The mother, and manager, of reality TV’s most famous clan has created a strange new form of family business — and has changed the nature of celebrity, says Taffy Brodesser-Akner
KRIS Jenner slowly descended one side of the curving double staircase in her home in Hidden Hills, California.
She was like a grande dame, like Elizabeth Taylor in a White Diamonds commercial, only dressed head to toe in black: Balmain blazer, Rag & Bone jeans, and Chanel ankle boots.
When she reached the foyer, she greeted the former ’N Sync band member, Lance Bass, kissed him on both cheeks, and then said hello to Tom.
Tom was Bass’s assistant? His producer? Everyone there was an assistant and everyone was a producer.
Whatever Tom’s job title, his name was Bob, and he corrected Kris, who smiled and said that they were the same name.
A production assistant in surgical shoe-coverings handed out microphones, and people wired themselves up through the bottoms of their shirts, while Kris invited them into the kitchen for coffeecake.
Bass, in a tight-blue sweater that matched his eyes and with blond highlights that matched Bob’s, had just returned from New York, where he was promoting an E! special that featured his wedding, which had been in December, but was broadcast earlier this year.
Kris asked about the viewing numbers. Bass said he didn’t know yet.
Kris cocked her head about 19 degrees, pursed her lips, and told him, confidentially (or in a confidential manner, because no-one with two cameras on her could possibly have the illusion of secrecy), “They typically know the numbers in the morning, the next day.”
This was a few days later.
But Bass was too exhausted to think about numbers. In New York, he and his husband, Michael Turchin, had done the talk-show rounds and radio appearances to encourage people to watch the special.
“It literally killed me,” Bass said, as he took an obliging bite of the cake.
Kris attended the wedding. “It was my first gay wedding,” she told Bass. He replied: “It was only my second.”
“It was fabulous,” she said. To Kris, every thing is fabulous or amazing or incredible or cute or epic or a nightmare.
Her face was the colour of a Malibu sunset, her teeth as white and opaque as Michelangelo’s ‘David.’
Her makeup was a masterpiece: even, perfectly blended foundation; precision-defined eyeliner; expertly contoured cheekbones; a heavy fringe of auxiliary eyelashes.
Her hands were closer to the colour of her teeth than to that of her face, in stark contrast when she leaned her chin on them.
She has her make-up and hair professionally done every day that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is shooting.
An assistant told me that she gets it done quickly, because she’s so busy; it takes only an hour.
There was a knock, and the giant, wooden entry door opened and in walked Robin Antin, Kris’s longtime friend and the creative force behind the girl bands, G.R.L., and the Pussycat Dolls; Mike Fleiss, an executive producer of The Bachelor franchise; and Michael Einziger, a songwriter and member of the band, Incubus.
Everyone had gathered to discuss an idea for a new reality show, one that had begun percolating in Kris’s mind when she considered all these acquaintances of hers and all their talents.
The details of the show seemed obvious and compelling to everyone there. (I was asked not to disclose the pitch, but all you need to do is consider who was in attendance — two reality-show producers, one of whom produces the elimination show The Bachelor; a musician; a former boy-band member; and a creator of girl bands — and apply your knowledge of reality shows and a teaspoon of the cynicism that knowledge has imbued in you, and it’s an easy enough guess.)
Now all they needed was to decide the title and if this would be for network or cable.
“Everyone, get thinking!” Kris commanded. The name for Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the reality show about a family full of reality-show stars, was decided just before it debuted.
She knows you can’t start soon enough on the details.
“I don’t think we’re going to be digging for dirt,” she told the crowd, and they chuckled in agreement. “I think that that is going to come find us.”
There are still people who dismiss Kris Jenner, 59, and her family — Kourtney, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, all in their 30s; her son, Rob Kardashian, 28; and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, 19 and 17 — as “famous for being famous,” a silly reality-show family creating a contrived spectacle.
But now the Jenners and the Kardashians are not famous for being famous: they are famous for the industry that they’ve created, the Kardashian/Jenner mega-complex, which has not just invaded the culture, but metastasised into it, with the family members emerging as legitimate businesspeople and Kris the mother-leader of them all.
She is an executive producer of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its summer spin-offs.
