LOS ANGELES, United States — It’s 10am at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Kim Kardashian West is eating pancakes. Wearing a pair of sweatpants and a cosy, comfy hoodie, her hair is a platinum blonde, gently waving down to her shoulders, with dark roots poking through at the top. With more than 200 million followers on social media, Kardashian has transformed herself from a reality TV star into one of the most famous women in the world, and easily the world’s most recognisable digital influencer at a time when the business of influence is in flux.
“This morning I slept through. I was 40 minutes late for my workout — I’m never late, never!” she exclaims as we dig into our breakfast. “I’m so micromanaged. I was planning my workout before the kids wake up, at like 6:30am, had my whole day planned to the T, and I guess I needed the sleep. I feel so fulfilled, but overwhelmed, but in a good way, but never busier.”
Indeed, while the reality-star-turned-mega influencer is, true to her reputation, punctual, she is also much more normal and down-to-earth than one might expect. Kardashian, 37, is a mother of three and has the same struggles as working mothers everywhere.
“I’m on like. Full. Force. Work. Mode,” says Kardashian, pausing between each word for emphasis. “I’ve never worked this hard. Back in the day, we’d get up and do these satellite media tours, and start hair and makeup at three in the morning, and have to be live at five. I thought that was working hard. Now, I feel like just juggling a relationship, kids, being a mom, work, is just a different kind of experience.”
In January, she and her husband, the prodigious rapper Kanye West, had their third child. Chicago was born via a gestational carrier in January as doctors had advised the couple Kardashian would not be able to carry another child to birth safely.
More recently, Kardashian’s social accounts have been filled, not just with carefully curated images of her life, but also with campaigns for her new beauty and fragrance businesses. The company declined to disclose financial information, but according to market reports the company sells an estimated 350,000 units per product launch, which could result in an estimated turnover of more than $100 million in revenue in its first year. Not bad at all for a first-time beauty entrepreneur who many have dismissed as having no talent.
Could Kim Kardashian’s secret talent — the one thing that everyone has claimed she did not have — be that she is actually a savvy businesswoman?
Could Kim Kardashian’s secret talent — the one thing that everyone has claimed she did not have — be that she is actually a savvy businesswoman? During a couple of conversations with her over the next few months, I learn first-hand about her work ethic, her fears and her dreams, and the whirring machine of content creation that keeps the Kardashian juggernaut growing and growing.
But it all started with a television show, so that is where our conversation begins.
Becoming a Reality Star
“I had worked in my dad’s office for so many years, but I didn’t have a career and I didn’t love college. I went [for] four years but I didn’t graduate. I just sat there and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” she recalls a few months later, her hair now a deep, dark brown, after a day-long shoot for the cover of BoF’s latest print edition.
“At one point I was in my early 20s and I was like, ‘I’ve got to figure something out.’ And then I saw that Jennifer Lopez did this movie and she was 28 years old. And I was like, ‘OK, I have a few more years,’ not knowing that at the time she had to work forever to get there — but I felt a sense of relief, like, ‘OK I have a little bit of time.’”
“When I was really young I always was — it’s the weirdest thing — but I loved [MTV’s] ‘The Real World,’” Kardashian continues, matter-of-factly. “And I would say to my best friend’s dad who was a manager, ‘You should be my manager! and when we’re 18 I’m going to send a tape into ‘The Real World’ because I have to be on a reality show.’ Like that’s it! It clicked. This is what I want to do. And then the producers that produced ‘The Real World’ produced my show, so it kind of all came full circle.”
Her “show,” “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (KUWK), now in its eleventh year, features her immediate family — her mother, Kris Jenner, her ex-stepfather Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce), sisters Khloé and Kourtney, brother Rob and half-sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner — making the Kardashians a global celebrity phenomenon at a scale unlike anything the world has seen. Airing on the E! network, and syndicated around the world, the show can make for pretty astonishing, albeit vacuous, viewing, complete with family quarrels and ridiculous drama, revealing intimate personal details that others might find uncomfortable sharing with the world. But it’s precisely this openness — and shameless self-promotion — that the world has found so fascinating.
At the core of the show is the Kardashian clan’s dynamic. “My family has [played] a huge role. I remember when we talked about doing the show, and it was me in all the meetings, and I’m like, ‘I’m really not that exciting. I definitely need my family here, or it’s not going to work.’” The TV company balked, thinking there were too many characters for a show like the one they had in mind. “We were like, ‘No, it’s our dynamic, take it or leave it,’” she recalls.
Last October, E! extended the KUWK show for another five years for a reported $150 million, according to TMZ, the snarky website known for breaking news about Hollywood.
