NEW YORK, United States — Even when bad things happen to the Kardashians, they still make money.
In February, rumours surfaced that the reality star Khloé Kardashian’s boyfriend, the N.B.A. player Tristan Thompson, had cheated on her again, this time with her half sister’s best friend, Jordyn Woods.
Jordyn was so close to Kylie Jenner, the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, that they lived together, and Kylie, who has her own makeup empire, had named several product lines in Jordyn’s honour. That included the Jordy Lip Kit, a matching set of velvety lip gloss and liner in raspberry red.
After days of speculation about the affair, Kardashian devotees noticed the price of the Jordy Lip Kit on the Kylie Cosmetics website had been slashed from $27 to $13.50. Customer reviews of the product began to take an angry tone: “This shade smells like betrayal” and “Be mindful of the shade as wearing it may lead to biting the hand that feeds you.” But it also sold out, almost immediately. And there was a big spike in sales of other Kylie Cosmetics merchandise too.
Khloé’s relationship problems and Kylie and Jordyn’s rift — like every other chapter in the life of this family that has come of age in public — promise to be drawn out in excruciating detail on the 16th season of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” which premieres on Sunday on E!
On the phone the other day, Kylie told me she didn’t know that the Jordy had been discounted and that she called an employee as soon as she heard. She said it had been put on sale a couple weeks earlier as the company switched from white to black packaging. “That is just not my character. I would never do something like that and when I saw it, I was like, thrown back,” Kylie said. “Jordan knows I didn’t actually put it on sale.”
Even so, l’affaire Jordy is emblematic of a well-established Kardashian ecosystem: Family turmoil feeds the celebrity news cycle, which drives interest in the TV show, which then helps to publicise an ever-increasing number of sponsorships and branded products.
In interviews, Kris Jenner, 63, the self-identified “momager,” and each of her five daughters — Kourtney, 39, Kim, 38, Khloé, 34, Kendall, 23, and Kylie, 21 — talked at length about the family business. It amounted to a master class in the art of monetising influence.
Together they have transformed the way diet drinks, designer handbags, doomed music festivals and more (and more!) advertise, including through paid Instagram posts up to $1 million apiece. The sisters are dominating the sneaker industry with multimillion-dollar deals at Adidas and, before that, Puma and Nike (through Kim’s husband, Kanye West). Such is their power to move digital markets that Snapchat lost $1.3 billion in value after Kylie tweeted, “Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me … ugh this is so sad.”
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?). The sisters are a media company if it swallowed a makeup conglomerate, mated with a fashion line and birthed athleisure babies. (Their only brother, Rob, 32, has even backed a few ventures, including a line of novelty socks.)
‘We Will Be Vulnerable’
In 2007, Kris pitched the producer Ryan Seacrest a reality TV series that would follow her three high-maintenance oldest daughters, Kourtney, Kim and Khloé, as they clawed their way to A-list from D-list.
“She said, ‘We will be vulnerable at all points of impact no matter what presents itself and that struck me,’” Seacrest said in an interview. His production company was so fledgling that he had to send an employee to Best Buy to buy a video camera to record a Kardashian pool party that became part of the sizzle reel to pitch E! The cable channel initially passed, but Seacrest convinced executives.
At the time, the family wasn’t well known but Kim was friends with Paris Hilton, at least, and had a sex tape. Kris billed the show as a “modern-day ‘Brady Bunch.’” (That is, if Jan had a sex tape). Kylie and Kendall, now idols to a younger fan base, were just 9 and 11 when the show started. “Kylie and I for a really long time wanted no part of it, we just wanted to go to our rooms and iChat with our friends,” Kendall said.
Kylie now has a daughter of her own, Stormi, one of nine in the next, next generation of Kardashian-Jenners (ranging between 11 months and 9 years, with another on the way). Most started their lives onscreen; a 2010 episode has footage of Kourtney pulling her son, Mason, out of her birth canal herself. (“I think you ripped something, that’s like not normal,” Khloé says in the episode.)
The grandchildren are characters on the show, paparazzi targets, stars of their parents’ social media streams and cherished by fans in the 160 countries who have watched them grow up. “Everybody always says how I pulled Mason out of me!” Kourtney said. “Even if fans see Mason, they say I can’t believe it was that long ago.” Well after Kim has aged out of tube tops, it seems this “Truman Show” of the one percent will live on.