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Us.....exactly 1 year ago today, the day before Kim and Kanye's wedding at Valentino's beautiful home/Castle in Paris!! He invited us for a pre-wedding lunch and it was a magical dream come true. Not only because he is a fashion Icon, but because he is one of the kindest, nicest, most generous people I have ever met, and we can now call him and Giancarlo our friends... Thank you @realmrvalentino and @privategg for one of the best days of my life. I will never forget your kindness or the beauty at your Estate, and for doing this for my daughter. I love you!! ❤️
She also manages the careers of all six of her children, as well as her own. Without Kris, Kim might not have pulled in a reported $28m in 2014.
Kendall wouldn’t be an in-demand model, walking runways for Chanel and Marc Jacobs and appearing on the covers of Allure and Harper’s Bazaar.
There would most likely be no ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’, a choose-your-own-adventure (presuming it’s an adventure Kim Kardashian would go on) game app, starring Kim, which brought in many millions last year, or T-Mobile commercial, or book of selfies (Selfish), released this month.
Kourtney and Khloé and Kim might not have three retail stores, named Dash, in Los Angeles, New York and Miami; a hair-and-make-up line, Kardashian Beauty; a bronzer line, Kardashian Glow; and Kardashian Kids, a children’s clothing line sold at Babies ’R’ Us and Nordstrom.
Kendall and Kylie might not have licensing deals with PacSun, Steve Madden, Topshop and Sugar Factory, where they each have signature lollipops and several contractual agreements to appear at the candy stores.
Rob, the lone brother, would probably not have a company that features socks that say things like “LOVE HURTS” and “YOLO”, or sell adult onesies at places like Macy’s.
There would not be seven perfumes in Kim’s name, nor Khloé’s perfume, Unbreakable, with Lamar Odom, which is still available, though their marriage has ended.
There would be no endorsement deals, either: things like OPI nail polish and a ‘waist trainer’ that Khloé and Kim model on their Instagram account.
It is possible that without Kris Jenner and all her wisdom, and all the attention she has garnered for her family, 16.9m people would not have tuned in on April 24 to watch her ex-husband, Bruce, tell Diane Sawyer that he is transgender.
No-one in her family knew what they were doing until Kris took charge.
Kristen Mary Jenner (formerly Kardashian, nee Houghton) was born in San Diego in 1955.
Her father and her mother divorced when she was young, and her father left, leaving her with her mother and sister and grandparents, who owned a candle store.
She was 17 when she met Robert Kardashian, a lawyer 11 years her senior, at the Del Mar racetrack, she in a sweeping, wide-brimmed white hat, he with a smile that showed he was completely smitten.
He pursued her, but she wanted to discover the world. She became a flight attendant for American Airlines.
She accepted his second proposal, and they married when she was 22. They moved to Beverly Hills, where she occupied the social space of the ‘Real Housewives’ of the time.
They had children and spent their weekends in Fila warm-up suits, playing tennis with their friends, O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson. (After Nicole’s death, Robert would be a member of O.J.’s ‘dream team’ defence, and Kris, married to Bruce by then and pregnant with Kendall, would sit in the courtroom gallery in protest and in hope of seeing justice for her friend, while wearing Nicole’s hand-me-down maternity clothes.)
By the time she was 30, she had four children, a mansion and a case of ennui that felt terminal. She loved Robert and the life he gave her, but she still felt young and vital.
She had an affair with a soccer player, and Robert found out. The divorce was ugly.
Kris’s credit cards were cancelled, and she was alienated from her friends. She was depressed and miserable, barely able to function.
Then, one day, in 1990, before her divorce to Robert was final, she went on a blind date with Bruce Jenner: fun, straightforward Bruce.
They fell in love. They each had four children and wanted more.
Bruce went to Robert and asked him to finalise the divorce, so that he could marry Kris, telling Robert that they didn’t want any of his money.
Robert agreed, and Kris and Bruce were married a month after the divorce papers were signed. (She and Robert were on good terms when he died, in 2003.)
But they were broke. Bruce had a fledgling business doing motivational speeches, and Kris thought that if she took charge, he could be successful.
She put together press kits and contacted speakers’ bureaus.
“It was a mix of blood, sweat and tears, enthusiasm, determination and just never sleeping and getting the word out there,” she said.
