In August of 2008, I was an associate editor at an upstart magazine that had already folded twice and, in a few months’ time, would do so again. It was a rambunctious, disordered, and energetic place, blatantly dysfunctional but with a pugnacious esprit de corps. We worked hard and late, often at cross purposes, making what we thought was a funny, cynical, incisive magazine that, it was turning out, not that many people wanted to read.
One way to try to fix this was to do what far more successful magazines had always done: feature celebrities. This was tricky in our case because the magazine had long since turned its problems booking celebrities into a badge of honor. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t have them; we didn’t want them. We didn’t want them, so the logic went, because then we couldn’t tell the truth about them (or even just insult them). This was the heyday of snark, and the magazine did have a strong tabloid exposé gene, but the truth was of course we wanted celebrities in the magazine—just not the kind we could get. So we did what we could to get the kinds we wanted anyway. The house style was covers that featured famous people, without their permission, photoshopped and collaged. Nicole Kidman’s head on a Barbie doll body, for example, had been the cover for an issue about celebrity plastic surgery.
2008 was a long 12 years ago in many, many ways, and our relationship to celebrity is only one of them. The magazine I worked at then was celebrity-obsessed, but in a celebrity-disdaining way that has since gone almost completely out of vogue. The aughts were dominated by what now seems to be a blippish-ly derisive relationship to famous women. It was the era of Paris and Lindsay and Britney and reality TV stars, some of whom were gauchely matter of fact about wanting fame for its own sake and all of whose notoriety was fueled by a new kind of paparazzi-based tabloid coverage. They were rich and hot and young, but they were not aspirational: Their striving, missteps, and public breakdowns were cataloged in incredible detail in gossip magazines and on entertainment news shows that appealed to millions of readers and viewers hopped up on schadenfreude.
But if in 2008 it was still practically the de rigueur posture to scoff at this new class of famous person—famous just for being famous!—it was a position that was already caving in, beginning to make way for the more adoring and fannish social media–enabled orientation that would replace it. Of course, at the magazine, we had no idea—which is why we didn’t put Kim Kardashian on the cover, even though we could have.
No one encapsulates or is as responsible for the transformation in how we think about celebrities and fame today as Kardashian, who was birthed in the chaotic final days of the old-world celebrity order, but who, alongside her kin, brought us into the new one, like the first sea creatures to set foot on the shore and actually thrive there, as opposed to suffocating on the beach. (In this metaphor, Paris Hilton suffocated on the beach.) Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the show that made her and her family the most famous one in the world, may be ending, after 14 years and 20 seasons, but the world we live in is the one that they made—one in which to become, be, or stay famous, you just don’t need a platform like TV anymore.
To get a sense of the era in which the Kardashian celebrity was born, let me return to 2008. Keeping Up With the Kardashians had begun on E! the year before and was already in its third season. The show was popular, but Kim was still most widely known for her sex tape, her former friendship with Paris Hilton, and for generally seeming like another one of these extremely fame-thirsty women with no talents—the C-list version of one to boot. (To wit: these early reviews of the show.) The creative director of the magazine wanted her for the cover—we had taken pretty good photos of her, re-creating Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein ads, and we rarely had good photos—but the editor in chief couldn’t get comfortable with it, though we had recently put Pamela Anderson on the cover and would soon put Shannen Doherty there. At the last minute, Kim was tossed aside, and barely got a coverline. “Kim Kardashian? Really?” ran in small type, nearly hidden in the magazine’s logo.
After hearing Keeping Up With the Kardashians was ending, I went digging through some boxes to find the issue. (After the magazine folded, the title was relaunched as the skeezy tabloid site Radar Online, and its archive disappeared from the internet.) I then discovered, or rediscovered—I must have known once—that I had conducted the interview with Kardashian that accompanied the pictures. It’s about 900 words, cursory, and bordering on rude: I ask her about a quote where Paris Hilton said her butt looked like a dairy product; she is extremely gracious in response. I don’t remember doing it at all. Needless to say: Oops.
Like MTV’s The Osbournes before it, KUWTK was envisioned as a reality-TV sitcom about the wacky hijinks of a close-knit family (The Brady Bunch was a recurring reference point). But reality shows aren’t sitcoms, and we have different expectations for them. KUWTK is simultaneously contrived and loosey-goosey. It’s a form of improv in which the performers are playing a version of themselves, but instead of having to make us laugh, they only have to convince us of their essential humanity. For all the “fakeness” of reality TV, it is difficult, though not impossible, to fake entirely who you are. (Donald Trump, with his limited screen time and strong editing, managed.) People show through, which is why the format works, even at this late, mediated phase. And the Kardashians never wanted to fake it. Kourtney, Khloé, Kim, Kris, and eventually Kylie and Kendall (sorry boys) are ineluctably, if sometime inanely, themselves. They talk about everything, don’t get embarrassed, and love one another even when they hate one another.
The Kardashians, Kim and momager Kris Jenner in particular, almost single-handedly put to bed the idea that being famous only for being famous is something that happens without a lot of hard work. The show and its umpteen spinoffs chronicled, like the good advertisement that they are, what a grind building and maintaining an image is. As movie stars, the ne plus ultra of celebrity, were becoming more circumspect and controlling—because they could be, and because the endless recursion of social media made it more high stakes not to be—there was a vacuum created for the people who would let it all hang out, who would make themselves completely available. That was the Kardashians. If movie stars were held at mysterious remove by all the things we didn’t know about them, to the extent that every glimpse of “they’re just like us!” mundanity was a special thrill, reality TV’s stars seemed to let us in on everything, hiding the things we didn’t know about them rather than using them as bait. Instead of holding onto their secrets, the Kardashians pretend that they had none. In doing so, they exploded the idea that we had ever really needed fame to be attached to artistic output at all. Maybe all we needed was endless material, a firehose of drama of any kind.
And the Kardashians delivered that. For a show conceived as a comedy, they dealt in soap and very special episodes. If at first they seemed beneath us—our sludgy, avaricious American underbelly; our eye-glazed, mouth-breathing, comatose-before-the-TV id—they turned out to be us. They contended with bad marriages, drug abuse, heartbreak, sock entrepreneurship, fertility problems, mental illness, violence, and transgender issues, and they stuck together the whole time, laughing for much of it, even as the very premise of the show was turned on its head: No longer a family on the make, they were the family that made it. They were a mirror image of Donald Trump, another id-beast catapulted to the highest position in the land. How much better does Kim look in comparison, lobbying Trump on prison reform and asking for understanding about her spouse’s mental illness?
KUWTK was the beachhead from which the Kardashians launched themselves to heights of fame, but it’s been years since they needed it. Just as celebrity has changed, so has television itself, which has ceded its footprint and its market share to the social media engines the Kardashians so capably operate. For years, the show has been playing like bonus footage of months-prior incidents that they chronicled on social media and that have already been consumed by their collective millions of followers. Giving the show up is probably more a reflection on the waning effectiveness of television than on the clan’s waning will to fame.
The Kardashians were beneficiaries of a fading monoculture that blasted their name across the world. They blazed a trail, then helped burn it down. The steps the Kardashians took to begin becoming world famous—sex tapes, tabloid magazines, cable TV shows—aren’t the guarantors of attention they once were. The world is now populated by hundreds of thousands of wannabe Kardashians, scattered over many platforms, very famous in very insular worlds, while the Kardashians loom above them, famous to all. The show may be over, but we’ll be keeping up with them for years to come.