Many people’s foundational Barbie memories are all about dolls. But when actress and model Hari Nef was a child, most of her time spent with Barbie was on the computer.
“It was Barbie’s Magic Hair Styler,” she says of her favorite memory about the iconic toy. “It was a computer game. It was mostly about her face and the glam. You could give her the right hairstyle and the right makeup for an occasion.”
“The idea that I could just change and transform the Barbie and create somebody from my fingertips, the magic of that, and I think also maybe the privacy of it, and something about Barbie and technology was really interesting to me at that point,” she continues. “I felt like through Barbie I could explore all kinds of people to be and things to do.”
Then, when she landed the role of one of the title dolls in this summer’s hottest movie,
, it was like she was playing Barbie Magic Hair Styler all over again – but this time with a $100 million budget.
Due to a scheduling conflict, when Nef signed onto the movie, the first person she met with wasn’t writer and director Greta Gerwig or star Margot Robbie; it was costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Nef, who has a background as a fashion model, collaborated with Durran on aspects of the design, color combinations, and fittings for her costumes. She calls the artisans working on the movie a “dream factory” who “can do anything, and they can do it overnight.”
“It’s literally the most preposterous, once-in-a-lifetime, exciting, orgasmic opportunity to go all in on this one little thing that I love so much, which is clothes and looks and fashion and the fantasy,” she says. “I told them straight up, ‘I want the highest heel every time. I want the waist tiniest every time. I want the biggest hair every time. I want to put big things in my hair.’”
From the moment she first stepped onto the set and saw the Barbie Dreamhouse built in real life, she felt like filming was the ultimate act of indulging her inner child. “I’m a lover of drag. I’m a lover and admirer from afar of ballroom culture,” she says. “It felt kind of like a legacy that I could honor onscreen of dolls dolling, dolls dressing up. The category was dot, dot, dot, something different every day.”
“I’ve joked before, it really did feel like
Greta Gerwig’s Drag Race,
” she adds, referencing RuPaul’s popular reality drag competition. “Because I was doing acting, dancing, comedy, and the whole time I was cinched, wigged, painted from head to toe, padded, heels.”
“It’s a very specific kind of femininity,” she muses. “It’s not a kind of femininity that I live every single day of my life in, but it’s one that I come back to time and time again. It’s also one that I feel very comfortable wearing in public, and when the cameras are on and when people are watching.”
She says while the movie is a celebration of femininity, it’s also a loving sendup of it and how far it can be taken. “That contradiction and ambivalence, I think, is very close to the heart of probably a lot of girls like me today, probably a lot of girls in general today,” she says. “It’s candy with a little poison, and that’s what I like.”
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For Nef, that approach to gender and femininity in the movie also meant that while she understands the importance of being cast in the role, she doesn’t exactly see this as an example of trans representation. She wasn’t cast to be “Trans Barbie,” and, as she says, “Barbies are Barbies, they’re not human women. They’re dolls. They don’t have genitalia.”
“David Heyman, the executive producer, told me that when he saw my tape he didn’t know I was trans. He just knew that I got the tone of what they were going for,” she recalls. “It’s probably positive for Mattel to include me in this because we’re trying to show all different kinds of Barbies, but that’s not why I got the role. I got the role because I fit the role. To be honest, I don’t look much different in the movie than the Barbies that I had when I was a kid.”
Still, the movie does have a strong message for trans women (or “The Dolls,” as Nef and many of her friends and peers call ourselves) about the beauty of being a person rather than an ideal.
“I think as a trans girl, it’s easy to get caught up in big dreams of what you’ll become. And it’s inevitable that you’ll get struck down by external messages and obstacles of what you’ll never be and what you won’t be able to do,” she says. “You’re caught constantly between striving for perfection and recoiling from rejection. It’s hard.”
“As much as there’s a celebration of femininity and being a girl in this [movie], I think there’s also an encouragement of letting go of the checklist we ascribe to living and living your life and being in your body your way, on your own terms,” she continues. “The best that we can do as women, as trans women, is be there for each other and take ourselves at face value, without relying on the green light from someone or anyone else.”
Now that Nef is out of Barbie World and back in the real world, she’s going to spend some time on Fire Island before getting back to work on the Candy Darling biopic she’s starring in from executive producer Zackary Drucker as well as the “two, three, four” indie movies she’s attached to as a producer and actor — several of which she hopes will be “part of whatever trans representation 2.0 is in Hollywood.”
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Nef says 1.0 has run its course with shows like
, and now the trans people who made those shows amazing as well as others in the industry deserve to take the next step and tell new kinds of trans stories.
“I’m excited to tell stories about trans people that aren’t merely redemptive, that aren’t rooted in transition or discovery,” she says. “I’m excited for trans assholes on-screen. I’m excited for trans antiheroes on-screen. I’m excited for trans scammers on-screen. I’m excited for trans sex on screen. I’m excited for trans nudity on-screen.”
“There’s a lot of things that we haven’t actually really seen yet,” she concludes. “I’m hoping that I can be a part of that and bring the girls, the boys, and everyone else with me. If they make it first, I hope they’ll bring me.”
This cover story is part of the
July/August issue, out on newsstands July 4.
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