The phone began to ring. On the other end of the line were Coca-Cola and Visa.
Bruce became her first project. She marketed his motivational speech, ‘Finding the Champion Within’, to a wider audience, and she also helped him create a series of workout videos, sold via infomercial, called ‘Super Fit With Bruce and Kris Jenner.’
In the infomercial, he coaches Kris as she walks on a short treadmill. The success of Bruce’s speaking business was just the first time that Kris realised the pool of talent she had in her own home, as well as the potential for financial security.
In 2007, Kris marched into Ryan Seacrest’s office to discuss an idea for a reality show based on her family. She thought her large brood — six children, who, when the show debuted, ranged in age from 7 to 26 — could have mass appeal.
“Like, there’s the little girls, and there’s the older girls, and then there’s my son,” she told me.
“Everybody thinks that they could create a bunch of drama in their lives, but it’s something that I felt I didn’t even have to think about. It would be natural.”
“The children’s father had passed away,” said Jeff Jenkins, executive vice-president of development and programming at Bunim/Murray and an executive producer of Keeping Up With the Kardashians since its inception.
“I think she was a mom very concerned that they had something to build and grow and be secure.”
Seacrest sent a producer to their house to shoot a short reel at a family barbecue to decide if the idea had potential.
“On the way home,” Seacrest told me, the producer called and said: “‘We have a show. This is going to be amazing.’ Watch the tape, and you know, you see the craziness that is their family.”
Kim Kardashian had just begun her rise to fame. She had spent a few years studying at Paris Hilton’s knee during Hilton’s tabloid heyday, learning about fame and how to work the paparazzi.
She had even appeared on Hilton’s show, The Simple Life.
The release, in 2006, of Kim’s sex tape, with the singer Ray J, perhaps gave Kris’s show the household name it needed.
“That was a smaller seed than people seemed to think,” Kris says now, but in The New York Times review of the show’s first episode, Ginia Bellafante wrote: “As a parent, Ms. Kardashian’s mother, Kris Jenner, was concerned for her daughter, she explains. But as her manager, she thought, well, hot-diggity.”
About 898,000 people watched the first episode of that first season; 1.9m watched the last.
The show had taken off, and Kris used every opportunity to forge new deals for her children. Not everything has worked out.
There were deals for signature Silly Bandz, diet pills, liqueurs, laser hair-removal, branded, pre-paid credit cards, watches, candles, shoes, jewellery, nail polish.
Kris herself had a QVC line, Kris Jenner Kollection; a tooth-whitening endorsement (that she regrets: “too cheesy”); and even, briefly, a talk show that wasn’t picked up beyond its six-week order.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re always looking for more or that we’re greedy,” Kris said.
“There’s a lot of people that have great ideas and dreams and whatnot, but unless you’re willing to work really, really hard, and work for what you want, it’s never going to happen. And that’s what’s so great about the girls. It’s all about their work ethic.”
All the family has to do to be successful is to opt in to the public experience of living.
They have to share their secrets, broadcast their doctor’s appointments, admit that their whim of a marriage was a terrible idea, ugly-cry when they remember their father, let the cameras roll as they emote jealousy or anger or confusion or humiliation.
If they do all this, the family business thrives.
In February, The New York Post reported (via a cover that said “Big Ass Deal”) that the family had signed a reported $100m deal to extend their flagship show on E! (A representative for E! called The Post’s figure “grossly inaccurate”, but would not disclose the actual amount.)
In 2012, that same extension deal was reported to have been a mere $40m.
On the 18th-century Italian table in the foyer of Kris Jenner’s house lay a pile of nondisclosure agreements, ready for anyone who enters to sign.
On the floor was a small, framed sign that stated: “What we say here, what we see here, let it stay here, when we leave here.”
Cameras, however, have been installed in the ceiling.
At any given moment, there are one or two cameras on some combination of Kardashians and Jenners.
They are there 10 to 12 hours a day, each day that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is shooting, and more often if a plotline warrants it, which, between the regular season and the spin-offs, is basically always.
I did not sign the nondisclosure agreement.
Featured prominently in the foyer is a painting that Michael Turchin made for Kris. It’s a collage of magazine covers of Kris and her family, covered by a painting of Snow White eating the poisoned apple.
