Reflections Upon the Conclusion of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’

As the reality TV juggernaut wraps up, a longtime observer considers what it all meant
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“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with us, but it’s like Louis Vuitton baggage, you always want it,” Kim Kardashian (not yet West) says in the pilot episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which aired on October 14, 2007. Who could’ve guessed that they’d still have us tuning in week after week, more than a decade later?

A sampling of the drama we’ve watched unfold every Sunday: Kim’s sex tape with singer Ray J; her 72-day marriage with former NBA player Kris Humphries; Kourtney and Scott Disick’s rocky relationship; Khloé’s marriage to and, not long after, divorce from former Lakers player Lamar Odom; the infamous handbag fight (“Don’t be fucking rude!“); Kim losing her diamond earring in the ocean (“Kim, there’s people that are dying!“); the Tristan Thompson cheating scandal; even the recent intrafamily feud between Kourtney and Kim.

After 20 seasons, there are too many KUWTK moments living rent-free in our minds to count. But as a wise Kim once said, it’s time to “Let go, and let God.”

On September 8, 2020, the KKW Beauty founder took to social media to announce that the 21st season of KUWTK—which premiered on March 18—would be the last.

“It is with heavy hearts that we’ve made the difficult decision as a family to say goodbye to Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the statement read. “After what will be 14 years, 20 seasons, hundreds of episodes and numerous spin-off shows, we are beyond grateful to all of you who’ve watched us all for all of these years—through the good times, the bad times, the happiness, the tears, and the many relationships and children. We’ll forever cherish the wonderful memories and countless people we’ve met along the way[…] Without Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

As polarizing as the Kardashian-Jenner clan may be, there’s no denying that Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie—with the help of a quick-witted “momager” Kris Jenner—have changed the way we consume reality TV, redefined what it takes to become a celebrity, and, in taking full control of their social presence, have been able to break news about their personal lives on their own terms.

At their best, the Kardashians have challenged Hollywood’s archaic notions of beauty, unapologetically expressed their sexuality, and, Kris Jenner’s puppeteer strings aside, the sisters have proven that women are more than capable of building their own business empires. Through KUWTK, the family has also shed light on issues like surrogacy and infertility, and more recently have used their platform to discuss political concerns including prison reform and the Armenian genocide, and to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At their worst, the Calabasas-bred crew can be accused of exploiting—even manufacturing—personal drama in exchange for fame, setting unattainable standards of beauty (lip fillers, butt implants, etc.), and ceaselessly profiting from and appropriating Black culture.

So, as we say farewell to America’s favorite reality show to hate-watch, let’s take a look at the ways the Kar-Jenner sisters (and Robert Kardashian) have left their imprint on pop culture.


The Kardashians Made a Lasting Impact on the Fashion and Beauty Industry

In 2006, the sisters opened their first location of boutique clothing store Dash in Calabasas. The boutique relocated to West Hollywood; two more locations, in Manhattan and Miami Beach, followed. But when the sisters decided to close all three locations in 2018, the shutter wasn’t a big blow. Rather, outgrowing the shops signaled that the women had finally–after several failed early attempts at launching beauty brands–moved on to bigger things.

For Kim and Kylie, that meant corporate beauty and fashion empires. According to Forbes–which just this week added Kim Kardashian to its World Billionaires List–Kim’s worth shot up after she sold a stake of her beauty brand to Coty earlier this year. According to the publication, it’s estimated that “she earned $49.5 million in the 12 months leading up to June 2020, with about 20 percent of that coming from the reality series.”

Kylie, who also sold a majority stake in Kylie Cosmetics to Coty in January 2020, earned an estimated $590 million in the year leading up to June 2020, but with less than 1 percent of that coming from KUWTK. In March 2019, the then 21-year-old was named the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire–but it was revealed in June 2020, that according to Forbes, she and her family had spent years leading the cosmetics industry and media outlets to believe that her business was significantly bigger, more successful, and more profitable than it actually was.

And while Kim and Kylie have been making the big bucks for the Kardashian family, Khloé, Kourtney, and Kendall have all had successes of their own.

Khloé’s Good American clothing brand has expanded beyond jeans and is sold at major retailers. Kourtney proved she’s more than just “the least exciting to look at” with the launch of lifestyle and wellness site Poosh. The youngest of the Jenner sisters, Kendall, has walked runways for high-fashion designers during the New York, Milan, and Paris fashion weeks and also launched KENDALL + KYLIE alongside her makeup mogul sister.

But the Kardashian impact on fashion goes far beyond their own companies, and includes the sisters–especially Kim’s–ability to set beauty and fashion trends with a single Instagram.

While we’ve learned that the sisters are rarely the originators of any certain trend or style they adopt, there is no denying that, through the force of their popularity and cult-like following on social media (totaling up nearly 700 million Instagram followers), they wield outsize influence. You can credit some of the last decade’s most inescapable trends–heavy contour, waist trainers, lip fillers (or the trusty and less invasive method of overlining one’s lips à la Kylie before she went rogue), the return of bodycon dresses, the obsession with achieving a voluptuous backside–to the family.

