Twin peeks – models Shane and Sia Barbi – Interview

Bruce C. Steele

A look behind the Barbi twins’ glossy image finds two tomboys with a lesbian mom and a determination to battle homophobia as well as eating disorders

“We’re the opposite of our image,” says Shane Barbi, who indeed looks nothing like her Playboy alter ego. She’s wearing a zip-up sweatshirt, jeans, hiking boots, and a White Sox baseball cap. She and her husband, actor Ken Wahl (Wiseguy), are big baseball fans. The Barbi twins, it seems, are tomboys.

In one of fate’s more glaring ironies, Shane and her twin sister, Sia, grew up with a very feminine mom–last name: Barbi–who happens to be a lesbian. Says Sia, who’s wearing sweat-pants and a long-sleeve polo shirt that belongs to Wahl: “We’re actually more butch than our mom.”

Having come from a family with a “nurturing, very evolved” feminist mother and a godmother better known as Dusty Springfield, Shane and Sia went through a long evolution before becoming the “Barbi twins.” They began modeling 29 years ago, at age 7, Shane says, and it was always “like dressing in drag. We would dress up so we could earn money for a horse and our tomboy type of life.” It was as if they had a secret identity, Sia says, “like Superman: going out and doing a few things and coming back to the phone booth and being ourselves.” Before they could model at fashion shows, Shane says, they had to ask male-to-female transsexual friends “how to walk and put on makeup.”

The Barbis are full of contradictions. They are icons of heterosexuality, but both say they have “experimented” with women (though not each other: “People ask if we’re sexually into each other,” Shane says, then teases, “Please! I have higher standards!”). They’re known for the sculpted bodies they showed off in Playboy photo sessions (making the cover in 1991 and 1993) and calendars, yet their current passion is helping girls and young women to combat the eating disorders that plagued the twins for more than a decade, until just a few years ago. They are relentlessly tagged as bimbos, yet both have degrees in nutrition and speak eloquently about body dysmorphia, the irrational dissatisfaction with one’s body image that accompanies bulimia and anorexia.

Sia has even written a serious anecdote- and resource-filled book about nutrition called Dying to Be Healthy. It’s illustrated with more than a dozen revealing Barbi twins photos, with captions that offer frightening descriptions of their bingeing, purging, and fad dieting.

Where all these contradictions come together is in the Barbis’ own unified theory about the psychological source of both homophobia and eating disorders: “Projection of your own inner issues,” as Shane puts it. Such obsessions, Sia adds, are evidence of a life “so out of control” that a person attempts to exercise irrational control over something else, whether it’s their own eating or other people’s sex lives.

The Barbis are now fighting to control their own public image. To those who would accuse them of perpetuating a physical ideal impossible for other women, Shane says simply, “I did want to apologize. I didn’t know I was part of the problem [while I was fighting bulimia myself]. When you’re so caught up in your own disease, you hardly realize how you’re influencing other people.”

Now they know, and it’s their goal to battle homophobia as well as eating disorders. March finds them appearing on an episode of CBS’s 48 Hours (they talked about their mom but aren’t sure that will make the cut) as well as a barrage of talk shows. They’ll also continue their uncompensated personal appearances at high schools and colleges promoting healthy eating and body image perception.

But beware the interviewer or school administrator who lets an antigay remark slip. Late last year, after speaking to about a thousand girls at a large high school not far from Los Angeles, they discovered that a teacher and two students had been excluded from the presentation. “I didn’t want them around our girls,” an administrator told the Barbis. “They are lesbians.” The episode left the twins “shell-shocked,” Shane says, so they contacted the teacher personally to apologize. Once she knew the score, the teacher threatened a lawsuit against the school, and the Barbis found themselves in the middle of a potential firestorm. Steeling themselves for backlash, the Barbis eventually learned that the matter had been settled privately.

Yet there’s always another brushfire to deal with. The publisher of Dying to Be Healthy, Pentimento Books, had Sia remove any reference to their mother’s lesbianism from her book. “The publisher didn’t have a problem,” Sia insists. “It was certain bookstores that said they would not allow the book [if that were included]. Can you believe that?”

All proceeds from the book are going to nonprofits that help women with eating disorders. “It’s part of our recovery to give back what was given to us,” says Shane somberly, noting that Sia at one time almost died due to poor nutrition. “This is the opposite of a diet book.”

If there’s any lesson the Barbis would have you learn, it’s that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

For a complete transcript of The Advocate’s conversation with the Barbis, go to

COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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