Palesa – A South African Princess

Back in 2000, the concept of 16″ fashion dolls really took off. Between 1995 and 1999, there had been only Mel Odom´s Gene. At Toy Fair 1999, Robert Tonner introduced Tyler Wentworth, but it would take until early 2000 till the first dolls were in shops. Then, in 2000, hell broke loose: Madame Alexander Doll Company followed suit with Alexandra Fairchild Ford, Jakks Pacific offered Elle, Susan Wakeen introduced her short-lived  but beautiful Eve line, Knickerbocker had the Mod British Birds Daisy and Willow, Effanbee had the first version of Brenda Starr (strung, and with different proportion than the Brenda Starr that was produced after Tonner had bought Effanbee). In 2001, Sandra Bilotto´s Butterfly Ring was introduced.

It is little known that in 2000, there was also a South African 16″ fashion doll introduced: Palesa.

As information on this doll is already hard to find, and some of the links no longer work, I am quoting what I can find in order to document and preserve it.

Palesa is the perfect companion

THERE’S a new girl in toyland. Her name is Palesa, the African Princess.

And she has been greeted in the few retail stores she occupies with right royal treatment.

The reason is that, for the first time, little black girls now have a choice of indentifying with “a beautiful black doll”.

That is how her creator, Anne Hoosen, describes her.

Palesa’s creation was a unique business idea.

When Hoosen was struck with an idea to make a doll with which her grandchild could identify four years ago, she had little knowledge of the production of toys.

But her desire for black girls to have dolls that reminded them of their own faces and lifestyles inspired her to achieve what some would have considered impossible.

Hoosen’s story is inspirational and sweet.

She was in the process of getting a divorce and, without any skills other than those of a housewife, she viewed her future very gloomily.

“I was out of touch with the commercial world and was not even computer literate,” she recalls.

By calling around and researching the toy industry in South Africa, some of the shocking and discouraging findings about our toy industry did not deter Hoosen from her goal.

Although toys generate more than R900 million rand annually in this country, the manufacturing is done largely overseas, with Asian countries producing up to 85 percent of the toys.

What chance did a single woman have against the might of the international companies and globalisation?

Hoosen equipped herself with business management skills and started knocking on the doors of financial institutions trying to sell her idea.

Initially it looked as if the doors would never open.

“I had to fight against the `black-doll-syndrome’ the perception that black dolls are ugly and scare kids, that children could not relate to them and therefore they would not sell in the market,” she says.

A R150 000 bank loan, guaranteed by a financial and development agency, gave her capital for a kick-start but producing the doll meant Hoosen had to do business in China.

Fate may be said to have played a role at that time, because her landlady introduced her to a Chinese woman with contacts back home.

This chance meeting made the next step possible.

After she had designed the features of her doll, using a picture of one of her three daughters, a trip to China followed to secure a manufacturing partner.

Armarsam Educational Toys, with the name derived from the initials of Hoosen and her three daughters, had already been registered in 1998.

Her grandchild’s name, Palesa, which means “flower” or “beautiful”, was a natural choice for the name of the doll.

“In China, identifying a manufacturer that could give us a good quality product was a priority,” says Hoosen.

Even though Palesa missed making a grand entrance into the local market by arriving too late to be promoted during last year’s festive season, Hoosen remembers December 1999 with special fondness.

“The day she touched down on African soil, I remember getting a call from a Durban shipment agent asking me about arrangements to transport her to Johannesburg.

“It was too late to sell her during the Christmas rush but I was so excited Christmas came a little early for me.”

Less than a year into the market, Palesa has already made waves by winning several awards, including the Toy of the Year award, at various trade fairs for toys.

A leading toy store, Toys R Us, has started placing regular orders with Hoosen at her Johannesburg North, Randpark Ridge home, which doubles as her office.

Although Hoosen’s enterprising venture has won her respect in business circles, manufacturing the doll overseas has posed several challenges. Because she has had to use Asian expertise, production costs have to be paid in American dollars. The weakness of the rand against the dollar means Palesa has to be sold at R99.

Like her equally expensive US rival, Barbie, she cannot be accessible to every little girl.

Hoosen’s other biggest challenge is what she calls “an institution called Barbie”.

Association with the already established Barbie means guilty by association in several respects.

