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Photos: Barbie’s beau through the years

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  1. Barbie’s boyfriend through the years

    Introduced as Barbie's guy in 1961, the Ken doll has gone through many changes over half a century -- yet always remained the perfect boyfriend for all occasions.

    Unveiled at the American International Toy Fair on March 11, 1961, the original Ken doll stood 12 inches tall. He had “molded” plastic hair (in either blond or brunette) and came dressed in red bathing suit trunks with a yellow towel and sandals. He also needed to get to the gym. (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Ken 1962

    By 1962, John Glenn had gone into orbit, the U.S. had stared down the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Ken had apparently joined a fraternity, as evidenced by the crest on his snappy blue blazer in this vintage Victory Dance ensemble. Ken's full name is Ken Carson, by the way; he was named for Ken Handler, son of his creator, Ruth Handler. His middle name is unknown, which may account for his quizzical expression. (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ken 1972

    Over the years Ken's hair has been molded many ways and dyed nine different colors, including auburn, black, blond, brown, brunette, light brown, red, two-tone and yellow (yes, yellow). One of the most memorable variations was Mod Hair Ken, who came with a snazzy checkered sportcoat. To make Ken even more shagadelic, stick-on mustaches, sideburns and beard were also available. Oh, behave! (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ken 1978

    The Bee Gees were all over the radio, Charlie's Angels soared in the TV ratings, and Superstar Ken caught the narcissistic spirit of the Me Decade wearing an electric blue jumpsuit and a very self-satisfied grin. Get up and boogie, Ken! (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ken 1979

    Sporting a tan John Boehner would envy and having apparently put in some time with a personal trainer, Sun Lovin Malibu Ken hit the beach in turquoise swim trunks. (Let's hope he remembered to pack some sunscreen in that beach bag so he doesn't turn into Sun Shunnin Maliboo-boo Ken.) (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ken 1984

    By the mid '80s Ken had achieved new heights of perfection as the ultimate boyfriend. Sporting a sleek outfit apparently on loan from Adam Sandler in "The Wedding Singer," Dream Date Ken was ready for a night out with his favorite doll -- or at least to host "The Newlywed Game." (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ken 1992

    Everyone was rocking to Nirvana and Pearl Jam -- everyone but Ken, that is, who for some reason chose purple parachute pants over grunge fashion. Totally Hair Ken sported a new, rooted hairstyle and came with a tube of styling gel (apparently the giant economy size). He also wore his own name at the front of the Velcro waist -- perhaps a sign of his painful inner quest for identity. (Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 2000s New Look Ken

    As if Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl weren't traumatic enough, in 2004 the world reeled at the news that Barbie and Ken were “parting ways.” Ken vanished into seclusion, spending many months brooding and attempting to shampoo out Totally Hair Ken's styling gel. Then, in 2006, Ken emerged with a bold new look, a jaunty hat, and a dramatic announcement -- he wanted Barbie back! (Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rollerskating Barbie and Ken, 1980s

    The perfect boyfriend knows it is vital that a couple share interests and activities, such as skating and shopping for matching, violently colored accessories. Yo, Ken, pull up your socks. (Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Ken 2010

    Meet Ken for the new decade: confident, immaculately groomed, and ever so up-to-the-moment with his own Facebook page and Twitter feed. Reaching beyond his traditional role as Barbie's arm candy, Ken made more than 50 wardrobe changes in "Toy Story 3" and appeared at New York City's Fashion’s Night Out. (Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sweet Talking Ken

    For his 50th anniversary on March 11, 2011, Ken sprouted a few more muscles and a got makeover inspired by such teen heartthrobs as Zac Efron and Justin Bieber. In addition, the Sweet Talking Ken Doll can record 5 seconds of sound and play it back -- in three different pitches, no less. And just in case that's not enough time to get his message across to Barbie, his T-shirt says it all. (Paul Jordan / Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Paul Jordan / Mattel
    Above: Slideshow (11) Ken ’dos: Barbie’s boyfriend through the years
  2. Paul Jordan / Barbie via Mattel
    Slideshow (11) Barbie and Ken’s long-lasting love
TODAY contributor
updated 3/24/2011 2:58:37 PM ET 2011-03-24T18:58:37

He may not be as rugged as Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, but Barbie’s longtime boyfriend Ken is a new man, and anything but the vapid clotheshorse he used to be.

