Is The ‘Real-Life Barbie’ a Media Myth?

May 14, 2012

Over the past few weeks, photos of a supposed real-life Barbie have shocked many around the world. The controversy surrounds a young Russian model named Valerie Lukyanova (or Valeriya Lukianova, also known by her YouTube handle Amatue), who according to some sources spent over half a million dollars and endured dozens of surgeries in order to become a real-life Barbie doll. There are hundreds of photos of Lukyanova, some showing her porcelain face with flawless skin, glassy blue eyes, a blank stare, and small waist.

Beautiful? Ugly? Scary? Photoshopped? The story sparked outrage, with many using Lukyanova as a horrific example of the pursuit of beauty gone awry, the sad consequence of a society in which girls are encouraged to view thin fashion models and Barbie dolls as ideals. Jezebel.com, for example, headlined a piece "Ukrainian Model Has Supposedly Barbified Herself Through Plastic Surgery," and offered an animated video depicting "the many supposed surgeries that 21-year-old Ukrainian model, musician, and astroplanner Valeria Lukyanova has undergone to turn herself into a living, breathing Barbie." Fox News ran a piece titled "Why the 'Living Barbie' is Dangerous" by a psychiatrist named Keith Ablow, in which he stated that Lukyanova's quest to become Barbie doll-like was "an iconic symbol of things to come," when "self-expression requires mimicry of others, even of inanimate objects or fictional characters." People like Lukyanova (are there other people like her?), this outraged psychiatrist warns, "cannot empathize with the suffering of others" and "are, therefore, capable of causing enormous pain in the world, possibly even enjoying it." Ablow even compares this "real-life Barbie" to despots like Hitler and warns that Holocaust is a logical consequence of this mentality. Indeed, Ablow claims, "We are losing ourselves. We must reclaim ourselves. Everything depends on it."

Weird--but is it true? There's very little sourced information about Lukyanova, and even less in English, so it's hard to know exactly what to make of her motives or actions, but a few things suggest that there's much less to this whole story than meets the eye. In my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us (Prometheus, 2003) I investigated many news stories very similar to this one--sensational headlines about seemingly outrageous behavior, often with more than a hint of moral outrage and indignance. Sometimes the stories were true, but more often they were mostly or entirely wrong. They were widely spread and repeated not because they were true but because they supported well-defined cultural scripts and narratives about how journalists and the public view the world. In this case, with the ongoing culture wars bashing Barbies and thin fashion models as threatening to the psychological wellbeing of girls and women, this story of a woman who had undergone multiple, radical operations to become like Barbie was a perfect example of the dangers of Barbie the the quest for beauty. But was the story too good to be true? 

Contrary to countless headlines, there's no evidence that Lukyanova is actually trying to emulate the world's most popular doll. The word "Barbie" does not appear anywhere on Lukyanova's Web site nor in any of the available material attributed to her. Furthermore a Google search of images of Lukyanova reveals plenty of airbrushed, cheesecakey glamour shots (some more staged than others), but conspicuously absent are any photos of her with her supposed idol, Barbie. Surely if this aspiring model's claim to fame was centered around trying to achieve Barbie's supposedly idealized proportions, she would have taken at least one photo of her with the doll she's trying to look like.

So if Lukyanova didn't introduce the Barbie aspect to the story, who did? The answer is news outlets like ABC News, Jezebel.com and the Huffington Post-HuffPo asserting that a "newsreel" (actually an animated satire from Next Media Animation) suggested that Lukyanova got her look through surgery (and may have paid around $800,000 for the work). Some news outlets expressed skepticism about parts of the story (for example noting that some of Lukyanova's images appeared fake), but it seems that no journalists challenged the basic premise of the overall story.

In fact, not only is there no evidence that Lukyanova is actually trying to achieve Barbie's look or form, there's also no evidence that she has undergone any plastic surgery, either to look like Barbie or for any other reason. It's certainly possible, though there are no before-and-after photos or videos that you would expect to see for such a publicized, planned radical transformation. Surely any plastic surgeon would be eager to claim credit for such remarkable work. While some photos and videos do show Lukyanova to have an unusually small waist, others do not, and in any event unlike Barbie it is well within normal human range.

If you remove the main claim from this sensational story (one woman's desire and surgical quest to become a human Barbie), you're left with a story of a young model whose portfolio includes hundreds of photos, some of which have her looking almost inhumanly perfect. In today's world of routine commercial airbrushing this story wouldn't go far even on a slow news day. 

So what happened? How did otherwise ordinary photos and handful of short videos of a young blonde turn into a story of a model who spent a fortune trying to become a human Barbie doll? How did the news media get hoaxed by this story? Part of it is surely that the story taps into credible, pre-existing journalistic narratives, with elements of a great story: sex, beauty, obsession, and mystery. The myth of the real-life Barbie has a ready-made audience and a convenient news hook for those who want to blast America's obsession with beauty. 

Amid the outrage and concern expressed over Lukyanova's alleged body and Barbie obsession, many people found the story tragic, posting comments like "Makes me want to cry... That is just so sad on so many levels." Indeed it is-but only if it's true.