Ken doll gets new look — and mentor in manhood

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.”  

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.