How the Kardashians Took Over the World

A deep, metaphysical dive into the multibillion-dollar Kardashian phenomenon, and how a sex tape and some selfies turned an unremarkable Calabasas clan into L.A.’s biggest export since McDonald’s
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Think about all the things people hate about L.A. The shallowness. The tackiness. The air-kissing phoniness. Now think about the stuff people love about L.A. The glamour. The beauty. The money. The more money. Stir it all together, add a dash of unabashed exhibitionism, and what do you get? The answer is staring you right in the face: Kim Kardashian.

After 14 years of “leaked” sex tapes, shaky marriages (one lasting a whole 72 days), messy breakups (like the latest split with a certain Trump-supporting rap star), hand-to-handbag combat between sisters, surprise pregnancies, and even more surprising parental gender-change operations—all of which played out for the whole world to see on E!’s reality series Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which will air its 285th series-ending episode on June 10—it’s hard to come up with another Angeleno who more vividly embodies life in this town. Or at least life as people who don’t actually live here imagine it. Despite having no discernible talents—Kardashian doesn’t sing, dance, or act—she has managed to make herself one of the most famous personalities on the planet, and that may just be the most L.A. thing about her. She is the corporeal incarnation of a city built on celebrity worship.

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Corey Gamble, Kris Jenner, Kim and then-husband Kanye West, Kendall and sister Kylie, and Travis Scott at the Met Gala Celebrating Camp, 2019.

DIA DIPASUPIL/FILMMAGIC

But, of course, Kardashian is so much more than just an over-the-top avatar for Los Angeles. Her show chronicling the daily dramas of the Kardashian-Jenners household—her sisters, Kourtney and Khloé; her half-sisters, Kendall and Kylie; her brother, Rob; her mom, Kris; and her stepdad, Caitlyn (who recently announced a run for governor of California, no joke)—is among the most successful and durable reality series in cable-TV history. At its height, it was drawing ten million viewers—more than double what The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was pulling in its prime—and even today, in a fractured TV landscape, it still grabs about a million viewers an episode. Just as impressively, it’s been the launching pad for an ever-expanding lifestyle empire—branded beauty products, jewelry, shapewear, video games, apps, and insanely lucrative social-media sponsorships—that has made this K-loving klan from Kalabasas krazy rich. According to Forbes, 40-year-old Kim, who can rake in up to a million dollars for a single Instagram post, recently became a billionaire. And she’s not even the first in the family; 23-year-old Kylie briefly held that title in 2019, thanks to the sale of her red-hot Kylie cosmetics line, but got booted off the list when Forbes determined she’d lied about her tax returns. You know, sort of like the time she fibbed about getting lip fillers.

“Nothing like the Kardashians had been on TV before,” notes Ted Harbert, the former E! president and Comcast Entertainment Group CEO who greenlit the series in 2007. “You’d watch the show, and you’d be like, ‘Oh my God, look at the way they’re swearing at their mother! Look at the way they’re swearing at each other!’ And then one sister would be waxing the other sister’s ass. And she’d be on all fours! Everything about the show was new and surprising. And that’s the No. 1 rule in television. You have to surprise. You have to give the viewers something they haven’t seen before.”

The No. 2, 3, and 4 rules of television, though, are that you don’t wax your sister’s ass on TV. And that’s the awesome paradox of Keeping Up: it’s a series that not only broke the rules but shredded them in a blender with bananas and yogurt and turned them into one of Khloé’s famous smoothies. Keeping Up’s phenomenal success defies pretty much all the laws of show-biz physics. The characters are paper-thin. The dialogue is beyond vacuous. The plotlines could be written by Kris’s pet chimp (remember Suzie? See season 3, episode 9). So why, of all the family-based reality shows that have come and gone over the last couple of decades—from The Osbournes to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—did the one about a brood of bickering, celebrity-adjacent social climbers capture the adoration of the world and give rise to what the New York Times once described as the “Kardashian industrial complex”? What’s the secret of their globe-conquering karisma? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma smeared in gobs of Kim’s skin-perfecting body-shimmer lotion. But there are some theories.


