Kim Kardashian, pictured here with one of her fragrances, (sold through Sephora before she angered them by seeking a wider distribution channel), has rocketed to an almost astronomical level of fame and power. She makes money from her reality TV Shows, fragrances, Dash clothing stores, celebrity appearances, photo shoots, and even raked in $1.5 million for wedding photos with her ex-husband Kris Humphries. She was the second highest paid actress several years ago, making an estimated $18 million for her work, an astonishing feat considering she certainly never went to Juilliard, and is highly unlikely to ever get halfway near an Oscar.
All of which begs a simple question: why? What is the cause of this otherworldly fame? It doesn’t hurt that her decathlon winning stepfather, Bruce Jenner, similarly knew how to position himself in the marketplace for maximum profit. He himself admitted in a recent interview that he milked his gold medal winning performance, in the 1976 Olympics, for every last dollar. Similarly, Kim’s mother, Kris Jenner, and manager (she manages the careers of all her kids), seems a shrewd business women and the architect of a kind of a non-stop Von Neumann Machine — only one that, instead of exploring deep space, creates more and more fame for her progeny. Then there are obvious contributing factors: her wealth; her physical attractiveness; the fact that she befriended Paris Hilton and learned the socialite game; and, finally, and perhaps most prominently, the sex tape she made with Ray J, that, as happened with Paris’s tape, got leaked to the public.
All these explanations seem plausible correlational factors in explaining her popularity. Yet, ultimately, they remain unsatisfying. Not even the idea that the smutty tape she made helped her get ahead fully accounts for her stature. Using sex to further a career may be of the oldest show biz motifs, something so much a part of the popular lore that it has become a common trope of improv troupes and talk show hosts alike. Still, Kardashian’s fame seems different, seems to speak to the heart of the new media landscape in which talent has very nearly become an afterthought.
It hardly needs to be said that long gone are the days when you required multiple talents to rise to preeminence. In the thirties performers like the Marx Brothers obtained celebrity because they were Renaissance men of the arts — they could sing, dance, mime, play musical instruments, tell jokes with incredible timing. Acts trained in vaudeville and small theaters, becoming famous, for the most part, because they were worthy.
This is not to stay the past was some Shangri-La. Branding, networking, and marketing have always played a part in the celebrity game. A good example of the importance of branding comes from the experience Ford had trying to sell a car named the Ford Etsel. No one wanted to buy a car name Etsel. It simply could not entice. So branding always mattered. But what makes the entertainment business unique today is one’s media position, one’s public profile, one’s followers on Twitter, and friends on Facebook, one’s level of comments on Tumblr, and one’s paid appearances, are not just the means to expose one’s talent but only real talent one needs.
Perhaps only Donald Trump has more fame than Kim, and yet, if you polled the typical American, I’d venture he or she would know more about Kim. Certainly she’s piped into the living room quite a bit each day — on multiple channels — particularly E!, as well as having acquired featured placement in celebrity magazines, blogs, movies, and countless promotional campaigns.
The endless spinoffs of her first reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians — Kourtney and Klohe Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Khloe and Lamar — testify to the way she and her siblings are the ultimate example of being famous for being famous. For while Kim is a sweet, attractive young woman, she does not demonstrate any discernible talent other than a supreme capacity to promote herself.
Kim’s stature is highly reminiscent of a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, where a professor of Hitler Studies, Jack Gladney, comes across The Most Photographed Barn In America. We learn that the populace is taking pictures of taking pictures. The barn is famous because people believe it should be famous. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A creation of the masses that says more about the audience taking the pictures than it does about the barn.
Proof that a similar statement could be made about Kim is the way her reality shows lack an overarching focus. I do not mean to suggest nothing happens: Scott gets drunk, Kourtney finds herself pregnant, Kim wants a divorce. Elements change. Lives evolve.
Still, it seems telling that each episode seems to present very little sense of style. Cameras follow the constituents, bits are edited, and yet the events always seem too hold far less meaning than the players in the drama themselves believe. In other words, these shows seem like an old home family video — some of it mildly interesting, other parts dull, a large portion of it utterly meaningless. It as if the producers of this programming put very little effort into arrangement, harmonization, and unification according to any possible thematic end.
Even Jersey Shore, base and ridiculous as it is, presents the key players in a certain thematic light. To put it crudely: guidos on a beach. The unique lingo, drunken antics, fist-pumping, all keyed up for dramatic effect, generate a readily comprehensible aesthetic. Jersey Shore plays on cliches in ways that, while not exactly enlightening, at least show some effort at arrangement.
The same could be said for Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life, another fiasco, in it’s own right, but one where there was definitely a focused theme. Putting posh socialites Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton on a farm where they milk a cow or work the fryer in a fast-food joint presented a classic “fish out of water” structure. Their difficulty hacking it in small town America may not have made riveting TV, but it certainly presented a comprehensible aesthetic.
Which brings me back to my main question: why is Kim famous? She never graduated college, can’t sing, dance, or act, has problems with men (two divorces), and often makes painfully foolish remarks. Of Barack Obama, during the height of his campaign, she once said, “He just seemed very firm about the change, and that’s, like, his motto.”
The popularity of Kim Kardashian seems to signal the death knell of the meritocracy. Quality programming is no longer of concern. This is a development which channel operators have learned to embrace. For their bottom line is profitability. Good or bad, ugly or beautiful, interesting or worthless mean nothing. They know that, to attract ratings, it merely has to be about Kim Kardashian.
So I don’t blame Kim. Nor, really, do I blame these profit-driven media companies. I blame the public. The public has lousy taste. Instagram influencers are another example of that. Sad, really. But it’s probably too late to alter this trend. It’s too embedded in our cultural framework.
The simulacrum now dominates. We’re all in a Fun House. Study your reflections. There is no escape.