And an expanding menu of Kardashians offers something for everyone. Is body positivity your thing? Try Khloé’s Good American jeans. (“I never knew I was considered chubby until I became famous,” Khloé told me.) Want “working mom” lifestyle products? On April 2, Kourtney will debut Poosh, a beauty and wellness website named after her daughter, Penelope. Or perhaps you’re into oversize camouflage jackets and wedge booties? Kendall + Kylie is there for you.
Most of these labels are sold almost exclusively online and with virtually no marketing budget, thanks to the women’s massive presence on social media. In the first five minutes of Kim introducing her KKW Beauty line in 2017, she sold an estimated $14.4 million worth of product (or about 300,000 items). Last year, Kendall, who has become the world’s highest-paid model, made $26.5 million for just 53 sponsored Instagram posts, according to Captiv8, a marketing firm that connects brands to influencers. Kylie was 15 when Kris took her to trademark her idea to sell matching lip gloss and liner together. In March, Forbes named Kylie the youngest “self-made billionaire ever,” causing heated debate about the definition of self-made. “I can’t say I’ve done it by myself,” Kylie told me, driving to an airport in Los Angeles. “If they’re just talking finances, technically, yes, I don’t have any inherited money. But I have had a lot of help and a huge platform.”
Still, people tend to talk dismissively about the Kardashians as “famous for being famous,” rather than as entrepreneurs with an influence and reach perhaps second only to the reality TV star in the Oval Office. Maybe that’s because they are so unabashedly materialistic (Khloé recently posted an Instagram photo of her 10-month-old daughter, True, in a $160,000 pile of multicolored Birkin bags). Or maybe it’s because they are empowered women who also care deeply about achieving the perfect smoky eye?
Whatever the reason, those perceptions might be changing. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” started as a way for the family to get famous. With their glammed up mix of high-low culture (i.e. driving a Bentley but eating Chipotle), it has since become a kind of infomercial for the Kardashian Industrial Complex. And, regardless of what you think of what the Kardashians are selling, their never-ending hustle is an undeniable lesson in female entrepreneurship. In the first episode of the new season, Kim and Kylie discuss the packaging for Kylie Cosmetics. Later this season, we’ll see Khloé balancing new motherhood with her work with Good American (co-founded with Emma Grede) and Kourtney putting the finishing touches on Poosh.
“I could’ve created anything, but if they don’t show up, or you’ve got a couple weak links, it could’ve been a disaster,” Kris said of her children by phone from Los Angeles, on her way to a photo shoot for Kylie. She had just come from a meeting with Kourtney and attended three other meetings before that. It was 10:30 a.m. “It’s definitely a grind and isn’t for the weary.” At this point, 12 television crew members — already shooting the 17th season — were pointing cameras at Kris through the car window, waiting for her to hang up with me and get out of the vehicle. “People don’t know how much work goes into it,” she said.
‘The Best Madness’
Kanye West was dropping his daughter North off at school when Kim Kardashian West sneaked into her home office, upstairs, to take my call. The couple’s two younger children, Saint and Chicago, played downstairs. In May, they will have a fourth baby, a son via a surrogate — but if you have a pulse and an Instagram account, you already knew that. “I’m frantically trying to get the room ready,” Kim told me. “It’s madness, but the best madness.”
In her living room, she said, there’s a “mood board” that she and Kanye constantly work on: a collection of looks they like, or tweaks they want to make to Kim’s cosmetic, fragrance and accessory lines. She can’t be everywhere, alas. So across the globe in Tel Aviv, a perfect replica of Kim’s face — the almond eyes with the ample false lashes, the cheekbones with the heavy contouring — was sitting in the offices of the eyewear designer Carolina Lemke.
In April, Carolina Lemke will introduce a Kim Kardashian West sunglass collection, its first in the U.S. The shades, black and bulky, some dotted with rhinestones, have already made several cameos on Kim’s Instagram feed. The idea for them came through her friend Bar Refaeli, the Israeli supermodel. “She showed me the commercial she’d shot for them and I thought it was so cute and well done, and she said ‘We should launch in the U.S. and you should do it here!’” Kim said.
Kim emphasised that she didn’t just put her name on these projects. She designed the glasses, got deep into the manufacturing process and dictated what the packaging would look like (and then dictated it again after Kanye weighed in). “It wasn’t like ‘Hey, will you give an endorsement and step into our world,’” Kim said. “It was like, ‘What do you want this to be?’”