Theory #1

“Fight, fight, fight. Love, love, love.”

Not at all surprisingly, the Kardashians-Jenners disagree about who originally came up with the idea for the show. In her 2017 memoir, The Secrets of My Life, Caitlyn (who divorced from Kris in 2014 and largely left the show before undergoing gender-affirming surgery) takes the credit for the concept.

“The house is awash in puberty and adolescence and young adulthood and two parents with very different styles,” she wrote. “It seems to me something is there for television.” But Kris has said that it was her friend Deena Katz, a casting director for Dancing with the Stars, who spotted the gang’s TV potential in 2006 while having dinner at their house. At Katz’s suggestion, Kris called Ryan Seacrest, who’d just started his own production company, and Seacrest sent a camera crew over to Calabasas for some test shoots during a family barbecue.

“They edited together maybe seven or eight minutes from the barbecue—nothing more than that—and they showed it to my staff,” recalls Harbert. “Nobody liked it. They said, ‘They don’t do anything. They’re not stars. They’ve got no skills.’ They turned it down. But then Ryan called me and very politely asked me to take a look, and he sent over a tape or DVD—whatever it was back then—and I watched at home. The next morning, I told my staff that I thought it was a hit and we’re putting the show on the air.”

What Harbert saw in those eight minutes—what he thinks might explain Keeping Up’s enduring popularity—was a classic family drama hidden inside a modern American household. “It’s a simple formula that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he says. “It’s family conflict. A lot of yelling, a lot of screaming. And at the end, everybody hugs and says they love each other. It’s the same exact formula with a ton of TV shows. I was at ABC for years doing everything from Dynasty to Eight Is Enough, and it was the same formula back then: Fight, fight, fight. Love, love, love.” Harbert sent the footage to Jonathan Murray, the reality-TV genius behind MTV’s The Real World, who’d been producing Paris Hilton’s A Simple Life for E!. Murray had a vague awareness of Kim from her friendship with Hilton (Kim appeared in a couple of episodes of A Simple Life as Hilton’s stylist) and, like everybody, knew of Kim’s late father, attorney Robert Kardashian, from his time in the limelight defending O.J. Simpson of murder charges in the 1990s. But he agreed with Harbert—he also saw a hit waiting to happen—and signed on to produce the show.

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Paterfamilias Robert Kardashian defends O. J. Simpson, 1995

Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images

“It was clear to me that it was a ready-made sitcom,” he says. “You had the mom who was very much in her daughters’ lives, particularly Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney. You had these sisters with very distinct personalities. You had the brother, Rob, who was trying to figure out his place in this very female home. And then, of course, you had Bruce Jenner, who was the conservative dad who was never quite sure what to do with his daughters and wife. There was a natural dramatic structure for comedy. And I think that’s why it’s been so successful. It’s just very watchable TV.”

Theory #2

It’s all about Kim

Like snowflakes, no two Kardashian-Jenners are exactly alike. Kourtney is the cool, level-headed sister (except for the time she got angry at Kim and chucked a water bottle at her). Kendall is the aloof runway model (who tore Caitlyn a new one when her dad crashed her debut Victoria’s Secret show). Kris, the mother, is the brains behind the business (the self-described “momager”). But from the very start, the show’s center of gravity has always been Kim, the Bugs Bunny of this particular bunch of Looney Toons. Even as far back as that eight-minute barbecue video, she was the one taking charge, speaking into the camera and introducing viewers to her family. And while any given Keeping Up episode might splinter off into plotlines involving other siblings (indeed, some of them have occasionally branched out with spinoffs), the focus inevitably snaps back to the show’s true star. “Kim was always the most driven,” says Harbert. “She wanted it the most.”

