Notes on “Kim”

Whether you liked it or not, whether you wanted to or not, you’ve spent a lot of 2014 thinking about Kim Kardashian.

By Rachel Syme
Illustrations by Victor Kerlow

IN REVIEW:
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
(Glu Games, Inc.)

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West wanted to marry at Versailles. They made a request to the French government: Let us wed like royalty, in the palace of the Sun King, among the gaudy gardens where Marie Antoinette swished around in satin, where a grand hall of mirrors will reflect back our image, over and over, infinite selfies giving way to infinite likes, for as long as we both shall live. Their request was denied. The French still have their standards.

Instead, Catherine Pégard, the president of Versailles, offered a kind of consolation prize, a “private” tour of the palace — privacy, of course, has a different connotation for the French and for Kimye; they turned the tour into a rehearsal dinner and photo-op — that took place on May 23, 2014, the eve of the wedding (which ultimately happened a hop, skip, and a private jet away in a sprawling Florentine estate once owned by the Medici family). Pégard told the press that she had sanctioned the tour because she felt it would “help to maintain the exceptional heritage of Versailles.” If there was a sneer of sarcasm in that comment, a slight tannic aftertaste of French condescension (or blatant racism) toward the flamboyant nuptial plans of an American rapper and a reality television star, then the joke was on Pégard. This is what Versailles was built to do: to celebrate and revel in the union between a man who considers himself a cultural king and a kind of divine prophet (see #iamagod) and a princess known for her decadence, ornateness, and extreme self-regard.

When Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles more than two centuries before, a class anxiety familiar to Kimye watchers followed her all the way from Austria. Her mother (Maria Theresa, a first-class “momager” and a true Kris Jenner predecessor) had sold her to a king as part of a savvy deal, and she was never fully accepted in her new country. So Marie built herself an expensive fantasy retreat where she could flounce around in pretty dresses, and the French started to revolt. Crudely drawn nudes of Antoinette’s body began to circulate, and the monarchy could not destroy them fast enough. In 2014, Kardashian took the most circulated nude of the year, and while she was in control of the image, she provoked a fierce digital outcry from the chattering masses. The exceptional heritage of Versailles is exactly what she represents.

At the rehearsal dinner, women dressed in Marie Antoinette costumes served the guests, who seemed to come from every spectrum of the Western fame circuit: Valentino, Alexander Wang, NeNe Leakes, Steve McQueen, Big Sean, André Leon Talley, Serena Williams. David Blaine performed magic tricks in the grand hall like a court jester. Lana Del Rey, plaintive, with her Marilyn pout, appeared in a floor-length gown to sing “Young and Beautiful,” a song she had written about the tragedy of losing one’s gilded looks for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby; camp on camp on camp on camp. In the first verse, Rey sings, “I’ve seen the world, done it all, had my cake now.” These words could not have been lost on the happy couple, who had traveled across the globe to eat wedding cake inside European fortresses, knowing long before they shot the photograph of their first wedded kiss that it would be the most-ever-liked image on Instagram.

Together they would rule back in America. They had done it all now. And as for the rest of us back home, staring into tiny screens for something to believe in, well, we would feast on that kiss. We, too, would have our cake.

There is no more divisive figure in American culture right now, right this moment, than Kim Kardashian. Like it or not, you’ve thought about her this year. Maybe you didn’t want to. Maybe she’s all you thought about. Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Crisco artfully applied to her butt. In any case, everyone is thinking about her. Talking about her. Playing her video game. Faving her selfies (by the millions). Critiquing her selfies (what kind of mother crops her own baby from a photo, etc.). Buying her merchandise. Following her every move. And it’s happening at all levels: The tweens know her from her app and the tabloids, the sentient masses know her from nine seasons on the E! network; musicheads know her as Ye’s muse (for better or worse); the fashion and art worlds know her as an undeniable tool of commerce; your grouchy uncle probably knows her as being famous for having seemingly done very little besides release a sex tape and swan around and therefore as some kind of vague representation of the decline of the West and the rise of the dominant mediocre.

What’s important is this: They all know who she is.

