Zara Korutz is a New York City-based adjunct professor, host of Unbiased Label podcast, and Fashion Studies PhD Candidate at Massey University, New Zealand. She earned an MA in Fashion Critical Studies (with Distinction, 2020) from Central Saint Martins, London, U.K. Zara researches Virgil Abloh as the prototype of a new art-centered fashion designer looking at streetstyle as a reaction against mainstream society as it pertains to intersectional concepts of masculinities. For more information,

Zara Korutz, Fashion Studies PhD Researcher at Massey University and host of Unbiased Label podcast, in conversation with Frank New, who is a New York-based Barbie collector and academic, through a queer lens. Frank received a Master of Arts in Costume Studies at New York University and travels the globe sharing their Barbie research. Zara and Frank chatted on a late Spring day in the recording studio located on Iona University campus.

ZK: Hi, Frank.

FN: Hello, Zara.

ZK: One of my favorite people.

FN: Back at you.

ZK: We're in the studio today. We've got all these Barbies. It's really quite lovely.

FN: Thank you. Thank you. You know, I have Barbies. Will travel. Thank you so much for having me.

ZK: I'm thrilled. You have no idea. You're known as the Barbie collector. When did this start?

FN: I suppose my fascination around Barbie began as a child, sort of very innocently. I didn't own any Barbies of my own, and I am quite sure that I was forever forbidden to own such things. My father was a person that had very toxic masculinity ideals, if you will. So, my doll play always resulted in being at a friend's place and playing with her dolls in secret. And then those years being compacted with toxic ideals from my father that “boys do this, boys do that”, but you don't do this, and you don't ever do that sort of thing, you know? So, I never dared bring up the idea of owning a doll.

ZK: That's because playing with Barbies as a boy was equated to being gay. And being gay was a bad thing.

FN: Totally, very much. My father made it very clear that I was supposed to carry on the family name, I'm to get married. Uh, he had this whole life built out in his head of what I was supposed to do. He comes from a military background.  I was supposed to enlist in the army and do the army way of life and, you know, maybe become an engineer or something, and truth is, he was in denial because it's always been very obvious of my sexuality. I've never been able to sort of hide that and coming out as a teenager, no one was really surprised, you know? Which is a good and bad thing.

ZK: You played with Barbies as a child?

FN: Yes. So, I played with Barbies secretly as a child. Secretly, in my very good friend's garage, and sort of left it there, and that's where the Barbie play stayed for the most part. I kind of left it behind and didn't revisit Barbie until my thirties.

ZK: Oh, wow. That's a big leap. What was the impetus to revisit Barbie?

FN: I feel like it was one of those things that really never left me, but it was one of those things where I had to really work through a lot of childhood trauma—things that I dealt with in my twenties and getting through that and coming out on the other side of that being at a place where I was starting to get comfortable in my skin. It was random. I was at a housing works and there was a Burberry Barbie that sparked my attention and caught my eye and it really started with that, that one Barbie.

ZK: It sounds like this was a reconnecting of your youth.

FN: Very much so. Oh yeah, that one doll kind of sparked the curiosity again, and then getting into the master's program at NYU, the passion around doll collecting really took off.

ZK: Did you enter NYU with the aim of academically studying Barbie?

FN: Not exactly. In the first semester, the final project was writing a submission for an actual call for papers. And initially I thought my research path was going to be somewhere around drag culture and that shifted to Barbie but telling the queer story of Barbie. So, it just kind of morphed into that call for papers, which from there just began the research path that I have followed over the last few years. I've gotten to travel the world and talk about Queer Barbie, which is just wild and crazy.

ZK: How many Barbies do you have now?

FN: I would say somewhere between 300 and 400.

ZK: That's a lot of Barbies. You're not only a collector, but you're an academic researcher. I find that very interesting because you're looking at Barbie from a very deep lens, and specifically through the queer lens.

