Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 7, we’re looking back on how reality stars from hits like The Hills and Keeping Up With the Kardashians changed the celebrity media landscape.
The Kardashians, of course, stand on the shoulders of their reality show forefathers.
While the family came to dominate tabloid coverage in the 2010s, dragging tabloid-loving America along with them onto new platforms, they were hardly the first to realize the power that celebrity media could bring them.
Like the godmother of reality TV, Paris Hilton, Spencer Pratt grew up as a precocious, knowing L.A. kid. He went to Crossroads, the Santa Monica school that’s famous for its famous people—Kate Hudson, Jack Black, and Jonah Hill are some of its alums. Bronny James attended for a while until he left for a better basketball school.
It’s probably important to point out that the most successful reality stars—people like Paris, Spencer, and Kim—were Hollywood-adjacent kids with parents who had hanger-on status with celebs. These people were in on the genius of “famous for being famous” long before the rest of the country. It was all show business!
On The Hills, Lauren Conrad and Brody Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s stepbrother, wound up “dating,” and Heidi Montag was Lauren’s best friend and sidekick. Heidi worked as a club promoter and a lot of the show was the girls dressed in going-out tops, talking or yelling at each other at various Hollywood nightspots while the audience breathlessly read the subtitles. Spencer was portrayed as the asshole boyfriend who was the reason Lauren and Heidi’s friendship ended.
Spencer was genuinely Heidi’s real-life boyfriend—they’re still together and married, with a son, 16 years later—but he was also very into getting them famous and using the tabloids to help himself make money.
Spencer insists the Kardashians took their inspiration from him and Montag, a.k.a. “Speidi.”
“Kim literally studied Speidi,” he said. “I will take her to court if she’d like, too, and when she’s a lawyer, she can represent herself. Go back to us at our Millions of Milkshakes appearance—and Kim K, she’s right there watching how Heidi and I, who were so famous at the time, are interacting with the paparazzi.”
Millions of Milkshakes was this totally hilarious 2000s kitsch trend. It was a milkshake place run by a former paparazzo, Sheeraz Hasan, who got stars like Speidi and Kim to come to his shop and … make milkshakes. And there is indeed a video from 2009 of the Kardashian sisters and Speidi hanging out and taking photos in the shop.
Back before she was famous, Kim was redoing closets for celebrities—sort of an organizational guru type. She came in to help tackle Paris’s considerable closet.
After about four or five months of Kim working for her, says Elliot Mintz, Hilton’s former publicist, Paris asked him to invite Kim to a night out.
“I remember in those beginning months, she was always the most conservative, the most reserved,” Mintz said. “She did not drink or use substances. She was level-headed and a great listener. She watched it all take place. She watched how Paris would get out of the car, into a restaurant. Paris’s interaction with paparazzi, Paris’s interaction with people that would come up to the table. She spent a long time watching before she started doing.”
The theme of Kim Kardashian as a careful student of fame keeps coming up, first with Spencer, now with Elliot.
“She may have been at the same places, but behaved somewhat differently,” Mintz added. “I always found her to be a little bit more cerebral and just personality-wise, a more subdued person.”
“Cerebral” might not be the first word that jumps to mind for most people when Kim Kardashian is mentioned. But I think it’s a useful counterpoint to her popular image: Kim and her family were deliberate about getting famous and using that fame for personal business gain. She would build on what Paris Hilton had done with her perfume and clothing businesses, what Spencer had done to court paparazzi attention and tabloid revenue streams.
Right around the time Paris and Kim started hanging out, Eliot Goldberg and Ryan Seacrest Productions were looking for a big hit for E!
The network had become something of a home for celebrity reality shows and Eliot said there was a thirst from audiences just to peek inside Hollywood a little.
The other dynamic that people seemed to love was family. Eliot was working with a casting director named Deena Katz and asked whether she knew of any families that could potentially carry a reality show. She did: the Kardashians were friends. And it turns out that Kris Jenner and Co. had already been trying to shop a reality show about the three Kardashian girls.
After getting word from Katz, Eliot took a meeting with the family and came out convinced they were something. They put on a show in the room, snarking at each other, being generally outrageous.
“The famous quote I always say which has just been so funny and prophetic, [is when] Kris Jenner pulled me aside and thanked me for the meeting,” Goldberg said. “And she said, ‘Let me just tell you one little thing about our family: Shit happens to us. Shit always happens to us and if you do this reality show with us I promise you, shit will happen.’ No truer words have ever been spoken.”
The rest, as we know, was history. And a whole lot of people might argue that Kris Jenner helped make shit happen to the Kardashians.
But it wasn’t inevitable that they would become the much-hated and much-watched icons of the reality era. The family cannily used tabloid reporting on their personal lives to fuel the show’s story lines. And editors were grateful.