What Happened to Kelly?

How Mattel killed off Barbie’s baby sister.

true crime

Kelly stands rigid behind a layer of transparent plastic. Her body language does not impart a sense of ease. Upright and at attention in a white crib, with stiff fingers splayed, it is unclear what has caused Kelly to appear frozen in a state between fight or flight, though it could be the fact that her Caucasian flesh is rendered in stiff acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene. She wears a pink onesie with an ornamental white lace pattern at its collar and cuffs; a cloth rose sits at her sternum. Her features are childlike, but determining the intended age of a doll often requires more information than a doll’s appearance alone can provide. Luckily a phrase printed askew on her box gives a clue.

“New baby sister of Barbie!”

Newborn babies — the weakest in society, the group most in need of protection. Those most likely to smell “baby powder fresh!,” to borrow another phrase from Kelly’s box. Yes, Kelly’s various accouterments, currently going for $39 on eBay, cement her status as baby: a mobile, a jar of baby food and spoon, a pacifier, a diaper, a rattle, a blanket. A dress with tights, and a comb for her inexplicably long blonde hair. “Everything you need to feed, dress, and put Kelly to sleep!” promises her box, and yet her public would not ultimately be the one putting Kelly to sleep. Those trawling the candy-colored aisles of the toy store, those begging mommy for a dolly; they would not be the one to snuff out Kelly’s light. But indeed her light was snuffed: Kelly the doll, the baby sister of Barbie, no longer exists. Where did she go? And who did it?

And why?

The leader of the Barbie family of toys, Barbie Roberts, stands at 11.5 inches with an age that fluctuates between teenager and at least 35, as she ran in her first U.S. presidential election in 1992 and has run in every election since. In 2016 she ran on an all-female ticket; in 2020 she ran as a Black woman. Her career milestones outside of the realm of politics include but are not limited to: traveling to space four years before man walked on the moon; working as a surgeon in 1973 and winning Miss America one year later; promoting STEM as a computer engineer, video game developer, Mars explorer, and robotics engineer; and winning a gold medal at the Olympics (sport unspecified).

The Roberts family is harder to map. It appears that Barbie was born in the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin, a historic but modern small town settled by Founding Fathers of Willow and dotted with a bounty of its eponymous willow trees. But it is unclear who raised Barbie, and it seems evident that she was left alone to raise her younger sisters Skipper, Stacie, and Kelly. This was no doubt a heavy burden for someone already participating in the careers of astronaut, firefighter, and surgeon. Something had to give.

Some reports (spanning toys, movies, books, YouTube videos, games, and social media postings) state the Roberts family moved to Malibu, California after welcoming Kelly in 1995; others that Barbie remained in Willows for some time after. Wherever they lived, Kelly aged to around six years old in the early aughts and in 2010 she disappeared. The Roberts family welcomed a new six-year-old named Chelsea in 2011. Chelsea remains with the family to this day.

“Kelly was introduced in 1995 and retired in 2010,” Barbie Wiki explains. “She was replaced by Chelsea in 2011.”

Whether fair or not, the hazy quality of the Roberts family’s whereabouts, particularly around this time of Kelly’s manifestation, casts an unwelcome shadow on the possibility of their involvement in Kelly’s so-called “replacement.” But like in most instances of otherworldly devilry snaking through the familiar terrain of man, a larger force was at work. Someone was pulling and continues to pull the Roberts family’s strings. One has no choice but to look toward that group which brought Barbie’s world to life: Mattel, Inc., the $7.1 billion toy company headquartered in El Segundo, California.

“Why do you call ‘Chelsea’ Kelly?” asked a poster named LightningRed in an online forum for fans of Barbie’s movies, on a date the forum’s logging system displays only as “over a year ago.” It seems Mattel, a company which on its face services only children, did not count on its large following of adult collectors when devising their plan to disappear Kelly. They did not count on their questions, nor their dogged grip on what they once knew as truth.

It seems Mattel, a company which on its face services only children, did not count on its large following of adult collectors when devising their plan to disappear Kelly.

“Because Barbie's youngest sister is K-E-L-L-Y not CHELSEA!!!,” responded a poster. “i like 2 cal her kelly too.. it is the name we are used to.. for me, she is still kelly,” wrote another. “Because she's Kelly, Barbie's younger sister whose name Mattel somehow changed,” wrote yet another.

