The Kardashians' Origin Story Is Not What You Thought

Photo: Jim Smeal/REX Shutterstock.
These days, it's hard not to keep up with the Kardashians. They're everywhere. In fact, they've been so omnipresent in the public eye for such a long time now that it's hard to remember why they're a famous family in the first place.

Origin story alert: The Kardashian Klan didn't just one day rise up out of obscurity and take over your newsfeed. Nor did they emerge from Paris Hilton's closet, groomed to be her successors to the plastic L.A. throne. Their domination was a process, one that literally began decades ago, before reality television really started its meteoric rise. And the person who got the ball rolling isn't actually the one we typically associate with Kardashian stardom.

We're talking about Robert: father of Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and Rob, ex-husband of Kris, and former lawyer and friend of a certain football star who was the defendant in the "trial of the century": O.J. Simpson. With Ryan Murphy's star-studded retelling of the Simpson case, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, airing tonight on FX, many of us will be learning how the Kardashian name catapulted from obscurity onto prime-time TV. Recognizing the Kardashian patriarch's role is the key to understanding how the family was primed for limelight in the first place.

So, let's start at the very beginning — a very good place to start — and take a look at the family's not-so-humble beginnings, to better understand how they became America's so-called other first family.
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Photo: Getty/Ron Galella.
To understand where the Kardashians came from, we must circle back to the original patriarch: Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer in the FX show).

Robert was born in Los Angeles, where he eventually attended USC before heading to law school at UC San Diego. Robert married Kris Jenner (née Houghton) in 1978; during the following decade, the couple would have four children — Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and Robert.

Robert Kardashian also met and became friends with O.J. Simpson during those years. The Kardashians were friendly with the football star and his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Robert and Kris divorced in 1991 — several years before Brown Simpson was murdered and the iconic trial began.
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Photo: Vince Bucci.
Let's be clear here: America at large did not know Robert Kardashian's name prior to People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. Let's just pause for a moment and truly take in that fact: The Kardashians were once not a thing. Mind-blowing, right?

But though Robert was a key figure on Simpson's defense team, his newfound notoriety didn't catapult him or his family to sudden fame. (For anyone intending to tune into FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson to get a greater sense of the Kardashians' rise to fame, you're going to be disappointed. Sorry, guys.) Robert was, however, quite wealthy — a member of the exclusive 1% club, a fact that gave his children a certain leg up in the world.

Robert died of esophageal cancer, at age 59, in September of 2003. By then, Kris had long since remarried, and the kids were in their late teens and early 20s.
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Photo: Getty/Maureen Donaldson.
And of course, we know who Kris remarried: Bruce Jenner, former Olympian and Wheaties box star, who we now know as Caitlyn.

Kris reportedly received ample support from Robert, but Bruce brought his own wealth to the marriage. Kris and Bruce had two children of their own, Kendall (born November 3, 1995) and Kylie (born August 10, 1997).
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Photo: Getty/Donaldson Collection.
(They also had these matching bowl haircuts. While this is not a relevant part of the Kardashian rise, it is an fun thing to remember.)
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Photo: Getty/Donaldson Collection.
Together, they took family photos like this one.
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Photo: Getty/Donaldson Collection.
And later, during their biker gang days, this one.

It was only up — and out of obscurity — from there, though.
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YouTube.
Even as far back as her eighth grade graduation, a young Kim knew she was destined for something grand. In this video, she reveals her dreams of future stardom.

"Does everyone get a tape of this?" she asks the camera. "I hope you do, so you can see me when I'm famous and remember me as this beautiful little girl!"

She also refers to herself as "the dopest of the ropest of the class" — we wonder what Kanye thinks about that line today?
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Photo: Getty/Gregg DeGuire.
The reality television bids began almost a decade after that fateful graduation video was filmed.

In 2003, Kim Kardashian was buddied up to socialite and nascent TV star Paris Hilton. (The two were reportedly childhood friends, according to Hilton's version of events).

Kim appeared alongside Hilton in the The Simple Life, albeit in off-to-the-side moments. It's tough to believe, but Kim was actually Paris' assistant at one point, while also hawking her skills as a closet organizer. (Contrary to popular belief, though, Paris never snapped at Kim to re-do her closet on-air. But their feud was pretty legendary.)

Don't worry Kim — your 15 minutes (and many years) of fame will arrive soon!
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Photo: Getty/Chris Polk.
Skipping ahead a little bit, Kourtney, Khloé, and Kim — who had helped their mom with retail ventures in the past — launched their own store, DASH, in 2006.

(Kourtney, by the way, is the only one to have gone to college in the intervening years between youth and actual adulthood. She graduated from the University of Arizona, with a degree in theater and a minor in Spanish.)

While the store didn't necessarily make the trio wealthier, it did continue to help raise their profiles.
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Photo: E!/Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Behind the scenes, Kris was hard at work getting her family on television. In 2007, she pitched a reality show about her brood to Ryan Seacrest — and he accepted. Keeping Up With the Kardashians first aired on October 14, 2007.
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Kim made another kind of debut that same year: her sex tape with Ray J. No one could stop talking about that thing — it was a huge deal, and suddenly the name Kim Kardashian was popping up all over the place.
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Photo: Getty/Craig Sjodin.
Also, this happened. In August of 2008: Kim joined the cast of Dancing With the Stars.
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YouTube.
Just so we're all on the same page, though, it was not Kim's rumba skills that made her a reality star. (She was eliminated about a month in.)
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Photo: Getty/Alo Ceballos.
While KUWTK continued to get renewed, three seasons in, Kris wondered if things had gotten a little stale — that is, until Kourtney got pregnant.

Kris revealed that it was this shift in story line that she thinks helped cement interest in the family — and maybe even saved the show.
"They just keep making more babies, and there's always another story," she explained.

The family also teased Kourtney's pregnancy before the new season aired — but made it clear that interested parties would have to tune into the program to find out who the father was. (Kris, you marketing genius, you.) Later, the births of Kourtney's kiddos — followed by Kim's pregnancies and the births of North and Saint West — would continue to galvanize fan interest and eyeballs.
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Photo: Getty/Anthony Harvey.
Also, this happened. Cue: fame explosion.
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Photo: Getty/Frazer Harrison.
"I started to look at our careers like pieces on a chessboard,” Kris revealed in her memoir, back in 2011. “Every day, I woke up and walked into my office and asked myself, ‘What move do you need to make today?’ It was very calculated. My business decisions and strategies were very intentional, definite and planned to the nth degree."

Well... Her moves worked. Last year, Cosmopolitan magazine named the Kardashians America's "first family." The ladies have launched their own successful personal websites (complete with paywalls that people actually pay for). Their social media followings tally in the millions. Keeping Up With the Kardashians is now in its 11th season — and it doesn't seem like they're slowing down in the slightest.