As the Kardashians announced the retirement of their TV show after 14 years and 20 seasons, there was the usual roster of commentators queueing up to disparage them. Leading the parade was Piers Morgan who dismissed them as ‘vacuous, talentless, globally renowned imbeciles, the most shameless, grasping family in America.’
But their detractors shouldn’t be too hasty with their disdain. Shameless self-promoters they may well be but the Kardashians have influenced culture more than we realise. ‘We never set out to be celebrities,’ wrote Kim, Khloe and Kourtney with impressively straight faces in their joint autobiography Kardashian Konfidential.
But those who scorn the scheming and strategising by ‘mom-ager’ Kris, and the way her plans for TV domination have been tirelessly executed by her offspring are missing the point of the Kardashians. From Kylie’s coronation as Forbes’ youngest ever self-made billionaire (a title later rescinded) to Kim’s mission to ‘break the internet’ with a picture of a cocktail glass on her behind, their defining feature has never been talentless self-promotion, instead a peerless talent for self-promotion.
No Kardashian has ever claimed to be doing anything other than building a business around her ability to attract an audience (make no mistake, this is all about the women in the family, despite the occasional sighting of a brother or two).
The pursuit of wealth for its own sake may inspire snobby scorn but I for one find it a whole lot less tiresome than the disingenuous posturing of some other stars, apparently moved by a need to educate, or worse empower their fans, hoping we all overlook the small matter of Kardashian-scale handouts also coming their way.
It’s revealing the family’s bling-tastic, some say vulgar, lifestyle came to international consciousness back in the mid 2000s, just as the western world prepared to plunge into economic recession. With millions of viewers tuning in to see what handbags they prepared to clutch for sibling tousles at dawn, clearly the girls weren’t the only ones to believe a little bit of escapist glamour at such a time wasn’t a bad thing.
Their growing profiles coincided, too, with the advent of social media. While there had been previous reality TV stars such as the Osbournes, the Kardashians went much further, transforming not just the world of reality TV, but the entire ecosphere of the entertainment industry.
Recently, we’ve learned more about the secret machinations of the celebrity-industrial complex, the dozens of deals engineered to support products, events and sponsors, while simultaneously enabling the star to hold their chin high and appear above and distant from such vulgar treaties. By contrast, the Kardashians have always been proud to show us the internal workings of the machine.
With no coy batting of the eyelids, they have all embraced the synergy between conventional air-time, fan engagement with devoted audiences and product endorsement. Whether it is Kylie’s cosmetics, Kim’s range of Kimojis, Khloe’s jeans or Kourtney’s, er, ‘lifestyle website’, every Kardashian has readily swapped wearing a certain lipstick and making someone else rich, for grabbing a much bigger slice of the pie and becoming formidable business women in their own right. They were early influencers before that was actually a word and they set a template for the rest.
They’ve shifted the needle on public sensibilities in uncommercial ways too. Every time Kim draws attention to her singular behind, she reminds women everywhere that no fixed idea of conventional beauty dictates who becomes a global leader in fashion, attitude or body.
Caitlyn Jenner’s transition via the cover of Vanity Fair has pushed trans issues permanently into the mainstream, while Kim’s recent reference to husband Kanye’s bipolar condition has given mental health a brand new US platform.
Their detractors would never admit it but the Kardashians were internet pioneers. They spied an opportunity to make money online which other stars were slower to spot. Hosts of household names now follow their precedent. They may be drawing the curtains on this particular chapter in their lives, but their cultural significance remains assured. And they didn’t even set out to become celebrities. No wonder Piers is spitting.