How the Kardashians Have Forced Us to 'Keep Up' for 10 Goddamn Years
In the past decade, Kim Kardashian went from being Paris Hilton's stylist to an inescapable media figure who has been compared, seemingly sincerely, to Andy Warhol. Here's how she did it.
Photo by Samir Hussein via Getty Images
In 2007, Kim Kardashian was more or less famous, but she wasn't exactly respected; she was known as a stylist and Paris Hilton's ex-sidekick, but she was best known for a sex tape that had been released against her will. At the time, reality stars from shows like The Bachelor and The Hills dominated tabloids, but they weren't taken seriously. When Keeping Up with the Kardashians first aired, Kim Kardashian and her family were no exception to this rule: "Designers wouldn't even lend her clothes," says pop culture critic Perez Hilton.
Clearly, things have changed since then. A teaser trailer for last night's 10th anniversary special, released last week, slyly acknowledged this fact. It's a recreation of the show's original opening titles, in which the family struggles to pose as a group in front of a cheap-looking backdrop. In this new version, we see each family member on their way to the set, with their personal intros highlighting the numerous empires the Kardashians have built over the past decade: Matriarch Kris gazes coolly out of a private helicopter, directing the pilot, ever in control of everything; Khloe strides confidently out of a weightlifting session, a nod to her newfound passion for fitness; Kendall, who's now considered a supermodel, rushes off a fashion set, and so on.
Kim is late, just like in the original opening, but now she's shown to be statuesque, regal, nearly godlike as she's fitted into a glittering body suit. But the family is still meant to be relatable, somehow: After her fitting, Kim rushes onto set, where her sisters and mom are exasperatedly waiting. She then poses dramatically and obscures her sisters from view ("Oh, come on," Kendall groans), and then Kylie steps aside and yanks the backdrop down—just like 10 years ago.
The teaser showed the dizzying heights of fame to which the Kardashians have risen, but it also reveals what has made the family so captivating: They're simultaneously just like us and unfathomably unlike us, an all-American family that's also insanely wealthy, famous, and untouchable. During the anniversary special, host Ryan Seacrest focused on the moments that made the family stand out for their eccentricities: Kylie knowing how to work a stripper pole at nine years old, for instance, or Kim snapping a selfie when Khloe was on her way to jail.
How did we get here? In essence, the "notoriety" of Kim's sex tape helped put her family on the map. But their ascent into the upper echelons of celebrity was far more deliberate than that. As Kris Jenner put it in her 2011 autobiography: "Every time we renewed for another season, I would think to myself, 'How can I take these fifteen minutes of fame and turn them into thirty?'" The answer came through savvy manipulation of the news cycle and the tabloid media, which served both as a means of keeping fans interested and as a way to drive viewers to the show and its various spin-offs: In 2009, for instance, Kourtney announced that she was pregnant but declined to name the father. "You're going to have to see on the show," she said. Kim similarly announced her pregnancy three weeks before the third season of Kourtney and Kim Take Miami, and didn't reveal the baby's sex until the first episode of the following season of KUWTK.
This strategy was wildly successful until it backfired: Kim's 2011 wedding special, which chronicled her engagement and marriage to Kris Humphries, attracted 10.5 million viewers. But when the couple got divorced just 72 days later, however, cynical audiences accused Kim of getting married as a publicity stunt. The New York Post called the wedding a "Big A$$ Sham," while SNL mocked her with a faux "Kim's Fairytale Divorce Special" segment. ("I know a lot of people think that Kim got married just to earn $17 million from the wedding, but that's not true," Kristen Wiig impassively intoned, in an eerily accurate impression of Kris Jenner. "She also got married for attention.") In January of 2012, the Post proclaimed that the Kardashian brand had become "absolutely toxic."
By April, however, Kim had gone public with her relationship with Kanye West, once again changing the media narrative around her. Kayne is often credited with helping Kim rehab her image—he re-styled her, and in 2013 advised her to sign on with a new publicist to cultivate her own brand, separate from her family name. But Kim still struggled to be taken seriously. Her 2013 Met Ball look, which resembled a floral couch, became a running joke online, and she was notoriously cropped out of a photo of Kanye that ran on Vogue's "Best Dressed" list.
In 2014, the couple now known as Kimye wed, bringing the Kardashian family a degree of legitimacy they'd never before enjoyed. Later that year, Kim and Kanye covered Vogue—a career milestone for Kim, and one that previously seemed impossible. "Kim wouldn't have gotten on the cover of Vogue if it hadn't been for Kanye," says Perez Hilton bluntly. Amanda Scheiner McClain, an assistant professor of communications at Holy Family University and author of Keeping Up The Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality, puts it more gently: "Kanye remade her fashion style, revamping her look from youthful California party girl to sleek yet curvy high-fashion model, resplendent in couture," she tells Broadly.
In 2015, Kim released an art book titled Selfish, which was entirely comprised of selfies she'd taken over the past few years. Its critical reception was a clear indication of how much had changed since 2011, and how the public had reconceputalized her relationship to fame: Selfish was hailed, pretty much universally, as a piece of high conceptual art. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz called it America's answer to My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard; i-D declared Kim "the Andy Warhol of our time." Scheiner McClain describes the book as "a non-ironic art photography project examining notions of beauty, celebrity, and narcissism." Some feminist critics saw the book's publication as an act of empowerment, noting that Kim had included several nude photos that were released without her consent in the celebrity iCloud hack the year before. The fact that Kim was fully owning her public image—including the criticism that she was vapid, talentless, and self-obsessed—was seen as bold and revolutionary. Long dismissed for being famous for being famous, Kim Kardashian had managed to turn celebrity into a type of performance art.
Today, the Kardashians are arguably America's most famous family. "The cycle of news and people's attention has never been as long as it has been for the Kardashians," explains Hilton. Their TV show may not bring in the viewership it once had—especially since most of us get our Kardashian updates in real time, via social media or tabloid news—but it's a part of what keeps the conversation going about them. There's also the fact that they still manage to surprise us: Just two days before the 10th anniversary special aired, TMZ reported that Kylie Jenner was pregnant. The family refused to comment, and most fans assumed they'd address the news on Sunday evening's show. They didn't, of course. Looks like we'll have to tune into season 10 for a definitive answer