She said she’s just as involved with KKW Beauty, KKW Fragrance and the mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, consistently one of the most downloaded games. “If I changed my hair, I’ll let them know — ‘Hey guys, dye my hair right now’ or ‘Make a character with pink hair,’” she said of her frequent talks with the app developers.
Making a brand so dependent on personal appeal means if fans are disappointed, sales can decline. Early last year, when Kylie posted less on social media as she tried to hide her pregnancy, buzz around her brand quieted, analysts said.
“Yeah, a huge part of my business is on social media,” Kylie said. “But it’s important to take those personal moments.” Except for the camera crew?
She laughed. “Besides national television, I like to keep it really private.”
She is using Instagram to define a new level of influencer power, building a billion-dollar company, Kylie Cosmetics, that she fully owns. Kim alone has nearly three times more Instagram followers (132.6 million, at current count) than all of Condé Nast’s U.S. print publications combined, according to Captiv8 data, so why not send those fans to your own online store? Only last year did Kim and Kylie start selling their makeup and fragrances at the chain Ulta, trying to appeal to older buyers.
“I think in the beginning of our careers we got really excited like ‘OMG, a brand wants me!’ and sometimes it might not be an alignment with things you believe in,” Khloé told me. “You step into this whirlwind and this whole life and for the past five, six years, at least, we’ve been very particular about what we do and very authentic — I know that word is so overused.”
A Learning Experience
And yet Khloé and her sisters still post sponsored ads for HiSmile teeth whitening kits and Flat Tummy teas and appetite-suppressing lollipops. After one recent post by Khloé, in which she hawks medically dubious meal-replacement shakes wearing a pink bra and showing off chiseled abs, the actress Jameela Jamil, a frequent Kardashian critic, fired off an angry comment.
“If you’re too irresponsible to: a) own up to the fact that you have a personal trainer, nutritionist, probable chef and a surgeon to achieve your aesthetic, rather than this laxative product … And b) tell them the side effects,” she wrote, listing the side effects, “then I guess I have to."
Kris is sanguine about such criticism. “I don’t live in that negative energy space,” she said “90 percent of people will be really excited about the family and the journey and who we are.” Khloé, fresh from a workout, said that she’s never had a chef and that she posts all of her personal training sessions on Snapchat, well aware that not everyone can afford such a luxury. “Well, listen, I am showing you what to do, silly person, 15 repetitions, three times, here’s the move …” she explained.
Kim defended her family’s product endorsements. Teeth whitening? “I don’t have veneers. People really think that!” Waist trainers? “I got them for my friends after they had babies!” Kendall’s Proactiv deal, widely mocked after Kris teased it on Twitter as a “brave and vulnerable” move? “She never thought she’d ever be able to be a model because of her acne,” Kim said.
Kim also said she turns down more offers than she accepts. When a fast fashion line offered her $1 million for a single Instagram post, Kanye urged her not to do it, saying, “These companies knock off my stuff.” So Kim turned it down. As a thank you, on Mother’s Day, Kanye gave her $1 million himself. “He wrote me a check for that amount and said ‘Thank you so much for always being supportive and not posting,’” she said.
She was also unapologetic about maximising her family’s income. “If there is work that is really easy that doesn’t take away from our kids, that’s like a huge priority, if someone was faced with the same job opportunities, I think they would maybe consider,” she said. “You’re going to get backlash for almost everything so as long as you like it or believe in it or it’s worth it financially, whatever your decision may be, as long as you’re O.K. with that.”
Would a man have to apologise for making easy money? But Jamil has called them “double agents for the patriarchy” who are “selling us self consciousness.” And all of the woman have been accused of selling deceptive products (including a short-lived credit card, which was criticised for high fees and promptly pulled off the market) and of exploitation. Kylie and Kendall recently had to apologise and pull $125 T-shirts featuring the hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, and Kim defended herself against “some people online saying I was doing blackface” in a promotional post for her makeup. She also fixed the photo. Pepsi scrapped its ad that starred Kendall and borrowed imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement. Not long after that, Kendall was scrutinised for her involvement in promoting the ill-fated Fyre Festival. “Girl, you better show up and hand a pepsi to everyone scammed by the fyre fest quick,” read one tweet.
