Fame Dogs ‘Real’ Barbie, Ken

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The Barbie doll may lead an enchanted life, but the “real” Barbie seems to want no part of it.

Barbara Handler Segal says she is nothing like the 11 1/2-inch teen-ager that was named for her 30 years ago and doesn’t want to be. Oh, sure, Barbie Handler liked the beach and had lots of friends, but so did many Los Angeles teen-agers.

“If the doll is like me, it is totally coincidental,” says Segal, now 47 and a divorced mother of two who says she has been trying to shake her Barbie doll image practically since the day her mother created the toy in 1959.


Three years later, her brother Ken’s name was added to Mattel’s roster, and Ken--now a New York City real estate investor--also says he’s nothing like his namesake.

“Ken doll is Malibu,” he says. “He goes to the beach and surfs. He is all these perfect American things.” But when Ken was at Hamilton High School in Beverlywood, he “played the piano and went to movies with subtitles.” Looking back, he says, “I was a nerd--a real nerd. All the girls thought I was a jerk.”

The Handler children long avoided the spotlight that seemed to follow them ever since they were teen-agers and never granted interviews. Last week, however, the two agreed to speak briefly by telephone about growing up as, well, Barbie and Ken.

“I’m tired of being Barbie doll,” says Segal, who was a 16-year-old sophomore at Hamilton High School when her mother created Barbie. As a teen-ager, Barbie says she didn’t want “the best clothes or drive the best cars” that are showered on the Barbie doll. But Barbie allows, “I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older.”

Since she sold her West Los Angeles bed and bath shop two years ago, Segal has enjoyed her free time. She says she plays a lot of golf at the posh Riviera Country Club, and is a tennis buff, too.

Daughter Never Had Doll

Segal is grateful to her namesake for bankrolling her leisurely life style. But she is tired of being typecast as the “real” Barbie doll. Whether she’s at the club or at a tony Brentwood dinner party, someone inevitably hails her as the first Barbie doll. “I used to walk away,” says Barbie. Now she says she just swallows hard and smiles.


Barbie doll never took up residence at Segal’s Brentwood home. Barbie’s daughter, Cheryl, liked outdoors games and never played much with dolls. And Segal said she was too old to play with Barbie doll by the time her mother created the toy. “It sounds silly, I know,” says Barbie. “But I am really not very well acquainted with Barbie doll at all.”

Ken, now 44, balding and married with three children, restores turn-of-the-century homes in Manhattan. He says he sold his first project to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. He lives in trendy Greenwich Village and is finishing up a book on his family with a working title, “The Ken Doll Talks.”

His two daughters never played with Barbie or Ken. He says they preferred stuffed animals. “If they had asked for them, I would have bought the dolls for them,” says Handler. “But they never did.”

Handler also has strong opinions about the Barbie doll. “I think of her as a bimbo,” he says. “Like she hangs out at the beach and doesn’t have a brain in her head.”

Though the doll has helped make him a “millionaire several times over,” Handler says, “it bothers me. I really don’t like her.”

Founded as Importer

Handler says that today that he is mostly amused by attention that the dolls bring him and his sister. He recalls getting his first taste celebrity in 1963, when he was visiting his mother-in-law in Cheyenne, Wyo. Little girls lined up outside the house, eager to meet the “real” Ken. He invited them in. “It was a kick,” he recalls. “They were so sweet and so terrific. It was so important to them.”


Barbie and Ken’s parents, Ruth and Elliot Handler, founded Mattel Inc. as an importer of inexpensive toys from Japan. They left Mattel in 1975 after an Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. Ruth Handler was indicted and later pleaded no contest in 1978 to a securities law violation, although she has maintained her innocence.

The Barbie doll, meanwhile, continues to propel Mattel’s toy business. Ruth and Elliot Handler will be honored next month by the Toy Manufacturers Assn. for the contributions to the toy industry, especially their creation of Barbie and Ken.

Elliot, 72, is retired. Ruth, also 72, owns a breast prothesis business. Reflecting on the origins of the Barbie doll, she says her daughter provided the inspiration. She said she noticed how her daughter enjoyed playing with paper dolls. Ruth Handler thought that little girls would like even better a fashion doll with a big wardrobe and hair they could comb. “If it hadn’t been for Barbie,” says Ruth. “I would have never come up with the idea for the doll.”