I ask Kardashian what it’s like to be under constant surveillance, to be the most watched woman in the world, and to have to constantly capture content to keep her channels populated with content that engages her fans. “Not everyone is made for it, for sure. It does break so many people. There’s times when I definitely feel overwhelmed. People assume that everything is so public, and that you put everything on the show, and that you’re not really entitled to have anything secret or to yourself.”
Images of Kardashian have the power to travel like wildfire across social platforms, where content is the ultimate currency. “My career came about at a time when social media was just starting and I took advantage of it and I figured out how to use it to my benefit,” she says gamely. Paid Instagram posts by Kardashian, who has been engaged to promote everything from morning sickness pills and meal replacement shakes to Calvin Klein underwear, can reportedly go for as high as $500,000.
What does she think of the criticism that “influencers” like her don’t really do anything, that they’re just famous for being famous? “People said that about me all the time. And what do you do when you’re just famous for being famous? Well okay, I’m here, does it matter? That title just was stupid to me — always,” she says, underscoring that, like it or not, the influencer phenomenon is reshaping consumer marketing. “If they are famous for being famous they’re still important; people are still taking their advice; people are still paying attention to them whether they are speaking about fashion or beauty or activism. They’re very important.”
Still, as important as they may be, anytime anything Kardashian appears anywhere on the internet, there is an inevitable backlash. The family has as many haters as it does fans. “You have to be a strong person to just handle all the negative comments and the negative energy that comes your way, because if you put yourself out there, [it’s] the nature of the internet [that] everyone’s going to want to hate,” she continues. “That trolling energy that everyone puts out there, that negative energy, is really hard to deal with. It’s really, really tough.”
Indeed, Kardashian’s non-stop visibility also has a dark side. During Paris Fashion Week in October 2016, she was tied up and robbed at gunpoint after a gang of robbers tracked her movements on social media and broke into her hotel room. Millions of dollars worth of jewellery, including an engagement ring worth a reported $4 million, were stolen. As with all things Kim, the incident became a global talking point, known to the Paris police as L’Affaire Kardashian, which is still being pursued in the French courts.
There is power in having the evolution of owning my own businesses and starting from the ground up.
For several months afterwards, Kardashian went completely dark on social media. “I used to have really bad anxiety going to restaurants, thinking people are going to know that I’m at a restaurant and that my home is empty, and that they might go to my house and try to take my stuff, or they might know exactly when I’m coming back if they’re timing it and watching, if I’m out in public. I started to get this phobia of going out.
“It was supposed to happen to me. I was supposed to learn a lot from that,” she adds, reflectively. “[Those] little signs along the way, you really do have to pay attention. And for me that made me a better person morally and just for the things that are important to me; how I’m going to raise my kids or just what I care to show. I’m really cautious of all of that now. I don’t really post in real time anymore,” she continues. “I just don’t like people knowing my every move.”
Building a Beauty Business
By January 2017, following a three-month absence from social media, Kardashian slowly started posting again as her focus turned to the beauty business she had been concocting after years of simply lending her name to other people’s products and promoting them on her social media feeds.
“I’ve transitioned from having everything in license deals, where you just basically get your list of requirements that have to be fulfilled and you do them — and I’m very happy to do them — but it’s a completely different game when every last detail is yours,” she explains. “I see how much work goes into owning a brand yourself, instead of just being a licensee. There is power in having the evolution of owning my own businesses and starting from the ground up and really figuring it out.”
Launching her own business also necessitated splitting from her sisters, with whom she shared a beauty licensing deal. “We had Kardashian Beauty together, so I said, ‘If you think about it, we’re getting one licensing deal, and we split it three ways. That doesn’t financially make sense. It should be three licensing deals.’ They definitely understood,” she says of her sisters Khloé and Kourtney. The Kardashian Beauty deal was also fraught with legal issues with the licensing partner and Kardashian learned the hard way that licensing deals can come with issues around control and execution.
“I’m so happy that I did not license my name in like a 10-year deal or something crazy,” she says now looking back. “I never did long term. I know people had wanted to do like 12-year deals, so these crazy deals that people want to do and license your name, and at the time you think there’s nothing on the horizon that’s better, and give in, and a lot of people don’t believe in themselves enough. That’s something that I’m so proud of my husband for. He’s always believed in himself so much, that he’s never given up his name or business,” she says.
Did she learn that from him? “I totally did. Maybe even if I didn’t understand it at the time — because I was still doing licensing deals — when he and I got together. So many deals that I thought were amazing at the time were presented to him. So many different companies wanted to buy his Yeezy brand, and he always said no. And I thought at the time, ‘Wow, they’re offering you a lot of money, are you sure you don’t want to take that deal?’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely not, it’s not about that, it’s about having something that is 100 percent me,’” she says.