Because Palesa’s looks and body shape is almost identical to Barbie, many assume that she is the black friend whom US toy company Mattel created for Barbie to target the black market.

Although hugely popular after more than 40 years in toy stores worldwide, Barbie has had her fair share of criticism.

The makers of the toy have been accused of promoting sexism, nationalism and racism while syphoning money from the unsuspecting public.

Feminists regularly attack the makers of dolls like Barbie for capitalising on commercialising a women’s body as a valuable commodity and encouraging stereotypes of gender roles for boys and girls through toys.

The dolls are also criticised for promoting looks over other important qualities.

Here at home, Hoosen also has to defend the way Palesa looks.

She often finds herself caught in the middle of the African beauty debate whether her nose is flat enough or her hips wide enough.

Unfazed by such comments, Hoosen says there will always be criticism about how Palesa looks.

It all depends on how different people interpret African beauty.

To overcome some of the problems and to respond to some of the criticism, Palesa’s 52 ranges include the latest ethnic collection depicting the doll dressed in various traditional outfits.

Although some of the dolls have the braided or dreadlocked look, Hoosen’s aim is for Palesa to have frizzled hair, instead of the straight long silky black tresses she is now sporting.

To complement the doll, Little Miss Palesa, which is the toddler version, will sell at a much cheaper price of R49 when she hits the shelves later this month.

“What I am trying to do is to create a choice so we are not forced to buy white and blue-eyed dolls and to present Palesa as a role model for young women by inspiring them to be someone.”


The article does not mention that Palesa was a 16″ doll.

Some had beautiful braided hair, others had wild curls or soft waves. The most striking feature, however, was her wide smile with those bright, bright teeth. 

I came across the website by chance and, after some hesitation, picked two Palesa dolls and two outfits. One, dressed in a red gown, lives with my mum now and reminds her of her trip to South Africa some years ago. The other one, which came dressed in a black and gold cheongsam-style dress and evening coat, lives with me. One of the dresses was an orange and green gown, the other one a sweet white nightie. I remember the site offered a variety of  casual, glamorous and traditional outfits.

I don´t remember many details about the transaction but boy was it complicated transferring the money to South Africa (long before Paypal was established), and shipping was hell, of course, but Anne Hoosen was incredibly friendly in the e-mails we exchanged. Of course, I had no idea that she herself was the creator of the doll.

Now I just discovered that Anne Hoosen´s daughter Amanda was a contestant for the reality show “Survivor” in 2007.

Heat Magazine has unearthed an unexpected piece of Amanda trivia: the hard-nosed career woman’s visage was once used as a template for a doll!

It all began many years ago, when Amanda’s mother, Anne, decided to tap into the black doll market (that’s a market for black dolls, not a black market for dolls). She supplied a photo of little Amanda to her manufacturers as a template, but named the doll Palesa, after her first grandchild. Palesa comes in African Princess, College Graduate and AIDS Activist varieties.

This Friday, Amanda will be celebrating her 30th birthday with a fabulous bash at Jozi’s Catwalk Club in Fourways. We’re celebrating along with her… by giving away three Palesa dolls to loyal Amanda fans!” (Oct 4, 2007).

I am including this trivia mainly because the site features a picture of Amanda with a range of Palesa (and Little Miss Palesa) dolls, which is the only Palesa picture I was able to find on the net, and if you´re familiar with the dolls, the resemblance to Amanda is really striking . 

   “CITY PRESS                                                   6  FEBRUARY  2005     P26

  Battle of the dolls!

It’s a war of the dolls. After decades of dominating the market, Barbie faces a mid-life crisis as new brands and local dolls begin to shake her dominance. MAPULA SIBANDA reports

IS Barbie past her sell-by date? US sales of Barbie fell 15 percent in the first quarter last year, despite a stunt which saw her “breaking up” with her suitor of 43 years, Ken. That combined with other problems to see overall profits at the Barbie maker Mattel slump by 73 percent . Barbie is feeling the heat from rival brands such as the feisty “Bratz” dolls. South African sales of Bratz have exceeded expectations with 140 000 dolls sold last year.

Her bad performance domestically in the first three months of last year followed even worse figures in the last quarter of 2003, when sales fell by 25 percent. Global sales of the doll have also continued to fall, dropping 6 percent in the first quarter following a 5 percent drop in the one before.