The Kardashians Changed What It Means to Be a Celebrity

It may be hard to remember, after all the Vogue covers and spreads and their numerous invitations to Anna Wintour’s Met Gala, but the Kardashian’s weren’t born celebrities. In fact, they were D-list nobodies.

As Buzzfeed’s Zan Romanoff writes in “The Decade The Kardashians Took Over Everything,” the story of how this family dominated our social media feeds, took over magazine covers, website homepages, and more, is a “remarkable tale of American self-reinvention and self-definition in a digital age.” It was through entrepreneurship and their willingness to try anything once, no matter how gaudy, that Kris, Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé redefined the journey to celebdom.

Kris’s first marriage was to the late Robert Kardashian–a lawyer who became widely known for his early representation of O. J. Simpson during the 1995 murder trial–but that wasn’t really what put the family on the map. By the time KUWTK began, Kris was on her second marriage, to television personality and Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Caitlyn Jenner.

When KUWTK first premiered in 2007, it was the era of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s The Simple Life (2003), I Love New York (2007), The Hills (2006), and The Real Housewives of Orange County (2006). It launched after Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s MTV reality series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (2003-2005) and a show following another discombobulated family, The Osbournes (2002-2005). While many of those reality TV ventures featured people who had already become famous for other reasons, there was something uniquely captivating about the family from Calabasas.

Buzzfeed’s Romanoff argues that the Kardashians had a particular advantage over everyone else trying to make it on reality TV. “They had Kris Jenner,” she writes. “Kris, a born devotee excess, did not come into the public eye to make friends or feign humility; instead, she said yes to every offer that came her way, rendering the Kardashian name utterly inescapable in the process.”

Momager marketing aside, Kim’s proximity to other famous people helped as well. Just as we were getting to know Kim on KUWTK, her friendship with her former boss Paris Hilton was flourishing, and over the years she found herself romantically linked to a series of high-profile men. Before she married rapper Kanye West, she was coupled with Ray J, Nick Cannon, John Mayer, Nick Lachey, Kris Humphries, and NFL player Reggie Bush.

If there’s one constant that hasn’t changed since the pilot episode of KUWTK, it’s that the Kardashians have always been willing to let millions of viewers in on some of the most traumatic moments of their life. We’ve watched the family share the aftermath of Kim’s robbery in Paris, Rob’s struggle with mental health and his body image, Scott’s substance abuse problems, Caitlyn’s transition and how it affected the family, Khloé’s dealing with the aftermath of the Tristan cheating scandal, and Kanye’s public breakdowns.

On E!, we witnessed their highest highs and their lowest lows. Off-screen, we read the headlines with details that escaped them but even then, Kris knows how to turn lemons into lemonade. As Hadley Freedom writes in The Guardian, “The Kardashians, who admittedly were never paupers, made their billions by making themselves over entirely, and then selling themselves wholly, and there’s nothing more American than that.”

Only two years into KUWTK, the first spin-off show premiered: Kourtney and Khloé Take Miami, where we followed the two sisters through the opening of the second Dash location as well as Kourtney’s unexpected pregnancy with her then-boyfriend Scott. That child would be the first Kardashian birth we’d see on TV. Following its success, the Kardashians gave us 11 more spin-off shows which included: Kourtney and Kim Take New York (2011), Khloé & Lamar (2011), Kourtney and Kim Take Miami (2013), Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons (2014), I am Cait (2015), Dash Dolls (2015), Rob & Chyna (2016), Life of Kylie (2016), Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian (2017) and the short-lived talk shows Kris: A Kris Jenner Talk Show (2013), and Kocktails With Khloé (2016). None of it would have been possible without Jenner Communications, the momager’s management and production company, founded in 2007.

The Kardashians Rewrote the Rules of Social Media

Before influencers were a thing, there were the Kardashians.

“The word ‘influencer’ didn’t exist yet; Twitter was still for nerds, and Instagram wouldn’t launch until October of that year,” Buzzfeed’s Romanoff writes of the social media landscape in 2010. “As far as most people were concerned, the Kardashians were destined to be flashes in the reality TV pan, pretty party girls who would fizzle and then fade the way Kim Kardashian West’s one-time boss, Paris Hilton, already had.”

But unlike previous generations of celebutantes, the Kardashians had social media.

Just two years after she joined Instagram in 2012, Kim was the most-followed person on the platform. Later that year, Kim’s wedding picture to Kanye took the cake as the most-liked picture on the platform with over 2.4 million likes. In 2015, four years after joining Instagram, a picture of Kendall’s hair would rack up 2.5 million likes and become the most-liked of that year.

