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Befriending Barbie

SHARI CAUDRON

Some people are fanatical about sports, some about rocks and yet others about dolls. But don't write them off as cranks. They may have something to teach us.

I'M not a particularly passionate person. Oh sure, I have interests. I'm interested in cooking. I'm interested in hiking. But I'm not what you'd call a fanatic. I don't videotape programmes on the Food Network, nor do I intend to hike all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountain peaks so I can brag about my conquests at dinner parties. Fact is, I find fanaticism a bit strange.

I once attended a slide show given by an avid rock collector who described various pieces in her collection as "droolers" and "show-offs". After advancing to a slide of a rock with sparkling purple crystals, the collector slumped in her chair. "Ohhhh," she said. "This one could win a pageant." Afterward, I invited friends to stone me to death if I ever got like that.

But lately, I've been interested in people with passions. I want to know what drives the urge to, say, collect Roman coins, or trace the family history back to Charlemagne, or tie flies for hours on end in some dank basement workshop. In a quest to find out where this kind of passion comes from, I recently attended the 22nd annual National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention — a place I'd normally not be caught dead at — where a thousand men and women from all over the world had gathered for four days of doll shopping, workshops and social events.

My first meeting was with Debbie Baker, convention co-chair, who has 3,000 Barbies in her collection. "So tell me," I asked, "what is it about Barbie that makes you so passionate?"

"Those of us who love Barbie light up whenever we see anything to do with her," she explained. "We love the dolls. We love the clothes. We love the Barbie `B'. And pink. We really, really love pink." Believing such a consuming passion had to be based on more than a colour, I talked with other collectors. I spoke with Brenda Blanchard, a retired schoolteacher from California. "I like Barbie because she doesn't talk back," she explained. I chatted with George Marmolejo, a veterinarian from California, who enjoys the sense of community. "Where else can I be surrounded by 1,000 people who don't think I'm nuts when I spend $100 on doll clothes?" he asked.

Conventioneers also told me about pajama parties in the hotel rooms where guests brought their favourite dolls and sipped strawberry margaritas. I heard about a fashion show where 50 lucky people got to waltz down the runway wearing their favourite Barbie outfits. I was invited to a competition where people entered treasured pieces of their collections in an effort to earn ribbons. The rules were stiff. A doll dressed in "Sparkle Squares", for instance, would not be judged against "Jump Into Lace". I took all this in with the detached amusement of an outsider.

Then I met with Judy Stegner, a 43-year-old collector and single mother from Ft. Worth, Texas, who told me how she met her Barbie friends. In the process, she changed my opinion of doll collectors forever. "It was Thanksgiving night in 1998 and my son said: `Mom, there's probably a chat room where you can talk with other Barbie people.' I looked at him like he was crazy. I mean, I didn't know anything about the Internet or chat rooms. He had to do everything. He found a site, logged me on, even gave me my screen name. I was online talking to Barbie people until two in the morning. I've met great people on the Internet. I never could have made it without them," she explained.

I asked Judy what she meant and learned that, just 10 months after her17-year-old son introduced her to the Barbie chat room, he was killed in a highly publicised shooting at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He was her only child. Upon hearing about the shooting, her online Barbie friends coalesced into a full-time, round-the-clock, on-call support team. They sent her money. They sent care packages every day. They raised thousands of dollars for a tuition assistance fund Judy established in her son's name. They contacted Mattel, which sent Judy a special collector's Barbie and a handwritten note on the first Christmas following her son's death.

"Let me show you something," Judy said, jumping to her feet. She grabbed her tote bag, pulled out a quilt, and unfolded it on the cushioned bench in front of us. The quilt, which was made to honour her son's life, featured 18 hand-sewn panels contributed by her Internet friends. Judy used to have the quilt hanging on a wall but now she curls up with it while watching television or reading a book. "Barbie people everywhere are really giving," Judy explained, teary-eyed.

"Why do you think that's the case?" I asked. Judy said it's because Barbie dolls are about having fun, and when you're having fun you're not stressed and can naturally be more giving. "We all have things that make life hard," she explained. "Anything that allows us to play is a good thing and I don't know why people are so critical of Barbie sometimes. I tell you what: that's something our group never allows. Being critical, I mean."

"Do you sit down and play with your dolls?" I asked. "It's total therapy for me to play," she admitted. "After my son died, I could lose myself for hours."

It's been six weeks since I attended the Barbie convention and I've been thinking about Judy Stegner ever since — not only because her story was so powerful, but also because she shed some warm, glowing light on a world that had been completely foreign to me. And because it was so foreign, I'd criticised it.

Barbie??? I thought before the conference. These people should get a life. What I learned is that Barbie collectors do have lives — and very rich and supportive ones at that.

Although the conference did teach me about passion — Barbie passion — it also taught me something more, and that is to not be so quick to judge others who may do things I find odd. This doesn't mean I plan to invest in doll clothes, mind you, but I'm certainly not as likely to criticise people who do.

Shari Caudron wrote the first draft of this column with a pink Barbie pen given to her at the conference.

E-mail: shari@sharicaudron.com

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