updated 04/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Leave Pokémon to the little brothers and sisters of the world. Teen and preteen girls are flipping over Boy Crazy!, collectible cards showcasing real-life hunks ages 12 to 22 (some have turned 23 since they were photographed). "It's fun trading them and seeing different guys rather than like the same movie stars," says Ohio fan Becky Wheeler, 14. Such sentiments are sweeter than a Backstreet Boys ballad to the ears of Aunt Cindy—Cindy Thornburg, 43, president of the Norfolk, Va., game company Decipher Inc. She dreamed up the cards, which sell for $3 a nine-pack and have been flying off store shelves since Valentine's Day, to appeal to girls who shun Decipher's Star Wars and Star Trek cards. "Girls," she says, "attach themselves to something that has an emotional component."
And preferably a swoon-inducing smile. To create Boy Crazy!, Thornburg and a posse of teen consultants scoured malls across the country to recruit 363 certified cuties, identified on the cards by their first names, home states and info such as favorite movies and "ideal traits in a girl." The boys weren't paid to participate, though they receive up to $250 to appear at Boy Crazy! promotional events, where they chat with giggly mallgoers. Contracts
forbid them to give out their last names or phone numbers; those under 18 also needed their parents' permission. Girls "can't contact us, there's nothing to worry about," says Coloradan J.T., 19, who hopes singing at Boy Crazy! gigs (he serenaded 3,000 girls at Minnesota's Mall of America) "could be a crack in the door" to a music career. "I was a little skeptical at first," says his father, Tom, 53, but "it's innocent fun."
Not to some parents. "I think it's appalling," says Norfolk resident Margaret Hamilton, 45, who complains that Boy Crazy !'s college-age hunks are "way too old" for her 12-year-old daughter. "The game over-sexualizes young girls and plays into stereotypes," adds Georgetown University sociology professor and mother of three C. Margaret Hall. After a segment on the phenomenon, NBC's Later Today hosts Florence Henderson and Asha Blake, similarly scornful, lit a match and threatened to torch a Boy Crazy! pack.
Chill out, responds Thornburg, who insists that the cards encourage "girls to look beyond just the face and see the personality." Plus, she observes, "It's not unusual for a girl who's 12 to have a crush on [25-year-old] Leonardo DiCaprio."
Another point, adds the never-wed exec (whose boyfriend of four years is a police detective): Being boy crazy is nothing new. Growing up in Chesapeake, Va., "I read all the teen fan magazines," she says, and idolized singer Barry Cowsill. After graduating from the University of Virginia, she went into public relations, landing at Decipher in 1987 and working her way up to the No. 2 executive slot.
A few years ago, feeling "burnt-out" with boy toys, she set out to create a game for girls. To fan the frenzy, the company launched the Boycrazy. com Web site in January. So far, more than 90,000 visitors have registered to vote for Boy of the Year or to ask a virtual matchmaker to pick which boy would be their dream date. Thornburg plans to issue new sets of the cards each year. Parents going into paroxysms, she declares, should simply admit that their daughters have made one of life's milestone discoveries: "Hey, there are boys in this world, and they are not gross."
Amy Bonawitz in Norfolk