FN: Yes. My thesis for my master's program revolved around a queer collection of Barbies that were designed by queer people. So, Bob Mackey, Billy Boy, the Blondes, Jeremy Scott, and the first half of my research and my thesis tells the story of each of these people—essentially the story behind the box. You see the box, you see the name, but that's really all you get. So, in my research I go into the details of the individual and their relationship with Barbie and how it molded their own brands. So outside of that, I tend to like to gravitate towards the odd or the weird sort of Barbies, if you will.

ZK: I'm shocked.

FN: Yes, no surprise there. I have, like, this Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Barbie and Kool-Aid Barbie; those are the ones that I'm really drawn to. The ones that are a little wacky and weird. It's interesting when you look at some of the Barbies that have come out since 1959 and quite a few of them make you go, like, ‘how was that ever approved?’ You know, Barbie has a long history of just getting it right and, like, almost getting it right.

ZK:  What do you mean by that?

FN: Well, there was a Barbie doll that came out that included a scale that was set at like 110 pounds. It also came with a book and it was written on the back of the book, “do not eat”. It's things like that that make you go, ’how did that get passed?’ That's kind of the history of Barbie. Barbie is always related to whatever's happening in the world from fashion to women's rights. With the one doll that I have here that's from ’61—the face mold, the eyes are grazing the floor and she's looking to the side. That really was speaking to those times when women were not at the forefront. They were housewives so that's really what that face mold is referring to the nature of women's roles at that time. And then the seventies when it was all about women's activism and rights. The face mode for Barbie changed and she's looking directly at you and she's not looking at the floor.

ZK: That's powerful.

FN: Yeah. Definitely. And that's a short time to come a long way, for sure. And you look at Barbie's growth in the last 10 years, it's just been tremendous. We just saw the first Barbie that was designed with Down Syndrome, which is just amazing to see how the Barbie brand is really adapting to the times in ways that Barbie has never been this progressive.  But at the same time, when Ruth Handler designed and created Barbie with that nature in mind of progressiveness.

Frank in the studio with some members of his collection.

ZK: Right, right. And I think that in and of itself says a lot about women in general and having to fight for equality and to present themselves in a world where they can become an astronaut, a doctor, a dancer, or whatever.

FN: Exactly. And not just be a doll to be stared at but to be something. No longer just a doll that is of a nurturing nature which was the only doll in existence before Barbie. It was nothing like Barbie in the US before that time. Ruth Handler was flat out told ‘Barbie will never sell.’ The men around her were like, ‘you're gonna fall flat on your face.’ And she was the only woman in a sea of men that was really unheard of her role at the time. But she was determined. Almost instantly upon its launch, Barbie took off. Barbie is what made Mattel into the company that it is.

ZK: The designers that you mentioned, Jeremy Scott, Mackey, the Blondes. They've designed for Barbie, but they've also, I'm thinking of Jeremy Scott, used Barbie in their own collections.

FN: Absolutely, yes.

ZK: And we have BarbieCore, the Barbie movie. The cultural capital that this doll holds globally is phenomenal.

FN: Yes. And you're seeing it in more and more places. From paint lines to rugs, to wallpaper, candles. It is just expanding in ways that it has never expanded before.

ZK: What's the reason for that, do you think?

FN: I really think it has to do with the big shift in Barbie that happened a few years ago. I feel the changing of the body types broadened the opportunity in so many different categories. I feel prior to that shift, Barbie was very much set in this old format, if you will, and I feel that once the company moved past that so many things started to unfold. A year after the change in the body types we saw a Creatable World come out, which was the world's first gender-neutral doll line made by the same Barbie team but it's kept under a different division because it's a very different doll that is geared towards a very different market. This speaks to the times of having this gender-neutral doll which is very much needed. We're seeing more of that, less labels, and progressive in nature.

ZK: Yeah, it's really great. Let's talk about your Barbies. These are part of your personal collection?

FN: Yes. These are from my personal collection. So, we have Earring Magic Ken that is known as the accidental queer doll, if you will. It has some risqué accessories.

ZK: When did he come out?

FN: Around 1993 and was banned from the shelves after 10 or 12 weeks or so. But it is noted as likely being one of the best-selling Ken dolls ever sold. This one was bought by a lot of queer men across the country who felt that for the first time they were seeing themselves sort of in this doll.

