Kim Kardashian has been taking selfies since 1984. That was the year she first immortalized her own face in an admiring close-up—round cheeks filling the frame, flash shining in her toddler eyes like a premonition. Some other baby Kardashian wails beside her, unmoved by the photo op, but Kim confronts the camera head-on. Her little mouth curves upward and destiny clicks into place.
That image is the first entry in Selfish, Kim Kardashian West’s new book of selfies. To be clear: This book consists entirely of selfies. That’s 445 pages of them, arranged chronologically over three decades, a flipbook of thickening makeup and increasingly complicated hairdos. Over time, clubbing nights with Paris Hilton fade into engagement ring snaps; tiny Jenners evolve into leggy teens; one day North pops into the frame, simply the newest cameo in her mother’s selfied life. Selfish is an insane project, a document of mind-blowing vanity and deranged perseverance. It’s also riveting. I can’t recommend it enough.
It’s easy to see why the selfie has become a cultural punch line. There’s no better emblem of a whole generation’s ills as projected by previous generations, no better totem of the self-absorbed screen zombies conjured in Times trend stories with headlines like “My Selfie, Myself” and “For the Love of Being ‘Liked.’ ” And if the selfie has a mascot, it’s Kim Kardashian. Not just because she, judging by her output, is never not in the process of photographing herself—but also because the selfie as a medium seems tailor-made for her own diligently cultivated brand.
Unlike the many other gussied-up ingénues who rose through the ranks of reality TV, Kim Kardashian’s public image has always been a uniquely nimble balancing act. She manages to project a whole mess of seemingly incompatible traits: wholesome (family values) and scandalous (sex tapes), self-aware (jokes about her own materialism) and oblivious (carrying a Hermès bag painted by her 1-year-old child), highbrow (Vogue covers) and gauche (photo shoots of her butt). Even before Kanye West helped grease her entry into pop culture’s inner sanctum, she’d somehow cemented an image as the most grounded of reality TV’s leading ladies, the usual whiff of desperation counterbalanced with more apparent ownership of her song-and-dance.
But if this act can often seem gaudy and tone-deaf, her tackiness has never seemed less like indiscretion and more like a savvy self-differentiator than it does in Selfish. This book, needless to say, does not have grand literary ambitions. It has no literary ambitions at all. It barely has words. The words it does contain are so aggressively repetitive that they feel like a true feat of editorial indifference. “Bikini selfies are my favorite,” Kim remarks in one caption. “Bikini selfies are my fave,” she later adds. She is not coy with her themes. “The pictures in this book bring back so many memories,” she writes. Then: “I love that we have these memories.” Also: “These pics bring back so many memories.” Not to mention: “I love doing photo shoots and having memories.” I’ve never seen someone make so little effort to be interesting—a banality so confident it feels like a revelation. “I love,” she writes at one point, “that I have thousands of pics.”
Through her shapeshifting selfies, she records milestones like birthdays and pregnancies and births. She also records lesser milestones like “About to do The George Lopez Show.” Some selfies are fascinating for their lack of context, like the picture of Kim in a construction hat captioned only: “I was in Africa in a diamond mine.” Some feature perfect comic timing, like the page that includes a photo of Kim behind the wheel of a car and the words, “I took a selfie at a red light while driving. I think that’s illegal now.”
What makes Selfish so crazily engrossing is the way it breaks down, image by nearly identical image, the precise, self-determined path of Kim Kardashian’s rise from socialite to household name—and the way that over the course of hundreds of consecutive selfies, the evolution of her public and private selves gets fully entangled. It’s never quite clear whether she is mugging for herself or her husband or her kid or knowingly mugging for us, the consumers of the beautiful Rizzoli art book she always knew she’d produce. Selfish comes to feel almost like a modern parable for the anyone-can-be-famous age. If you have ever entertained the thought that Kardashian selfies were mere judgment lapses, or the idle fruit of late-night boredom, the total intentionality on display in this book is like a punch to the gut. Here is a woman who presciently hoarded thousands of pictures of her own pouty mien, anticipating the day when some publisher would pay her to compile them. Clearly this is someone who has spent her life devising elaborate ways to get herself seen, and it’s mesmerizing to see the full arc of her self-actualization so vividly on display.
