Wide-eyed vintage doll has a come-thither look for collectors

Thursday, June 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Something Different

Like Madonna and Prince, she goes by just one name. And, like any fashion "it girl," she has the requisite fan club, including photographer David LaChapelle, directors Tim Burton, Todd Haynes and Jonathan Demme and pop stars Marilyn Manson and Matthew Sweet.

Maybe it's the fact that her huge, expressive eyes change color from pink to blue to orange to green. Or that she has the ability to look pensive, sweet, mysterious or spooky - even though her expression is always the same.

After all, Blythe is just a doll.

She was made for one year only, in 1972, by the Kenner toy company. When New York video and commercial producer Gina Garan first saw her, on the Interent auction site eBay, she knew Blythe was the doll for her.

"I've been collecting dolls since I was a kid, and all my friends know I collect them. Someone said, 'There's a doll called Blythe that looks like you,' and I said, 'I've got to have it!' "

She purchased Blythe on eBay for less than $10 from an Iowa man; he'd bought it for his granddaughter, who didn't appreciate Blythe's strange looks.

"She was afraid of it," says Ms. Garan. "It has a tiny little body and alienesque head. But they say eyes are the window of the soul, and if you think about it, Blythe must have a really big soul."

The doll originally came in blonde, brunette and red-haired versions, and Ms. Garan had to have them all. She set a goal of collecting 100 Blythes - photographing each one and keeping a record of where she'd found it.

Soon, Ms. Garan, who has produced videos for the B-52s and commercials for companies such as Volvo, was taking a Blythe or two along on her trips around the world.

"I travel a lot, and I took Blythe with me and took photos for my own enjoyment-slash-sickness. I do think in a very odd way. I was walking by a pool in Puerto Rico, and I could see the photo in my head. I thought if I laid down at the right angle, it would look like Blythe was walking through an art gallery."

Ms. Garan also discovered that other people shared her obsession - among them Marilyn Manson, whom Ms. Garan met at a performance of the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

"I had pictures of Blythe that I just got back, and he saw them and said, 'Oh, my God, Blythe!' He already knew about her. He had a picture of her in his CD [liner notes], and he mentions her in his biography."

Ms. Garan says her pal musician Matthew Sweet, a collector of paintings by '60s icon Margaret Keane, also "flipped out on Blythe. Anyone who loves big-eyed art loves Blythe."

With friends encouraging her to share Blythe with the world, Ms. Garan wrote a book proposal and had interest from four of the five publishers she queried. She decided on Chronicle Books, which will publish This Is Blythe ($12.95) on June 20.

The book, with photos culled from Ms. Garan's collection, portrays Blythe in a variety of settings: She's naked outside a Hooters restaurant. Encased in a snowball. Wearing an Indian bindi on her forehead.

Sometimes she looks like a supermodel, and on occasion, she even resembles Gwyneth Paltrow.

Simon Doonan, legendary visual director of Barneys New York, contacted Ms. Garan about doing Blythe windows, but she'd already promised Bloomingdale's creative director Mike Fisher he could show off the doll of the moment. The windows debuted last week at the New York flagship, with life-size Blythes wearing Pucci and Dolce and Gabbana.

Meanwhile, a group of stellar designers, including Marc Bouwer, Todd Oldham, Mark Eisen, Donna Karan, Sandy Dalal, Anna Sui and Diane von Furstenburg has created outfits for Blythe, as has Ms. Garan's friend and former roommate Mr. LaChapelle. The designer-dressed dolls, which Ms. Garan donated from her own collection, went up for auction on eBay to benefit the AIDS charity Lifebeat June 12. (The auction continues until June 21.)

Whereas Blythe dolls once could be bought for about $25 on eBay and even less at some garage sales, they now sell for $200 to $400 to avid collectors.

"My collection has been so depleted," says Ms. Garan. "The sick part of it is, I have such an emotional attachment to certain dolls - it's like giving up my kids."

She doesn't hold a lot of hope that Blythe's orginal manufacturer will relaunch the doll to meet the new demand. "Kenner was sold to Hasbro, and it took them a year to give us the OK for the book. They don't know who owned the mold or designed her. I wonder if this gets enough attention if they'll make it again, but I think they couldn't care less."

Ms. Garan also is recording Blythe in her couture finery for a Lifebeat calendar, and she's been approached to do an exhibit of Blythe photos in Japan in October. Her next priority will be another book of doll photography, this one featuring some of the more unusual dolls in her collection re-imagined as Catholic saints.

In the meantime, don't think that Blythe's 15 minutes are up just yet. Her attraction may be mysterious, but people continue to respond to her unusual beauty.

"People always say babies are attracted to people with big eyes, and I think people in general are attracted to Blythe. She has a funny little naivete to her, and she has a sweet little face. Even my father loves this doll. Everyone across the board loves the photos. I've never seen such a great reaction to an object."