To a lot of viewers, Kim has also always been the most relatable, in so far as a billionaire mega-influencer with 215 million Instagram followers and a soon-to-be-ex-husband named Kanye West can be described as relatable. And that may be another explanation for the show’s huge popularity. “There’s a whole new middle class of women in the United States and indeed across the world for whom the traditional white, thin, blond model is not somebody they can identify with,” explains Meredith Jones, a professor at Brunel University in London who organizes “Kimposiums” devoted to the academic study of the Kardashian phenomenon. “But the Kardashians—and Kim especially—have established a new ideal of global beauty: curvaceous, brunet, not pale-skinned, not particularly tall. They almost look Latina, although they’re not; the older ones are half Armenian. But the point is Kim doesn’t look like a typical white American woman. And that makes her very appealing to this massive new middle-class demographic who also don’t look like a typical white American woman.”

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Paris Hilton and Kim, 2007

CHRIS POLK/FILMMAGIC FOR BRAGMAN NYMAN CAFARELLI

Establishing a new global aesthetic, though, is only part of Kim’s brilliance; she also figured out how to cash in on it; but then Kim always had a mind for business. When she was 26, just before the show launched, she opened a clothing boutique with her sisters (they called it Dash, inspired by their surname) and worked its tills between classes at Pierce College. As she became more famous, she found other methods of supplementing her reality-TV-star income (which, by the way, wasn’t much in the beginning; the budget in the show’s early days was merely $190,000 per episode, with the family getting just $10,000 an episode to split among themselves). She started making paid nightclub appearances, cutting ribbons at shop openings, and, in 2011, launched her first clothing line, the Kardashian Kollection, which sold at Sears. She even found a way to turn an old sex tape she’d made when she was 23 with her then-boyfriend, singer Ray J—which somehow got leaked just before Keeping Up made its debut—into a massive windfall, cutting a deal with porn giant Vivid that ultimately netted her a reported $4.5 million. Granted, there were missteps along the way (her 2010 partnership with Charmin toilet paper was in hindsight a mistake), but by 2014, she was earning $28 million a year and landing on Forbes’s Celebrity 100 list.

Her most consequential business decision, though, came on March 21, 2009. That’s the date Kim posted her first tweet (“Hey guys it’s Kim Kardashian! I finally signed up for Twitter! There are a few fakes so just know this is the real me!!!”). The merger of Kim’s super relatability with the internet’s ultra-accessibility was a turning point for humanity, not unlike when Skynet gained self-awareness. Over the next couple of years, as Kim infiltrated and dominated every new social media platform to come along, she would all but invent the modern-day influencer economy, pioneering the first sponsorship deals (for everything from detox teas to jewelry to morning-sickness pills). Her sisters followed suit, leveraging their own smaller but still humongous social media clout to earn money and sometimes just cause trouble (Kylie nearly sunk Snapchat when she announced she no longer used the app). Before long, Kim and her sibs were selling their own stuff online. Kylie was first, in 2015, with her cosmetics. But Kim surpassed her in 2017 with KKW Beauty. Initially, she had just one product. But an estimated 300,000 units of Kim’s Crème Contour and Highlight Kit sold out within two hours, generating $14.4 million in sales. More ventures followed, like Skims, Kim’s shapewear brand that has somehow managed to thrive even during the pandemic, when most people are wearing sweatpants, not latex. Earlier this year, Forbes valued that company at “north of $500 million.” That’d be in the same article announcing that Kim was officially a billionaire.

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Kendall, Kim, and Kylie, 2021

HOTO BY HOLLYWOOD TO YOU/STAR MAX/GC IMAGES

In essence, what Kim did was construct her own closed-loop synergistic consumer ecosystem: she used her TV show to establish herself as a relatable role model to millions of fans—people who wanted to live and look just like her—then used social media to sell them stuff designed to help them do just that.

“She was really the first entrepreneur who began to sell products purely by using her own body, her own life, and images of herself,” notes Jones. “None of Kim’s products were sold with traditional advertising in any sense. But that model she came up with is now the most lucrative way to sell things. She was the first to figure that out. It’s all about selling oneself.”

Theory #3

“They’re phonies, but they’re real phonies.”