If there is a supporting character in Selfish, it is makeup. “I can look at any photo of myself and can tell who did my hair and makeup, where I was and who I was with,” Kim says. (The requisite “no makeup selfies” she includes feel about as out of place here as a business suit at a drag show.) In 2008, she met Mario Dedivanovic, who would become her lifelong makeup artist, and she captions a photo of his disembodied hands applying lip-liner to her mouth: “After this photo shoot he took me makeup shopping because I loved how I looked and how that made me feel.”
This is the source of much of Selfish’s appeal: Yes, it is obsessed with surfaces, and it is bracingly unapologetic about that obsession. Kim doesn’t even pretend to view the world as more than a scenic backdrop for her own embellished face. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many selfies as I did in Thailand. It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever traveled to!” she tells us, posing before a sliver of Thailand mostly obscured by her hair. She makes zero effort to encourage you to like or identify with her; she casually assumes a certain commonality of caste. “Helicopter ride from the Hamptons to the city,” she writes, or “This amazing chateau had an entire room that was an aquarium.” One highlight is a vignette about the time she put on a green Lanvin dress in a restaurant bathroom during a dinner with Kanye. Why? “There were so many paparazzi that showed up while we were eating. I wanted to change into a dope new look.”
The promise of Kanye looms over Selfish long before he arrives, helping to propel the book’s nonexistent plot. His first mention is in the caption on a car-backseat selfie from 2011: “I just got this Fendi coat and was in New York. I was in a taxi and took this selfie to actually send to Kanye to see if he liked my new coat. He did!” A Yeezus concert gets captioned #wifelife. There’s also a mirror pic, sexily captioned “Meet me in the bathroom…” Kim preens while Kanye gives the camera the dead-eyed Kanye stare. It’s a selfie that perfectly captures one of the main reasons they make such a compelling pair: the way their egos seem like exact inverses of each other. If Kanye is restlessly reaching for ever-higher planes of greatness, Kim could not seem more existentially secure. While he worries over his place in the pantheon, she is firmly anchored in the here-and-now, cherishing the look of her cheekbones in the light.
So the boldest thing about Selfish is not just that she’s inviting you to look at her several hundred times over—it’s that she’s forcing you to look at her the exact way she wants you to, from the exact angle, in the exact lighting of her choosing. You could call Selfish a sneakily feminist document, an act of reclamation by one of the world’s most photographed women. But that would be ridiculous. Forget the male gaze, or even the female gaze—the only gaze that matters here is Kim Kardashian’s, directed squarely at herself, Kim Kardashian looking at Kim Kardashian back and forth until the end of time. Selfies may be generally regarded as badges of insecurity, but here they seem like the opposite: evidence of real, uncomplicated self-love.
Who will buy this book? Surely no one. But halfway through comes a development that may serve as incentive to some—several pages of nude photos, astonishing mostly for the exceptional evenness of her tan. This includes a photo released during the 2014 celebrity hack, which she captions, “I wasn’t intending to put these in the book but I saw them online during the iCloud hack. I’m not mad at them. Lol.”
The very last selfie in Selfish is a shot of Kim and Kanye’s entwined hands. “I’m officially Mrs. West,” the caption says. So Selfish turns out to be a classic marriage plot—the story of a party girl who over-applies bronzer transformed into a happily wed woman who can expertly contour her own nose. The intended message may be that Kim is renouncing Selfish-ness in favor of partnership, that marital sacrifice means photographing merely her hands instead of her cleavage and face. But the more emphatic message is that she’s won. It feels like a natural endpoint for a book charting the 2-D narrative of Kim Kardashian’s ambition: from less famous to more famous, from reality starlet to #wifelife, from dope new look to dope new look.
Selfish by Kim Kardashian West. Rizzoli New York.
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