On a break from a photo shoot in New York, Kendall addressed the controversy for the first time. She said she wasn’t a part of the music event and didn’t know much about it when she was reportedly paid $250,000 for a promotional post. But she said she had learned from the experience.
“You get reached out to by people to, whether it be to promote or help or whatever, and you never know how these things are going to turn out, sometimes it’s a risk,” she said. “I definitely do as much research as I can, but sometimes there isn’t much research you can do because it’s a starting brand and you kind of have to have faith in it and hope it will work out the way people say it will.” Even when she trusts her collaborators, “you never really know what’s going to happen.”
And yet, despite such missteps, you have to admire that Kris and Kim leveraged a sex tape that could’ve been a scarlet letter into entertainment gold and a platform so powerful that Kim has visited the White House and made an impact on criminal justice reform, including convincing President Trump to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old sentenced to life for a nonviolent drug offense.
I asked Kim if she’d consider running for office.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “It would be probably the most stressful job in the world, and I don’t think that’s for me.”
Ask enough people how they feel about the Kardashians, and you start to realise that their answers aren’t really about the Kardashians, but about what their lifestyle (or at least the lifestyle they’ve curated on Instagram) says about selfie culture and our own changing aspirations. If previous generations compared themselves to their neighbours, lusting after the slightly nicer house, the sports car, the renovated kitchen, with the advent of social media, “we started to spend more time with people we see on TV and social media than our actual neighbors,” said Lauren Greenfield, a photographer whose documentary “Generation Wealth” chronicles the rise of consumer culture. (She first photographed Kim when she was 12.)
In other words, keeping up with the Joneses has become keeping up with the Kardashians.
The New Season
All of the women told me “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” remains the centerpiece of the empire. But the show’s ratings have sagged and its formula has changed: What used to be a glimpse into a bickering, loving family has become vérité footage of the world’s biggest celebrities, more “Entourage” than “Brady Bunch.” Kim being robbed of roughly $9 million worth of jewellery at gunpoint in Paris in 2016 made international headlines, but only the TV series showed us emotional footage of a traumatised Kim telling her sisters about the attack.
The sisters’ schedules are so hectic that it is now the filming that brings them together. Fans would “think, ‘Oh they desperately want to be famous and we’ve watched their rise’ and now it’s taken the complete opposite effect of ‘We really want to tune in to see the normalcy,’” Kim said. “It’s the complete flip of how it started.” (Many TV show spinoffs the family tried have come and gone.)
The new season of “KUWTK,” as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is so often abbreviated, will prominently feature Kanye, who will be regularly (and novelly) interviewed for into-the-camera confessionals. He and Kim married in 2014 and ever since he has exerted his vision on the show and the family’s related businesses. He’s not just another character coming and going like many of the other men, but a major force behind all of it.
If Kris is the founder and chief executive of Kardashian Inc., Kanye has become the creative director. He frequently texts with the producers, offering input on the opening images which initially had a 1970s sitcom feel and now feature the women in nude tones and sleek, silvery poses. And he shared his thoughts on the backdrop of the confessionals, which now bathe the women in amber light. “He’s a real creative force, clearly, and had thoughts on marketing, thoughts on presentation of the show, on the opening title sequence,” said Adam Stotsky, the president of E!
I told Kim that Kanye’s involvement reminded me of an episode of the show from when they were first dating. In it, she cries as he throws out her clothes during a closet makeover with his stylist. “So, it’s basically like that but for business,” Kim said. “He’ll have a room full of a dozen people or sometimes three of us and we go over packaging and colors and the photo shoot.”
The day I talked to Kris, Kanye had just come over. (They live across the street from each other in the same gated community in Calabasas, Calif.) He pointed to a new piece of furniture. “He said, ‘I really think that little entry table would look better over there. So what did I do? I moved the entry table,” Kris said.
“Keeping Up With the Kardashians” could’ve been a gigantic hit and still faded like “The Osbournes,” another reality show that put celebrity family dynamics on display. Even “The Apprentice,” which attracted 20 million viewers in its first season, had fizzled by the time Trump ran for president, 14 seasons later. “There is no one who can sit here and say they saw or expected this,” Seacrest said.
But Kris insisted that by the second season, she could tell that the show — and her family — had staying power. “I knew we had something, and Kim and I really sat down and made a list of our goals,” she said.
Asked if the sisters had lived up to their mother’s expectations, Kim didn’t hesitate. “Everything she wanted happened,” she said.
By Amy Chozick. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.