It’s hard being the less famous sister of an icon – just ask Dannii Minogue. Or Bild Lilli, the decidedly adult German doll whose attributes were snatched up by Mattel in 1959 to become the hugely successful Barbie doll.

Performer Elena Knox, who divides her time between Sydney and Berlin, delves into the story of Bild Lilli in her new show of the same name. Knox’s interest in the topic came via a performance some years back in which she played Barbie, unaware at the time that the all-American girl had an under-appreciated German sibling.

“A queer theorist at Sydney Uni came to see that show and she just loved it – so much so that she wrote a book chapter about it. It was two years after the show that I read this chapter she’d devoted to my show, and she’d gone right back into the history of Barbie and done my research for me.”

That made Knox determined to tell the story of Bild Lilli, a hard drinking, good time gal marketed to grown men, rather than little girls.

“She’s so much better than Barbie. She’s like a cross between Olive Oyl and Pamela Anderson; a glamorous Page Three girl. Once you see her and you know that she’s the original Barbie, you wonder why we give this weird porn doll to little girls to play with. But we don’t really question it because she’s such a commercial phenomenon.”

And Barbie didn’t get to be such a juggernaut by playing nice. In fact, court cases continue to this day about her Single White Female-esque appropriation of Bild Lilli’s life, looks and wardrobe.

“[Bild Lilli] was totally squashed. It’s fun to try and embody that in the show: she can’t exist anymore, she’s forced to speak English, she’s abducted and wakes up in an American department store. It’s ruthless commercial practice, and so much of who she is is erased.

“I mean, Bild Lilli had these great nipples, but Barbie has none. So that’s a scene in itself: ‘Who the fuck took my nipples?’ The transition from Bild Lilli to Barbie is not a smooth one. It starts as quite a serene, ‘50s cartoon world, and ends up in complete and utter chaos.”

Knox grew up in a rural Barbie-less area as something of a tomboy, but found herself drawn to the world of dolls – from voodoo to fetish – in her 20s. And she admitted she wasn’t immune to the potentially harmful effects of being around Bild and Barbie: even producing the press photos for the show took a psychological toll.

“It’s trippy, but by the time we’d been photoshopping for a couple of hours and making the images look really artificial, I found that the original photos of me looked huge. I’m a small person – I struggle to put on weight – and here I was thinking I looked like a mutant.

“It’s no wonder we all have body image issues when we’re bombarded with these images day in, day out.”

INFO: Bild Lilli, Malthouse Theatre, July 18-August 4. www.malthousetheatre.com.au/helium

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