Growing up an only child in New Orleans, Kim Culmone says playtime was vital in developing her imagination and envisioning a world where "anything is possible." Like many girls her age, she found comfort in playing with Barbie dolls.
"I spent a lot of time either with grown-ups or by myself, so Barbie was central to that sort of quiet, focused, kid playtime," she tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I have deep-seated memories of growing up with Barbie and living through the glamorous, amazing life I would make up for her."
Little did Culmone know how the tiny dolls would continue to provide for her.
“Now I look back and think, of course Barbie would be at the center of my career. She's been at the center of my life since I've had a memory," says Culmone, now senior vice president and global head of design for Barbie and other fashion dolls at Mattel. "Barbie is glamorous and she always will be, but it's what she enables and the power she has in culture that gets me the most excited."
"Barbie play," she notes, has a profound influence on the minds of young people. "There's an enormous sense of responsibility for what's next, and there's still so much that we can do with this brand," she says while pointing to a childhood photo on her desk — Christmas morning in 1980 with her mom, taken minutes after unwrapping her first Barbie Dreamhouse.
For Culmone, what Barbie has enabled over her 25 years with Mattel is the ability to bring empowered diversity to the masses. That has personal meaning to her as a lesbian, currently engaged to her future wife. As featured in the 2015 Hulu documentary, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, Culmone led the curation of Barbie’s most diverse collections — including the ongoing Barbie Fashionistas line, first introduced in 2009, which debuted dolls with new body types (curvy, tall and petite), with Down syndrome and physical disabilities and new hair textures, and even a transgender Barbie, modeled after icon Laverne Cox.
"We called it Project Dawn, which referenced the dawning of a new day," she recalls of the Fashionistas venture. "It was a little scary, because who knows which way it's gonna go or if it would be well received."
It has certainly proved successful, per Mattel's president Richard Dickson, who told El Pais in Oct. 2022 that the company's doll division "reached the highest level in its history" in 2021, accounting for nearly $2.3 billion of Mattel's gross revenue with Barbie accounting for 73% of those sales.
"Change is essential to the brand," explains Culmone. "Everybody is beautiful in some way and everyone deserves to be included in Barbie, who is so synonymous with the concept of beauty."
Indeed, over the decades Barbie has undergone several reinventions to reflect modern attitudes and cultural landscapes. Since the first Barbie (named after the daughter of Mattel’s co-founders, Ruth and Elliot Handler) was introduced in 1959, the doll has had nearly 200 careers to date — including astronaut, police officer, teacher and presidential candidate.
Barbie's most ambitious career, however, may be that of movie star. The upcoming film — directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie — is the first live-action movie starring the beloved character, though it's certainly not her first rodeo. Since 2001, Barbie has stared in a series of direct-to-video animated movies as well as TV shows and various partnerships with giants like Disney.
Culmone's team was intimately involved in helping to create the new film's overall look, alongside its costume designer Jacqueline Durran, digging through decades of Mattel's archives to immerse the filmmakers in the brand. The company has since debuted a range of dolls featuring outfits as seen in the film.
"This summer is definitely going to be sparkling pink," teases Culmone.
The film is one of the most highly anticipated of the summer and has brought pink to the mainstream (again). In fact, "Barbiecore" has morphed into a term describing the diehard fandom it's generated — from pink streetwear trends to waves of pink interior designs.
But beyond fashion, Culmone says the film is also creating "important social conversations" about gender, sexuality, expression and style, particularly around Ken and how the doll has "challenged masculine ideals" through fashion over the decades.
"Ken is going to have a moment," she says of Ryan Gosling's performance. "There's so much more we can do with Ken: What is masculinity? How is masculinity represented? All of those things are in conversations around Ken. It's interesting, because dolls happen to be little reflections of a human being. It's a cultural phenomenon, but it's also our responsibility."
Culmone says leading with an impeccable sense of "humility and responsibility" is vital to Barbie’s success.
"Ruth [Handler] founded this brand with a very clear mission: She wanted her daughter to know that she had the same opportunities as her son, and to dream about everything she could be when she grew up," says Culmone. "We've remained true to that mission, and we've evolved. If Barbie had stayed exactly the way she was, we may not have lasted 65 years."
Culmone also hopes the film is a reminder about how powerful Barbie has been to American culture.
"We're about creating opportunities for girls because girls are underserved, but we're also about making sure that everyone who loves Barbie can be celebrated and see themselves represented," she explains. "Barbie is more than a toy. She's an idea. She's a concept. Barbie is simply a blank canvas for us to project our storytelling and our dreams and our hopes and desires and our culture on to. She is us, in a way."