Former 80s model turned ‘Grandma Barbie’ re-creates life with mini dolls

·Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

For most of her life, Tonya Ruiz has been chasing Barbie.

“My obsession began when I got my Barbie on my third birthday,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And I opened that polyvinyl goddess and she changed my life.”

Growing up, Ruiz had an uncanny likeness to the doll: Both had blond hair, blue eyes, and long legs. The only difference was that Barbie was a fashion model and Ruiz wasn’t. Not yet, at least.

A young Tonya Ruiz clutching a Barbie doll. (Courtesy: Tonya Ruiz)
A young Tonya Ruiz clutching a Barbie doll. (Courtesy: Tonya Ruiz)

Ruiz recalls having a talking Barbie which, when you pulled the string, said, “I love being a fashion model.” “I thought that was so cool,” says Ruiz. “Because I wanted to be a fashion model.”

When she was 15, her dreams came true. Ruiz got in touch with an agent, drove to Beverly Hills, signed a contract with Ford Models — one of the most prestigious modeling agencies in the world — and before she knew it, she was in Paris, modeling for Christian Dior. From there, came Balmain, Toyota, and more. But along with the splashy magazine covers, there was a dark side.

“Especially for a 16, 17-year-old girl, there was a very ugly side to the beauty business,” Ruiz says. “When I weighed 118 pounds, they told me I was fat and I needed to lose weight.”

In addition to being criticized over her body, Ruiz was also drinking a lot, doing drugs, and staying out late partying. She became depressed.

“I decided modeling was not for me, that actually life was not for me,” she shares. “I decided the nice thing to do would be to fly to California and visit with my family before I ended my life.”

Looking back, Ruiz says she realized it was a dramatic thing for an 18-year-old to think, much less do. And thankfully, it never came to that. After returning home, a friend invited her to a concert.

“It turned out it wasn’t a rock concert, it was a Christian concert,” says Ruiz. That night, she turned her life around. “I stopped modeling. I started going to church. I met this great guy that played the guitar and eventually, I married him,” she says. “I just saw life from a different perspective.”

Years went by and Ruiz didn’t think of Barbie again until she became a mother to two girls and needed to decide what kinds of toys to buy.

“I didn’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that their worth was based on the way they looked and that they needed to look like a blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie,” she shares. “Because my husband’s very dark.”

Instead of Barbie, she encouraged her two daughters to play with American Girl and Cabbage Patch dolls.

And so Barbie left her life, until the grandkids came calling. They discovered a hidden box of Barbie dolls in the attic. One of them was a Grandma Barbie doll, released in 2003 as part of Mattel’s Happy Family Barbie set. Ruiz recalls that her grandkids asked, “Grandma, why did they make a Barbie of you?”

The similarities — much like decades earlier — were unmistakable. Ruiz had aged similarly to how Barbie, presumably, would have. “This grandma Barbie had a thicker waist. She had crow’s feet. She had flat feet, and she wore sensible shoes,” says Ruiz.

Grandpa and Grandma Barbie were released as part of the Happy Family Barbie set in 2003. (Photo: Getty Images)
Grandpa and Grandma Barbie were released as part of the Happy Family Barbie set in 2003. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ruiz began shopping for more realistic Barbies — dolls that had shapes and skin tones to match a wider range of people, including her own immediate family. This time, it was easier: In 2016, Mattel released three new body types for Barbie: tall, petite, and curvy. Eventually, Ruiz had a Barbie doll to match every person in her family.

From there, having launched her @BarbieGetsReal Instagram account, Ruiz decided to create a “1:6 scale miniature parallel universe of my life.” She has eight dioramas ranging from bedrooms and bathrooms to kitchens. Sometimes she even goes “twinning” by wearing the exact same outfit as her Grandma Barbie lookalike.

And while Ruiz also has an impressive collection of more than 300 Barbie dolls, she doesn’t treat them as collectibles. Instead, she uses their unique outfits and props for her own dolls.

Barbie turned 60 this year. Ruiz is 56. And while Barbie is still living a jetset lifestyle, Ruiz’s Grandma Barbie has a more low-key, realistic routine. “If Barbie really got old, if Barbie really got married, if she really had kids, she might be doing dishes. She might be driving a Honda instead of a pink Corvette,” says Ruiz.

Ruiz’s relationship with Barbie over the years has had its ups and downs, but it’s now reached a sort of balance.

“We were apart for a few years,” she says. “Now we’ve reconciled, and we’re having a lot of fun together.”

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