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An Industry Grows in Calabasas

When ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ ends on Thursday night, it’ll do so having revamped the concept of celebrity altogether

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Fourteen years ago, when Kristen Mary Jenner was still a relatively unknown mother of six with a thing for sweat suits, she met with American Idol host Ryan Seacrest to pitch a show about her family. Since the 1980s, her manicured brood had picked up celebrity connections like Malibu metal detectorists do lost jewelry. Her late ex-husband, Robert Kardashian, was a well-connected defense lawyer who’d been part of one of the most-watched trials in the U.S. Her new husband was an Olympic gold medalist–cum–Wheaties box ambassador. Her daughters from her first marriage had grown up alongside celebrity kids like Nicole Richie. And her daughter Kim was a tabloid accessory to it girl Paris Hilton and the star of a recently leaked sex tape with the R&B artist Ray J. At the time, Seacrest’s production company was in its infancy, and he thought a family-oriented reality show in the mold of The Osbournes could be promising. We’ll never know what exactly Kris said that day, but it was her chance to make the case that she and her kin were not just footnotes in tabloid captions, but compelling personalities in their own right. Neither she nor Seacrest could’ve predicted at that 2007 meeting that, over the next decade, the Kardashian-Jenners would reinvent the industry of fame itself.

The entertainment landscape was shifting in the late aughts, as reality TV and social media cut into industry gatekeepers’ ability to, well, gate-keep. The blockbuster success of American Idol proved there were few things more compelling to an audience than a nobody who was on their way to becoming somebody. So when Keeping Up With the Kardashians debuted on E! that October, it positioned itself as a zhuzhed-up, late-capitalism Brady Bunch: a blended family of well-off strivers who had an insatiable appetite for as much wealth and notoriety as they could muster. The premise immediately struck a chord with Americans, who had long equated fame with success, and—thanks to a hyperactive era of paparazzi and weekly gossip rags—were witnessing up close the breakdown of a hierarchy that once defined the entertainment world. Within a month of its debut, KUWTK became the most-watched show with women 18-34 in its Sunday-night time slot. Still, such botox-injected ambition felt gauche to mainstream critics. The New York Times worried the program was “purely about some desperate women climbing to the margins of fame.” The show’s haters distilled that critique into a cutting taunt: that the Kardashian-Jenners were simply “famous for being famous.”

Nearly 293 episodes later, the family’s self-perpetuated fame is clearly a feature, not a bug. Far before TikTokers were live-streaming themselves sleeping, Kris and Ko. pulled back the curtain juuust enough so we could see the mechanisms of the celebrity industry. As the show’s success fueled the family’s personal makeovers, its members became a living advertisement, oversharing the minute details of their wardrobe, interior design, beauty treatments, makeup routines, workouts, diets, and plastic surgeries. Eventually, the show morphed from cable network oddity to the nucleus of a far larger Kardashian-Jenner-industrial complex, and became a blueprint for navigating the culture of influence that now permeates modern life. As KUWTK rounds out its 20th and final season this week, the family has expanded its tentacles so far that the reality TV show—their founding text—almost feels like an afterthought.

All that being said, returning to the very beginning of KUWTK is a reminder of just how ... creative the family had to get before it became powerful enough to draw designers, professional athletes, and rappers into its orbit. On a scale from reality to scripted, the first season of KUWTK was a sex-obsessed Americana fever dream siphoned from the depths of Kris Jenner’s mind. In the absence of the A-list lifestyle they were gunning for, the family committed to their caricatures: Caitlyn (then Bruce) was cast as a disapproving conservative, Kris as the helicopter momager, Kourtney and Khloé as sarcastic sidekicks, Kylie and Kendall as fast-maturing troublemakers, Rob as the shy soul searcher, Kourtney’s beau Scott Disick as the family punching bag, and Kim as the rising star. Problematic subplots included Kris hiring a babysitter who wears a bikini around the house as she watches the Jenner girls, and Kourtney and Khloé giving a makeover to an unhoused person they found outside the Dash boutique (a story line that they would revisit in the show’s final season).

KUWTK’s perceived depravity was its selling point. Four minutes into the first episode, Kris suggests Kim should discuss her sex tape on Tyra: “When I first heard about Kim’s tape, as her mother, I wanted to kill her,” she says in an interstitial that would eventually be memed to oblivion. “But as her manager, I knew that I had a job to do.” Before the premiere’s credits rolled, the family’s ethos was made clear: Publicity is currency, and no Kardashian-Jenner life event, no matter how personal, would go unmonetized. However standard that philosophy might seem today, it was shocking enough to earn mainstream attention then. The year the series premiered, I was a freshman in a college dorm with no cable. Yet somehow Kris snapping a pic of Kim’s nude Playboy shoot with her pink Canon PowerShot and saying, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie,” is forever burned into my memory. (She would later trademark the phrase.) The shamelessness in their self-promotion was titillating. And it was that same shamelessness that ballooned their fame, making the opinions of onlookers obsolete.

