Richard Simmons’ cheek is surprisingly rough.
That was the first thought that registered as the fitness guru pulled me in for a spontaneous embrace. I guess I’d assumed his skin would feel as soft as the silky short shorts he wore in my mom’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos, not the pumice-like cheek that scraped mine as he squealed at making my acquaintance.
I was attending my first doll convention as an employee of Doll Reader magazine, and meeting Simmons, an uber-collector with his own line of figurines, was one of the job’s rites of passage.
I was 24 and self-important, impatient for my “real” career to begin. I didn’t want to be excited about doing anything at a doll magazine. I needed the paycheck, but I considered the job beneath me.
Yet Richard Simmons was kind and joyful, and so were the other people I encountered that day at the doll fair. Maybe, it dawned on me … maybe I was seeing this job, and my life, all wrong.
Doll Reader was a so-called “enthusiast title” aimed at high-end doll collectors, with a niche audience of precisely who you’d expect — old, wealthy white women.
The magazine was 30 years old and had a sister title, Teddy Bear Times & Friends, that chronicled the plush industry.
I’d never heard of either magazine when I applied for the Doll Reader position in 2001. It wasn’t the place I’d imagined myself two years out of college. I’d always wanted to work for The Washington Post, and I thought I had the drive to do it.
Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I attended one of the nation’s premier high schools — several of my peers’ parents served in Congress or on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Other kids partied on weekends. Not us. We worked on our International Baccalaureate diploma theses, discussed what colleges we should apply to, and studied calculus. I probably wouldn’t have partied anyway. If I got caught, what would that mean for my future? I exceled at writing, and with an English teacher’s encouragement, I decided to pursue journalism.
I went to a good college, rose to number two at the school paper, hustled for high-profile internships, and even landed a gig working for USAToday.com before most of my family even knew what “.com” meant.
After graduating college, I spent a couple of years at a small newspaper in Pennsylvania, but I hungered for a bigger challenge. I naively quit the job without a new position lined up. The Post never even contacted me for an interview. Within months, I was waitressing to pay my portion of the rent on the townhouse I shared with my boyfriend.
When I saw the ad for an associate editor position at a nearby magazine, I was thrilled and sent in my application right away. I was less thrilled when the editor called to set up an interview and revealed the magazine’s focus: dolls.
During the interview, I gaped at how seriously the editor and publisher took their subject. I kept waiting for them to nudge me in the ribs. A magazine for doll lovers? Really? I pompously mentioned that I’d I majored in women’s studies in college and joked that I might have to return my degree if I came to work for them, what with their glorification of Barbie.
They must have been impressed by my copy-editing test, because they hired me anyway.
My first week on the job, my editor instructed me to comb through the magazine’s doll photo archives, which were spread across 12 filing cabinets (nothing was digital), and familiarize myself with the doll artists’ styles.
I smirked when she said “doll artist,” because really? Artists made paintings; they didn’t design dolls. I spent two days looking at pictures. Some of the dolls were beautiful, I noted begrudgingly. That level of detail clearly required talent and vision to pull off.
Between picture sessions, I met my co-workers. I was especially impressed by our publisher, Rick. Our magazines shared a building with a dozen other enthusiast titles owned by a large New York media company, so in the break room we often encountered editors of publications focused on subjects like the Civil War, bass fishing or World War II. Rick talked to them all. He was funny and encouraging and fiercely supportive of his staff. Rick had multiple sclerosis and sometimes needed a cane to navigate the office. The disease gave him perspective. He worked hard, but he made it clear: His family always came first.
That surprised me. I thought there were certain trade-offs you had to make to succeed. In my hometown, everyone’s parents worked late every night. At my first job out of college, I’d volunteered to work Thanksgiving to ingratiate myself with my boss; no trip home to eat turkey that year. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could have a good career without sacrificing your family life.
* * *
When I’d been at Doll Reader for a couple months, my editor and I visited one of the Northeast’s most successful doll makers. The manufacturer would close just a few years later, underscoring the fine line between success and failure in the collectibles industry, but I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was I had to spend the day pretending to ooh and ahh over their tacky dolls.
