Last week, clad in a hot pink velvet bodysuit, Kim Kardashian West hosted Saturday Night Live…and what a scene! The sketch comedy show which has produced big stars from Chris Rock to Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Adam Sandler, and invited some of the most iconic people in the world, added Kim Kardashian to that coveted list. In her opening monologue she cheerfully roasted herself and her family, taking jabs at her husband, and playfully referred to her infamous 2002 sex tape with Ray Jay as her “first movie premier”. Apart from her awkward stage presence and a slightly off comedic timing, I enjoyed watching her perform. For someone who has more often than not been labeled as the “girl with no talent” landing a gig at SNL is just one of her many achievements which has forced critics to rethink her success and how she achieved it all. In 2011, Broadcast journalist Babara Walters said, “The Kardashians are everywhere. Their empire endlessly self-replicating, with spinoff after spinoff. A strange mix of trashy sex, upscale excess, tabloid melodrama, and suburban family life.” It’s intriguing to me that someone who is often labeled as ‘famous for being famous’ can garner so much attention, fan following and grow a legitimate business.
In 1995, the trial of football running back OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman became part of the most watched trials in the US. The trial was heavily publicised, with all the details of the case under constant scrutiny. Robert Kardashian, OJ’s friend and lawyer came into the limelight during this time. Cut to 2006, the matriarch of the Kardashian family (now married to former Olympian Bruce Jenner) and ex-wife of Robert Kardashian, Kris Jenner, pitched a TV show to producer Ryan Seacrest. There is something about reality TV that really attracts us. As an audience, we have the compulsive need to know more about the private and often luxurious lives of celebrities. This curiosity is magnified because of social media and visual apps such as Instagram. Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” This is more true than ever. Videos go viral in seconds, garnering millions of views and providing temporary fame to ordinary people. But even before the age of social media, Kim Kardashian took her 15 minutes of fame to turn it into an empire. The show that the ‘momager’ (A term often used to describe Kris’s role as a mother and manager of her children) pitched would launch the entire family to fame. Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWTK), truly defined an entire generation’s curiosity and reinvented the term celebrity. Part of the show’s success can be attributed to the people’s imagination. With KUWTK, the Kardashian-Jenner clan built on this imagination and curiosity. The show’s success lies in the family’s ability to over-share minute to minute details of their lives. From workout routines, diet plans, beauty treatments, interior designs to plastic surgery and yes, even childbearing, the show captured it all. While the show had a huge viewership it was another video that catapulted Kim Kardashian to fame overnight. A sex tape of her and R&B artist Ray J was leaked, it made the rounds everywhere.
As the show grew, so did the Kardashian-Jenner individuals. They each branched out to start different businesses. Most noteworthy is Kylie Jenner. Her beauty brand Kylie Cosmetics is so successful that Forbes gave her the title of the youngest self made billionaire in no time. Even though the title was then revoked because of financial discrepancies, she still amassed a fortune worth $900 million. The success of her brand is a direct result of her outreach on social media. She remarked that even before she started the brand, she had a very strong reach. Kylie has 175 million plus followers across platforms including Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. What is commendable is that all the Kardashians and Jenners have been able to take advantage of their enormous social media presence and cut back on advertising costs. This is an extremely smart strategy. Saving millions on outreach, be it Khloé Kardashian’s clothing company Good American, Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle brand Poosh or Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty, they’ve truly tapped the market. This consumer driven market strategy has hit the bullseye. The Kardashians remain relevant because unlike other celebrities, they do not shy away from the limelight. They continue to post about what they eat, what they wear, where they are, in the moment. This constant presence is an extension of the reality show itself, which marked its last season in June 2021, except now instead of the long drawn process of actually making the show, they have an audience at their fingertips. Another simple yet successful recipe for the Kardashians has been the motto – ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Kim’s sex tape scandal launched her career. Similarly, Kylie Cosmetics was a result of tabloids observing that Kylie’s lips had somehow changed to become voluptuous overnight thanks to lip fillers and cosmetic surgeries. She launched her famous lip kits even before the criticism died down. This goes to show how the public mindset works. In any given tabloid, the section on the Kardashian family is read by lovers and haters alike. I find myself having a similar love it or hate it attitude while I guiltily skim through episodes of KUWTK. They don’t need to be loved by all audiences for them to succeed because even when you’re busy hating them, you are still thinking about them.
In 2014, the April edition of Vogue created shock waves when its cover revealed Kim Kardashian in a strapless white gown with her then fiancé, hip-hop maestro Kanye West. Twitter was flooded by criticism of making a cover girl out of a celebrity with no real talent. However, responding to the backlash, Vogue US editor and one of the most powerful figures in fashion, Anna Wintour wrote, “Part of the pleasure of editing Vogue… is being able to feature those who define the culture at any given moment, who stir things up, whose presence in the world shapes the way it looks and influences the way we see it.” And Kim does have that cultural and social impact. She is the master of publicity, something that she probably inherited from her mother. Despite the Twitter backlash in 2014, the Kardashians have definitely influenced fashion trends. From bodysuits to latex dresses, the family has created waves in fashion. Their most enduring contribution is the athleisure trend. From fast fashion to powerhouses, to Balmain and Tom Ford, they’ve infiltrated it all.
In 2020, David Letterman invited Kim Kardashian on his show ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’. Letterman, who invites global personalities like Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai and Milinda Gates for a tête-à-tête on his show, said that he highly misjudged Kim Kardashian. In 2013, he interviewed Kim and Kourtney on his ‘Late Show’, where he was a bit rude to the sisters. However, as he invited Kim on his Netflix show he said, “After we met with Kanye West [for the previous season of the Netflix series], I had a long talk with her at their home, and I started to think about how I had used her as a joke and regarded her as someone not to be taken seriously. I found that that impression was not the end of the story. She had a family. She has her prison reform program. I won’t comment on the ease of being married to Kanye West. And if she can keep a show like that on the air for all those years, that’s an accomplishment. If you can stay in business on television that long, good for you.” And Kim, in a sense, does define the consumerist and capitalist culture we live in. While she may not have “real talents” in the traditional sense, she has a strong business acumen and is a publicity guru.
In 2016, just before her 36th birthday, Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in her rented apartment in Paris. The days leading up to that fateful day, Kim posted a selfie with her $4 million ring and several other photos of the Paris Fashion Week. According to reports, the robbers looted her of more than $9 million worth of jewellery. Since then many have speculated that Kim staged the robbery to garner public interest and gain even more followers. However, this seems like a price one is bound to pay for giving up the privacy of their life to the public and social media.
Deep Dive is a weekly column written by Ashini Jagtiani exploring subjects that have revolutionised the socio-cultural fabric of society.