The quintessential “boyfriend for every occasion,” who turned 50 this month, was apparently going through a midlife crisis, but instead of salving it with a hot new trophy doll, Ken got an upgrade that included a facelift, a buffer body with tighter six-pack, and, to guide him through the pitfalls of 21st century manhood, a role model: former Iowa State football hero Kurtis Taylor.

“Ken did receive a makeover in time for his 50th anniversary, which was March 11,” said Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman for Mattel.  “His new look is kind of inspired by some of today’s teenage heartthrobs, like Justin Bieber and Zac Efron ... his body is a little more muscled.”  

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The change was inevitable. After five decades of living in the reflected glory of his anatomically improbable girlfriend, the original boy toy needed a makeover. With his perfectly coiffed hair, a passive half-smile plastered across his preppy mug, and blue eyes that showed not a glimmer of self-awareness or wit, Ken had become an international punch line. His name was synonymous with pretty-boy emptiness. He endured humiliation, not just at the hands of young girls who treated him like one of Barbie’s many accessories, but also from younger brothers who seemed to view him as a traitor to their gender. Even other toys apparently viewed him with contempt, as evidenced by the way he was treated in last summer’s hit “Toy Story 3.”

Slideshow: Barbie and Ken’s long-lasting love (on this page)

Not even a manufactured romantic crisis — like when the plastic couple broke up in 2004, only to reunite on Valentine’s Day — could save Ken from his long, slow slog toward overdressed irrelevance.

At last, two years after releasing their revamped Barbie, Mattel decided that it was time to breathe new life into Ken, who hit store shelves in all his refurbished glory in January.

Kurtis Taylor, a 25-year-old former defensive lineman for the Iowa State Cyclones, was named the winner of the “Genuine Ken” reality show, embodying the traits of the “ultimate boyfriend.”

Ken’s new man-tor
Contrary to published reports, the new Ken is not made in the image and likeness of former Iowa State running back Taylor, Chidoni said. Instead, Taylor is a personification of Ken’s new ethos, sort of a broad-backed Yoda to Ken’s Luke Skywalker.

Slideshow: Barbie on the runway (on this page)

Taylor earned the coveted role after Mattel teamed up with Hud:Sun Media, a Los Angeles-based entertainment production company, to launch a multimedia, Web-based campaign to find a new definition for Ken’s old role as the ultimate boyfriend. In January they launched a contest on Hulu called “Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.” As The New York Times put it, the Web series pitted “eight boy-next-door contestants who competed in contests including cooking, decorating, entertaining and surfing to win over Barbie.”

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It quickly became “among the most popular reality shows on Hulu,” Hulu spokeswoman Elisa Schreiber told the Times.

Over eight webisodes, the contestants, who included a bartender, a singer-songwriter and former star football player Taylor, vied to woo Barbie’s fans. On March 15, the viewers made their choice. Taylor, the 25-year-old former defensive lineman, beat out his rivals for the chance to melt Barbie’s plastic heart with an end run in the romantic category of the competition.

Slideshow: Ken ’dos: Barbie’s boyfriend through the years (on this page)

Given $500 to buy gifts, Taylor gave each of the judges a penny, and sent the remainder to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The new Ken is expected to give a boost to the Barbie empire’s $1 billion a year in sales. And even there he may be taking his cue from the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Taylor, who in 2007 was named Iowa State’s comeback player of the year.

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Video: Barbie turns 50


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