“I’ve spent time with the family when the cameras were off,” says Harbert. “And they’re the same as when the cameras are on. What you see is who they are.”

For better or worse—and in the Kardashian’s world, it’s often hard to tell the difference—they are 100 percent authentic. And that may well be another reason Keeping Up has been such a hit. Outside of a certain gated mansion in Calabasas, celebrities are generally protective of their private lives. They try to shield themselves and their families from prying eyes. Capturing a famous person in an unguarded moment of spontaneous honesty is incredibly rare and usually highly entertaining (which is why clips of actors like Christian Bale and Tom Cruise shouting at crew members on film sets always go viral). But on Keeping Up, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall spontaneous honesty, often in its most banal and inane form. From the show’s very first scene, in which the size of Kim’s backside is literally the first topic of conversation (she has “junk in the trunk,” Kris observes), and through season upon season of embarrassments and humiliations both large and small—Kourtney catching her boyfriend, Scott, cheating on her; Rob getting caught regifting an iPad to his girlfriend, Blac Chyna; Kim’s meltdown on that zipline during a family trip to Thailand—the Kardashian-Jenners let it all hang out in the most public way possible.

“The challenge with a lot of reality shows is that the people who are on them want to control everything,” says Murray. “So, what you get is something very watered down from what you read about them in the tabloids. But the Kardashians were very smart. They let us tell their story fully. What you saw on TV was just as compelling as what you read about them in the tabloids.”

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Kardashian-Jenner family portrait, 1993

PHOTO BY MAUREEN DONALDSON/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

“Did we sometimes set up a baseball game for them? Or plan trips so that we forced them together? Yes, we did all that kind of stuff,” admits Farnaz Farjam, Keeping Up’s showrunner for all 14 years of the production. “But we never told them to pretend to be mad at so-and-so. We all agreed early on never to do that. Anything that came up in their interpersonal relationships, all of that was authentic. In fact, anytime one of them tried to hold something back, the other sisters would call them out on it. They wouldn’t let them get away with it.”

But, of course, there is such a thing as too much authenticity. When Keeping Up first arrived on the airwaves, the reviews were blistering. The New York Times described the Kardashians as “a family that seems to understand itself only in terms of its collective opportunism,” dismissing the show as “purely about some desperate women climbing the margins of fame.” Others complained about Keeping Up’s message of unrelenting materialism and rampant consumerism. Indeed, the London School of Economics was so concerned, it even conducted a study, finding that just 60 seconds of exposure to the Kardashians made viewers more selfish and less empathetic toward the disadvantaged. Anna Wintour—not exactly a champion of the huddled masses—was said to have despised the Kardashians so much that she walked to the other side of the room if Kim or any other family member made an entrance. The Kardashians, though, blithely ignored it all, and over time the condescending eyeball-rolling started to peter out. (Page Six recently reported that Kim, who filed for divorce in February, is now being pursued by “everyone from royal family members to A-list actors to athletes to billionaire CEOs,” while Kanye is being courted by the likes of Roseanne Barr and Azealia Banks.) Eventually, even Wintour relented, putting Kim on the cover of Vogue. Twice.

Ironically, what the media elite hated about the Kardashians may have been one of the very things fans loved most. The Kardashians did more than just bare their private lives to the camera—they tore open the curtain and exposed the scaffolding behind fame. They revealed to the general public the insane amount of focus and attention and sheer elbow grease (not to mention lip liner) that goes into building and maintaining modern-day celebrity. “I call it glamour labor,” says Elizabeth Wissinger, a professor at the City University of New York who has lectured on the Kardashians at a Kimposium in London. “The Kardashians reveal what goes on behind the scenes in order to appear as hip and cool and amazing as they seem on the screen. They have all these endless YouTube videos demonstrating how to use their makeup. How to make your lips stick out. They show their fans all the work required to be glamorous and famous.”

To paraphrase Truman Capote’s description of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they may be phonies, but they’re real phonies.