“Now I feel like I’m in that position that he’s in, where I like having all of my business, even if it’s 10 times more work. I’d rather put work in, and know that, okay, that’s all mine,” she says. “Obviously, financially if you own a business 100 percent and you have no one to answer to, creatively you can get exactly what you want,” she adds.
When it came to thinking through her launch strategy, she turned to another sister. Twenty-year-old Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics business created a veritable beauty quake when it launched in November 2015 with a single product — $29 lip kits — that sold out in mere seconds. Re-orders were placed over and over again, and those sold out too. The line has now expanded to include eyeliner, blush and brushes. In total, Kylie Cosmetics racked up $420 million in revenue in its first 18 months and is on track to become a billion-dollar-a-year brand by 2022.
“For the first 18 months she only had lips, and that really worked for her. I wanted to start with one product, I saw how successful that was for Kylie, and we’re all in this together as a family, so why not learn from each other?” acknowledges Kardashian, adding that she doesn’t see their businesses as competitive. “I always wanted to establish my brand really separate from Kylie’s — start with skins, start with different products than she used. We keep them very separate.
“But I know that skin is a bit different, and I was nervous, because it’s harder for a lot of people that don’t understand contour,” she says. “I wanted it to be as user-friendly as possible, to show people it’s like big crayons for your face, you can draw on, and just blend. You just have to know your angles. If there’s something you like, or don’t like — I know I always want to emphasise my jawline, so I’ll do contour under it, and then I’ll highlight right on top to make that pop. I won’t highlight right here on my nose, because that will just make it stand out, but I’ll highlight here and above.
In this generation you could just start right out of the gate with a great social media plan.
“Most people would just sell one [product], just the concealer. But I really do it in three steps. So why wouldn’t I market exactly how I do it and then come out with three products?” she insists. The $48 contouring kits launched in June 2017 and came in four shades: light, medium, dark and deep dark, each with a dual-ended contour stick, a dual-ended highlighting stick and a dual-ended brush.
The initial run of 300,000 contouring kits sold out within a few hours, generating $14 million in revenue. “It’s that rush and that adrenaline for me. I’m online, I’m seeing who’s online, our customer accounts, just the numbers, like what’s selling, what’s selling out, what’s this, what’s that, live tweeting, ‘Oh my gosh, the light colour sold out.’ I get so excited, it’s this crazy rush. It’s so much fun.”
But using social media to sell a product is something that Kardashian has had to learn over the years, first by promoting other people’s products and now by selling her own. It’s not as simple as putting up a few Instagram posts, especially in a category like beauty where so much of the business has traditionally been driven by in-store demonstrations.
A big part of the Kardashian sales formula is turning makeup tips into easy-to-access online tutorials, often alongside her treasured makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic, and other influencers.
“I hope that my makeup can teach people what my makeup artists have taught me in the easiest way. Just that simple. And so these are my tricks and secrets of exactly how I’ve done it. You have to have demonstrations, you have to show [a lot about] application — I always do tutorials. It’s so important to show as much as you can, to have your own digital display.
“In this generation you could just start right out of the gate with a great social media plan, but it’s a lot of work. I think that having to come up on YouTube and having to put in the work... it is a lot of work what those in influencers and bloggers do, they really take it seriously and spend the time on social media. They’re not just sitting at home and being lazy on a computer. I think sometimes you might not understand how much hard work goes into that.
“With social media these days, you can really start your own business, [and] market it and promote it in the way that you want to,” she says. “Obviously, the more you post, the more attention it gets. It’s a fine line of flooding your account, though. When I have a launch coming up that I’m really excited about it, I love my campaign images so I’ll post a lot. Then sometimes I’ll look back at my page and I [be] like, wait, there’s so much content,” she says. “I don’t want people to think I only use it for a marketing tool.”
So, how does she use the various social platforms? “Snapchat has the best filters, so I’m always using their filter, their camera for posting. With Instagram, it’s this, like, mood for me. I’ll post how I’m feeling, what I want to do, what I do. That’s my mood. If I’m in Japan I’ll put in all these inspo pics and I’ll just, that’s my vibe of what I’m feeling that week. So I think that’s a good insight [into] my personality and what I’m feeling. With Twitter I really communicate with people the most,” she says. “I look at that as the most interactive, but a great focus group too. I really do respect and value their opinions and I’m asking questions and love conversation back and forth. I love to live tweet if our show’s on, if something’s going on.”