She’s vertically integrated. Everyone gets a piece. Whatever code there is to being an entertainer, Kardashian has cracked it. In the parlance of our tech overlords, she has disrupted fame. She sees the tubes inside of it, how it works. She may understand how to be famous in 2014 better than anyone else alive. Whether or not this means she is a brilliant schemer or simply feeling her way through the fabric of our culture by pure instinct is beside the point. As Susan Sontag wrote in Notes on “Camp,” an essay that arguably predicted the forces of whimsical bad taste that would allow the Kardashian dynasty to reign: “One doesn’t need to know the artist’s private intentions. The work tells all.”

The work speaks volumes: She is her own best creation, a businesswoman, a brand, a socialite, a TV star, a wife, a mother, and the essential member of a sprawling family who are all getting rich under the umbrella of her fame. But most important, Kim Kardashian works full-time as professional metaphor. That’s what we need her to be. In a culture so divided — the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the language is getting more vicious, the long tail of the internet has sent us all into individual and increasingly smaller rabbit holes — we need something we can all agree on, a joint canvas we can all color with our opinion about the way we live now. Kim has offered and promoted her body as that canvas — a body which is so curvaceous as to appear bionic and not quite human, and in a caramel tone that transcends any easy categorization of race or class — it belongs to all of us. It wouldn’t be too generous to say she has offered us, with this body, a sometimes thrilling, sometimes maddening, but always available locus for communal discourse.

And in the meantime, she makes millions, approaching billions. Perhaps money is her only goal with all of this. The artist’s private intentions need not be known.

Earlier this year, Kanye West told GQ, “Kim is the type of girl that, her entire life, if you were in school with her, most people would be studying and up late nights, but for some reason she would have the skill set to go and grab the one book, turn to the exact page, and just magically say, ‘That’s the exact answer.’ Or she could wink at the person who had done all the work and get it done anyway.” She always knows exactly who to wink at. Her true talent, and I do believe she has one, lies in knowing exactly how to maximize her assets in order to level up, to push another boundary of fame, and to emerge unscathed each time a tabloid bullet flies in her direction. She’s got the resilience of a superhero. This is why it makes perfect sense that Kardashian’s most significant contribution to 2014 — not her wedding, not her magazine covers, not her book or fashion line or show premiere — was a video game.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood debuted this summer and became a phenomenon, but in case you somehow missed it, this is the basic premise: You are a D-list nobody in a candy-colored, cartoon version of our world. You want to be on the A-list. In order to get ahead, you have to do what any wannabe does: Endorse cheesy products, go on photo shoots at inconvenient times of day, appear at the openings of Miami nightclubs, date stars above your station for the press, have a high-profile tabloid fight with a rival, change managers, change outfits, change real estate. You have to collect stars to buy things like furniture and outfits, and “energy bolts,” which give you the juice to do more cheesy photo shoots or go on more paparazzi-bait outings.

The mobile game started costing people a fortune because it is maddeningly slow-going to collect the bolts and stars the old-fashioned way (by collecting them from the floor, and waiting until the next chance to collect them from the floor), and it is just easier to buy a power-up pack. Like Kanye claims that Kim is able to do, you want to wink and cheat, you want to punch in your credit card to virtually leap ahead to the next frontier, where surely things will get more exciting. They do not. The settings change and the apartments get bigger, but the game flattens the entire journey from D-list to A-list into one shiny, somewhat numbing, repetitive quest. Sometimes Kim pops up to encourage you to continue your journey: Don’t give up, her hourglass avatar says, it’s all going to be worth it.

The reason you started in the first place begins to blur — did you want to be able to afford a new virtual outfit? Finally open your own clothing boutique in the cloud? Meet a hot actor at a hot eatery in a hot neighborhood that doesn’t exist? Defeat your nemesis, Willow Pape, and finally show her who runs this town, a town that you cannot ever live in? You just move ahead for the sake of moving ahead. Because it’s the only thing to do. And somehow, at the end of every session playing, you’re exhausted. Collecting all those stars from the floor wears you out. All that wasting time demands energy. Many have remarked how this tedium must replicate the very essence of the Kardashian experience. They may not be entirely wrong.