Kris is not afraid of your interpretations.
The bathroom off the foyer is done in black marble, and its toilet paper is black, too.
Later, when I told people this, their response was either to wonder where black toilet paper could be purchased or to ask how you would know you were done wiping.
A few also said that in one episode of the show, Kim complained to her mother about the black toilet paper. (When I heard that, I thought, ‘There goes my exclusive’.)
Two Wheaties boxes featuring Bruce in his Olympic heyday stood in a closet off the foyer.
An assistant had placed a set of Christmas stockings, monogrammed with the names of all Kris’s children and stepchildren and grandchildren, on a round table.
Kris asked her to send this set, a duplicate, to Bruce’s new house in Malibu. Their divorce was finalised in December. They just didn’t get along the way they used to, she told me.
That he would, a few weeks after we spoke, announce to Diane Sawyer that he is, and always has been, a woman may have been a factor, too, though one Kris wouldn’t elaborate on.
“At the end of the day, I just want him to be happy,” she said.
“He’s going to find his happiness, and he’s going to have his journey.”
Kris’s home is the centerpiece of the show, with much of the action taking place in the kitchen and the foyer. The set of Kris’s short-lived talk show was a replica of that foyer, with the addition of a couch and her name hanging from the banister.)
She enjoys redecoration and reorganisation. When I visited, she had just purchased a new dining-room table, whose width and position meant that the chandeliers didn’t line up correctly, not to mention that they didn’t match the new table.
A decorator and his assistant stared at the chandeliers with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, and Kris offered them a solution: it may be time to replace the chandeliers.
Assistants were purging the stainless-steel cabinets that lined her garage (meticulously organised by holiday and occasion) of things she didn’t need anymore; they would box up the rest.
“Clear plastic bins are my new best friend,” she said to them all. Nothing makes her feel better than knowing that all her stuff is arranged according to her standards.
At any given time, there are up to 20 people moving purposefully throughout her home, many in black jeans and ankle boots and black leather motorcycle jackets: the decorators spent the rest of the afternoon staring at fabrics, figuring out which sheer, off-white material would complement the gray walls of the foyer and living room, before presenting it to Kris; and two people were praying over smartphones, managing extensive calendars and lists.
There were the people with the cameras, the guy with the boom; there was the woman who brought us leafy salads with chicken and avocado, and the man standing by, ready to reapply or touch up Kris’s makeup.
Soon, we would go to Costco. Anyone in this house could have made a Costco run for her, but Costco trips are sacred to Kris, and, like most of her life while taping the show, it would be fodder for the editing bay. Something could happen while she was there.
“Costco is a passion,” she told me. “Costco is like a massage.”
She wanted to pick out the salmon with the herb butter. She wanted to feel around for the best avocados.
She did not trust anyone else to check the date stamp on the oatmeal-raisin cookies, to see which were baked most recently.
“They have the most amazing dog beds,” she said. “Don’t even get me started.”
And the specials!
“During the summer, there’ll be a fabulous surfboard. I don’t surf, but I’ve got to buy a surfboard. I mean, that’s how crazy I am.”
She has been called a control freak many times, both on the show and in interviews, by her daughters and by Bruce, whose bank card she once confiscated as the cameras rolled.
“I guess, if I get a little weird about something that isn’t the way I want it, and I complain, then it’s called controlling,” she said.
“I like everything a certain way. I’m not somebody who can just lay back and let it happen. That’s never going to happen for me. And I think that’s what’s gotten me to where I am in life, at the same time. I can’t turn it on and off.”
The 10th season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians made its debut in March. The show is now broadcast in 160 countries.
From its first episode, through the end of April, there have been 5,135 telecasts and 211,550 total minutes on E! That is 147 days of the show, nonstop.
In the week leading up to the 10th season’s premiere, old episodes were broadcast 81 times.
During that week, here is what I saw: Khloé call her mother an epithet so vicious and outdated there have been think-pieces devoted to its eradication; Kris and her 81-year-old mother stoned on marijuana-laced gummy bears; Kris begging Khloé to submit to a DNA test to give Khloé peace of mind about her true paternity, because all her life rumours have persisted that she was a result of her mother’s affair with the soccer player or a rumored affair with O.J. Simpson; Kris eventually admitted that it was for her own peace of mind that she wants Khloé to take the paternity test, so that the public would stop disparaging her.
