Barbie was based on a German escort doll. Seriously.

In the 50 years since Barbie was invented, she’s changed careers 130 times. During those five decades, she’s tried out a lot of different jobs, but one field she managed to avoid was the sex industry. Surprisingly, the same can’t be said about the doll Barbie was based on?—?Lilli, a high-end German escort.

Spunky and sexually confident

Lilli began as a cartoon character drawn by the artist Richard Beuthien. Beuthien first drew Lilli for a comic strip published in the Hamburg newspaper, BILD-Zeitung, in 1952. Lilli seems to survive primarily by going out with well-to-do gentlemen.

She’s funny, feisty and sexually confident. When a policeman tells her that bikinis are illegal, she responds with “Oh, and in your opinion, which part should I take off?” In another strip, Lilli?—?covered from head-to-toe in newspaper?—?explains to a friend, “We had a fight and he took back all the presents he gave me.”


Lilli charmed Germany and in 1955, a local company began manufacturing a doll version of the character. The plastic Lilli dolls were less than a foot tall and available for purchase in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores. The Bild Lilli doll, as it became known, was the post-war, German version of a Spencer’s Gifts novelty item. As such, she was a popular gag gift amongst bachelors.

Coming to America

A year after the Lilli doll became available in stores, a wealthy mother-daughter duo named Barbara and Ruth Handler went on vacation to Switzerland. Ruth was a co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company with her husband, Elliot. While abroad, Lilli’s adult physique attracted Ruth’s attention and she bought three dolls and brought them back to the States with her.

On March 9, 1959 Mattel introduced Barbie?—?named after Barbara?—?at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

The German company that produced the Bild Lilli dolls was less than thrilled by Barbie’s US debut. In 1961, they sued Mattel for patent infringement. After two years of fighting, the toy companies settled out of court. In 1964, Mattel purchased the rights to Bild Lilli, shutting down production on the German doll forever.

Barbie’s design borrows heavily from Bild Lilli: both dolls are curvaceous with long, blonde hair. But while Lilli is sophisticated and seductive, Barbie is fresh faced and wholesome.

Interestingly, the biggest difference between the two dolls has to do with their feet. Barbie has elegant, arched feet, guaranteed to impress even the most jaded ballet instructor. Lilli, on the other hand, has no feet: M.G. Lord, the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll” writes, “The end of her leg is cast in the shape of a stiletto-heeled pump and painted a glossy black.”

Say what you want about Barbie’s many jobs, but at least she can take her shoes off after a long day’s work. Poor Lilli never can.