It was also in the early seasons that Kris laid the foundation for her family’s empire. In episodes shot at their now-shuttered Calabasas boutiques, Dash and Smooch, the family arranged for the URLs of the two shops to appear at the end credits. In the second season, they expanded this practice by building plot lines around brands or services that they’d obviously struck deals with, then acknowledging them as promotional partners right above their own shops’ websites. In Season 2, for instance, Kim plugs a laser cellulite treatment as “this big huge machine that basically gives you a massage”; the subsequent end credits read: “Promotional Consideration Provided By: American Laser Centers.” In another episode, Kourtney and Khloé attend one of Caitlyn’s motivational speeches at a regional BMW dealership—what amounted to a sizzle reel for other companies that might want to hire a former Olympic athlete to speak at a conference. By Season 6, Kris was slipping mentions of LivingSocial travel deals into casual conversation with the ease of a QVC host.

The Kardashians channeled that same sly opportunism into shaping their personal reputations. At the time, successful reality shows like Survivor or The Bachelor were, by design, shot and presented in a bubble to maintain their fantasy worlds. In contrast, the Kardashian-Jenners saw media coverage as a useful tool for sparking conversation and establishing trust. They would promote the outlets that threw them softball questions (i.e., Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, or Good Morning America) while simultaneously dismissing tabloid gossip and using it as a way to tease future episodes. By embracing that coverage, they were themselves participating in a meta Rube Goldberg–esque mechanism that generated more media about aforementioned media, which would sometimes even generate an additional tier of media. The end result was always that they remained “part of the conversation.” This strategy also had a more subversive effect, teaching viewers that KUWTK itself was the only place the public could learn the real truth about a particular scandal. The more money, power, and celebrity connections the Kardashian-Jenners tucked into their quilted Chanel flap bags, the more true that became.

By the fourth season, the show had earned them enough fame and fortune that cheesy scripted plotlines were less and less necessary. Khloé married L.A. Lakers power forward Lamar Odom in a whirlwind wedding, Scott and Kourtney got pregnant, and Kim booked one of those sexy Carl’s Jr. commercials. All of this culminated in an all-time KUWTK moment that foreshadowed the show’s darker themes. The family flies to Vegas for Kim’s birthday, where Scott proceeds to drink approximately 600 tequila shots. He returns to the family’s penthouse suite to partake in some light property damage until Kris Jenner—who is about to have a very important meeting with the executives of the supplement company GNC!—screams at him to hide away. The rest of the family goes to dinner with said executives, but Scott crashes the party. After Kris cuts off his drinks, he throws a tantrum that ends in his stuffing a wad of money into the waiter’s mouth. A very pregnant Kourtney looks on with no expression.

In the real world, such an incident might have terrible consequences. But on KUWTK, the stakes of each mistake are lessened by the family’s access to infinite resources. The family’s wealth was a balm that made it OK to delight in their spoiled-super-rich-kid problems, no matter how dysfunctional they revealed them to be.

KUWTK has, over the years, addressed serious topics such as substance abuse, divorce, and the process of transitioning, but the show is at its best when the Kardashian-Jenners are confronted with champagne problems. Case in point: the family’s Season 6 trip to Bora Bora, where Kris Humphries throws Kim off a dock into glimmering turquoise waters and she emerges with just one of her $75,000 diamond earrings. Her wrinkle-free face tries its best to fold into the shape of a sad clown’s as she weeps. “Kim, there’s people that are dying,” Kourtney replies. The joy with which the public mocked this and other minor Kim traumas would eventually inspire her to include an illustration of her ugly crying face in a set of custom “Kimoji.” No matter how low the family’s lows were, they were still ridiculously rich, and people were still dying.

At a certain point, it seemed like the Kardashian-Jenners’ ascent was so rapid that their personal lives could hardly keep up. This was never so apparent than when the airing of Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event in reruns was preceded with a statement that the marriage had already ended in divorce. Watching the 2011 special again all these years later, Humphries is clearly no match for the family’s fast-churning media machine. All the simple jock can do is tend to a sad patch of hair above his lip in silent protest. “Growing the mustache was the last bit of control that I had in this whole wedding situation,” he said before shaving it off and walking down the aisle. The marriage lasted 72 days. Public speculation swirled that Humphries was merely a pawn in the family’s quest for higher ratings. Whether or not that’s true, the end result was that Kim became one of the most desired interview subjects of that year.

