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Doll Wars: When Barbie Dragged Sindy Into Court

iStock // Getty
iStock // Getty

The two women stood stark naked in court, men wrapping measuring tapes around their hips, busts, and shoulders. Normally sporting long, flowing locks, the two had been stripped of every strand so their bald heads could be compared. Absent any apparel or accessories, it would be up to a Dutch judge to determine whether or not the two looked so much alike that one would have to be destroyed.

On one side of the courtroom was Sindy, a vivacious UK fashion plate that had just been exported by Hasbro; on the other stood Barbie, Mattel’s flagship blonde. Reconfigured for international distribution, Sindy bore a striking resemblance to Barbie—so much so that Mattel felt compelled to haul her into court on accusations of counterfeiting, copyright infringement, and whatever else they could use to challenge her existence. Sindy, their lawyers charged, was nothing more than Barbie’s “unwanted sister.”

At stake was a majority share in the billion-dollar fashion doll market. Despite her congenial personality, Barbie couldn’t afford to play nice.

Sindy's distinctive 1970s-era design (L) and her alleged Barbie-influenced makeover (R). Smirky Becca via Flickr, ronholplc via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Ever since Barbie made her toy aisle debut in 1959, Hasbro has looked on with envy. Accessorized with hundreds of outfits, cars, homes, and boyfriends, she helped catapult Mattel to record revenue in the 1960s and beyond, swatting down challengers with ease.

Eager to mimic her success, Hasbro tried a doll based on The Flying Nun television series; a model named Leggy came later. In the 1980s, they thought Jem and the Holograms would finally topple Barbie from her perch. None produced a single bead of sweat on her tiny, perfect brow.

Having failed to produce a contender themselves, Hasbro decided to look at existing licenses. In the UK, they noticed a doll named Sindy, a demure toy with a sideways glance who sped around on a moped (or pony) and embodied the kind of high-fashion couture originating out of London in the 1960s. By 1985, Sindy was so popular she had captured 80 percent of the doll market in Britain.

Hasbro approached her owner, Pedigree Toys, offering to manufacture and distribute the dolls all over the world. (Notably, Pedigree had once turned down an offer by Mattel to license Barbie for the UK.) The company agreed, and Hasbro executive Stephen Hassenfeld believed they finally had a product that would successfully compete against Barbie.

Sindy’s proportions, however, would have to be reconsidered. Almost cherubic in Britain, her figure would be enhanced for worldwide appeal. Her legs grew longer and slimmer, and her chest began to protrude in a way that recalled Barbie’s sculpted curves. No longer confined to overcast London, she even got a tan—all the better to replicate her California-loving competition.

During a 1988 European toy exhibition, Mattel CEO John Amerman caught wind of Hasbro’s Hassenfeld showing off a Barbie clone to buyers. While Mattel typically laughed off attempts to cut into Barbie’s market share, Sindy was different by virtue of not appearing to be very different. There was a real possibility that consumers, especially young ones, would confuse the two. Sindy even sported an all-pink packaging that had become synonymous with Barbie.

Agitated, Amerman confronted Hassenfeld and told him that pursuing Sindy would never be in his best interests.

Hassenfeld’s reply was chilly. “No one,” he said, “tells me what to do.”

In March of that year, Mattel’s lawyers dispatched a terse letter demanding Hasbro destroy or turn over everything related to Sindy by April 7: sculpts, stock, and plans. But Hasbro had already spent millions in development and advertising and wasn’t about to be cowed. They ignored the deadline, and began shipping Sindy across the globe.

Everywhere she went, Mattel’s lawyers followed. Sindy was impounded in France, where courts were persuaded by Mattel’s argument of a counterfeit Barbie. Other countries allowed her to be sold without reservation.

In a series of court cases, lawyers for both sides presented their respective dolls for the court’s examination. In one bit of testimony, the size and depth of Sindy’s nostrils became a point of contention. It was argued that Sindy’s nose was more pointed, with deeper nasal passages. Crucially, Hasbro’s sculptors had not altered her chest to the point where her breasts were as disproportionately large as Barbie’s, and the company asserted that was enough to make the two distinct.

