Last month, the bottom dropped out of Barbie's world when Mattel Inc.'s longtime Chief Executive Jill Barad was forced to step down after two years of poor performance and plunging stock prices.

This month brings new beginnings for Barbie whose earlier success was largely responsible for Barad's rise to the top with the launch of several new products.

As Mattel attempts to recover from a number of setbacks, it's relying on Barbie more than ever, even though the company's old stalwart and biggest moneymaker has been showing signs of age.

"The challenge with Barbie is that it's a 41-year-old brand, and little girls today are nothing like little girls of 41 years ago," said Chris Burns, editor of Toy Report Weekly, a trade journal. "The challenge is to continue to reflect who girls are today."

Hence the arrival of a new Barbie look this summer. Not only will the doll get a drastic makeover, she'll get a host of new accessories like electronic games, makeup and kits. A new ad campaign was also launched last month hoping to appeal to pre-teen girls, who have left Barbie in the dust in recent years.

The new Barbie will have a more natural body shape less busty with wider hips. Company representatives say the old doll didn't fit into the new clothes, like the trendy, low-slung slacks, they wanted to dress her in.

The first-ever Barbie with a belly button, called Jewel Girl Barbie, is also coming out this summer. She will wear trendier fashions that the company hopes will appeal to older girls.

Ninety-five percent of the newly released Barbies will have the retooled body and face. The new doll's look is "subtle and a little more refined, without the wide, toothy grin she's not quite as bold looking. Gone is that bright aqua-blue eye makeup," said Julia Jensen, director of public relations for the Barbie line. The new products are set to come out in August.

Other changes include a new signature style logo and packaging using a lot less pink, an expanded line of books and clothes, and customized lip gloss and nail kits.

Barbie is also going high-tech, with products like a Barbie scrapbook with talking stickers and voice-activated locks, and a compact that allows users to record a secret message that plays back when it's opened. For the holidays, Mattel introduced a new Barbie computer, available only via the Internet.

The changes started when Adrienne Fontanella took over as president of the girls/Barbie division in March 1999.

"We stood back and said, 'How can we extend the brand into other areas?'" Jensen said. "The core of Barbie is the fun, the excitement and the magic. In the direction we're headed now, what we've done is pull together and made a category within Barbie, with the talking stickers, and Fashion Blast accessories."

The response to an advance showing of the dolls was enthusiastic at the International Toy Fair in New York in February right on the heels of Barad's departure.

"The new Barbie line looks phenomenal, I really like it," said Burns of Toy Report Weekly. "She looks more like Christine Aguilera she's young and healthy and not quite so angular. Barbie's always been inspirational for girls. The original Barbie had a cat-eyed glance, and it was very sort of chic, Audrey Hepburn, 'Holiday' stuff. But that's not who little girls are or aspire to be today."

Barad was known as a marketing whiz who made Barbie the world's best-selling toy in the '80s and early '90s. Under Barad, Barbie sales rose from $320 million a year in 1985 to more than $2 billion by 1998.

Last year, Barbie sales dropped to $1.5 billion. Today the doll represents about 25 to 30 percent of the company's sales, from a high of 40 percent in the early '90s, according to Mattel spokesman Glenn Bozarth.

Analysts agree that Mattel's long-term performance remains tied to Barbie, but most fall short of saying the current changes can make up for recent losses.

"There are a lot of other issues the company has to face, and no, the new line doesn't begin to address those issues," said Jill Krutick, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney in New York. "First and foremost is starting up the management team, cleaning up the Learning Co. problems, fostering a competitive international market and shoring up business for what we think is a shrinking market."

Mattel is still searching for a chief executive to replace Barad, and Wall Street is growing highly impatient. With its stock price depressed, Mattel is looking more and more like another L.A. takeover target.

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