Photographer and video producer Gina Garan has published a number of photo books on Blythe, the big-eyed Kenner doll who failed to take off in the early ’70s but became a collectors’ phenomenon at the turn of the 21st century. In this interview she talks about how Blythe’s clothing style varies from East to West and explains how some Blythe collectors modify their dolls to create works of art. Garan can be contacted via her website, www.thisisblythe.com.
I collect dolls. I’ve got 2,000 dolls crammed into a studio in New York City. Someone said, “There’s a doll named Blythe that looks a little like you.” So I bought one off eBay. I’m so in love with her. Then I started buying more and more until I had a hundred of them. I approached Hasbro about doing a book on her. They said: “We have no idea what you’re talking about. We don’t own that doll. We’ve never heard of her.” After I sent them some information on her, they said: “I guess we do own her. Go ahead and do your book.”
When the book came out it was in “People” magazine, the “New York Times,” and fashion magazines like “Women’s Wear Daily,” which did a six-page spread. I had a thing in Japanese “Vogue” for a year. We did one photo on a full page per month for a year, each time with Blythe in a different designer outfit. Through that, I found an agent, and then she got the rights to start remaking the doll in Japan.
I’ve made a couple of commercials using Blythe. Target did a line of clothing by the late designer Alexander McQueen, and he used Blythe as his model. We’ve also done a couple of Japanese commercials with Blythe.
I go to Japan two or three times a year. When we put out a new doll, it sells out immediately. I have a forum where people can talk about Blythe. I think there are 30,000 members.
Blythe is not really collected by kids. It’s mostly adults, women and men. When I did my first book on Blythe in 2000, I had no idea that this would happen because nobody really knew who she was. I was surprised I got a book deal. I thought my mom would buy my book and that would be the end of it, but it took off.
When Blythe originally came out in 1972, she was geared for kids, but she wasn’t successful. Some kids buy her now, but the price point is at a hundred dollars and up. A label on the box says “15 and up” because, like any other doll, it has small parts. I think Blythe is marketed to older people. She’s more appealing to adults than kids.
Collectors Weekly: Why did Blythe fail when she originally came out?
Garan: Back then I think she freaked people out. People are freaked out by her now. When I photograph her, because of the size of her head, strangers will come up and ask, “Is that a voodoo doll?” I just think she didn’t appeal to kids. They pulled her after a year. I don’t know how many pieces were made. Back when I started, it was easy to get them on eBay for $10. Now some of them sell for $1,500 to $2,000.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of originals from ’72 out there?
Garan: I don’t know how many were actually made. You can always find four or five listed on eBay. I have about a hundred of them. I think I have the biggest collection of originals out there. Most Blythe collectors have at least one.
I probably have 10,000 outfits for my Blythe dolls. There are only four or five outfits a year produced for her, but there is a active community of people who make handmade clothes. That started because I think people got the dolls and decided they wanted different clothes. Vintage Skipper and Blythe have very similar bodies. So people started buying Skipper clothes for their dolls. The bought old patterns from the ’70s and used them to make Blythe clothes. There are so many really crafty people out there. They probably figured they’d just do it themselves.
A lot of people also customize their dolls. They paint their faces, carve their mouths. They take them out of the box and make them very much a one-of-a-kind piece. It’s pretty incredible when you see what people can do. There are people who can actually carve her face so that she’s smiling. There’s one guy in Japan who makes Blythe dolls look like cats. He actually does a kind of cat face. It’s gorgeous.
Collectors Weekly: Do people mail you pictures and stuff from all over the world?
Garan: Yes. I get pictures. People send a lot of stuff to my website. You can probably see 100,000 photos of Blythe on Flickr. People send me outfits they’ve made for my dolls. I get e-mails from everywhere—Africa, Russia. She’s bigger in certain places, like Asia. Right now, for some reason, she’s really popular in Thailand. I hear from people in Australia, the U.S., and Canada. Some people actually send me customized dolls as gifts. It’s great.
Collectors Weekly: Who made the original Blythe doll?