“We've come to a part of Barbie's new life that I'm not very happy with,” a blogger called RagingMoon1987 wrote in a March 2015 post on the Blogspot website Confessions of a Dolly Lover. “In the nineties and the early part of the first millennial decade, Barbie had a toddler sister named Kelly. Fast-forward to the current year, and Kelly is gone. She's morphed into a little girl named Chelsea.”

“But WHY did Mattel change her name??? What's wrong with Kelly???,” RagingMoon1987 continued. “When I saw these dolls in stores the first time I thought ‘Who the h**l is Chelsea? What happened to Kelly?’”

Although fans and collectors understood that Kelly had effectively become Chelsea, what happened to “Kelly” and why her name was changed remained concealed. Some say they remembered Mattel offering the idea that Chelsea was Kelly’s middle name, and that Kelly was simply going by her middle name now. I could not corroborate this myself. A Confessions of a Dolly Lover commenter had another idea:

“It's my understanding that doll manufacturers have to trademark a doll's name, and then only that manufacturer can use it. I know there are people who eagerly watch for when American Girl trademarks a name, and then speculate on what kind of doll it will be. I also remember Never Give Up blogging about some new doll who had to undergo a last-minute name change because it was either Alex or Alexandra, like Madame Alexander's 16" Alex doll. I couldn't find her review, though. Anyway, if Mattel does own the name Chelsea, for example, I imagine the company just cycles through names it already owns instead of coming up with a new trademarked name for every doll.”

Could it be that Mattel encountered trademark difficulty with the name Kelly? It seemed possible. My search into doll trademark law was confusing and therefore inconclusive, by my lifelong interest in the name Kelly (private reason) afforded me the knowledge that collectible doll company Madame Alexander offered a “Kelly” doll long before Mattel did. I reached out to see if they knew of any trademark-related tumult between the two companies.

“I reviewed your question with some long-time staff at the company and they indicated that the Kelly name was used more than once in the history of the Madame Alexander Doll Company,” Julie Jurrjens, the company’s Vice President of Brand Development, told me. Kelly dolls were produced in the late 1950s, the 1990s, and in 1999 to 2000 for Madame Alexander's “Dear America” dolls.

“Nobody in the company was aware of any trademark issue with the use of the Kelly name,” Jurrjens said. “You would have to check with Mattel for their trademark history and rationale for the name change of their doll.”

Oh, Julie Jurrjens. If only I could.

“Apologies for the delay! Please see background on Kelly below:,” Devin Tucker, PR Manager for Mattel’s “Barbie & Dolls” division, told me in an email. After contacting Barbie PR and requesting an interview with someone in the company to talk about Barbie, Kelly, and their family, I received an email asking I provide questions in advance. I did so and waited a total of 20 days and two follow-up emails before receiving a response.

I did so and waited a total of 20 days and two follow-up emails before receiving a response.

The response provided written answers for two of the six questions I provided. One response related to the current members of Barbie’s family (“Skipper is the most well-known family member. She was introduced in 1964 as Barbie’s Little Sister and still part of the line today. Stacie is another well-known sister, introduced in 1992, that is still part of the line of sisters.”) and another about whether Kelly’s age was static or whether it at any point advanced (“Kelly was introduced as a ‘older baby’ sister or very young toddler. The first doll was sold with a crib and baby bottle. Some early dolls had features like potty training.”).

It seemed this was all I could pry from Mattel. Follow-ups regarding the remaining questions, which concerned the decision to stop producing Kelly dolls and whether Mattel could clarify whether Chelsea and Kelly were two distinct sisters or the same doll child (perhaps named “Kelly Chelsea Roberts” in full), went unanswered. So, too, did calls to Mattel’s media phone line and messages left on its answering machine.

I was left with no choice but to bother a customer service representative. In a call to Mattel’s customer service line, I asked an employee whether it would be possible to at this point buy a Kelly doll. She asked for the manufacturing code of the product I was looking for and I was unable to provide it, but she assured me that this was no problem; she searched for “Kelly” on Mattel’s shop website (shop.mattel.com) and found that, yes, there were many “Kelly” options available. “So I just search ‘Kelly’ and there should be Kelly doll options there, available to buy?” I asked. At that point I, too, had navigated my browser to shop.mattel.com and was searching for “Kelly,” a query that prompted and still prompts the response: “Sorry, we couldn’t find any matches.”

I was left with no choice but to bother a customer service representative.

