Susie Rushton: So, what is the truth about Ken?


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While it's true that his underpants never came off, no matter how hard you tried to lever them with a screwdriver, Ken, Barbie's other half, was in many ways supposed to be the perfect "boyfriend". I understood that, even as an eight-year-old, and so did my friends.

Ken's six-pack was exuberantly defined. His hair, first made from felt, then plastic, then rooted with real fibres, has over the years never been anything less than abundant. If Barbie made little girls insecure about their bodies, Ken's physique was just as unattainable as her tiny waist and huge breasts. The Yale University obesity expert Kelly D Brownell wrote that the average man would have to "grow 20 inches taller and add nearly eight inches to his neck circumference, 11 inches to his chest and 10 inches to his waist to resemble the muscular Ken". What real man could live up to that?

But since seeing him in Toy Story 3 on Sunday, I've changed my mind about Ken. Forty-nine years after his launch, Ken is the breakout star of this summer's best film. He's not perfect, or particularly realistic. He's complicated. And he still has much to teach young girls about men.

Michael Keaton, who voices Ken in the film, has said that he didn't realise director Lee Unkrich wanted him to resemble "an insecure Burt Reynolds". But Keaton gets the mid-1980s, frighteningly shallow California-guy just right, in a character-role that Bret Easton Ellis couldn't have bettered.

For though he sweeps Barbie off her plastic stilettos in his first scene ("Have we met before?" she asks giddily as Ken descends from the three-storey Dreamhouse in an elevator, dressed in turquoise Bermuda shorts and matching leopard-print shirt), Ken is soon revealed as a mendacious, immoral, effete and deeply vain toyboy who drops good-hearted Barbie at the first sign of trouble.

Even when we were children, we always knew Ken was a bit odd. He didn't really seem to have a role. What did Ken do? Action Man, whom I preferred, had death slides, rucksacks, helmets. Ken had an extensive wardrobe and a permatan. In the 1980s, he wore silver and gold lamé tuxedos; neat white tennis outfits; white Nehru jackets with yellow slacks. And that was just for hanging around at home on Barbie's sofa.

Famously, the first couple of extruded plastic never got hitched, and the long-awaited Wedding Day Ken (1990) was dressed as best man rather than bridegroom. Even Barbie dumped him in 2004, with Mattel releasing a statement announcing the pair "have decided to spend some time apart". (He returned two years later). Cleverly, TS3's makers sublimate Ken's essential ambiguity, the other characters teasing him for being "a girl's toy".

So, is Ken gay? As the other adults in the cinema sniffled over the "growing up and letting go" plot, I found myself considering the evidence. This month he models rugged fashion in a full-length shoot for the British edition of Esquire magazine – I kid you not – and later this year two special Mad Men dolls will see Ken playing both Don Draper and Roger Sterling (cocktails and cigarettes not included). So maybe Mattel is attempting to make him straighter. But it's too late. Ken's outfits have always teetered into camp, sometimes further. One notorious doll of 1993, Earring Magic Ken, earned a lengthy feature in The New York Times about his apparent transformation into a gay raver (Ken has a sex toy dangling from a chain around his neck, which a Mattel spokesman desperately described as a "necklace").

Pixar has kept Ken in the closet, but he is, ultimately, a walker. In short, they have turned him into the perfect companion for the little girl in 2010 who idolises Cheryl Cole and "her Derek" or any other of the female stars frequently seen with a ritzily dressed, tanned young man at their side.

The reluctant bridal dress-maker to the stars

If Ken and Barbie ever do tie the knot, of one thing you can be sure: the bride will wear miniature Vera Wang. The New York designer remains the dream-dress maker to the stars, last weekend sculpting both Chelsea Clinton's organza flounces (and her reception dress) and Alicia Keys's Grecian-style dress for her wedding in Corsica.

Wang is a rare thing in fashion. She is a designer who has made a fortune, and owns her business entirely. A former fashion editor at American Vogue, she has been the reigning queen of bridal for the past decade. While Chelsea's dress was rumoured to cost £20,000, Wang's off-the-peg gowns and myriad wedding-day perfumes and accessories sell for rather less, all around the world. The Clinton dress will provide yet another marketing boost for her brand. There is an intriguingly unromantic story behind Wang's monopoly of the market. She never wanted to make wedding dresses, she once told me in an interview at her plush Upper West Side apartment; she wanted to make regular clothes.

But her father, providing finance for her start-up company 20 years ago, insisted she design wedding dresses. "It wasn't my suggestion, but I had to fund a business. I barely got married. I got married at 40. Was it upsetting to have a name for bridalwear but not in other areas? I think it was." Giving up on her long-held dream to be a fashion designer, Wang set about transplanting rigorous design techniques to a field usually untouched by taste or restraint.

For a purveyor of meringues (for she sells those, too), Wang has kept a sense of humour: "I always manage to come up with a new idea that looks new to me. Of course, from far away all big white dresses tend to look the same."

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