I’ve seen Kim get Botox. I’ve seen her get an X-ray to prove that she doesn’t have butt implants.
I’ve seen Kourtney’s very drunk boyfriend, Scott, try to stuff a $100 bill down the throat of a waiter who refused to continue to serve him.
I’ve seen Scott express complete shock each time their sex has led to another pregnancy (three so far).
I’ve heard the phrase “vodka-based nutritional drink.” I’ve heard vaginas discussed in detail: their size and shape, how they can sometimes itch.
I’ve seen real maternal love. I’ve seen true filial contempt.
And, eventually, somehow indoctrinated in the name of story research, I’ve cried real tears as Kourtney gave birth to her first child, with the family gathered around, a hand-held video in the birthing room to accommodate both hospital policy and audience expectations.
Kris and her children didn’t do much press for season 10, unheard-of for this family or anyone promoting a TV show, really. Call it an educated guess to say that, perhaps, they didn’t want to be asked about Bruce’s transition.
But not because they were shielding Bruce, whom they love. And not because he needed his privacy during this sensitive time, which was the reason so often cited in articles about the rumors that preceded the ABC special.
It’s because Bruce has signed on to do a ‘docuseries’ with the same production company that produces the Kardashians’ show (he has obviously learned from Kris, who is not invloved).
Bruce has no privacy; none of them do. That’s the deal they made with one another.
When they’re silent on Bruce, they aren’t protecting him from the judgments of a cruel world; they are protecting Bruce’s exclusive.
“I learned a lot from her,” Bruce said about his marriage to Kris, during the ABC interview.
And so he did: He didn’t reveal how he looks dressed in women’s clothing nor what his new name is. You’ll have to tune in to his show to see that.
In the Kris Jenner playbook, you don’t give anything away.
And that, right there, is the hustle. What matters is not the revelation of secrets; who can keep secrets in this modern, tabloid culture, anyway?
It’s the reactions to recently surfaced information — a father’s transition, a sex tape, a new husband’s crack addiction, a boyfriend’s drinking problem — that are most valuable.
Kris Jenner doesn’t care that you know everything. What secrets can you ‘discover’ from a woman who airs her daughters’ discussion of the size of their labia?
Kris only cares that you heard them when and where she decided you should.
On the night of April 24, as Bruce’s interview was shown, Bruce’s four children from his first two marriages went on camera to discuss their father.
Kendall and Kylie provided a statement that ran across the screen. Kris and the Kardashian daughters did not appear.
But, sure enough, a few days later, a publicist from E! told me that About Bruce, a two-part special that includes interviews with Bruce and Kris, and all the children, would be shown on May 17 and May 24 on the network, where it and the family would be the beneficiary of the special’s ratings.
Exclusives had been preserved. The information — what Kris and her daughters would say — had been meted out according to plan.
I did not go with Kris to Costco that day, after all.
When the time came for us to leave, a producer entered the kitchen. Sorry, she told me, but the plans had changed, and I wouldn’t be able to come along.
Costco would only allow four people, and Kris, the camera person, the sound person and the producer all needed to go.
I argued halfheartedly.
I had my own Costco card; I could go of my own free will. I had just been there the day before, in fact, the high ceilings and numbered aisles and zombie-driven shopping carts chipping away at my soul.
“No offense,” the producer told me, “but we can’t have any association with you there.”
They have to keep up good relations with the businesses where they tape; this would not be Kris’s first or last time shooting at Costco. It would be her last time talking to me.
She offered to let me stay and finish my salad, while she went. Then she stood up from the table where we were sitting, and the producers and camera crew and assistants descended on her like a swarm.
She moved through the crowd undeterred, answering questions, fulfilling needs.
The large wooden door opened and closed, some of the swarm following her to her car, some dispersing to the parts of the house from which they originated.
Suddenly, it was silent, and the TV set of Keeping Up With the Kardashians became, briefly, just a house.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a contributing writer and a GQ correspondent. Her previous profile for the magazine, of the television producer, Jill Soloway, has been nominated for a Mirror Award.
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