Kardashian insists her use of social channels is as much about getting feedback as it is about promoting her line, like a real-time focus group. “I think I [first] realised that it was going to be really beneficial when I was launching my first fragrance and it was a black bottle,” she recalls. “I couldn’t decide on the colour pink [I wanted], so I posted on Twitter a photo of each one: ‘Hey guys, I can’t decide on the colour pink. I’m going to let you choose which colour, this pink or this pink?’ And it was the best focus group ever,” she says. “But I thought, ‘Wow, I really got such a good response and I’m going to listen to them. This is what they want and I’m going to give it to them.’”
She admits that when her contouring kits first went live, the feedback wasn’t universally positive. “I did see a lot of people thought there wasn’t enough product. So that’s what I’m learning from the manufacturing team,” she says. “I want to make the contour sticks bigger, so you can still get the kit with the little brush, and have that as an option to buy the kit, or I’m going to make separates [that are larger] in size. We’ve been working on that. I heard loud and clear that they want more products.
“The thing about my brand is if I see a lot of people that don’t like something I love to change it. And I love to fix that. And because it is my own company and I do have the luxury to do that, I do make those changes. And I will restock items with all the advice that they have given me to make those changes. I feel like people feel like they’re in on it with me. They’re helping to build this brand.”
Looking to the Future
Since our initial interview in October, Kardashian has added other products to the mix and separated the kits into individual products. In December, she released a series of Ultralight Beams (lip glosses and highlighting powders), as well as individual Crème Contour Sticks and Crème Highlight Sticks (two lights, two mediums, two darks, two deep darks). In March, KKW Beauty released concealer kits (a combo of liquid concealer, setting powder and brightening powder), followed by the KKW x Mario Collection of eyeshadow palettes, lip glosses and lipsticks. And, not to be forgotten is an entire fragrance enterprise marketed under a separate business called KKW Fragrance, launched November 15, with three gardenia-based scents: Crystal Gardenia, Crystal Gardenia Citrus and Crystal Gardenia Oud.
“I have a whole KKW Beauty side and a whole KKW Fragrance side. I think people do view it as one big beauty brand. It’s two different companies run by two totally different people, two different warehouses. I am working on trying to get it all in one so that shipping can just be easier,” she explains. “I just think it is fascinating that you can buy product online without trying it. And how hard it is to test your colours and as much information — it’s just it’s crazy that you can sell fragrance without anyone even smelling it, if you describe it well enough, and if they really believe in you. That’s where the influencers come in because everyone likes to review product and put different messages out there of what they’re liking and what they don’t like.
“The next fragrance I have coming out in May, KKW Body, is so amazing. It is a sculpture, basically, of my body,” she reveals. “It’s really cool. The scent is so good, I’m so proud of it. It smells to me like what I would think golden smells like, even though that’s a colour and something that’s just luminous.”
Looking ahead, Kardashian says she hopes to sell her business and exit one day. “I just want to grow my business. I am really cutting down on everything else that I’m working on except for beauty and fragrance. If there’s a project that I’m going to work on or endorse something or be a part of it, I’m really going to [have to] like it because of my time management. I see my beauty business building up into a large company that hopefully I can sell one day and just run it, and always be in charge.”
But exactly how big could this business become? “I don’t have a number in my head, but I do believe that it will be really, really big. I think hard work pays off. And I just want the product to speak for itself. It’s a lot. Doing this all year round, there’s so much pressure, because you’re the only person that you can really go to if you mess up,” she says like a true entrepreneur. “You have to come up with the campaign ideas, packaging, product, formula. I mean every last thing, you cannot forget, and you cannot mess up, or the internet will not let you forget.”
Indeed, while the digital breadcrumbs of Kardashian’s life will never be forgotten by the internet, her future success will depend on proving the Kardashian brand can last well into the future.“I think, obviously at the beginning you can get a little bit of attention, and then it’s kind of what surrounds you and who you are that I think can carry it on — or fizzle it out,” she says.
And, in the fast-moving beauty business where product trends and marketing tactics are evolving at the speed of the internet, Kardashian, like the beauty behemoths whose business models she is challenging, will also have to stay nimble and evolve her offering if her business is to survive and prosper in the years to come.
“I’m learning stuff still with my brand. There’s so much more that you know and when you start learning more you get so much more passionate about it and you fall so much more in love with it,” she reflects. “It’s like when you stay in a hotel and you spill your drink and you’re like, ‘Oh sorry,’ but if someone spills a drink in my home I’m getting all the cleaning bags and cleaning it up myself. It’s such a difference, and you take such good care of it. You just want to make sure that you know you’re doing the best that you can.”
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