It started out simply, like Barbie herself. Two renowned collectors, Joe Blitman of Los Angeles and Marl B. Davidson of Bradenton, Fla., were holding their annual show in St. Louis on Sunday, bringing Barbie items worth more than $2 million. If doll-collecting really was the biggest hobby in the nation ("Passed up stamps and coins years ago," Blitman says proudly) maybe we could write a little something.Next thing I know, I'm standing in a Toys 'R' Us aisle that glows pinker than lipstick, hotter than neon, sweeter than cotton candy. Surrounding me are Pilgrim Barbie, Pioneer Barbie, Paleontologist Barbie (complete with dinosaur), Queen Elizabeth Barbie, Glinda the Good Witch Barbie, Civil War Nurse Barbie, Russian Barbie, Star Trek Barbie, Solo in the Spotlight Barbie.A mother sees me looking at Dr. Barbie and tosses a friendly warning: "The stethoscope's attached to her chest." Chatting, we learn that she had an early Barbie herself ("The one with the short blond bob"), while I had no Barbie at all (too stiff and angular, too little to rock). Glazed by pink, I stare at the fluorescent-spandex Workin' Out Christie whose "suction cup shoes make working out easy!" and wonder if I missed anything.The power of Barbie has reached epic proportions, with the billionth doll to be sold this fall. "There isn't anyone in the world who doesn't know who Barbie is," exclaims Davidson.Born in 1959 (she's almost 40, I think maliciously), Barbie was modeled on Lilly, a sophisticated cartoon in the German newspaper das Bild. Her first production run was 350,000 and she sold for $2.98; first-run dolls now bring $10,000 if they're cellophaned, accessories intact. Vintage Barbies (1959-1972) were made in Japan, "with quality materials and techniques, realistic miniature clothing and accessories," Blitman notes. "Then Mattel got into financial trouble and the stuff looked it -- everything was nylon or tricot; every dress was a tube. They woke up in '77, but products since then are not realistic. There's a lot of fantasy clothing." I remember a Barbie with angel wings. "It was partly economic, but also I think children changed," Blitman adds. "I'm 47; when I was growing up, the coolest thing to be was an adult. Then, the coolest thing to be was a teenager. Now, I suspect for children the coolest thing to be is not on this planet."Escape's easy with Barbie, "the perfect toy, according to child psychologists, for role-playing and fantasy," Blitman adds. "She has such a highly evolved world, with so many friends and play settings." There are sisters, Teen Skipper, Stacy and toddler Kelly; best friend Midge; cousin Francie, now being redone as a '60s doll for people who can't afford vintage; black friends Christie and Julia; sundry others rechristened with trendier names. "A lot of friends have come and gone," Blitman notes ominously, "but the face molds remain."As for Barbie, "She can be anything she wants to be," Davidson announces proudly. "In 65 she was an astronaut; now she's a paleontologist." She's also a Victorian miss and a tribeswoman -- how does Mattel get by with such inconsistencies? "Because Barbie can be anything!" Davidson exclaims again. "She's George Washington this year, too, in FAO Schwartz's display. Last year she was the Statue of Liberty. Have you seen the Barbie Loves Elvis playset? It's to die for, she's in her little poodle skirt." Blitman, less moved by the poodle skirt, says the logic of Barbie is a response "to a segmented marketplace. There's a lot of negotiating going on in those aisles; some mothers will only buy a historical doll. They try to make Barbie everything so everyone can have one."Meanwhile, Mattel has to fit Share a Smile Becky's wheelchair through the door of the Barbie house -- explain body proportions to feminists -- get the eyes and noses right on the Latino, African-American and Asian Barbies -- and outlive the fiasco of Earring Magic Ken, whose flame burned a little too bright.Earring Magic Ken wore a fishnet shirt and a lavender vest, you see, and around his neck hung something shaped like a cock ring. "I don't know what they were thinking," groans Davidson. But even the warehouses sold out before Mattel called a press conference and sent Earring Magic Ken back into the closet."They design for children," Blitman explains patiently, "and they use themes. Barbie and Midge had big hoop earrings, so when they came to Ken, they just did a hoop on a chain. It would never have occurred to them in a million years that it could mean something else."Uh-huh.Blitman can even justify Barbie's figure: "When you reduce clothing to one-sixth scale, you can't do a regular body. The material would bunch so much around the waist, she'd look like she was carrying a spare tire. Also, there's a great deal of hand-me-down ritual between mothers and daughters and sisters, so if they want the clothes to fit, they're stuck with the body."Anyway, nobody really wants those proportions changed. "Free to Be Me dolls, have you ever seen those?" Davidson demands. "They bombed. They had fat thighs and thick waists." Which reminds me of the coworker who swears her Skipper grew breasts when you twisted her arm. "My friend had one, too. I'm not crazy!" she calls after me, and I decide to confirm it for her sanity's sake."Yeah, Growing Up Skipper," Blitman says immediately. "You twisted her arm and she grew an inch and breastettes popped out. She was controversial, too." What's puzzling me is why the new, overtly slutty Barbies aren't. Boutique Barbie has a glittery shell, go-go boots and a punk, silver mesh belt. Fashion Ave. Barbie wears a purple see-through skirt, stockings with ruffled garters and slip-in high heels. Another Barbie wears a gold lame jacket, leopard-skin Capri pants and boots. And in one of the boxed sets of Birthday Fun Kelly at Toys 'R' Us, the oldest doll's skirt is up, smashed against the cellophane to reveal the cutaway at the top of her plastic thigh."I don't like the bikini ones," confides the mom in the aisle at Toys 'R' Us. "I have enough trouble with the Disney movies: My girls walk around with their tops off one shoulder. They're 4 and 6!" When I ask Davidson about the trampy trend, she gets defensive: "Barbie's Marilyn Monroe this year, and the slip goes down to her ankles! I saw it myself!" Blitman's more oblique: "It's interesting you should say that," he says carefully. "I would be very curious what Mattel would say."They'd probably remind us that, come-hither apparel notwithstanding, Barbie has a wedding every year -- and Wedding Barbie is always the top seller. As for the vows never spoken, you need just one glimpse of the headless clothes set called Barbie's Boyfriend -- bad beige polyester golf pants, indigo shirt with aqua trim and a plastic four-iron -- to understand.The females giddiest about Barbie resemble her physically -- or want to desperately. The jaded collectors want the money or mock the icon. But whether the fantasy's heartfelt or campily ironic, Barbie's undeniably fun. And, as a coworker put it, "She's got all that stuff." I recall the Barbie cell phone; the Barbie pizza; the Barbie motor home and Harley-Davidson (a socioeconomic statement?); the Barbie bank; pet store, grocery and pool; the Barbie whale, cow, pig and everydog, with features of so many breeds, he's unrecognizable.Why should a Barbie dog be representative? Reality doesn't bring 900-1500 people to each of Blitman and Davidson's shows; reality didn't prompt 60 or 70 stores, among them FAO Schwartz and Bloomingdale's, to market exclusive Barbie series. Reality didn't generate Barbie Bazaar magazine, Barbie books or the 25,000 Barbie documents on the Internet, including a letter purportedly from a Smithsonian curator regretfully informing an amateur archaeologist that his find is not a pre-hominid skull, but a Barbie head chewed by a dog.Reality has ceased to be the goal.