I played the game for just over a month, back when everyone I knew was doing just that, and I got to the B-list. It cost me somewhere around $75 to do it, a figure that I am not proud of, but I just didn’t have the patience to play clean or the technological acumen to figure out the online hack that poured infinite free K-stars into an account. Like most of my friends, I tired of the game after I realized that getting to the top was an empty victory. I don’t have the endless supply of energy bolts that the real-life Kim Kardashian has. Of course, her gains are not at all virtual — the app has earned $200 million, and she and her avatar earned a slot at #2 on Time’s “Most Influential Characters” list, just after Elsa.

In recent months, the game introduced Kris, Khloé, and Kourtney avatars, making it a family affair. But none will rise as high as Kim, who by laying bare all of the banal, calculated steps it takes to climb the ranks of celebrity, has moved into far higher orbits than the app arcade. We can waste hours playing the game (I have), while she plays us. And while we’re buying K-stars, she’s at Art Basel, in Versailles, at the Paris runways. In each new selfie, she smirks knowingly, like the sphinx that got the cream.

It is potentially a very scary idea to have someone with such a raw yearning for fame topping the tech world, but it feels even scarier to have her battering down the walls of high culture. It opens up a lot of anxious questions: What does it say about our desires that Kardashian is soon publishing a hulking coffee table book of more than 300 of her selfies, entitled Selfish, with legendary art book publisher Rizzoli, and that the book is already a best seller in pre-sales? What does it mean that Kim chose to pose nude on the cover of Paper, a downtown New York art magazine run by 1980s Soho fixture Kim Hastreiter, who was then the it-Kim not for a reality show or a cosmetics line but for palling around at the Mudd Club with Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring? And, most concerning to some, what are the forces that led to Kim and Kanye appearing earlier this year on the cover of Vogue, its own kind of unconquerable royal fortress?

In the episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians when Kim’s Vogue cover lands, her mother tells her sisters to congratulate her, for it has been Kim’s dream “her entire life” to be on that cover. One might say that of a lot of little girls. But not all of them manage it. And very few of them manage it after being the centerfold of Playboy. Kim skipped past the careful career steps that most models/actresses must tiptoe through to land there (first step: Don’t be in a sex tape), and so she threatens a value that we hold very dear: good taste. In other words, Kim Kardashian turns us all into snobs.

The Vogue cover was seen as an event horizon in the fashion world, a tipping point where the lowbrow and the high melted into each other more clearly then they ever have. Even before then, there were a great many people expending a lot of energy thinking about whether Kim is doing fashion “wrong.” Because, to be fair, there is something strident about Kim when it comes to Her Stuff: She is constantly Instagramming herself in thousand-dollar outfits, with hashtags about the new thing she has just acquired. She has toted around a $40,000 hand-painted Birkin bag covered in primitivist nudes (a gift from Kanye) that seems defiantly out of touch with how any real person lives. And, like the hedonistic French queen who piled her hair three feet high and festooned it with taxidermy butterflies, Kardashian is a style icon who always feels just slightly too-ambitious when it comes to high-fashion moments: At the first Met Gala she attended in 2013, she wore a maximalist rose-printed Givenchy dress (stretched tight over her very pregnant stomach) that Vogue deemed so savorless that they cropped her out of their best-dressed gallery, leaving only a small floral sliver next to West’s tux. For her second attempt, she wore a more refined Lanvin gown, but discovered that if she made a misstep in it, photographers could see her underwear.

And yet, and yet. Vogue put her on that cover. She wins at the Kardashian game, every time. Once Kim joined fortunes — and families — with Kanye, who has bravado enough to claim he is the new Andy Warhol (and, some would argue, the visionary genius to back up that claim), she vaulted herself right into Anna Wintour’s sights. Some people said Wintour had fully lost her mind. But she can read a cultural weathervane, even if one imagines her sighing heavily while sensing which way the wind is blowing. Ignoring the fact that Kim Kardashian is currently a force in fashion would be, as one friend said to me, “pretending that you can totally block out the culture we’re living in by wearing sunglasses.”

