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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?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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!’ ”

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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.

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“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.

“And she also teaches girls that they can be a doctor, a police officer, a rock star, a Rockette, an astronaut, whatever they want to be. Barbie was the first woman in space, years before Sally Ride went there. She’s always been a positive role model and that’s what she’s been to me,” Osborne said.

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He says he doesn’t know why other men collect Barbies, but for him it goes back to childhood.

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“I had always liked fashion, always liked doing hair. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a hairdresser and president of Mattel--I do own stock in it now. I used to play with my sisters’ Barbies and then kind of grew out of it. But my parents collected antiques, and I’d go to auctions and garage sales with them. At a doll auction my parents let me buy a 30-gallon trash can that was full of Barbie stuff. That was 13 years ago, and here we are now.”

At one time he owned as many as 500 Barbies. Now he’s down to under 300, he thinks. He also has store displays and Barbie yachts, cars (including a Jaguar and ’57 Chevy), townhomes and even a European-issue cappuccino bar in which the cups turn brown when you pour cold water into them.

He’s gone to Barbie conventions as far away as Oklahoma City, and hopes to attend a huge confab to be held at Disney World in Florida in September. He says the best times of his life have been Barbie times.

“It’s been really good to me. I’ve met a lot of great people. It made me into a good adult: It taught me the value of money, taught me that you can’t always have everything you want and you have to make choices.”

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Many parents worry that their children will grow up confused about their gender roles if allowed to play with toys intended for the other gender, but Osborne countered, “My parents let me have Barbies and I turned out fine. I’m 100% man. So I think that’s a bunch of bull. I don’t think that if you give a boy a doll or a girl a Tonka truck it automatically will make the kid confused. I think it’s the other way around. I’ve met people my age who did not have Barbies and they’re a little strange.”

He said there is still a stigma attached to men collecting dolls. “But I just ignore it. If people want to talk or assume things about me, I figure, fine, let them. I have much more better things to do.”

Like washing Barbie’s hair in the sink, for instance. He uses regular shampoo. “I figure if it’s good enough to use on my hair, it’s good enough to use on Barbie’s” he said. He once dressed as her for a Halloween party, recalling, “I looked pretty darn snappy, if I do say so myself.”

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It’s all in good fun, he insisted."It’s not like I’m obsessed with this. I’m not trying to get plastic surgery so I can look like Ken, or Barbie. I have friends. I have a life. I have a job. I have a family. I don’t just sit around going, ‘What can I put Barbie in today?’ ”

Many of his Barbies stay in their boxes, to preserve their mint condition. Some, such as certain models costumed by designer Bob Mackie that originally sold for $109, have jumped to $550 or more in value over four years.

Then there are Osborne’s more routine play-with dolls, whose outfits he changes monthly. He says Barbie is always changing.

“Barbie has always represented her times, as in the late ‘60s when a more young, fresh look with more natural makeup came in. Mattel redid Barbie then, giving her a younger face, then twistable legs. She’s reflected the times. When you were go-go dancing, she was go-go dancing. Whatever America was doing, she was doing.”

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Osborne conceded that having a house overrun with America’s favorite teen-age fashion model could be a barrier to finding a mate.

“Barbie doesn’t spend a lot of time in the bathroom, so that’s one good thing,” he maintained. “But it does kind of freak people out when they walk in and the first thing they see are four three-foot tall dolls with their arms outstretched like they’re going to haul you off into the bedroom and beat you up or something.

“I fortunately have met people who thought Barbie was great. I have friends who have had rocky relationships with people because they did not like Barbie. To have Barbie be such a wedge in a relationship is really bad. It’s only an 11 1/2-inch piece of plastic; how far can this go? Then, of course, I’m sitting here in my living room with 200 dolls, so it can go a ways.”

And if it came down to a choice between giving up the Barbies or the person?

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“It depends on the person, but probably the person.”

How lonely could you get, after all, when, as Osborne noted, “There’s a Talking Barbie that says, ‘You look terrific! ' I’d like to hear that every morning.”


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