Kylie, now the most-followed Kar-Jenner with more than 197 million Instagram followers, broke her sister’s record when she shared a photo of her newborn daughter, Stormi Webster. That image quickly became the most-liked picture of 2018, with over 14 million likes. It helped, too, that she had kept her quiet about her pregnancy up until the moment she gave birth, building up to a strategic reveal.

“The Kardashians’ timing was perfect: At the same time that free internet content was eating into print revenues, celebrities’ ability to tell their stories on their own social platforms was also eradicating their reliance on traditional media,” writes Romanoff. “Magazines needed cover stars they knew would attract attention, so having a strong social following made you not just popular but powerful.”

In 2013, Kim, along with her beau Kanye, was invited by Anna Wintour to her first Met Gala. The couple has been invited every year since. In 2014, she also scored her first Vogue U.S. cover. After nine seasons of KUWTK, her marriage to Kanye, and a myriad of business ventures under her belt, Kim and her powerful social media presence had finally made their way to the A-list.

Endless magazine covers, spreads, and profiles dissecting the Kardashian empire made Kim a more respected figure in Hollywood–and encouraged even more millions to follow her every move online.

Just as we hate-watched KUWTK, scrolling through Kim’s Twitter and Instagram timelines–or opening her now-defunct app and website–became our collective guilty pleasure. Through their massive social media following, the Kardashians not only shifted the way we used and consumed these platforms in our personal lives but they also took control of their narratives and finances (who needs to pay for advertisers when you have enough followers for that?).

Through their success, the family taught a generation that, while some think of oversharing on social media can be passé–or it can be  it’s worth it when you learn to use it to your advantage.

The Kardashians Profited Off Scandal and Cultural Appropriation

The Kardashians aren’t scared of scandal. In fact, they seem to thrive on it. It’s largely a part of what got them here.

The family has received backlash for their questionable brand partnerships with Flat Tummy Co, promoting brands historically known for stealing original work from Black fashion designers, and over accusations of “blackfishing.” When Kim first set out to launch her shapewear line, she planned call it Kimono, an idea that was swiftly met with criticism for its racial insensitivity. Recently, Kris found herself accused of sexual harassment by a former security guard.

Time and time again, the Kardashians have turned to Black culture to enhance the way they look (see: Kim showing up to the 2018 MTV Music Awards in cornrows), and in return, capitalize off of it. But never do they give credit where credit is due. When called out by the public, they’ve been criticized for responding with empty apologies–or no apology at all, simply disabling the comment feature on Instagram.

“Being married to a Black man and having what the world will consider Black children does not make you entitled to Black culture,” writes Whitney Alese on Medium. “It will always be problematic, no matter what she does or when she does it, especially given her flippant, ‘deal with it’ attitude. […] My culture is not a costume, it’s not a trend. It is who I am, who my people are, and it’s bigger than aesthetics.”

The Kardashians Gave Us a Different Look at Kanye West’s Personal Life

Kanye West has not consistently appeared Keeping Up With the Kardashians but, when he has, it has given the public rare glimpses into the life and persona of a era-defining artist, and a pop culture figure both fascinating and ignominious.

Perhaps the most-discussed celebrity couple of the last decade, Kim and Kanye first sparked romance rumors in the spring of 2012. At the time, she was fresh off her divorce from Kris Humphries, and he had recently ended his relationship with model and TV personality Amber Rose. In June 2013, little more than a year later, KimYe welcomed their first child, North West. The pair got married in May 2014, and have since welcomed their second daughter, Chicago, and sons Saint and Psalm. In February of this year, Kim and Kanye announced plans to divorce.

One of the first times he appeared on the show was in August 2012, when Kim let Kanye, a then-aspiring fashion designer, bring in a stylist to help her update her wardrobe. Over the seasons, the couple would document their engagement, lavish wedding, and the births of their children, but Kanye never fully committed to the reality TV enterprise the way some other Kardashian-adjacent characters (namely, sometime Kourtney paramour Scott Disick) have. In 2017, Kim told the Hollywood Reporter that Kanye “doesn’t like to film everything. It’s not his show. He’ll be like, ‘I’m not filming,’ and then randomly show up.”

However, even when Kanye wasn’t present on screen, his presence was still felt. In recent seasons, KUWTK began using Kanye’s music as their theme song, and the family became a walking advertisement for the rapper’s clothing line, Yeezy. More than that, KUWTK showed us the complicated side of Kanye: the husband, the father, and the man working through mental health issues.

It wasn’t until last year that Kanye filmed his first confessional alongside his wife. A little wacky, sure, but it showed viewers a side of Kanye we hadn’t seen before on the show. “This is my first time doing this,” Kanye says. “I’m not actually attempting to do good. This interview is because of the movie The Incredibles. It starts off with the interviews. The superheroes are giving interviews. The wife got a big butt and I just see our life becoming more and more and more like The Incredibles before we can finally fly.”

 

The final season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians is currently airing. Family members plan to return to the small screen after the series wraps up, launching a new series on Hulu. 


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