Doll people are the friendliest sort of people. They love dolls, and when you write about dolls, they assume you love them too.
I experienced reverse imposter syndrome during that meeting. I didn’t worry that I wasn’t good enough to do this job, but rather that I was too good for the job, and other people weren’t recognizing it. Why did they assume I loved dolls? Ick. I went out of my way to mention my academic credentials during the meeting, as if to underscore how I didn’t belong.
The meeting went well, my cringey comments aside. The manufacturer even committed to several pages of advertising in an upcoming issue. My editor wanted to visit Madame Alexander, the legendary New York doll company, next. We slated the trip for December, four months away. I prayed I’d find a new job before then.
Throughout the fall, I came home from work every day and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns until I became nearly catatonic. I felt disappointed with my lack of career momentum and unsure of how to snap myself out of my funk.
Buffy made me laugh and forget about how three years ago at this time, I’d landed a prominent copy-editing internship that made everyone at the school paper jealous — and now I was styling dolls’ hair for photo shoots.
Our visit to Madame Alexander came two months after September 11. The doll manufacturer had fallen on hard times. The outside of the building looked decrepit. The offices were cramped and cold.
The company’s public relations rep, Jill, seemed indifferent to the shabby surroundings. She lit up as she discussed Madame Alexander’s partnership with a rising doll artist. We bonded over our love of NYC bagels and our recent hairstyle disasters. (I had, on a whim, gotten a perm a week before the trip; I resembled a poodle.) I liked Jill a lot.
She escorted us to the doll-manufacturing center. We walked along the assembly line — all women, most of them Hispanic, just a few looking up from their work. Jill drew one woman aside, and she handed me one of the eyes she was about to insert into the doll’s head. The eye was heavier than I’d expected. The woman told us she had worked for Madame Alexander for more than a decade. She said she had three daughters under 5, all of whom loved dolls. This mother enjoyed knowing the things she made would be treasured by kids or collectors.
I thought about the woman all the way home from New York. I didn’t know if the doll company paid her a living wage or gave her decent maternity leave when she had her girls. But I knew she was telling the truth when she said she liked what she did and why she valued it.
It occurred to me that I’d been looking for self-value from my work, just as this woman had — but she’d found it through her family, not the work itself.
* * *
IDEX — the International Doll Expo — was the year’s main event in the doll world. All the big industry names rolled out their new lines at the annual conference in San Francisco. The 2002 edition would be my first time attending, a coming-out party of sorts, since I still hadn’t met a lot of the big doll artists — or the doll world’s resident celebrity, Richard Simmons.
I was curious about Simmons. My sister and I had watched his daily exercise and cooking show in the ’80s. I asked my publisher if real-life Richard acted anything like the flamboyant persona he displayed during appearances on Late Show with David Letterman.
“Toni, I can’t stay up that late,” Rick replied, laughing.
“Late Show’s on at 11:35,” I replied.
He smiled at me. “I go to bed by 9:30. I have kids, you know. You’ll understand one day.”
I couldn’t imagine going to bed before midnight, even on a workday. I stayed up late scouring want ads and doing piecemeal freelance work that might deliver me from the doll job. For a second, I imagined not doing those things — being in a position I was satisfied with, putting my imaginary kids to bed by 9, talking about the day with my imaginary spouse.
As soon as I returned from San Fran, I told my boyfriend about my celebrity encounter. And then we talked about getting married.
We’d discussed it several times, in the abstract. He wanted to. I wasn’t sure. Having a wedding didn’t interest me. I preferred to spend my time looking for a new job, not planning seating for 60. And I didn’t need a piece of paper confirming I was committed to Jeff. I was all in.
Before Doll Reader, I’d been satisfied just living together, and our marriage conversations were short. But seeing the fulfillment others got from marriage intrigued me. And so, for the first time, did the idea of having kids. I kept thinking about Rick’s words: “You’ll understand one day.”
