked the way Barbie, also 41, looked in the color portraits. Ellison's book party earlier this month at Spago in Beverly Hills drew Pierce Brosnan, Jacqueline Bisset, Laura Dern and others who failed to heed the suggestion that guests dress like Barbie or Ken (although one guest reportedly tied nude Ken dolls to himself). And, at the recent White House 200th-anniversary dinner, Barbie fan Elizabeth Taylor wanted to hear all about the book from her table mate, former Mattel Inc. Chairman William Rollnick, who happens to be Ellison's husband (and who pulled no strings with Mattel in securing permission to use Barbie's image and name, Ellison insists).

So how did a Barbie book cross over onto the radar of high-profile grown-ups?

Barbie, suggests Ellison, is a little bit like our own ambitious, whimsical selves; we relate to her. And, at the same time, brace yourself, perhaps we want to be her--an aviator, a race car driver, a Christian Dior-clad model in Paris (". . . La Barbie is tres, tres happy!" says the text, or "the voice of Barbie," which was written by Lisa Birnbach, author of "The Official Preppy Handbook.")

"Barbie is an extension of a fantasy life," says Ellison, 64, a photographer whose work has appeared in magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair. "It gives a child an expanded universe. . . . She represents so many different things on so many different levels. It's not just the waist or the long legs or anything else. It's something that says you have permission to fly."

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Ellison, who lives in Manhattan, did not have Barbies as a kid; neither did her daughter. As an adult, though, and the wife of a longtime Mattel executive, Ellison received Barbies as gifts. In 1992, she headed to Moscow to cover Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and threw a Barbie in her suitcase on a whim. For fun, she decided to shoot Barbie in Red Square. "All of a sudden, I heard this crowd chanting, 'Barbie! Barbie!' Now Barbies didn't exist in Russia. Barbies couldn't be sold yet. . . . It was as if she represented something greater than a doll."

On other trips, Ellison kept shooting, usually working alone with off-the-shelf dolls. Her idea was to do a "subtly sophisticated book for adults" that kids would love. And there's nothing wrong with showing the girlie side of Barbie--pampered, haute couture-loving--that Modern Women are supposed to decry, says Ellison, a self-described "feminist artist."

"The truth is," she says, "that all of us as young women want a fantasy moment in her life with high glamour. . . . I think it's fabulous to be glamorous; I think it's fabulous to be serious."

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