The first time the Kardashian family’s private life became part of the public conversation was not in their reality TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians (known as KUWTK), which turned them into global phenomena and will, it was announced this week, end after 14 years and 20 seasons. Nor was it with Kim Kardashian Superstar, the notorious sex tape of probably the best known member of the family, which was released a few months before the launch of KUWTK, leading many to suspect the family used the tape to promote their reality show (the family has always denied this.)
Instead, it was in 1994, when Kim’s godfather, OJ Simpson, sat in her childhood bedroom and contemplated suicide after the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, for which he was widely suspected to have been responsible. Simpson’s best friend was Kim’s father, Robert Kardashian, and Robert later gave an interview to the US journalist, Barbara Walters, in that same bedroom. “OJ was sitting right where you are, Barbara, and as I walked in I saw wrapped in a towel, a gun. I said: ‘OJ, my daughter could never sleep in this bed; she’d know what happened here,’” said the concerned father, giving global interviews in his teenage daughter’s private space. The Kardashian sisters have been accused of being artificial, but they acquired their talent for turning their lives into entertainment naturally.
The Kardashians are often used as a shorthand for all that’s wrong with modern celebrity culture, invariably by people who never watched the often funny, always surreal show. They’ve been blamed for the rise of selfies, butt implants and Botox. (The family are coy about what changes they’ve made to their physical appearance, but it is shocking to compare photos of the parodically glamorous family now with ones of them pre-2007 in which they appear jarringly human.) In an era when the fashionable pose for female celebrities is to encourage “body positivity”, the Kardashians promote appetite-suppressing lollipops and “waist trainers”, and none of it dents their popularity. They are not woke, and arguments over whether they are self-empowered feminist icons or “a bunch of talentless narcissistic brain-dead bimbos” entirely miss the point of them. They are capitalism in human form, utterly meaningless except for the meaning onlookers place on them.
Never mind, for the moment, the Trumps: the Kardashians are America’s true 21st century family. No one else has come close to their omnipresence, their bizarre rise and their fascinating back story. Trump made his money by family inheritance, which feels positively European. 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. Many take a lofty pride in affecting not to know all the family’s K-prefixed names, and for the record, it’s Kris the mother, Kourtney, Kim and Khloe Kardashian, and then – from Kris’s second marriage to Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner – Kendall and Kylie. (There is also a little seen brother, Rob, but men rarely hang around for long in Kardashian world, whether they’re boyfriends or siblings.)
Yet no matter how hard some might try, the Kardashian influence is unavoidable. Open the New Yorker and there is a profile of Kim’s makeup artist, Mario Dedivanovic; turn on the news and there’s Kim giving a press conference at the White House about her efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
“Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of their show, chances are that you’ve bought a Kardashian-fronted or backed something (Pepsi? Calvin Klein? Proactiv?),” one New York Times journalist wrote last year. Kim is married to arguably the greatest musician of the 21st century, Kanye West. Her sisters have been married to or dated some of the biggest hip-hop and sports stars. Whatever you’re interested in, it’s highly likely it’s been Kardashianised.
They are not the first people to become famous via a reality TV show and sex tape. They aren’t even the first people they know to take that route: Paris Hilton, Kim’s sort-of friend, went there first. But the family realised there was far more potential in this path than Hilton mined, partly because their rise coincided with the rise of social media. They can earn up to $1m (£770,000) every time they promote a product on Instagram; last year, Kendall, 24, reportedly earned $26.5m with just 53 sponsored posts on Instagram. The youngest, Kylie, famously caused Snapchat to lose $1.3bn in value when she tweeted: “Soo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me … ugh this is so sad.”
Kim has three times as many followers on Instagram as all of Conde Nast’s US magazines combined. Thanks to social media, the Kardashians are one of the most powerful media companies in the world, and that is how they now make the majority of their money, thereby rendering their TV show pointless. The Kardashians showed the true potential of reality TV and also made it obsolete. Now all wannabe influencers and celebrities use social media to build their brands.
“Are Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie America’s savviest CEOs?” the New York Times asked last year. An even savvier one is their mother, Kris, who is generally referred to as her daughters’ “momager”. In an early episode of the show, Kris supervised Kim’s nude photoshoot for Playboy: “You’re doing great, sweetie!” she called out encouragingly. (In Klassic Kris style, she trademarked the phrase last year.) When it was announced that Kylie, then 20, had unexpectedly had a baby, it was reported that her mother was “concerned” how this would affect Kylie’s makeup line (she needn’t have worried: despite the baby, the makeup made Kylie a billionaire, just as Kim’s makeup line later did for her.)
The reality show was originally Kris’s idea. “She said: ‘We will be vulnerable at all points of impact, no matter what presents itself,’ and that struck me,” the TV producer Ryan Seacrest later recalled. This decision to embrace drama, rather than present solely aspirational versions of their lives, distinguished the Kardashians from Hilton, and helped them to overtake her. Kim’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, her tearful retelling of the time she was held up at gunpoint in her Paris hotel room, the infidelities of the sisters’ boyfriends and husbands: all were captured on the show, and helped the family sell more products.
They have been – often unwittingly – at the forefront of social trends, such as when Bruce came out as transgender in 2015. The release of Kim’s sex tape, as well as her penchant for posting topless photos of herself, sparked discussions of “slut-shaming”. Most of the Kardashian/Jenner women are in mixed-race relationships, reflecting how normal this has become in America, although they have also been accused of “blackfishing”, or appropriating African American aesthetics, in their photos.
Not even the Kardashians can be blamed for the election of Donald Trump, but it doesn’t feel coincidental that the rise of America’s first reality TV president coincided with the rise of America’s first reality TV family. KUWTK – with its often semi-scripted feel – bent the definition of reality to its will, just as Trump, who repeatedly managed to bankrupt casinos, played the part of a smart businessman on The Apprentice. The Kardashians and Trump are a simulacrum of authenticity, and the distance between them can be measured with a finger. They present a vision of dynastic power, unlimited wealth and gleeful tackiness, and they have proved there is a huge appetite for this artifice in the US. Although her husband’s bid for the presidency has stumbled, there has long been speculation about Kim’s political ambitions. While appearing on CNN in 2018 to talk about her prison reform campaign, she was asked if she’d ever run for president. “I guess, never say never,” she replied. At this point, few things would be less surprising.