On this very special narrative-style hiatus bonus episode: A listener’s email leads down an internet research rabbit hole of ridiculous proportions. Caution: there will be dolls.
Sweet Valley Diaries is, and always has been, a conversation podcast. But did you know that the show's creator — oh, that's me, Marissa Flaxbart — that she...that I also moonlight as a narrative podcast writer and producer? My work on the award-winning Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast involves research, copywriting, interviews, and creative audio thinking. So, this inter-season hiatus, I thought: why not bring the investigative narrative podcast treatment to Sweet Valley?
It all started with the topic. And that topic revealed itself loud and clear: dolls.
Think twice! About the Sweet Valley Twins! Think twice with all the fashion and the fun that begins...Think twice about the sweet valley twins!
On this very special hiatus bonus episode of Sweet Valley Diaries: The Sweet Valley High...Dolls.
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As listeners are hopefully aware, this podcast has an email address. It's a strange one, hearkening back to the show's roots as a iWeb blog during the "Mobile Me" era of Apple-branded cloud storage: email@example.com
On September 3, 2021, listener Zana D. wrote in to that address. Among other things, her detailed and intriguing missive contained this mysterious paragraph:
I wanted to ask you if you knew that back in the 1990s, they actually had two versions of Barbie-like dolls made of Jessica and Elizabeth. I hadn't heard you mention them in Sweet Valley Diaries like you had the board game [https://youtu.be/2qxZgJcmn5s?t=11 Now everyone can get into sweet valley high — the game that is!] so I didn't know if you knew about them. I had both sets growing up. 🙂 In case you didn't know, here's a little about them. One set was sold separately, Elizabeth and Jessica, and the other was a special prom set sold together. Each doll in both sets looked alike (obviously!) but had differences so you could tell them apart. Elizabeth had a closed-mouth pink smile while Jessica's was bright red and open. The Elizabeth doll even had a dot on her shoulder for her mole. The dolls came with a small booklet with a short SV story in it. Elizabeth wore Todd's letterman jacket and Jessica wore a green-and-purple outfit. The prom set obviously had the girls in prom dresses and the booklet told of how each girl bought a dress, decided it wasn't right for her and swapped it with her sister's.
I was stunned. All signs suggested that I should not only have heard of these dolls, but owned them. Nevermind my years of Sweet Valley scholarship. I had a huge Barbie collection growing up, and my mother's refusal to buy them for me meant I saved up and bought my own...making them my prized possessions. I read the Sweet Valley Twins and Kids books that were targeted at the same age group as these dolls. The Sweet Valley High dolls were released in 1992. I turned nine years old in 1992. How had I missed them?
I had to know more. So I turned to the internet.
First off, Zana was right on about how the dolls were sold. You could buy your own Jessica and Elizabeth dolls in a big box as a set labeled, "PROM PERFECT Jessica and Elizabeth," where the girls came dressed like Disney princesses, ostensibly on their way to one of their infinite junior proms. But there was another option. In possibly the greatest doll racket since Puppy Surprise with only three puppies inside [https://youtu.be/efH56w7RAiE puppy surprise comes with three, four, or five baby puppies inside] Campus Cool Jessica and Elizabeth dolls are sold separately. Think about it. The entire gimmick of these dolls is that they are twins. On the front of each box, in huge letters, are the words "TWIN SISTERS! TWICE THE FUN!" But inside the box? Only one twin. A notable difference between the two dolls is that the Jessica doll has a big, flirty smile on her face, while the Elizabeth doll stares out at you with a dead expression in her eyes and no hint of emotion playing across her lips. So while you could buy two Jessicas or two Elizabeths and pass one them of as the other — and that would be a very Wakefield ruse to pull — you'd know. The packaging even challenges you to know the difference between the dolls: "Their best friends can tell them apart. Can you?"
Even more bizarre to my trained eye are the outfits the doll twins are wearing. More specifically, the out fits that doll ELIZABETH is wearing. princess prom gowns aside, these outfits are all Jessica at her most outrageous. The Campus Cool Elizabeth is indeed wearing Todd's letterman jacket, but she's also wearing a red blossom hat with a big, blue silk rose slapped on it, a lace-fringed satin crop top, and a paisely miniskirt. There is not a polo shirt or sensible pair of jeans in the line.
