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Patsy Carlyle with a small fraction of her Barbie collection (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Patsy Carlyle with a small fraction of her Barbie collection (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJuly 15, 2023

Meet New Zealand’s biggest Barbie fan

Patsy Carlyle with a small fraction of her Barbie collection (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Patsy Carlyle with a small fraction of her Barbie collection (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

As Barbie mania builds around the world, Gabi Lardies interviews a woman who was into Barbie before Margot Robbie was even born. 

“I want to be Barbie cause the bitch has everything,” said the magnet on the fridge at the Hato Hone St John Helensville Ambulance Station, more than 20 years ago. It belonged to a paramedic, Patsy Carlyle. One night, when she was on duty, someone had to ask: “Do you like Barbies or something?”

Back then, Barbie mania was mostly relegated to pre-teens. There was no Barbiecore exploding in fashion, no life-size dream house in Malibu, no global shortage of pink paint, no Margot Robbie on magazine covers, no Barbie branded suitcase and electric toothbrushes, no Barbie buses taking over TikTok. In short, there was no global marketing campaign for a blockbuster movie whipping us up into a hot pink frenzy. 

The Peaches ‘n Cream Barbie that started it all (Photo: Supplied)

For Carlyle, it all started in an Australian toy store in 1984. She was there to buy a Peaches ‘N Cream™ Barbie® for another colleague’s daughter. As she scanned the aisle, more Barbies smiled back at her than she knew existed. “I had no idea that there were so many different Barbie dolls,” Carlyle remembers. When she was younger, Barbies were too expensive, so didn’t feature in her life too much. Instead she played with Sindy (Barbie’s cheaper rival) and that rascal Patch (Sindy’s little sister).

The Peaches ‘N Cream™ Barbie requested was blonde-haired, blue-eyed and swathed in peach chiffon. The cherished icon was reproduced as a collectible in 2009, and today an original could set you back over $400 on Ebay. Though Carlyle bought only one Barbie on that occasion, she soon began to frequent toy shops and “pick up a few” Barbies. By the late 90s she had become a “serious” collector, and now has the largest collection of boxed Barbies in Aotearoa.

Her 1,600 boxed Barbies, along with 300 “freed” Barbies, live in her and her husband’s 1903 pink villa in Helensville, known as The Pink Palace. The house was pink when they bought it. Carlyle insists that’s not the reason they chose it, though “it suits the style of the house”.

At first, the Barbies were kept all in one room. “I didn’t want them to take over the house,” Carlyle says. But, “now they’re sort of all over the place.” At the moment, many of The Pink Palace’s inhabitants are almost 700 km away, at the Wellington Museum. From July 22-September 10, they’ll be on show as part of an exhibition titled ‘The Barbie Collector’

Patsy Carlyle’s Barbie dream house. (Photos: Supplied)

For Carlyle, this is a dream come true. Though her house is big and she’s done tours for the public before, she doesn’t have enough space to display all her Barbies properly. The boxes have been layered on shelves, sometimes five Barbies deep. When curator Megan Dunn came to look through the collection, Barbies that Carlyle hadn’t seen in years were unearthed under others.

It’s a collection that is still growing – Carlyle just bought back “a few” from a trip to the US in May, and there’s currently two Down syndrome Barbies en-route from Arkansas, sent by a friend. Last week, Carlyle picked up “the Barbies from the movie” (technically a Barbie and a Ken) from The Warehouse at 20% off. “Quite nice dolls,” she says, though the movie “doesn’t look that exciting, it looks like it’s just going to be funny.” That said, she’s planning to see it “a few” times. 

Carlyle didn’t know much about the Barbie collecting community until that same colleague who asked about the magnet revealed that his wife, Barbara, was a collector too. “I had no idea – we had both been to each other’s houses! Mine were all kept in one room, like some sort of secret society,” she laughs. Carlyle then joined the Barbie and Sindy Collectibles Club, which meets bi-monthly and has about 15 members dotted around the North Island. “People collect Barbies from all walks of life, we have a few men in our club as well,” says Carlyle, who has been a member for over 20 years now.

One interesting thing about the club is that most members are former nurses or emergency services workers. Now retired, Carlyle spent over 40 years on the frontline at St John Ambulance, first as a paramedic and then as an operations manager. Before that, she worked as a nurse in a paediatric surgical ward. She has saved many people’s lives, and says that having a collection of Barbies in frills, sunglasses, sparkles, bows, hats and tiny little earrings has given her reprieve from the stress of her career. It’s also given her a joyous way to connect with others – especially through the “just lovely” collectors’ club.

One of Carlyle’s favourites is the Troll Barbie from 1992. Her TV ad boasted she was “Troll from head to toe”, and it wasn’t exaggerating – she’s got troll earrings, a troll top, troll pants and a mini troll hanging from a lanyard. Underneath all the fun, her body has a Twist ‘n Turn waist, huge perky boobs, a miniscule waist, hips without flab, bent arms, long skinny legs with bend & snap knees, and those persistently pointed feet. Her proportions are so ridiculous it’s said that if she were a real person she would be unable to stand or have enough space for essential organs – something which has given generations of young girls unrealistic ideas of what shapes human bodies are.

“There’ll be people that will be anti-Barbie for a variety of reasons, but I think that Barbie has really branched out with what she’s doing,” says Carlyle. It’s true, Barbie has moved where the money is. The mid-2000s spelled declines in sales and lit a fire under Mattel’s ass to get Barbie with the times. In 2016, three new body shapes were released: curvy, tall and petite. Christie, the first black Barbie, was released in 1968, and now there are seven different skin tones. “It’s really exciting, the diversity. Barbie has branched out, that’s just wonderful,” says Carlyle. All the more beauty to collect.

Some ‘freed’ Barbies at Patsy’s place. (Photo: Supplied)

Carlyle’s collection is varied, and with each Barbie comes a memory. The Rosa Parks Barbie reminds Carlyle of sitting on the bus at the Detroit Historical Museum. The Baywatch Barbie reminds her of visiting California. Her oldest Barbie, My Favorite Career Registered Nurse Doll, poster-girl for the exhibition, reminds her of its previous owner, her late friend Barbara. The doll has previously suffered from “green ear” – a common ailment of vintage Barbies whose earrings are made from brass. A friend from the club was able to clean this up for her. “She did a wonderful job.”

There’s even a few “one of a kind” Barbies in the Carlyle collection you won’t see anywhere else. One wears reflective wraparound sunnies, a green short-sleeved collared shirt and matching cargo pants. Emblazoned on the pocket over her left breast is a miniature black and white St John logo. It’s a custom St John ambulance uniform, at Barbie scale, made by the St John committee when Carlyle completed 30 years of paid service. It’s a Barbie version of none other than Carlyle herself.

Barbie will be in cinemas nationwide from July 20.

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