Who is Kim Kardashian? It can’t be a wholly ridiculous question, since it’s difficult to give a simple answer about what she does for a living, and in any case plenty of people really do not know. Kardashian is one of the world’s biggest celebrities, but she emerged at a time when social media and multichannel TV fractured and compartmentalised pop culture, making it possible to be super-famous without having an effect on those who don’t actively engage. A pithy primer might be needed, then, and Channel 4’s two-part documentary The Kardashians: Billion Dollar Dynasty provides one.
We start with the 16-year-old Kardashian in a home movie, proclaiming that she will one day be famous. This is a story of fame for its own sake. Kardashian isn’t a singer or an actor, and although she has had millions of pictures taken of her, she’s not a model – instead she’s one of those 21st-century celebs who is famous for being themselves. The template for that career was set by the hotel-empire heiress Paris Hilton, for whom a young Kardashian worked as a personal assistant: archive footage shows Hilton posing for paparazzi with Kardashian, somewhat more glamorous than the average PA, making sure she’s also in the shot.
In 2007, two things happened. The second big event was the E! Network commissioning and broadcasting Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a reality TV series following Kardashian, her sisters and their parents that became an era-defining hit and is essentially still running today, as The Kardashians on Hulu/Disney+. Earlier in 2007, a video shot four years previously, of Kardashian and her then boyfriend having sex, became public, greatly increasing her profile.
While giving us ample reason to speculate cynically, the programme stays neutral on the question of whether Kardashian might have taken inspiration from her former boss, whose own stock had risen as a result of a sex tape being released, apparently without her consent. Kardashian has always strongly denied being involved in the leak of her own tape, just as she has always rejected the idea that her marriage to basketball pro Kris Humphries was a publicity stunt: she filed for divorce in October 2011, weeks after their wedding had turned the season six finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians into a ratings winner.
Billion Dollar Dynasty reminds us that if these life events weren’t orchestrated, they were certainly beneficial. Kardashian reportedly earned $18m from the wedding, while a former E! executive reveals that Kardashian’s mother, Kris Jenner, a fearsome negotiator on her daughter’s behalf, wrangled a better deal from the network on the grounds that the reality show hadn’t made Kim famous – the sex tape had already done that.
Being famous for being famous requires one’s life to be constantly eventful, and another contributor does confess to a minor instance of outright fakery: former Kardashian publicist Sheeraz Hasan says the incident in 2012 when Kim was covered in flour by a mystery assailant was an inside job. Kardashian was launching her new True Reflection perfume, and Hasan realised that while the launch itself would not generate news coverage on its own, the event being ruined would.
The star interviewees, however, are Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, whose stormy courtship featured in The Hills, a reality-TV forerunner to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Montag and Pratt are very much the Salieri to Kardashian’s Mozart. It seemed that they were good at selling a real-ish version of their ludicrous lives to a public driven mad by its love of meaningless celebrity – the former editor of People magazine illustrates the general phenomenon by telling us about the time he bumped Barack Obama from his front page and led with Montag’s new boobs instead – until Kardashian and co came along and made them look like boring, ancient nobodies, almost overnight. Their bitterness oozes: whenever Billion Dollar Dynasty dips, Montag and Pratt pop up to throw some vinegar on it.
“Kim was thirstier than us,” says Pratt, recalling the early days when Kardashian would turn up to other people’s fashion shows dressed more finely than anyone else there, willing herself to become more famous than she actually was. Pratt is in his element when the programme covers the period when Kardashian got her first taste of stardom and said yes to every endorsement going, including being the face of a new upmarket restroom in New York, sponsored by a leading lavatory paper brand. “She was at the opening of the new hottest toilet in town,” Pratt deadpans. “Good for her, because it looks like she got paid.”
Kardashian’s biggest paydays are still to come in next week’s episode, along with Kanye West, Donald Trump and the easily conquered new territory of Instagram. Expect it to be quite a journey.