ZK: What made this doll queer?

FN: Yeah, so it's the first Ken that was done with blonde hair—it's molded. He's wearing a lilac pleather vest with a lilac mesh cropped top, and a necklace that is a silver thread with a very thick round hoop that has been referred to as a cock ring. There's no way around that. Within my research, I wrote a lot about this in terms of queer club culture, and this was a very big accessory in queer club kids in the early nineties.

ZK: The cock ring?

FN: Yes. Wearing it as an accessory just like this, which is why Mattel was called out because that's exactly what it looks like. And in my research, I referenced photos and you see this in club kids wearing this around their neck. They're wearing it on bracelets, they're wearing it on their clothing, and everywhere but where it was intended to be.

ZK: So, this came out in the early nineties?

FN: Yes.

ZK: Number one bestselling queer Ken doll.

FN: Yes.

ZK: Pulled off the shelves because of the cock ring?

FN: Yes. And the general nature of the doll.

ZK: How could they miss that? It seems very obvious

FN: You know. It's… it's a burning question on many of our lips.

Photo by Frank New.
ZK: Okay. So, what else do we have?

FN: So, the other doll that we have here is the Feeling Groovy Barbie. She's from the late eighties. She's designed by Billy Boy and Billy Boy is the first designer to have his name on the box, so that's a neat fact.  Billy Boy designed two Barbies. This one and also this one, which related to the 26th year anniversary of Barbie and was designed as part of a traveling train tour that went around France highlighting Barbie and a Miniature World setting with all sorts of designers that were included in making designs for Barbie.

ZK: Love her chunky jewelry.

FN:  A direct reference to Billy Boy, who is multifaceted. He made jewelry. He made clothing and the jewelry are almost direct miniature replicas of his own from his own personal collection.

ZK: Oh, that's interesting. It's fabulous.

FN: And then this last one that we have here on display, she is probably my most prized possession. She is part of the original bubble cut series from the early sixties. She's around ‘61, ‘62.

Some of Frank’s Barbies, including the Billy Boy dolls he writes more about in his piece in this issue.

“You know, Barbie has a long history of just getting it right and, like, almost getting it right.”

ZK: She looks great. She hasn't aged a day.

FN: She hasn't aged a day. And you can see the original face mold where her eyes looked to the side and graze the floor, which is, you know, again, like we talked about, is a direct representation of the time. And it wasn't until the seventies that that face mold was changed to reflect the change in times. Yeah. That's incredible. And this is a lovely doll case box that she is housed in. That is also from the sixties as well. That's great.

ZK: Are you saying that this is your favorite Barbie?

FN: I definitely have a few favorites. I would say she falls in the category of my most prized possession when it comes to Barbies, just because of her age. She's really like the OG. She's the original from the very beginning so she kind of falls into her own category. I was able to acquire this lovely one in the condition that she's in—overall pretty good condition. Look at her hair, it is molded and it's not going anywhere. I have a few, I would say, favorites.

ZK: There's so much to learn about. Not just the doll, but what she represents.

FN: Yes. Having had the opportunity to travel globally and present at conferences on my research, one of the most common things that I hear in terms of feedback is “I had no idea” and then it goes into these conversations of the history of Barbie. Most have a very general idea of Barbie's history. A lot of what you see, on the surface, there's been so much done on Barbie from a feminist point of view, but when it comes to telling the queer story of Barbie most people are surprised that there is this side of Barbie.

ZK: You and I are in agreement on this. The queer story often gets left out of pop culture, yet queerness is everywhere in pop culture.

FN: Exactly. And there's nothing that I have written about that was hidden.

ZK: It's hiding in plain sight.

FN: Bingo. Bingo. Yes, exactly. And that's why I really cherish this research path. I really see that there is a need to tell this story. This one-sided view that most people have of this doll are now learning about this whole other side of Barbie that no one ever knew about. And I think that's really cool and for me that's really the point of doing this research. What drives my research is telling this story that seems to not be known in any shape or form.

ZK: It's so important and the impact of your research is so needed in this world. So, thank you for your passion. Love you.

FN: Happy to be here. Love you back.

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016