Jeff and I discussed marriage several times over the next few months, and I warmed to the idea more and more. We finally decided to get hitched at the beach when we went on vacation that summer. It would be low-key; just family, no fancy clothes.
* * *
“Hi, Abe!” I chirped into the phone.
Abe was one of our columnists. A 60-something gay man who sold dolls and regarded Barbie the way those of my generation regarded Kurt Cobain, Abe was fun to talk to. I’d call to confirm a small detail in his column, and he’d regale me with stories about where he found his most treasured dolls.
I liked to rib him about Barbie. I was softening to the doll world, but I still saw her as a villain, per my women’s studies training. “She’s not that pretty,” I might say. Or, “Those high-heel feet are oppressive.”
Abe usually took my gibes in stride, but today he seemed exasperated. “You know, Toni, just because you don’t like her doesn’t mean she doesn’t have value,” he told me. He was short on time that day. His doll business wasn’t doing so well. After 9/11, a recession had taken hold, and people were cutting down on extra purchases.
Abe’s words stayed with me for the rest of the day. I saw myself as open-minded politically — I supported gay marriage and volunteered for Planned Parenthood — but perhaps I was close-minded in other ways. I pulled one of Abe’s books about Barbie off my office shelf. In it, he reminisced about finding comfort in her beautiful accessories as a closeted kid. I thought about how comfort looks different to different people.
That night, instead of watching my billionth episode of Buffy, I opened a book I’d brought home from work, a biography of Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie. We’d never covered her in my feminist theory classes, but she’d lived an interesting life, and her vision for Barbie wasn’t as patriarchal as I’d always assumed. The next morning, I emailed Abe an apology.
In the spring, Rick revealed that the big New York media company had put our magazines on the block. They were losing money. Each issue of Doll Reader and Teddy Bear Times & Friends had gotten progressively thinner as my one-year anniversary at the titles approached. Advertisers were pulling back as the recession worsened. Several manufacturers teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Nothing changed at the magazines, but everyone knew a sale or closure could be imminent.
Two days before Jeff and I left for our July wedding, my co-workers threw me a shower. I was touched. Despite my sour attitude toward the job, these kind people had embraced me. I thanked them sincerely, and I cried later at my desk as I read their cards.
I married Jeff in a tiny ceremony on the beach. It was exactly what we wanted. When I returned to work, I found a package on my desk. Jill from Madame Alexander, one of the companies that had pulled back its advertising, had sent me a bride and groom doll set and a note signed by the women I’d met at the factory. Several doll artists offered congratulations via email. I cried at my desk for the second time in as many weeks. I still have those dolls.
One week after I returned to work, we got the news. A new company had purchased the magazines. There might be layoffs. The owners were coming in the following week.
Everyone was frantic. Two of my co-workers had children in college, others had elementary school–aged kids. They needed their jobs.
I knew immediately that the new owners would be a poor fit for the magazines. At our first meeting, they seemed uninterested in learning about our editorial focus or the audience we targeted. They didn’t even want to hear about Richard Simmons. They were already searching for ways to cut expenses. There would be no more visits to manufacturers, no more attending doll conventions.
Right after the initial meeting, they let Rick go.
Before he left, Rick stopped at my desk. He told me that the new owners also owned magazines focused on volleyball and women’s basketball. Two hours removed from losing his job, Rick said to me, “I think this could be a great opportunity for you, Toni. You could work at one of those other magazines. It’s what you’ve wanted.” All I could think was that I didn’t want to work for people who valued cold numbers over people. I’d let my job search lag over the previous few months, but I began with renewed spirit hours after Rick left.
I stayed on a few more weeks until I found a job at an online-only publication that allowed me to work remotely — very glamorous for the early 2000s. After I left, I kept in touch with my co-workers and a few doll artists. I even freelanced for other doll publications throughout the next decade.
Many of my former co-workers attended my baby shower two years after I left Doll Reader. Several of them brought dolls for my baby, of course. And I was absolutely proud to display them.
Toni Fitzgerald is a longtime freelance writer and editor whose daughter owns a ridiculous number of Barbies.