Within a few months, the conversation was reset entirely: Kim was dating the most famous rapper in the world, Kanye West. A little over a year before the relationship began, West had staged a rollicking career comeback with the ambitious, hit-filled 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Along with the critical acclaim he received from the release, his penchant at the time for controversial truth-telling and over-the-top performances had earned him a reputation as an unpredictable genius. By pairing up with Kim, he elevated her to a new, respectable echelon of pop culture, reframing her image from that of a tacky social climber into one of a media-savvy muse. Unlike Kim’s last relationship, this appeared to be both a passionate romance and a powerful business partnership. In an early KUWTK appearance, Kanye brings his stylist to Kim’s house to redo her closet, a scene where he encouraged her to lose the push-up bras and get experimental. It was yet another makeover moment, however surreal, designed to appeal to the everywoman: Anyone can reinvent their style, no matter their current fashion. High-fashion taste could be available to Kim and her sisters, not just the crusty ole Anna Wintours who controlled the fashion business. How fitting, then, that after years of shunning Kim from her high-fashion orbit, the Vogue editor-in-chief invited the couple to walk the 2013 Met Gala red carpet, and rewarded them with a cover the next year.

Even if Kanye was encouraging his mate to embrace a more natural look, he shared her passion for maximalism elsewhere. Months after she gave birth to their first child, North West, he rented out AT&T Park for a surprise engagement. Roman candles blazed and an orchestra played Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” as he got down on one knee, the scoreboard flashing “PLEEEASE MARRY MEEE!!!” Watching his ecstatic smile as he slipped a 15-carat Lorraine Schwartz diamond ring on Kim’s finger, you got the sense that this was a man who just might be able to hold his own in Kardashian Land.

The Kanye era marked the pinnacle of the family’s long come-up. The Kardashian-Jenners might be a terrible family, but they were our terrible family, and we were just as implicated in the culture that helped them thrive. But even as they capitalized on the sway of their elevated reputations and the larger influencer boom, chaos shook the family. Lamar’s brothel overdose left the family distraught. Scott reached a new level of deadbeat fatherhood with his booze-fueled dalliances. Rob’s depression and rapid weight gain hinted at the intense pressure of his showbiz environment. Caitlyn’s surprise transition, and an accompanying bitter Vanity Fair interview, pitted her against her family. Kylie got lip injections and became an almost-teen mom. Kim was bound in a Parisian jewel heist. All the while, the family maintained a fabulous schedule, booking magazine covers, shutting down the Palace of Versailles, and attending Kanye’s fashion shows in outfits he’d personally styled for them.

This was a time when the pull of the family’s drama became so powerful that even A-listers like Taylor Swift couldn’t avoid getting sucked in. Kanye infamously interrupted the pop star’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to declare that the award should’ve gone to Beyoncé. The two had since made amends, and ahead of the release of his 2016 album, he’d called to ask if he could mention her in a lyric, permission she granted. When Swift heard the final version, however, she publicly decried it. A few months later, Kim launched a campaign to defend her husband, first calling out Swift’s backpedaling in a GQ magazine interview, then repeating her belief that Swift was being “fake” on an episode of KUWTK. She landed a final one-two punch with a corroborating Snapchat story, launched after the episode, and a tweet overflowing with snake emoji—a cryptic call to action to her fans to drop the same emoji wherever they pleased (like, say, in comments on Swift’s Instagram posts). There was something awe-inspiring about Kim’s decision to take on one of entertainment’s most beloved and media-savvy operators in defense of her husband: This was a woman who could not only take on America’s sweetheart, but who could do so with the sort of promotional heft—a GQ cover, a highly rated TV show, and multiple well-followed social-media accounts—usually reserved for a blockbuster film.

That moment, however victorious, foreshadowed KUWTK’s ultimate fate. Social-media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok would eventually accelerate the world’s consumption of celebrity gossip and eat away at the show’s network television audience. Who cares about recapping some argument that went down six months ago when you’ve got an infinite queue of dramas at the tips of your fingers? Comparing the final seasons’ protracted adult plotlines about pregnancies, divorce, and law school with the breakneck pace at which TikTokers cycle through new relationships was proof that the show’s formula had aged. Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé seemed to acknowledge as much this year when they invited TikToker Addison Rae on to the show to teach them a few dance moves.

In late 2020, the family announced that their 20th season would be their last. “When we first started, there was no Instagram or Snapchat or other social media platforms,” Kris Jenner told Entertainment Tonight. “The world has changed. Now there are so many, the viewer doesn’t have to wait three or four months to see an episode. We can give them all of the information anyone would ever want to know in real time.” Kris’s argument that social media has subsumed reality TV makes sense, but it doesn’t explain why TikTok heavyweights like the D’Amelio family and Hype House have recently begun filming their own series. Maybe the real reason KUWTK’s time has come has more to do with how far they’ve come. Fourteen years ago, Kris Jenner promised the world a front-row seat as her family used their 4-inch fake nails to claw their way up the entertainment-world ladder. Given the Kardashians’ extraordinary wealth and power, there may simply be no more rungs left to climb. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try: A revamped show about the family is set to premiere on Hulu sometime later this year.