Barbie, in her own words -- Four decades ago the popular Mattel doll broke the mold, now she tells EW how she swept the toy scene.

By Kristen Baldwin
March 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Wow, I can’t believe I’m 40! the Big 4-0. Middle age-ville. I don’t mind. No, really. Sure, I’m no longer that sloe-eyed, ponytailed ”teenage fashion model” who made her debut on March 9, 1959, at the annual New York Toy Fair. But hey: Who is? Okay, so I recently got a funky new look: bared midriff, tattoos, pierced belly button (well, I haven’t done that last one… yet). And I know Skipper is thinking, ”Sister, wake up and smell the laser surgery!” But you know what I say? I’m Barbie, dammit! I can do whatever I want.

After all these years, at least that should be obvious. Remember Pan Am Stewardess Barbie (1966), Olympic Gymnast Barbie (1975), Pet Doctor Barbie (1996), and Paleontologist Barbie (1997)? Not bad for a girl from the wrong side of the ocean. See, back in 1956, Ruth Handler, cofounder of Mattel, was looking to come up with an alternative to the paper dolls of the day, when she discovered Lilli while vacationing in Switzerland. Lilli was an 11 1/2-inch plastic doll based on a curvy blond from an adult comic strip. Ruth showed Lilli to Mattel’s toy makers, and they came up with my original design. Ruth then named me after her daughter Barbara.

My risque look wasn’t an easy sell at first. Buyers were taken a back by my strapless bathing suit, and, ahem, healthy 38-18-34 to-scale measurements. But after my TV ad aired a few times on The Mickey Mouse Club, I became…a star! That first year 351,000 Barbies were sold. Today, I’m a $1.7 billion industry; two Barbies are sold every second. In other words: Hasta la vista, Furby.

Of course, life as an idol hasn’t always been as rosy as my pink packaging. I’ve been called a ”self-esteem destroyer” because I represent ”unattainable” standards of beauty. A pop group called Aqua summed up the criticism in 1997 with their hit ”Barbie Girl” (sample lyric: ”I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world”). But as Karen Caviale, publisher of the fanzine Barbie Bazaar, says: ”She always has reflected what society has said is perfect in figure and clothing, so if you have to blame anyone, blame society. Barbie has always been a positive role model for girls.”

And anyway, I defy anyone to say I’m not a woman of the times these days. Mattel had me go through a makeover last year, toning down my bust, my hips, and my makeup. And I’ve got my own CD-ROMs, and even a clothing line for girls. Okay, so I’m not a self-reflexive bundle of nerves like Ally McWhatever. Let’s just see how popular she is when she hits 40.

Time Capsule: March 9, 1959

Gigi, starring Leslie Caron, is the musical of the moment, thanks to nine Academy Award nominations (it would go on to win all nine).
Viewers heed the call to go West: The top four shows are Gunsmoke; Wagon Train; Have Gun, Will Travel; and The Rifleman.
Frankie Avalon’s ”Venus” begins a five-week run at No. 1.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev declares Communist rule in East Germany will continue, quashing any hopes of reunification with West Germany.