As cameras snapped, 19 cosplay competitors made their way up and down a runway in a Ximending cafe on Sunday of last week, inspiring murmurs of appreciation among spectators. Costumes included a buxom Marilyn Monroe, members of the pop group S.H.E and Hello Kitty. Each young lady sashayed down the runway, posed and then returned — borne aloft in the white-gloved hands of two event organizers.
This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill contest. All cosplayers were Blythe, the 30cm-tall doll with a giant head, big eyes and devoted worldwide following.
Voting was heated, but ultimately Claire Teng’s (鄧淑如) doll prevailed by a wide margin. Teng, a schoolteacher, had dressed her Blythe up as Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, with realistic stubble made from bits of fake hair and double-sided adhesive.
Afterwards, the competitors (and their humans) mingled at the event, which was organized by Summertime (夏天來了), a Ximending store that specializes in selling Blythe dolls and accoutrements. “We’re all friends here,” said Iris Chen (陳淑樺). “We might not know each other personally, but we’re all Blythe friends.”
First introduced in 1972 by Kenner Products (now merged into Hasbro), Blythe features eyes that change color and direction with the pull of a string, switching her expression from wide-eyed and innocent to sassy, thoughtful or enigmatic. Considered outlandish even by the standards of the 1970s and pulled out of a production after a year of meager sales, Blythe languished in obscurity for nearly three decades. But the melon-headed beauty found fame at last after the 2000 publication of This Is Blythe, a book of photographs by New York City-based Gina Garan, who is revered by fans as Blythe’s fairy godmother.
With her quirky looks, which some detractors find “creepy,” and Cinderella-like backstory, Blythe often endears herself to people who consider themselves out of step with mainstream tastes.
“I think Blythe appeals to people who are slightly different. It gives you a sense of belonging,” says Garan. “For now she’s still pretty underground, even though there are a lot of people who know her and collect her. People who feel like they don’t quite belong in certain situations see something in Blythe that appeals to them and want to be a part of that.”
A lifelong doll collector, Garan discovered Blythe in 1997. “Someone said to me, ‘I saw this doll that looks a lot like you,’” remembers Garan. “So I went on eBay and thought, ‘Oh my God, she does look a lot like me!’”
Enchanted by their changeable eyes, she started snapping up Kenner Blythes, which then sold for a few US dollars each. When Garan moved into a new apartment and found that a previous tenant had abandoned a 35mm camera in a closet, she got out one of her Blythes to test its macro lens.
“I shot some pictures, got them back and was like, this is so cool, she is so photogenic,” says Garan. Her work as a video producer took Garan around the world and Blythe started tagging along as her constant companion and model. Encouraged by friends, Garan sent out a book proposal with several of her photos. To her surprise, publishers responded enthusiastically.
A few months before the publication of This Is Blythe, Garan met Junko Wong, the founder of Japan-based creative agency CWC, at a party. Through Wong, Blythe was cast in a series of commercials for Parco, a Japanese department store chain. In 2001, CWC and Japanese toy company Takara (now known as Takara-Tomy) re-launched Blythe dolls. Thanks to buzz created by the Parco advertisements, the initial limited-edition run of 1,000 dolls sold out in one day.