It could be argued that Americans haven’t had good taste in decades — if we ever did — but we still like to think of ourselves as a tasteful, dignified people who somehow set the tone for the rest of the world; our longheld puritanical conservatism peeking through. Our music, fashion, film, art, and literature is vitally important to us, and we still believe that there is some inherent meritocracy that allows the cream to rise (see the Oscar race that is about to happen if you need any evidence of our obsession with “excellence”). The Kardashian dynasty’s rise feels to some like a full-on cultural attack: How can this clan of siblings from a McMansion in Calabasas, whose main preoccupations are shopping and smoothies and selfies, led by a ruthless and brilliant matriarch who will see all of her children become millionaires — and in Kim’s case, many times over — be the people we need to keep up with? If Kim has offered herself to us as a central cipher for our hopes and fears, sometimes the fear takes over.

This is the essential Kim Kardashian divide, and it is basically a gendered argument: Can a woman who uses her body for gain, fame, fortune, and notoriety, and who seems to continually rise like a phoenix through the cultural ranks despite the exploitation of her beauty, ever gain respect? And does gaining respect even matter? Kardashian has never claimed to be a feminist, or at least she has never stood in front of a blazing neon sign of that word like Beyoncé (the true and tireless Queen of American Culture) has, which in 2014 is a statement in itself. That word now has power. She doesn’t use it. She can control men (and women) alike with her image, but she’s not parlaying that control into much outside of her own advancement and amusement. (Her answer to why she takes all those pictures of herself? “It’s fun!”) Unlike most of the violated starlets in Hollywood, Kim leaked her own nude this year; privacy, one of the last luxuries in an ever-scarier world of hackers and NSA snoops, is not a big part of her brand.

Anyway, high/low, camp/class, feminism/exploitation: It’s all breaking down. The digital revolution has made our hierarchies diffuse, and in some cases, defunct. So while Kim may be seen as a sign of end times to those who feel they must protect some temple of good taste, she has become something of a folk hero to a new generation that doesn’t see old-guard institutions as anything but obstacles to disrupt and shatter. She is in essence the actualization of what digital culture has lulled all millennials into thinking they can achieve. Kim perpetuates the myth of gaining fame (the only currency a born-digital person of limited means can hope to quickly gain) by logging screen time: that if you post enough pictures, updates, and statuses, then your own status will rise. That you can cheat the game of life just by feeding the beast with endless content.

One wonders the exact moment when Kim Kardashian realized she was going to become famous. She hasn’t given an answer in interviews — her interviews are consistently bland, lest any misplaced words contradict her extraordinary image — but it may have entered her brain sometime around the year she turned 14. That year, her father, lawyer Robert Kardashian, stood on one side of the Los Angeles Superior Court, defending his longtime friend O.J. Simpson, whose house he had been staying at during the murder. On the other side of the court sat her mother, Kris Jenner, in the section reserved for Nicole Brown Simpson’s closest friends.

Though Kardashian’s parents were already separated at the time, Kim has said that the case tore their family apart. But she sat in that courthouse, watching cameras trained on the trial, and knew 155 million viewers were watching them, too. She witnessed the birth of reality television. She learned the language of celebrity, how to keep the headlines going for another day. And, when the acquittal happened, she knew what star power really looked like. Some people might have sat in that trial and decided that the public eye was monstrous, and slunk away from it. Kim instead bent toward the spotlight like an orchid, following it wherever it would go.

In that sense, her peacocking seems almost pure. If there isn’t something artful about her journey from D- to A-list, then at least there is something authentic about it. She’s so natural at being the center of attention, so comfortable mugging in front of a camera, that she has come to embody — and provide a tacit endorsement of — all of our most narcissistic cravings at the new digital buffet. If she’s scary, then that is because she makes us scared of our desires to be documented, faved, seen. When she holds up her phone, she holds up a mirror.

Kardashian is, above all, honest about what she wants. She wants to be famous. She wants us to think about her every day. She wants us to never forget her name. She may be a martyr for this cause, the butt of jokes, the cheap laugh, the app avatar. But she gives the people what they want. If they cannot have bread, then let them have cheesecake.

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