Sascha Koki
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Hear me out: in a spontaneous fit of targeted marketing frenzy, I downloaded the AI art generator app that can make you look like Barbie. I then proceeded to play with the customizing prompts so that my hair wasn’t blonde and my face wasn’t, well, terrifying. It was a journey.

I both loved and hated (oof, such a strong word – disliked?) Barbie growing up. No, that’s a lie. I loved Barbie. I was fascinated by her and her world. I loved the dresses, the outfits, the endless possibilities for playtime plots. I loved to style her and use all of the gadgets and accessories. I was such a girly girl that Barbie was a natural birthday present so I had an extensive collection.

But, my favorite doll was actually Barbie’s best friend, Teresa, because she looked the most like me. In the same way that Princess Jasmine was easily my favorite Disney princess, Teresa, Barbie’s Latina BFF was my favorite Barbie. Her outfits, however, were gurl-needs-help. The brunette bestie with the sultry eyes, afterall, couldn’t upstage the main character so she was never in pink (my favorite color), and my lineup of dolls always wore some lilac-y purple or aquamarine blue number that was cute but not as cute as when it was in Barbie pink.

My mom grew up with Licca-chan, created by Takara (the Japanese version of Mattel) as a Japanese counterpart to the American icon that was Barbie. I was fascinated by her anime-esque face and super cute bangs; she went from brunette to honey blonde by the time I was playing with her in the ’90s. Licca-chan was created in 1966 and designed by a shojo manga artist, making both Barbie and Licca-chan dolls that were made for girls by women. Obviously, Licca-chan and I didn’t look alike but I loved her anyway because she reminded me of my mom – forever youthful and always fashionable.

My toy box was full of naked blonde-haired and Black Barbies with a few Kiras (the Asian bestie) — they were the ones people bought me and stripped nude because I needed their outfits but didn’t really want to play with the dolls themselves. Instead, my Licca-chan and Teresa had a full run of Barbie’s wardrobe, which I also preferred over Licca-chan’s cottagecore “Anne of Green Gables” A-line dresses.

Ultimately, I loved styling myself (and actual people) even more than the dolls. If the ‘90s were a time to carefully categorize and create archetypes for singular ethnicities without upstaging the blonde queen, my imagination compensated for the lack of dolls by simply turning myself into the doll with life-sized versions of her looks. Regardless, Barbie and Licca-chan dolls were a launching point for my creativity and willingness to try something new in fashion and for that I will always be grateful.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to see the new “Barbie” movie last month. I dragged my husband, Brent, to watch it with me because I wanted to support this film and everything it stands for. I know I’m being dramatic but I do think it’s worth supporting to ensure that Hollywood sees the financial benefits of films like these. One of the reasons why I’m so excited for this new Barbie movie is the hype around it. From AI-generated Barbie images, music and collaborations, I admit, I’ve been completely obsessed and swept up in the moment. Barbie has always been a cultural lightning rod with the ability to influence and be influenced by the present.

My favorite part about the marketing has been the product collaborations because I know that I can finally wear what Barbie is wearing, officially. From GAP x Barbie hoodies (already sold out) to OPI Barbie pink nail polish, there’s a whopping 30+ brand collaborations to get your Barbie fix. Officially.

A regular selfie of Sascha and her sister Salena next to their alter ego Barbie portraits. (Photos courtesy of Sascha Koki)
A regular selfie of Sascha and her sister Salena next to their alter ego Barbie portraits. (Photos courtesy of Sascha Koki)

Unofficially, I’ve always felt that Japan’s cultural obsession with looking doll-like and wearing kawaii fashion is, in part, what pushed this trend. Japanese luxury brands have long been known to work collaborations with the likes of Disney, Sesame Street, and, yes, Barbie – long before it was cool to do so in America. That, and Nicky Minaj (and the Kardashians, too, I guess) heralding ultra-feminine archetypes that ushered an age of Barbie-like figures to be coveted. It’s been feeling like a full-circle moment for me to watch.

As a teen, I knew that the best doll-like earrings and hair accessories could be found in Japan, along with perfectly proportioned oversized sweaters, slouchy socks and handbags in color pallets that always felt both on-trend and classic. If I needed Minnie Mouse lash-inducing mascara, glassy jelly lip gloss and creamy rosy cheeks, the squeal-worthy boutiques and department stores in Japan would answer my cosmetic prayers. Japan has perfected its development of and love for doll-like fashion to the point that it has ascended genre; doll-like fashion is a part of Japanese culture itself. Women and girls in Japan have long embraced pink hues while the color pink finally made a full-throated comeback in 2023 in the the form of high arched feet, perfectly coiffed hair and the right amount of aquamarine to make the rose tones pop all the more.

That perfect Barbie Girl look is what I was hoping to achieve when I was playing with that AI app (bringing it full circle). I had seen the BuzzFeed article titled “From Afghanistan To Zimbabwe: Here’s What AI Thinks Barbie Would Look Like In Every Country.” I was so impressed and enthralled by the diversity and their beauty that I wanted to try it for myself. At first, my results were truly terrifying but I didn’t want to give up. Instead, I came up with prompts and edits and learned how to coax something pretty out of my endeavors (anything to get that nightmarish AI-generated vision of Deranged Barbie).

The fruits of my hour-ish labor bore thus one image that looked very much like Barbie and one image that looked very much like Licca-chan. I encountered a few less-horrific attempts at generating Barbie images from my selfies; some resulted in me as Asian, more resulted in me as a blonde, and my pageant photo resulted in me as Naomi Campbell chocolate brown–beautiful, but not me. The best workable results came from a selfie I took with my sister over a year ago. I thought it would be interesting to see how AI reacted to us and if it would give us different looks. Instead it correctly assumed us sisters and gave us bold pink hair with matching bold makeup – classic Barbie. When I tried it again, this time feeding it its own image of us with similar prompts, it gave us pastel pink hair and anime eyes – classic Licca-chan. Even the floral print on my dress looks more Japanese.

And those results somehow too perfectly encapsulated my entire experience with Barbie and Licca-chan. While it started off alien and scary, once I realized how I could make it work, I learned to appreciate and be inspired by the dolls. And when all else failed, I simply opted to become Barbie myself. It’s more fun to channel Barbie and Licca-chan’s main character energy, anyway.

Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.

Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.

In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.


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