Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy – Andy Warhol’s unisexual take on the new 'It' girl

Hollywood blockbuster Barbie has taken the world by storm this summer – everyone has been invited to party in the pink-drenched fantasy world, and lively discussions sparked by the Barbie fever, notably on gender issues, have gone viral on social media in the past few weeks.

Speaking of Barbie and gender, as early as the 80s, pop-art genius Andy Warhol had already painted an “androgynous” portrait named Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy*, which was later sold at Christie's London for £722,500 (around US$917,900).

But who exactly is BillyBoy*? What was his relationship with Warhol? Why would he boldly claim that “Barbie, c’est moi”? Why would Warhol depict a Barbie doll’s face instead of BillyBoy*’s in this portrait?

BillyBoy* and the portrait by Andy Warhol

Lot 285 | Andy Warhol | Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy*, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Executed in 1986
101.5 x 101.5cm

  • A gift from Andy Warhol to BillyBoy* in 1986

Estimate: £200,000 - 300,000
Sold: £722,500 (around US$917,900)

Auction House: Christie's London
Sale: Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction
Date: 17 October 2014

Self-explanatory by its title, Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy* is a portrait of BillyBoy* in the form of a Barbie doll.  To understand what was in Warhol’s mind, taking a peek into the story of BillyBoy* and Warhol may help.

Born in Vienna in 1960, BillyBoy* was adopted by a Russian couple who migrated to the United States when he was a child. By his teenage years, he had already made a name for himself in New York by creating original clothing and jewellery for his fashion house Surreal Couture.

In the 80s, BillyBoy* encountered Jean Pierre Lestrade (a.k.a. Lala), and the two moved to Paris, where they shared an apartment and started designing jewellery under their co-founded label Surreal Bijoux.

BillyBoy* and his jewellery designs

Clothing designed by BillyBoy*

The costume jewellery designed by BillyBoy* was fiercely sought after by many celebrities, including those being referred to as "Warhol Superstars" – a group of actresses, artists and New York City personalities Warhol socialised with and promoted in his art during the 60s and 70s.

BillyBoy* was not only Warhol’s close friend but also his muse. The pop-art master greatly admired the designs by BillyBoy*, and the support from Warhol as well as his "Superstars", was a significant contribution to the success of the jewellery designer.

Andy Warhol and BillyBoy* were close friends

BillyBoy* and his vast collection of Barbie dolls

On various occasions, Warhol offered to make a portrait of BillyBoy* as a gift to him, but the idea had always been declined. Until one day, upon Warhol’s insistence and out of annoyance, BillyBoy* replied, “If you really want to do my portrait, do a portrait of Barbie because Barbie, c'est moi!”

Warhol took it literally and painted a portrait inspired by the then-popular "Superstar Barbie" doll as a gift to BillyBoy*. He deliberately named it Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy* to emphasise it was also an embodiment of his muse. 

Here comes the question: Why would BillyBoy* claim “Barbie, c’est moi”?

A “Superstar Barbie” doll popular in the 80s

The portrait gifted by Warhol hung in BillyBoy*’s living room

In fact, BillyBoy was a crazy fan of Barbie, who boasted an unparalleled collection of over 20,000 Barbie dolls. In the 80s, he even wrote a book titled Barbie: Her Life & Times about the fascinating history and the cultural impact of these iconic American dolls.

From 1984 to 1990, two large-scale tours curated by BillyBoy* in collaboration with Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls, had seen hundreds of Barbie dolls dressed to the teeth by prominent designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, causing a sensation in both France and the US.

BillyBoy* also designed two Barbie dolls for the toy company, namely Le Nouveau Théatre de la Mode and Feelin’ Groovy, and was the very first designer to have his name written on a Barbie doll box.

While once a Barbie fanatic, BillyBoy* later seemed to have lost his passion for the dolls. “I think Barbie is no longer touching on the zeitgeist of the moment," he said in an interview with BBC News. "If I had a daughter, I would not give her Barbie dolls. I wouldn't want my child to be constantly obsessed with getting something, and that immense preoccupation with high-heeled shoes and clothes.”

Barbie: Her Life & Times by BillyBoy*

BillyBoy* and the two Barbie dolls designed by him

There are two portraits by Warhol featuring Barbie and BillyBoy*:

The first one was Warhol’s gift to his close friend, with a background in a bright blue – a colour Warhol dubbed “BillyBoy* Blue”. In 2014, carrying an estimate of £200,000, the artwork attracted keen bidding at Christie's London and eventually sold for £722,500.

The other known piece, switching the background into ruby red, was commissioned by Mattel in 1986.

Warhol’s portrait in a ruby red background commissioned by Mattel