Astronomer alleges an American Girl doll stole their likeness

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Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, leads a bike ride to Joliet as they start the Galaxy Ride program offered by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Lucianne Walkowicz knew American Girl dolls were out there.

“I don’t have young children myself,” said the Adler Planetarium astronomer. “So I am not, you know, terribly abreast of what is happening in the toy world.”

They — Walkowicz’s personal pronoun of choice — had never been to the big American Girl Store on Michigan Avenue, either. But “those dolls were around when I was a child,” they said. “I didn’t have any of them. I remember them being expensive.

“And I have two young nieces. So I was aware of American Girl not only from my youth, but because it is in their world as well.”

That American Girl knowledge took a giant leap beginning two years ago, to the extent that Walkowicz late last month sued the Wisconsin company for stealing their image.

“The doll shares far too many resemblances to me to have been fabricated out of whole cloth,” said Walkowicz, speaking for the first time to print media about the lawsuit.

It began when American Girl, an arm of the toy giant Mattel, launched its 2018 “Girl of the Year,” at the time the latest in a long-running special edition doll series that introduces distinctive new characters to the lucrative lineup of 18-inch-tall $100-plus figurines.

2020’s Girl of the Year, Joss Kendrick, has hearing loss. 2019’s, Blaire Wilson, hopes to become a chef.

And the 2018 doll that caught the eye of Walkowicz and a lot of people who know them was named Luciana Vega, and hailed as the first American Girl doll devoted to the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, math.

The plucky tween wants to be an astronaut and travel to Mars. She has a streak of her dark hair dyed purple, and she wears boots in an iridescent fabric suggestive of a hologram.

Walkowicz, who has given two popular TED talks and written for national publications, also frequently appears in public with a streak of hair dyed purple. What they call “holographic boots” are a regular part of their public get-up. And, again, the first name is Lucianne.

An image of the Luciana Vega figure “was posted on my Facebook with friends and even my family members thinking that I had something to do with the doll,” said Walkowicz. “And I was kind of like, ‘Ahhh.’” The sound is kind of a deflation.

“If memory serves me, I reposted it with the phrase, ‘I guess I’ll have to change my name,’” they said, “because it was upsetting and it was clearly me.”

On a recent Zoom meeting with their lawyer, Chicago attorney Charles Lee Mudd Jr., also on the call, Walkowicz said, “I felt a mixture of things. I would say, number one, is that I really felt violated by it. It seemed so clearly to be based on me — and not only my appearance and my clothes, but also my work, because there are things about the doll … that are directly related to my career, my life’s work.

“I felt like also, I think, very helpless because I didn’t really know what I could do about it. … This large, super-powerful company had essentially taken my identity and my work and turned it into a product for them to sell.”

Walkowicz said they reached out to the company almost immediately, but “we filed this lawsuit essentially because they were not responsive.”

Mudd, at this point, interjected to say details of any discussions would have to be confidential, but “the filing of the lawsuit is kind of indicative of how things went.”

The federal trademark lawsuit, filed in the last week of April in U.S. District Court in Madison, asks that Mattel be ordered to stop selling the Luciana Vega doll and to pay Walkowicz damages.

An American Girl spokeswoman said, via email, that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

She did provide a statement on behalf of the company: “American Girl takes great pride in creating original characters for girls. We take any allegations to the contrary extremely seriously and intend to defend the case vigorously.”

Walkowicz, who is one of Adler’s most prominent public faces, whether headlining an event at the lakefront space museum or leading a trans-Illinois bike ride to bring planetarium science to downstate towns, said the personal similarities between them and the Vega doll are profound, but it also goes deeper.

“One of my sort of trademark things about my appearance is that I usually have some kind of fun hair color,” they said. “I started putting bright colors kind of splashed into my natural color, which is dark, dark brown, like the doll’s, back in about 2004 or 5. And it has been most consistently purple or some variation thereof since 2008 or so.”

Then there are the clothes, said Walkowicz: “The doll comes with a pink dress that I own a blue version of, that is a dress with a space print on it. The doll also has a pair of hologram shoes that resemble multiple pairs of shoes that I have.”

But the similarities dip into their scientific work, as well, they contended. “The last name of the doll, Vega, is also the brightest star next to … the part of space that Kepler (the NASA Kepler mission) did all of its observing in, therefore the part of space that I have done all my work in, essentially starting right after graduate school,” they said.

And in the last handful of years Walkowicz has also researched and spoken and written about the ethics of human exploration of Mars. The Vega doll, as the character is sketched out by American Girl, wants to be the first person on Mars, and you can buy for her a Mars explorer playset.

“There aren’t that many astronomers in the world to begin with,” Walkowicz said. “There’s on the order of somewhere between 10 and 20,000 of us. And I am not aware of any other astronomer that works on an intersection of the Kepler mission and human Mars exploration.”

The suit outlines a number of public talks Walkowicz has given on these topics, including one in Madison in 2014, where people associated with the creation of the doll for American Girl, headquartered nearby in Middleton, might have had the opportunity to be in the audience.

“That would be something that we would be exploring in discovery,” Mudd said.

All cases come with challenges, he acknowledged, but, he said, “I’m comfortable in my perspective that it’s really impossible for American Girl to make the argument with a straight face that they created this doll with all these features out of the blue.”

“The doll that they have chosen to make is Lucianne,” he added. “One coincidence, maybe you raise an eyebrow. Two? When you start getting to as many as we have, the conclusion is obvious.”

Asked whether American Girl perhaps thought the astronomer would find any resemblances flattering, Walkowicz responded, “I don’t think it’s flattering for a company to take your life’s work and identity and monetize it for their own purposes.

“I have always admired and embraced the philosophy of artists that do not allow their products — you know, whether it’s songs or their persona — to endorse commercial products. That is something that I don’t agree with and that I wouldn’t want myself used for.”


©2020 Chicago Tribune

American Girl's 2018 Girl of the Year, Luciana Vega, a creative, confident 11-year-old who wants to be the first person on Mars. - American Girl/PRNewsfoto/TNS/TNS