Barbie’s career has encompassed hundreds of jobs, and her makers have striven to keep up with the latest trends. Barbie now uses computers and sends text messages on her mobile phone. A Barbie-branded range of designer clothes for girls and a branded perfume are also in the pipeline.

But Mattel’s attempts to keep pace with modern life have not always gone down well with customers. One letter to the New York Times following Barbie’s split from long-time partner Ken complained that “the breakup . . . discourages — even insults — permanence and commitment”.

The BBC’s Duncan Bartlett says Barbie continues to attract interest among adult collectors but the problem is getting children interested in her adventures. Meanwhile, Barbie has some hip new rivals on the scene. MGA Entertainment’s Bratz dolls come in a range of different ethnicities and boast fashions described as “totally dangerous, totally ferocious and totally funkadelic”.

The Bratz multi-ethnic identities fit well into an urban funk hip-hop world and their cool activity sets reflect an equally cool lifestyle. Marketing manager of Prima Toys, Tracy Diamond, describes the Bratz dolls as trendsetters: “All girls aspire to be like them. They are replicas of girls today and they dictate where the fashion is heading.”

They have won two Toy Industry Association, Toy of the Year awards, and figures suggest rising sales are eating directly into sales of Barbie. But analysts say with thought and investment Barbie could still have a future .

“It’s disappointing from a margin standpoint, but it’s clear Mattel’s priorities are to grow the top line and it’s going to take some money to do that,” Mark Foster, portfolio manager with Kirr Marbach Value Fund, told Reuters.

“We have a great deal of confidence in the management team. They’ll get it turned around, but it’s not a quick fix.”

But the manufacturers of Bratz are confident that, after nearly 50 years of dominance, Barbie’s time is up. “Bratz is not a fad,” Isaac Larian, MGA’s president and chief executive officer, told Los Angeles Daily News.

“This is the No 1 lifestyle brand for girls aged seven to 14. If we keep innovating, this brand will be around forever. Bratz is the truth, and Barbie isn’t anymore.”

Locally, many heaved a sigh of relief and appreciation when doll maker Anne Hoosen launched the “Palesa: Princess of Africa doll“. It was high time African young girls were affirmed by having their own images reflecting back to them when looking at a beautiful African doll named Palesa.

The excitement was beyond the cosmetic features of Palesa, which is a seSotho name meaning flower, but the confirmation that African beauty can be turned into a commercial success.

Rooted in the politics was the issue that young girls would now have a doll that represented a positive image about African beauty.

However, even locally it is still the US brands like Bratz and My Scene, a hiphop version of a doll also made by Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, that are slugging it out in the market. Mattel came up with My Scene to hold the competition that was eating away at their market share of Barbie, but it seems the latest declining sales of Barbie mean young girls are more fixated on the two competitors at Barbie’s expense.

Palesa is not even a notable player in this regard .

“I must concede that Palesa is not doing well locally (last year she sold a measly 1 000 units) because you have these old buyers who still believe that black dolls do not sell. As weird as it sounds the buyers say black girls don’t want black dolls, but how can they want anything else if they do not see our new products on the shelves.

“Go to any toy store and you will get two or three isles of a range of Barbies and you will be lucky to see a few Palesa dolls placed in some corner. We are still finding it very difficult to break through the retail market,” Hoosen said.

The strange aspect however, is whyMattel came up with an African ethnic version of Barbie called “Princess South Africa” when buyers insist black dolls do not sell. This version looks like Barbie smeared with soot but retains the same sharp features. The doll wears traditional outfits like IsiNdebele and IsiZulu — just like Hoosen’s Palesa ethnic range. It does not have to take Einstein to suspect that Barbie has not taken kindly to Palesa encroaching on her turf.

Hoosen believes Barbie’s monopoly in the doll market is shaken because the doll’s Beverly Hills 90210 little-rich-girl lifestyle is not a reality that most young girls today identify with. She said a little girl can buy only so many Barbies and that a choice of different dolls had begun to chip away at her dominance.

Her daugher Rogene, concurs that Barbie is stuck in a mid-life crisis. “Barbie is like Paris Hilton, but what is influencing young girls now has now changed. Their role models are now known for their achievements in business, sports and global politics, instead of their physical attributes.”

She said young girls surfed the internet, played sport and aspired for greatness with a different set of values. The hip-hop generation is far from the Stepford wives lifestyle projected by Barbie and that is how the makers of Bartz managed to get it right.

