Oh, Ken! Oh, Aladdin!

Just how old should a doll be before it's allowed to have sex?

Over the last few weeks, Jeff Owen has become something of an expert on Walt Disney's Aladdin. Walking into a meeting, he carries an oversized children's picture book that details the story that turned the Arabian Nights personality into a star of the American screen, and without much prompting he flips it open to a page that shows Aladdin watching the activity in a Middle Eastern market.

He points a finger at the text. "Look at that," he insists. "It says Aladdin, a poor, hungry young man. Man, not boy."

Owen turns more pages until he reaches the book's end. "And look at this," he says. "It reads that when Aladdin told the Sultan that he wished to marry Princess Jasmine, the Sultan was thrilled. Now, how thrilled do you think he would have been if Aladdin had been underage? Not very, I bet."

Owen delivers these pronouncements with an air of vindication. And in some ways, that's exactly what he's seeking. For while it might seem a little odd for a 37-year-old man to be obsessed with the exact age of an animated character, to Owen, an artist, a student at Houston Community College and a part-time hairstylist, the difference between whether Aladdin is a boy or a man is the difference between whether Owen himself is someone with an arch, if rather ribald, sense of humor or someone who, however unintentionally, promotes pedophilia.

Until April 18, that's not a distinction that Owen felt he needed to make. But on that day, a representative from the Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids, one of Houston's largest AIDS charities, called him up and told him that an artwork he had created for a DIFFA fundraiser was being pulled. The reason? His piece, which included a Ken doll and an Aladdin doll perched together on Aladdin's flying carpet, was inappropriate for the DIFFA function. Aladdin, Owen says he was told, was too young to be hanging around with Ken in E well, in the way he was hanging around with Ken.

"They said he was underage, that he wasn't old enough to get into the clubs," Owen says now, sounding as much bewildered as upset. "And all I could think was, what are you talking about? They're dolls."

True, Ken and Aladdin are dolls. But as Owen has positioned them in the work he titled Foam Party, they're dolls with more than a little attitude. Though he at first describes his creation as totally innocent, just a pair of companions winging their way toward a better world, after a moment he admits that, okay, there is something a little naughty here. After all, his title came from a trendy event at some gay discos, where the dance floor is filled with industrial-strength foam before the crowd wades in to dance and, perhaps, rub together body parts obscured by the billows. And while both Ken and Aladdin are clothed -- Ken in a pair of sparkly shorts and Aladdin in his fez, vest and puffy pants -- Aladdin is also on all fours, with Ken leaning over him from behind in a very friendly manner.

Owen points out that Ken's crotch is pressed against the carpet rather than Aladdin's rear, and it is possible to see him as just along for the ride. But Owen also admits that when he had Foam Party sitting out at his home, friends would see it and laugh. "Some people said it looks like they're doing it, and that makes it funny," he says. "But when you get up close, you see they really aren't doing it, and that makes it even funnier."

The joke was not one he thought he needed to explain to DIFFA. The organization, which was started more than a decade ago by members of the New York fashion and design industry, has grown into one of the nation's best-known AIDS charities. The Houston chapter alone has, since 1987, distributed more than $2 million for HIV/AIDS care, research, treatment and preventive education. Much of that money has come from special auctions such as the one that Foam Party was originally intended for. The idea is to get 100 works from artists and celebrities created using a common theme, and then sell those pieces to the highest bidder. In the past, DIFFA has held fundraisers such as "InVESTments," in which vests were decorated and sold; the theme for this year's May 18 fundraiser is "Boxing Back," and the idea was to have artists create special boxes, from hope chests to CD carriers, that could be auctioned off.

Normally, an art student such as Owen wouldn't be asked to participate in such an event, but there were some unusual circumstances. David Krause, an artist who had contributed work to an earlier DIFFA auction, had been Owen's roommate, and when time came to prepare for "Boxing Back" he was sent an invitation to come up with something. Krause, though, had died of AIDS by the time his letter arrived, so Owen opened it instead. When he contacted DIFFA to let them know of Krause's death, he added a suggestion: why not let him do a box in Krause's stead? "I thought it was a touching idea," says DIFFA chapter director Tori Williams, "so I agreed. Looking back, I probably should have asked to see some examples of his work first."

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