April 14, 1996 in Features

Barbie’s Main Man Ken’s Not Much More Than Another Accessory

Donna Kato San Jose Mercury News
 
Tags:History

Whenever she needed a date, she called him.

“Hello? Ken? It’s me, Barbie. How about going for a ride in my new pink convertible? Will you wear your Fashion Jeans and bring your Roller Blades?”

“Hi, Ken? I’m going to join an all-girl rock band. I want you to come see me perform. Wear your Dance Magic white tux, OK?”

“Hello? Ken? Me again. I want to practice walking down the aisle in my new wedding dress. Do you think you can meet me at the church in your Dream Date tuxedo? But we’re not really getting married. I have too many career options I haven’t explored yet.”

Poor Ken.

To Barbie, he’s always been little more than just another accessory. Like her shoes, purses and cars, the main man in her life has always been at the mercy of her whims. When it was convenient or fashionable for her to have him around, there he was. When she was busy with her friends or career, he was tossed aside.

Barbie’s longtime romantic interest turned 35 years old in March. And with that eternally hopeful look on his face, he’s still seeking more attention from her.

Barbie, by the way, is 37.

In 3 decades, Ken has escorted the buxom bombshell to dozens of proms, record hops and soda shops. He has had a crew cut and a mop top, growing out his hair in a 1970s mod ‘do just like the styles of British rockers.

He went from trim to buff, developing ab muscles and biceps, then had to throw out all his toosmall vintage fashions.

Like Barbie, Ken has never been able to focus on one career - he has been a pilot, a doctor and joined the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.

More a follower than a leader, he has always done what she has done, whether it’s wearing matching western clothes or Roller Blading. Then last year, he went solo as Shavin’ Fun Ken.

“It was the first time he was a stand-alone,” says Lisa McKendall, Mattel’s director of marketing and communications, meaning there was no Shavin’ Fun Barbie. Ken even got his own commercial, demonstrating how he can be “shaved” using warm water and a foam-tipped shaver. Cold water magically restores the beard.

This fall, in celebration of his 35th year, he’ll get a new, “updated look” as Cool Shavin’ Ken, says McKendall. He’ll smell like Old Spice and come with a pretend bottle of the aftershave.

He’s also getting a new wardrobe from the Fashion Avenue collection of Mattel’s doll wear.

“His clothes will be more like they were in the ‘60s - higher quality and more detailed,” explains McKendall. Included will be a plaid jacket with a coordinating floral vest; a brown, “leather look” jacket and a sweater to wear with jeans.

Indeed, Ken’s heyday was the 1960s, when he was introduced to Barbie as part of her wedding collection in 1961.

Little girls loved buying Barbie wedding dresses, says McKendall, so the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler, created Ken Carson. He was a readyto-go groom who could jump out of his red swim trunks and into a tuxedo, smooth down his flocked hair and walk Barbie Roberts down the church aisle.

Trouble was, Barbie was already too busy to devote much time to married life. So Ken became her patient boyfriend. He expressed his devotion to her by the clothes he wore.

When she dressed up in a mink-trimmed suit and white gloves for a matinee in 1961, he might have worn a sharp gray suit with a skinny striped tie. The outfit was called “Saturday Date.”

If she decided on lunch at the country club, he could wear his “Country Clubbin”’ houndstooth jacket.

During her mod phase, when she wore go-go boots and neon-colored mini-dresses, he had a Nehru jacket to throw on. Finishing the look was his hair, cut just like Paul McCartney’s.

Although debated, criticized and ridiculed, Barbie’s famously proportioned body has remained unchanged. Ken, though, went through a major transformation “sometime in the ‘70s,” according to Mattel. He turned from geek to sleek.

“He went more from being built like Jimmy Stewart to looking more like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” observes Evelyn Burkhalter, owner of the Barbie Hall of Fame in Palo Alto, Calif.

And along the way, Ken, like Barbie, became less interested in clothes and more interested in themes - a marketing strategy pushed by Mattel. Last year, this strategy meant $1.4 billion in sales of Barbie-related items.

Instead of one Ken and Barbie who had many outfits, there were multiple Kens and Barbies, each with one special outfit and a built-in story line.

Rappin’ Rockin’ Ken and Barbie hit the stage while Baywatch Ken and Barbie hit the beach. Dance Magic Ken came with a “Saturday Night Fever” white tux with silvery lame lapels and Perfume Giving Ken and Jewelry Secrets Ken came with presents.

When Ken turned 35 on March 13, the Mattel employees in El Segundo, Calif., celebrated with a big cake and a trivia contest.

“But we’ll wait till he turns 40 for the bigger splash,” says McKendall.


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