By 1992, millions of dollars in legal fees had been spent arguing over the size and shape of doll breasts, with no end in sight.

Sindy in happier times. Sindy.com

That year, a representative for Hasbro named Barry Alperin requested a meeting with two of Mattel’s top executives, including newly installed CEO Jill Barad. Opening a suitcase, Alperin revealed five distinct, disembodied Sindy heads. He requested that Barad choose one that she felt was a comfortable enough distance from Barbie’s features.

Barad chose a Sindy head Mattel could live with. The legal battle was over.

Hasbro never had great success in the U.S. with Sindy, which went through several iterations before being dropped in 1998. Pedigree re-launched her in 2006 and again via a licensing agreement with the Tesco store chain in late 2016, taking care to present a doll and personality far removed from Barbie’s. At 18 inches, she towers over her former rival and sticks with sneakers or sandals. No heels, and no dream house.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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When Topps Fought Terrorism with Trading Cards
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Perillo looked out of his office window at 1 Whitehall Street in Manhattan and saw a plane flying at a dangerously low altitude. Almost instantly, his building began to shake. Seven blocks away, the plane had struck the World Trade Center.

It would be hours before Perillo and other New Yorkers were able to grasp the gravity of the situation. A terrorist attack on American soil stunned the world and created a widening panic and confusion before a kind of resolve set in. For Perillo, the vice president of operations at Topps Trading Card Company, and Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, it would become a time to memorialize the events of that day in the medium they understood best. Which is how Osama bin Laden came to have his own trading card.

Two kids sort through a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card set
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Although they were best known for sports cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and other entertainment properties, Topps had already recorded a significant history with real-world events. In 1950, they found success with a line of Korean War cards. More than a decade later, they memorialized the Civil War. A set reflecting on the life of John F. Kennedy following his assassination was released in 1964. In 1991, a line of cards depicting Operation: Desert Storm received endorsements from Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within a week of the attack on the World Trade Center, Topps executives decided to pursue another—and substantially more controversial—line based on current events. Titled Enduring Freedom, the line featured 70 cards of figures like President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki, and bin Laden. There would be cards of military vehicles and weapons; on the back were biographies of political figures and descriptions of the hardware. The goal, Shorin told the press, was to give kids information about the rising conflict in a format with which they were already familiar.

"Kids need to get information on their own terms," he said. "This is their medium."

While the plan came together quickly, the company largely avoided depictions that might upset children or their parents. One card featured a smoke-filled view of the transformed Manhattan skyline, but no pictures of the destruction or rubble were considered. In a departure from conventional card sets, no "chase" cards—or rare inserts that prompt consumers to buy more packs—would be involved. There was some internal debate about including bin Laden, but the company ultimately decided that kids might want the opportunity to defile his image by ripping it up. It's the only black and white card to appear in the set.

"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," Shorin said.

A photo of a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card wrapper
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Enduring Freedom was released in October 2001, which marked a rapid turnaround time for the card industry. (Sets typically take months to come together.) Hobby shops and larger retail outlets like Walmart accepted shipments of the 7-card product, which sold for $2 per pack, but not everyone was comfortable monetizing the tragedy. Stores in Chicago refused to carry the line, citing concern over appearing insensitive. (An unrelated 2002 card set by Chestnut Publications eulogizing victims of the 9/11 attacks, which was created with their families' permission, drew related headlines and accompanying criticism.)

In interviews, Shorin argued that the cards and their explanation of America's military would be comforting to children: Topps had consulted with child psychologists to make sure the content was age-appropriate. Though they were reticent to publicize it, the company was also donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts. They even shipped 1 million cards to troops stationed overseas.

Ultimately, the notion of potentially trivializing the War on Terror never caught on. Topps never released a planned second wave that would feature high-tech military hardware, a likely result of the cards selling only modestly. As one store owner pointed out, it wasn't that the cards were offensive—it's just that kids were too preoccupied with Pokemon to bother.

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