Photo: Rex USA
I was 18 when I first met Kim Kardashian. This was back in the day, when the sisters had just launched their first QVC collection. My magazine-editor boss invited me to attend the launch party and speak with Kim and Kourtney on the step-and-repeat. I nervously shouldered my way in-between two rather large photographers, secured a spot right in front of the carpet, and waited, BlackBerry at the ready.
I had no idea who she was. Reality television has never been — and will never be — my thing, so the pop-culture potential of this situation was utterly lost on me. I saw other editors — women whose work I had read and followed since high school — also in line, checking their makeup in tiny compact mirrors and glancing toward the front of the carpet to try and get a sneak peek. Oh, boy, I thought. You better not blow it.
And then, they arrived. My first thought? Wow — they're actually on time. (Not something I had expected from a reality-TV star.) My second? Holy God, this woman is beautiful. Kourtney was, too, of course, but Kim was captivating on a whole other level — the way she moved from smize to smile without seeming at all unnatural. As they made their way up to my group, the two photographers I was next to effectively forced me out of my position, and I ended up meekly sticking my phone between them to get a soundbite.
When the sisters were done posing, a journalist to my right started asking them for style advice (something to do with boot-cut jeans). Apparently, my hand caught Kim's attention. "Excuse me, did you have a question?" She pointed to me, and the photographers immediately parted to let me through — the Moses of E! TV.
I remember asking her if she'd ever actually wear the pieces in her collection, considering her wardrobe is almost entirely designer. And then, I remember her giving me an honest answer — saying that she knows her fans want to dress like her and her sisters, but can't afford to. When someone else tried to chime in, she looked back at me through her fluttery, faux lashes: "Was that all?"
"Yes," I responded. I was blushing — and it wasn't just the cream cheek color I had applied before I got there.
Kim Kardashian is, by a Forbes.com estimate, worth around $28 million. When you combine her assets with those of her new husband, one Mr. Kanye West, Complex.com says that figure skyrockets to about $155 million. Her ventures include everything from an iPhone game to a makeup line, from clothing collections to a forthcoming brand of hair care. She has the 19th-most followed account on Twitter, and more than 18 million people track her every post on Instagram. Everybody knows her name — but not everybody can say exactly why.
When Vogue put Kimye on its April 2014 cover, public vitriol ensued. But, Anna Wintour rightfully pointed out in that month's editor's letter: "Part of the pleasure of editing Vogue...is being able to feature those who define the culture at any given moment, who stir things up, whose presence in the world shapes the way it looks and influences the way we see it." Almost four years ago, W editor-in-chief Stefano Tonchi was in the same boat, defending his magazine's decision to give Kim the coveted cover spot: "We thought that Kim provided a vehicle to critically approach popular culture and how reality TV was transforming the business of making TV shows, altering the cultural landscape in America, and subsequently in the world at large," he told The Huffington Post.
Naysayers will scoff at such remarks, but it's true: Part of Kim's mass appeal is that she's an Alger-esque protagonist in the made-for-reality-TV era. This is the girl who flirted with the outskirts of Hollywood, assisted Paris Hilton for a chance to be on TV, and allowed cameras to document her every move soon after her homemade porn was leaked. A whopping nine seasons later, she's one of the most followed stars of her time. The fascination with watching her lies, in part, in the absurdity of the family's constant charades. But, there's also something that satisfies a very American guilty pleasure: If she can make it, can't anyone? Today, fame is less based on merit than on one's own marketability. Just look at the models who became supers by way of rabid social followings, or the YouTube stars who became famous by documenting their purchases at Sephora.
For someone who epitomizes the new age of celebrity, Kim can be rather old-fashioned. While other celebs get props for posting #nomakeup selfies and candid shots of "waking up like this," Kim fully commits herself to the illusion of constant glamour: "I live in a dream world," she told Vogue. "I get to play dress-up every single day of my life, have my dream fiancé, my dream baby, you know?"
Case in point: When she recently posted her passport photo, celebrating her official name change to "Kardashian West", her makeup was so dramatic — so absolutely on-point — that I actually laughed out loud. Who does that? Oh, right, she does. (And, wouldn't you, to avoid a lifetime of photo-induced travel shame?)
And, when she agreed to do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on Ellen recently, she did it in a Balmain blazer, Alaïa bodysuit, and Hermès heels, with her hair perfectly coiffed and face fully contoured. If that wasn't pure, glorious camp, then I don't really know what is.
In the most telling part of Kim's Vogue interview, notorious Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci suggested that "flats would look cooler" with her wedding dress. Without a second thought, she rebuked the fashion darling: "I tried to do flats when I was pregnant. Couldn't do it." Anyone who had thought Kanye was running the Kim show was clearly mistaken.
Oddly enough, I think there's something approachable about the fact that Kim is so manufactured. It goes hand-in-hand with her "everyone can be famous" storyline: We know it takes a lot of work to look like her, so when we see her looking perfect, we chalk it up to "the makeup" or "the hair."
But, that doesn't stop us from wanting in on it: In fact, it makes us think we can actually have it: "The makeup looks we create are known to be some of the most requested and duplicated looks by women and makeup artists around the world," says Mario Dedivanovic, her longtime beauty guru. (Need proof? A search for "Kim Kardashian makeup" on YouTube yields 543,000 results.)
Through a series of Instagrams, Kim has birthed our current obsession with contouring. Brands left and right are launching sculpting palettes and powders, telling us that raised cheekbones and defined jawlines can be ours with the right product.
Another reason Kim earns a special place in my heart is because, like all of her sisters, she's been loyal to the pros who've helped create her image. Dedivanovic, Joyce Bonelli, Jen Atkin, and Michael Silver are all longtime Kardashian beautifiers. Almost every day, Kim tags those responsible for her glam, which helps them earn insane amounts of followers. This may sound trivial, but in today's beauty industry, a social-media audience can open the door to career-changing contracts with major brands. And, plenty of celebs on Kim's level refuse to let their team be interviewed by press for fear of privacy abuse. According to an anonymous member of her squad, Kim is a businesswoman: She understands her influence, and spreads the wealth accordingly. The proof is in the Insta-followers.
Often, the media mocks, even scolds, her vigilant approach to maintaining herself. We don't like that she tries so hard, so we try our best to catch her at her worst. (See: her entire pregnancy.) At the same time, "celebrities without makeup" manages to be viral-traffic fodder, and photos of stars' cellulite continue to kill it on newsstands. So, can you blame her for trying so hard?
And, just in case you thought Kim wasn't conscious of her own vanity, consider this: She's launching a book next year, published by Rizzoli, titled Selfish. It's a collection of — what else? — her selfies.
After all, image is the crucial element of Kim's fame machine. She is, literally and metaphorically, a face: of this, of that, of the next thing. It's no wonder she cites Elizabeth Taylor as her greatest inspiration — in fact, I can't think of any other celebrity who could outdo Kim when it comes to over-the-top glamour.
Fittingly, Kim sat down with Taylor for a Harper's Bazaar interview shortly before the icon's passing. Her first question was, perhaps, the most telling: "You are my idol. But, I'm six husbands and some big jewels behind. What should I do?"
The ever-quotable Taylor responded: "I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands. For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else. I have been supremely lucky in my life in that I have known great love, and of course I am the temporary custodian of some incredible and beautiful things. But, I have never felt more alive than when I watched my children delight in something, never more alive than when I have watched a great artist perform, and never richer than when I have scored a big check to fight AIDS. Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come."
If Kim heeds those words, her path to iconic status is guaranteed.