The CEO of Reggies/Toys-R-Us, Maurice Sacher, said he would not rule out Barbie yet. He said it was difficult to conclude if Barbie was facing trouble as the market went through various phases. He said Barbie was still a market leader and would remain dominant because of the commitment by its company to reinvent her further.

And now that she is single again after dumping boring old Ken, it remains to be seen what new possibilities are in store for Barbie.”

Out Loud: marketing SA’s answer to Barbie

17 October 2007


Article rating:


South Africa’s attempt to address children’s low self-esteem and desire to be like Barbie has failed. The country launched Palesa a few years ago, but the full-figured black doll is not selling as well as expected, which suits marketers and the industry quite well, writes Matebello Motloung.

A friend of mine yesterday rocked up at the movies proudly wearing a t-shirt stating “Barbie is a b***h” across her 38DD breasts. While I don’t approve of the wording, I totally agree with the sentiments. The 50-something-year-old legend was a source of torment for us when we were small and continues to be one now that we have nieces who obsess over the doll.

Ask my four-year-old niece what she wants to be when she grows up and she will tell you that she wants to be Barbie – not Bibi or Mimi, the two chubby-looking black dolls she owns, one bald and the other with long braided hair (courtesy of moi). Miss-Thang also carries a Barbie back-pack to crèche, has Barbie clothes and even sleeps in Barbie pyjamas.

While we try not to fuel this obsession, it’s difficult as friends and family buy her Barbie items as gifts. When my sister protests, she’s told she is overreacting and that every child goes through this phase.
“Matebello, ke batla moriri wa ka otle so, le so,” (Matebello, I want my hair to be like this and like that) she would show me when I comb or plait her very kinky Afro do.
She doesn’t understand why she can’t have a fringe like Barbie or have her hair bounce around when she runs. Of course this is possible through hair relaxers but we feel she’s too young to be using chemicals. So for now, she’s stuck with her two kinky piggy-tails, and she seems to be content with that, at least for the moment.

We were watching the Tyra Banks show with my sister recently where children of different ethnicities under the age of five spoke about beauty, race and racism. At one point the children were asked to choose a doll which they think would make a perfect princess and they chose the white doll. Why? One black child said it’s because she has never seen a black princess before.

This was an eye opener because I’ve always thought children were colour-blind and this is why Barbie has such massive appeal. But obviously they aren’t, and I suspect marketers have known this all along and intentionally want to keep the status quo because doing otherwise would be too risky. What if sales fall? They just can’t afford to risk finding out and the market is not demanding this of them, so why bother?

And this is why we still have television adverts promoting the new Barbie, showing her with her new friends who include a black doll. I doubt if much effort has gone into marketing the black doll or whether children even know her name.
Despite South Africa’s history of activism where many people complain about their children being exposed to the Western image of beauty, they seldom bother to ask themselves why Barbie, in this age of interaction, still does not have an Indian or Coloured or Chinese friend.

And when faced with an option such as the Afro centric full-figured dark-skinned doll Palesa (meaning ‘flower) which was launched in SA a few years ago, they still choose to buy Barbie or her white-skinned counterparts.
I believe Palesa has not done well – selling a mere 1,000 units in 2005 as opposed to the Bratz’s 140,000 units locally – because marketers have succeeded in creating the type of consumer they want: one who is unquestioning and just goes with the hype, and parents are proof of their success.”

Those two articles tell the sad story that is the fate of so many dolls that offer an alternative to Barbie. 
At present, I have not found any indication that Palesa dolls are still around, although in August, 2009,someone named Sami commented on an article about Mattel´s AA So In Style line: “Not keen on black barbies coz they r still skinny!I’ll stick to the true african doll called Palesa!”




  1. Ntombi said,

    June 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I would like to be in contact with Ms Hoosen regarding Palesa Im very much interested in reviving Palesa concept. Im a black woman born and living in Johannesburg, South Africa My cell on is 076 771 0976

  2. July 29, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I bought a Palesa Doll in 2000 for my own collection, and one each for my two daughters a few before we left RSA for Oz a few years later. Thank you for documenting this information, as these dolls are very rare- and so is information about them! I was thinking of selling them on ebay, but after reading this, I’ll rather keep them for posterity!?

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