Theory #4

It’s their world (and we wish we lived in it)

For all the breakups and bickering, the stolen breast milk incidents and $75,000 diamond earring mishaps while swimming in Bora Bora (“Kim, there’s people that are dying!”), the world in which the Kardashians live is not really such a bad place. In some ways, it’s downright utopian. For starters, they seemed to have licked the problem of racism. Although there have been occasional accusations of cultural appropriation—Kim took some heat in 2018 for turning up at the MTV Movie and TV Awards with a cornrow hairdo while Kylie’s heavy hand with bronzer has on more than one occasion led to criticisms of “Blackfishing”—the Kardashians-Jenners seem admirably color-blind. “They marry or partner with Black men and have Black babies, but race is hardly ever mentioned in the show,” says Jones. “In this way, they embody the American fantasy of the unproblematic mixed-race family.”

They also embody the American reality of the increasingly matriarchal family (according to a recent study by Chase Bank and Refinery29, 40 percent of households in the U.S. are now, like the Kardashians, headed by women). The entire clan is female with just two exceptions, and one of those exceptions—Bruce, the dad—ended up transitioning to female. The other, sibling Rob, more or less disappeared from the show after season 7 to deal with mental-health issues and diabetes, although he started popping up again last year. Still, a case could be made (kind of) that the Kardashians represent a new sort of feminism as they steer their own path, in their $400,000 Lamborghinis, toward a greater awakening of gender equity. Or maybe they’re just heading to the Chipotle drive-through window—it’s hard to say. “I think the Kardashians would love to invoke the feminist moniker,” says Wissinger. “But they’re only sort of feminists. They’re feminists when it works for them.”

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@KIMKARDASHIAN via Instagram

Whatever you want to label them, these are women who clearly know how to garner and wield power. Kim, in particular, has shown an aptitude for politics. In 2018, she persuaded Kanye’s pal President Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, an African American grandmother who’d been serving time for more than 20 years for a nonviolent crime. Kim’s also been active in LBGTQ causes as well as a supporter of charities like the Alzheimer’s Association and has spoken out against the Armenian genocide. For the last couple of years, she’s even been studying on her own to become a lawyer (California allows applicants to take the bar without attending law school) and has said she plans on sitting for the exam sometime in 2022. “Kim has the potential to become president,” insists Jones. “I’m not joking. Look at the last president. Kim would be far superior to that one. Don’t underestimate this woman. She’s only 40.”

Theory #5  

If it’s good enough for Princeton . . .

“Sometimes we just need a break,” Kim recently explained in an interview with an Italian fashion magazine about the decision to finally end Keeping Up. “It’s really simple. We just need a minute to regroup. You know, we haven’t had a break for 14 years . . .  I think there’s no other way to say it other than we just live such big lives. And we have kids now. And they need us.”

But even as Kim was announcing last September that the show would be ending in 2021, the family was already hard at work on plans for their return to TV. By December, they were unveiling a new multiyear partnership with Hulu to “create global content” for the streamer. Exactly what that content will look like and how much the Kardashians will be paid for it is not publicly known, although there have been reports that the Hulu payday will far surpass the $100 million deal the family made with E! in 2017 for Keeping Up’s final seasons. But never mind the details; the bottom line is that despite the end of their current show, the Kardashians aren’t going anywhere.

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Kim in the East Room, 2019. She successfuly lobbied Trump to grant a pardon to Alice Marie Johnson, serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense.

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

That’s great news for fans like Kristen Starkowski, a graduate student at Princeton University who cofounded the Princeton Kardashian Lifestyle Klub, a student organization with 150 members who meet to watch their favorite show and play Kardashian trivia games. “Princeton is an incredibly high-stress environment so the Kardashian Lifestyle Klub was meant as an opportunity for students to take a breather, sit back and relax and watch something really entertaining,” Starkowski says, offering what may be the most intelligent explanation yet for how the Kardashians turned their utter lack of talent into a multibillion-dollar entertainment empire. “Personally, for me, it’s just silly mindless fun. Like, the other night, there was an episode where they’re all doing an obstacle course, sort of competing against each other. What can I say? It was just funny.”


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