SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — For 40 years, Barbie has captivated girls around the world with her all-American blend of good looks, fancy clothes, and "I can do anything" ethos.
But here in Brazil, the blonde icon is facing an unprecedented challenge from the new girl in town. Susi, with her trim waist, small chest, wide thighs, and darker skin, is becoming every Brazilian girl's best friend.
Since she first swung her increasingly famous hips into Brazilian toy stores three years ago, annual sales have tripled to 1.5 million. At Christmas, Susi even outsold Barbie for the first time.
For some, her success is a validation of "Brazilianness." Even as South America's most multicultural nation becomes swamped by US imports and images in film, television, and advertising, Brazil is developing a healthy respect for itself.
Local musicians now outsell foreign artists, the film industry is prospering, and after years of being led to believe otherwise, Brazilians are coming to accept that the slender blondes who dominate television entertainment here are no better than the shapely homegrown women with darker skin and hair.
It's an important realization for a country where 44 percent of the population is black or mixed-race.
"Susi is successful because she resonates with Brazilian girls," says Aries Fernandes, marketing director for Estrela, the company that designs and produces Susi.
"She has a body like them and all the themes and clothes are very Brazilian. In the toy market everything comes from Asia, particularly China, and so loses its local traits. We wanted to create something the local kids could relate to," he says.
At first glance, Susi and Barbie are not that different. Both have impossibly long hair and clear blue eyes. But Susi's face is more circular than Barbie's and her mouth is rounder. Her eyelashes are longer and her skin is slightly darker.
The body language, however, says it all. Although the two dolls both have waistlines measuring four inches, the willowy Barbie has defied time to maintain her legendary hourglass figure and slim hips.
Susi, meanwhile, has a more modest bust and a pair of thighs measuring a whopping half-inch more than her American rival.
"We wanted Susi to be more Latin, more voluptuous," explains Mr. Fernandes. "We Latins appreciate those attributes."
Those attributes have proved a great success in Brazil. In the 1999 pre-Christmas season, five Susis were sold for every two Barbies, according to Synesio Batista da Costa, president of the Brazilian Association of Toy Manufacturers.
Local managers at Mattel, the California-based company that owns Barbie, declined to talk about sales figures.
In a nation where 37 percent of the $430 million a year toy sales are dolls, the success of Susi and Barbie is crucial to firms such as Estrela, Brazil's biggest toymaker.
Susi's success has turned her into a poster girl for the company, and staff there work hard at making sure she has the outfits and the attitude of Brazilian youngsters.
Like any self-respecting Brazilian female, Susi loves the outdoor life and has a collection of skimpy bikinis to wear to the beach. And like many of the country's young girls, she eschews formal clothes in favor more casual wear, in the latest youth fashions. She likes to eat fast-food - "cool lunch Susi" is one of the biggest sellers. She wears little makeup but sports a tattoo.
In the summer, when the country's beaches are packed, the company releases dolls with a slightly darker skin to simulate a tan.
In 1998, with the country overtaken by World Cup fever, Susi came out sporting a Brazil soccer shirt.
Estrela executives say such realistic touches go down well in Brazil, because young girls here want dolls that show them as they are, not as they want to be.
That, they say, is why some of the best-selling Susi dolls are Susi playing at being a veterinarian and Susi playing at being a teacher, not actually being a vet or being a teacher.
The strategy is in contrast to that of Mattel, which promotes Barbie worldwide as an example for girls to aspire to, with careers such as airline pilot, astronaut, doctor, Olympic gymnast, professional basketball player, and yes, vet and teacher, to name a very few. Barbie is a role model, says Ana Paula Laranjeira, senior brand manager at Mattel do Brasil, the company's national subsidiary.
"Her strongest point is that she is aspirational," Ms. Laranjeira says. "Barbie is an image that is desired by all little girls. When kids play with Barbie they feel they can go places and do things."
Susi sees life through the eyes of a carefree young girl more interested in festas (in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, a party) than Ferraris, according to Fernandes.
"I wouldn't quite say Susi is a hedonist, but she likes to enjoy herself, and you won't see her worrying about having the latest car or the correct label," he says.
"She has things that show she takes pleasure in life, not things that show status. The intention is that she has things linked to a Latin life, things like parties, dancing, and having a good time."
Having enjoyed three years of good times in Brazil, Estrela believes Susi can beguile toy buyers elsewhere in Latin America as well.
She is set to walk into the toy shops of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay next year. And if that goes well, she will take on Barbie on her home turf.
The company has already spoken with a major US chain about the possibility of bringing Susi north. With almost 16 million Latinas living in the United States, there is a demand for girls like her, Fernandes says.
He looks over a batch of Susi dolls and smiles at the prospect.
"Wouldn't it be great?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society