Oh, did I mention there was an entire LINE of outfits. Well, there were. At first, alliteration was the rule. To Campus Cool and Prom Perfect were added Denim Duet. Rockin Rags. Pillow Party.
Then, the marketing team got lazy. Or bored. Additional sets were sold as "Let's Dance!" Winter Dazzle" and "Born to Shop." Of all of these outfits, the only one that looks like something Elizabeth Wakefield would MAYBE wear is her Pillow Party pajama set, which consists of blue sweat pants and a pastel printed loungewear top. It should be noted that Jessica's Pillow Party outfit is red lingerie lined in black lace.
The dolls themselves, as Zana mentioned, were packaged with mini-books telling a story related to the outlandish outfits the dolls donned. The books were titled Moonlight and Roses, Campus Cool: Jessica's Story, and Campus Cool :Elizabeth's Story, and they look much like the Sweet Valley High covers were if James Mathewuse had taken mushrooms and then been told to hurry up and paint.
But every outfit set came with an origin story too. For example: https://i.etsystatic.com/23994945/r/il/816e3c/2939247226/il_1140xN.2939247226_15df.jpg
Denim Duet; Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are going on a double date. The twins can't wait to have a great time with their boyfriends, but there are so many great places to go and sweet valley. The twins just can't decide whether they should be widow's pizza place or maybe even a picnic. Jessica wants to see a movie at the mall and then get something to eat. But Elizabeth would rather take a long romantic walk with her boyfriend. Will the twins be able to go on a double date after.
Rockin Rags: The hottest concert of the year is tonight at sweet valley arena. Identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield wouldn't miss it for anything. They had a really hard time deciding what to wear, but have finally come up with a perfect outfit. Jessica and Elizabeth look great and are ready for a fabulous evening. The twins have been waiting all week and can't wait to see their favorite rock star. Who is playing tonight? Are the twins going to meet the star after the concert?
Armed with such specific creative marching orders? What small child wouldn't want to dress up their dolls and answer some rhetorical questions through. As long as we're talking packaging, it's important to note that Francine Pascal herself got in on the packaging action to every item included the following letter, which Francine certainly took the time to scribe with her own hands and didn't farm out to a ghost writer:
Dear friend, Since my first sweet valley high book was published in 1983, girls all around the world have enjoyed reading about the adventures of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield and their many friends in the California town of sweet valley. Now you can have even more fun acting out all your favorite sweet valley stories with sweet valley dolls and fashions.
I know you'll love playing with Elizabeth and Jessica, as much as I love creating their stories, yours truly Francine Pascal.
Like so much of Sweet Valley High ephemera, these dolls barely exist on the internet. The dolls are now considered rare, as are the clothes. New in package, sellers are charging hundreds of dollars for them. During my exhaustive research process, a second-page search result touting a "review" of the dolls generated as much pop-up web junk as a janky porn site. This is the story of young gen x and older millennials on a nostalgia hunt: we grew up in a world half in and half out of the web. If something was made for kids and it stopped being cool before about 1998 has the potential to seem like a false memory, undocumented by the algorithm.
But luckily there's more than enough online about these dolls to assure me that they were real. And I've saved the best for last: the greatest online resource by far is the 1992 advertisement for Sweet Valley Dolls.
In it, you can see the dolls, the outfits, and even the mole on doll-Elizabeth's back.
For me, this advertisement unlocked an even deeper truth. when I saw the ad, I remembered. I hadn't owned these dolls, but I had played with them before, at the home of my neighbors. A year younger than me, they were blonde twins. One of them was even named Jessica. We moved in down the street in late 1990. Of course the girls had these dolls. And even though I'd never seen the packaging or the advertising, the dolls had been a small part of my girlhood.
Maybe, just maybe, in this investigation, I accidentally uncovered not only a memory of these strange toys, but also the origin story of my Sweet Valley obsession. We'll never know for sure.
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Credits (sweet valley diaries is produced, written and edited by Marissa Flaxbart. Theme music by Marissa Flaxbart. Sweet Valley High and the entire Sweet Valley universe is the brainchild of Francine Pascal supported by a cabal of nameless scribes. The Sweet Valley twin dolls were manufactured by Bandai. Special thanks to Zana for emailing in her Sweet Valley memories. Sweet Valley Diaries will return with season 7 later this year.