How The Kardashians Turned Celebrity Into Something Unrecognisable
The long-running celebrity series has come to an end. The family’s influence on modern culture is incalculable
After 14 years and 20 seasons, the reign of the world’s other royal family came to an end last week with the final episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians — and it felt like the end of an era in other respects for the family.
With impeccable nods to their personal brands, the most-screened members of the family — “momager” Kris Jenner, Kim, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, and their half-sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner — paid emotional tribute to their time in front of the camera by putting memories of the show into a time capsule, all linked to their business interests, from fragrances to clothes from their own ranges.
Kim Kardashian West, whose career has seen one of the biggest rises, and surprises, among her siblings, ends the series on an uncertain note, with the end of her marriage to the chaotic rapper Kanye West, and having failed her “baby bar” law exam which would have cemented her planned course towards a new career. However, she, like the rest of her sisters, has plenty to keep her occupied off-screen.
Khloe, who owns fashion brand Good American, and Kourtney, the quieter sister with the lifestyle brand, Poosh, finished the show working on their relationships with wayward lovers, but the family’s real love affair has always been with their audience. Ratings for the show may always have been low, and reviews dismissive, but viewing figures have always been wildly healthy.
No surprise then that, with a two-part reunion episode in the pipeline for later this month, a new Kardashian enterprise is coming later this year. In December, the Kardashian women signed a deal to create content for the US streaming platform Hulu, with global syndication to follow.
If that sounds odd after spending so many years at the beck and call of production, makeup impresario Kylie — who along with her supermodel sister Kendall, started the show as a pre-teen — explained it: "I don't even know what life is like without filming this show.” Mom Kris has cameoed in another reality series, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but the Hulu deal makes it unlikely that she would join full-time.
When Keeping Up With The Kardashians launched in 2007, it could have been The Osbournes all over again: fun to watch, but nothing more. The show began when the entrepreneurial Kris joined forces with Ryan Seacrest to launch a TV programme about a semi-famous family looking to become significantly more so.
Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob were Kris’s 20-something children from her marriage to the lawyer Robert Kardashian (OJ Simpson’s former attorney). Kendall and Kylie were Jenner’s pre-teen daughters with her husband Bruce, a gold-winning Olympic athlete.
The first sign that this family were not like the average clan was Kim being front and centre in the show, after a sex tape she’d made with a boyfriend in 2003 leaked online. As Paris Hilton’s one-time friend and assistant, Kim knew all about being “famous for being famous”.
The Osbournes were fun and rowdy — but the Kardashians were set to offer break-ups, betrayal, fabulous wardrobes, and ambition in spades.
Ten years later, the family had had, to use the parlance of the Instagram generation, the mother of all glow-ups. Bruce had come out as Caitlin (supported in classic Kardashian style with a documentary TV series, I Am Cait). Kendall was the world’s highest-paid supermodel.
Kylie and Kris had built up a wildly successful beauty business, named after Kylie and inspired by her surgically enhanced lips.
By 2019, the family were far beyond reality of any recognisable kind. Kylie was the world’s youngest self-made billionaire — and self-declared. (Forbes magazine struck her from their list in May 2020, saying her family had gone to “unusual lengths” to inflate the value of her cosmetics business.)
Kim had “broken the internet” with a 2014 shoot for Paper magazine that showed her firing a bottle of champagne into a glass balanced on her rear.
She had also married Kanye West, picked a feud with Taylor Swift, and thanks to her ubiquity on social media, she was arguably the world’s most famous woman since Marilyn Monroe. She was everywhere. The Kardashians were everywhere.
Today, it doesn’t matter whether you watch the show or not. The sheer level of fame to which this family has risen is staggering. As any newspaper or magazine editor will tell you, audiences of every demographic are objectively fascinated by the Kardashians.
A few years ago, I attended a fashion awards ceremony in Berkeley Square where Kourtney was guest of honour. (She was impossibly tiny, like a fawn that someone had taken to a stylist.)
Every person there, no matter how famous, did a double-take at seeing a Kardashian in the flesh.
It has been a long time since the family’s fame was pegged to their TV show. On screen, they come across as funny, personable and stroppy — human beings with the charisma (and clothes) to sustain 19 series.
But the snobbery surrounding reality television — the show holds a rating of 2.8 out of 10 on IMDB — means that many people have only seen the Kardashians in their subsequent incarnation, as social-media influencers. And it’s here that things begin to tread a very dangerous line.
The intimacy of the family’s life on screen is worlds apart from their stranglehold over the internet. On social media, they have influenced an “always online” generation more than anything or anyone else.
The “Instagram look” — a heavily made-up face, with thick brows and false eyelashes, and an hourglass body to match — is a signature of the Kardashian brand.
In fact, since their Insta-domination began in 2012, accounts such as @celebface have sprung up to document how other celebrities doctor original press photographs, using apps such as FaceTune to make their waists smaller and bottoms even curvier.
Online, the Kardashians, and Kim in particular, have become avatars rather than humans; the must-have female “look” of the 2010s was that of a sexy, improbably perfect and completely expressionless robot.
Others tried and failed to follow their example. Maybe it was simply too silly to do, unless you were in on the joke. In 2015, Kim released a book of selfies called Selfish, just because she could.
Brooklyn Beckham followed suit the following year with a book of blurry photographs called What I See — but while Kim’s book was self-deprecating, Beckham’s captions were just inane.
Selfish was the moment Kim switched from a jolly girl, someone who would be good fun to go out on the razz with, to the queen of the expressionless sexy-body selfie. Perhaps her analytics showed that smiles garnered fewer “likes”.
Even the armed robbery Kim suffered in 2016 — $11 million (£8.6 million) of jewellery was taken from her at a Parisian apartment — didn’t cause more than a brief hiatus from social media.
Off the back of their online presence, the sisters have earned millions from business interests away from show, with the help of Kris.
Their beauty and fashion enterprises, not their TV show, will keep their pension pots full.
Their only danger, in fact, might be getting in their own way. In 2019, Kim was rightly skewered for trying to trademark an underwear company called Kimono — she later renamed it SKIMS.
Her ex-husband’s once close connection to President Trump also cast a distinct pall. Kim made two visits to the White House during Trump’s presidency, where Trump has commuted sentences of women’s prisoners on her recommendation alone — admirable, but if only Trump had listened to the Justice Department as well as celebrities. Kim might be training to become a lawyer, but she isn’t one just yet.
The Kardashians have given their all to achieve the fame and wealth that they wanted when they arrived on TV in 2007. Now that they have everything, we’ll have to hope that it’ll be enough.
Keeping up with the Kardashians on TV was exhausting, but enjoyable. Now that they’ve helped so many millions to cultivate the same bland beauty as theirs, it would be nice to be able to switch off at last.
– The Daily Telegraph