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Originally published Monday, March 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Barbie turns 50: She gets tattoos, new China store

Barbie turns 50 today, and to shake off a midlife crisis she's getting tattooed and opening the doors to her first mega-store in China.

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Barbie turns 50 today, and to shake off a midlife crisis she's getting tattooed and opening the doors to her first mega-store in China.

The developments are causing a stir on two continents, not bad for a plaything whose global cachet has been sagging of late.

Just in time for spring, Mattel has released "Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie." The doll comes with a set of more than 40 tiny tattoo stickers that can be placed on her body. Also included is a faux tattoo gun with wash-off tats that kids can use to ink themselves.

A spokeswoman for the El Segundo, Calif., toy maker said it was a great way for youngsters to be creative with their pint-size gal pal. But some parents are horrified by this body-art Barbie, labeling her the "tramp stamp" queen of play time.

On her parenting blog, Telling It Like It Is, Texas mother Lin Burress sarcastically predicted that "Totally Pierced Barbie" would be the next to roll off the assembly line. Readers commenting on the blog chimed in with their own fictional "Divorce Barbie," who would take possession of Ken's accessories.

Burress, a 46-year-old mother of six, said she was fed up with companies pushing racy fare to kids to make a profit.

"It's just one more thing being added to the pile of junk, like push-up bras and Bratz dolls, being marketed to these ridiculously young kids," she said. "These so-called toys just create a sense of rebellion."

Mattel said the new tattooed Barbie, priced online at around $20 and up, was selling better than expected. There are no plans to discontinue the doll.

Meanwhile, Mattel over the weekend unveiled the House of Barbie in Shanghai, China.

The six-story retail emporium is the brand's first stand-alone store in China. It's a multimillion-dollar bet that its 11 ½-inch plastic toy will appeal to Shanghai's material girls, even in this horrible economy.

"There's no reason why in five to 10 years, China shouldn't be the biggest market in the world for us," said Richard Dickson, Barbie's general manager, sitting on a lattice boudoir bench on the store's fourth floor, where girls can design their own dolls.

The store also contains a salon where moms and daughters can get facials and manicures. There's a restaurant and bar. Naturally it offers thousands of Barbie products, from branded chocolate bars that cost a dollar or two to an adult-sized Vera Wang-designed wedding dress for $10,000.

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At the moment, Asia accounts for less than 5 percent of Barbie's global sales. The doll has been showing its age in recent years; Barbie sales worldwide were off 9 percent in 2008, hurt by the recession and competition from rivals.

Whether China can give Barbie new life remains to be seen. Mattel's recently opened store in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been drawing crowds. But there are plenty of doubters who point out that you only need to go into a Chinese home. You won't find many girls playing with dolls, let alone dolls with blond hair and blue eyes.

Dickson acknowledges that China's slowing economy will be a challenge, but to appeal to local sensibilities, Mattel has come up with a Shanghai Barbie — with bigger eyes, a rounder face and a softer complexion. The price: about $36.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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