Garan: Kenner, which is owned by Hasbro now. Margaret and Walter Keane were making these sad-eyed kids’ drawings in the ’70s. They were very popular. A lot of people think that Blythe is similar to their paintings. I see that it’s in the same vein, but I don’t think Blythe was made because of the paintings, although most of the people who collect Blythe love Keane paintings.
Over the years, the contemporary Blythes have been refined to look a lot more like the vintage dolls. I think this is the fifth mold. Every few years, they’ll change the mold a little bit and try to make it closer to the original. Everyone who collects dolls wants one that looks more like an original from the ’70s. People love the new dolls, but the Holy Grail is the Kenner doll. That’s everybody’s ideal doll for the most part.
Although the materials for the doll are basically the same, the bodies are made a little better. The dolls in the ’70s had cracks in their rear ends. There is always a crack right across their butt because the head is so heavy that it would break there all the time. Their hips were also loose. There’s a doll in Asia called Micca. They’ve used Micca’s body, which is basically the same size as the old Blythe body, but just better made.
You wouldn’t believe what people, myself included, will buy. You can buy just a head with no hair and scratches all over the face for $600 or $700. People just want the old dolls in any shape at all.
I’m a huge doll collector, not just Blythe. I know the dolls of that era. I collect vinyl dolls from the ’60s and ’70s. I haven’t seen anything like Blythe, not even close, but she was just another doll when she came out, one of many.
Blythe’s resurgence began in 2000 when my book came out. We started making the new Blythe dolls in 2001. It was a hit right out of the gate. There are probably 10 or 12 dolls produced every year. They come out one at a time every month or month and a half. They usually sell right out.
Collectors Weekly: Does she come with clothes and hair?
Garan: Yes. She comes in a dress. Sometimes there’ll be a second outfit in the box. She comes with props. Her hair is rooted. You can buy wigs for her. The original Blythe dolls were all in those granny dresses. The Blythe commercial had some guy singing about how they were brown-eyed, groovy, and far out. They’re very ’70s. He’s like a bad hippie singing this really stupid song.
There’s a string in the back of her head. When you pull it, her eyes close. When you let go of the string, they open and rotate into a different color. The eyes in the old dolls are usually pink, orange, green, or blue. A lot of the new dolls have those colors, but every so often they’ll throw another color in there just to shake things up.
The hair is different on every doll and comes in all the natural colors—blonde, brunette, redhead, black. There are also fantasy colors—yellow, purple, red, orange, green. You name it; it’s been done. The eyes are different on some of the dolls. One doll had a little bee in her pupil. And each one has a different name, different clothes, and different props.
The new dolls come in two different sizes. The most popular one is 11 1/2 inches tall. Then there’s one that’s 4 inches tall called Petite Blythe. The small ones are good for kids because they’re $20 and up.
There were no petites in the ’70s. They started coming out in Japan shortly after the big ones came out. At first they were for key chains, but now they have a life of their own. There are about 150 of them.
The eyes didn’t close on the early petites; they were just stuck open. Now they have sleep eyes and jointed bodies. You can change their clothes. They’re cute, and they’re more adventurous. Some of them are dressed in crazy fairy-tale costumes.
Collectors Weekly: How many books have you produced on Blythe?
Garan: I have about seven or eight. Then there are postcard books, address books, and other little books.
I travel a lot for my other work, so I try to think about Blythe dolls in terms of where I’m going. For example, I’m in Washington right now. I don’t have a Blythe doll with me today, but I’d normally pack a bunch of dolls that I think would be good for Washington and get them dressed in a related way. I would love to dress her like Hillary Clinton.
If I have to go to Hawaii on business, I’ll bring the dolls in bathing suits and shoot them there. If it’s not location-specific, I just dress them in great outfits, put them in my bag, and walk around and shoot whatever strikes me.
After a shoot, I put some of my photos online, but I’m working on a new book right now so a lot of the stuff I’m currently shooting is going to go into that. I shoot because I love shooting. In a way, I do it for myself. If people don’t see some of the stuff I do, it’s okay. It’s such a release for me.