“Yes,” the customer service representative said.

“Great, thank you!” I said, and hung up. Although I knew the Mattel customer service representative was lying directly to me, I had no desire to make her life harder. This was not her fault. She was merely a pawn in a game I had yet to understand; one that, indeed, I might never understand. It was clear to me that this cover up spanned the entire company, and that I was locked out.

In the archives of eBay’s Community forums, there is a category of questions and answers specific to Barbie collectors. Questions are typically the sort you’d expect from any community of collectors: requests for help identifying authenticity, questions about maintenance. But an April 2013 question from the user madonnaorgaga is less typical.

“I don't expect too many replies as I'm not mr. Popular,” they say (aw), “but does anyone know exactly how many brother and sisters Barbie had?” A seemingly easy question that we now know to be quite difficult to answer.

“All I know is the new Stacie I just picked up at the store came in a box that says on the side Barbies sisters are Skipper, Stacie, Chelsea,” said one responder. “Barbie also had one set of twin siblings; sister Tutti and BROTHER Todd,” another eBay member pointed out. “Don't forget her little sisters Kelly and Baby Krissy,” said another. My god. It seems Mattel must, on the grounds of its El Segundo, California headquarters, maintain a fairly large graveyard for the murdered souls of Barbie’s many abandoned siblings.

Among responses in the thread, there is some discussion about what happened to Kelly, and whether Chelsea is Kelly, and why Kelly would have been turned into Chelsea, and whether anyone else has heard that Kelly was actually originally called “Shelly” in Europe. The talk continues until one clear and steady voice breaks through.

“Here's the official Mattel reason for the name change,” kathiec writes. “Kelly was indeed Shelly in Europe. Mattel wanted a consistent name to unify marketing worldwide. But they couldn't get a trademark for Kelly in Europe and Asia, because there is an existing toy with the Kelly name that is already trademarked there. That's why Kelly was Shelly. So instead of just changing the U.S. to Shelly, they decided, in their infinite wisdom, to claim that Chelsea was Kelly's middle name that she's now decided to go by, and change it everywhere. I guess they thought that it was implausible that her name would have been "Kelly Shelly" (although I think it has a nice ring to it).”

The pieces fall together before us. The trademark, the middle name; all clues leading us toward the right path, but each somewhat incomplete until now. But how did kathiec know?

Although her message was posted nearly nine years ago in April of 2013, I signed up for eBay and sent kathiec a message with some questions, in the hope that she might see it and respond. The next day, she did.

The next day, she did.

“I have indeed slept a few times since 2013. Plus I'm older than dirt and have trouble remembering why I walk into rooms. But I'll give your questions a go. :-)”

In 2008, Kathie was chosen to be on the “Collector Advisory Panel (CAP) for Mattel's Barbie Collectibles division, now called Barbie Signature. This division makes Barbies for the adult collector market. “CAP was a group of eight collectors who were brought to El Segundo, toured the Barbie Collectibles design center, and spent a day advising and otherwise hobnobbing with the designers and marketing staff,” she said. “We then consulted on the 2009 Barbie Collectibles line. So I know a number of people at Mattel.”

Kathie said that she thinks she originally read about the reason for Kelly’s shift to Chelsea on the official Barbie Fan Club online forums, but that Mattel never made an effort to explain the name change publicly. That, she said, “would have been very un-Mattel-like” of them. “They usually try to slip these things under the radar.”

I suspect this is for illicit reasons, but Kathie pointed out that it is also because Mattel’s target market doesn’t particularly care. “In the Barbie world, there's a group of hard-core adult collectors and there's the little girls who actually play with Barbie (and the family dolls). Only the most hard-core collectors really cared that the name had changed,” she said. “Most of the little girls, who are, of course, the actual target market for Kelly/Chelsea, don't really care that much what name the doll has.”

Noting that Mattel has a “very effective behemoth of a legal department,” Kathie said that if they could have gotten around the trademark issues, they would have. “The concept of making the name the same worldwide is very much consistent with Mattel's marketing focus at the time.”

That much is clear.

Kelly may have been laid to rest without fanfare. She may have been thrown in an unmarked El Segundo doll grave along with her siblings Tutti, Todd, Baby Krissy, and her European counterpart Shelly. She may be gone for good. But among adult collectors, and those whose interest in her is primarily name-based, Kelly will not be erased.

We remember you, Kelly. And we won’t forget your baby-powder fresh scent.