Collectors Weekly: Did you expect your book to take off like it did?
Garan: No. I couldn’t believe I got a book deal at all. I basically sent four publishers a proposal that was really four photos taped to a piece of paper. I was away doing a job somewhere, checked my messages, and all four companies called up and said, “We’re really interested in doing your book.” I couldn’t believe it.
One thing I say all the time is “Thank God I thought of it first.” There are photographers out there who are a thousand times better than I am. They take pictures and post them on Flickr and all over the Web. They really understand how to shoot Blythe, and really love it. I often get e-mails from people that are really moving. People will say that Blythe has changed their lives. People make friends all over the world through her.
For a lot of people, Blythe is more than just another doll. People hold Blythe gatherings everywhere. If I travel to a town where I know there are a lot of Blythe collectors, I’ll say, “I’m going to be in L.A. for a week.” Then all these Blythe fans will get together at a park, bring their dolls, and take pictures of them. I’ll go and meet them all. It’s really cool.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the cool things people have done with Blythe?
Garan: I host contests every so often. Last year, or maybe two years ago, on my website I did one called Heroes and asked people to dress their dolls up like different heroes or celebrities. We got the most incredible submissions. There were probably 200 altogether. People take the dolls and really customize them. For example, one person put light bulbs in their heads so their eyes would light up. One guy did a doll that was painted in 14-karat gold.
I’m doing a quilt project where I’ve asked people to create 8-by-8 quilt squares that have something to do with Blythe. I’m going to sew it together and exhibit it in a couple of different places. We have 200 squares. It’s going to be a gigantic quilt. It’s going to show somewhere in L.A.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anybody out there who only collects the originals?
Garan: There might be, but I think most collectors are into all of them. The first of the newer ones came out in 2001. They are as collectible as the dolls from 1972. You’d think I’d be able to get them easily because it’s my business, but they’re getting harder to come by because they’re being snapped up in Taiwan. They’re only made in Asia. They’re not a U.S. toy. Getting them here is really hard and expensive.
They’re mass-produced, but on a very small scale. I think there are only 3,000 pieces per doll. When they’re announced, they usually sell out the next day.
People in the U.S. mostly buy them on eBay. There are a couple of sites in Asia that will ship here, but most have a waiting list.
In Asia, it seems like everything is cuter, so Blythe collectors dress their dolls in really cutesy clothes. Here, people like chic clothes. A lot of people want to dress their dolls the way they dress. Some take pictures of themselves with their dolls dressed in the same outfit.
There are shops that sell Blythe accessories and outfits all over Japan, but Junie Moon in the Daikanyama area of Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, is devoted to Blythe.
If you go to Auctions on Yahoo! Japan, which is like the Japanese version of eBay, there are pages and pages of clothes. They’re expensive. They’ll sell one outfit for $80. There are companies that also mass-produce Blythe clothes.
Collectors Weekly: With the dolls being so hard to get here, what is the future of Blythe collecting?
Garan: There are still so many collectors out there. I think it’ll just make people either try harder to get dolls or decide it’s too hard. Right now it seems to be in a pretty good place. Collectors can get dolls, but some of them are so overpriced they won’t buy them. So many dolls come out that you can’t afford to get them all unless you’re loaded. People will just wait around until they see one they really like.
For new collectors, that means that when you see a new doll you like get her right away because she will probably just go up on the secondary market.
For hair and accessories, your best sources are online stores. I have an online shop on my website where I sell hair, eye chips, clothes, books, and calendars. There are not many actual Blythe stores in the U.S. You’re much better off shopping online.
Collectors Weekly: Any last thoughts you’d care to share?
Garan: I don’t collect something because it’s going to be a worth a lot of money someday. I collect what I love. I think that’s a really nice way to collect things. I like to take my dolls out of the box and play with them. A lot of people collect just for money, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. So I think it’s really good to collect something because you’re drawn to it. That’s true with anything.
Collectors Weekly: Thank you, Gina, for speaking with us today about Blythe dolls.
(All images courtesy Gina Garan of www.thisisblythe.com)