Kim Kardashian And ‘Poor-nography’: The Dangers Of Celebrities Romanticizing Poverty

Photo via Unsplash, Flickr/Eva Rinaldi; Illustration by Maxine Builder
For privileged stars, it pays to pose as poor.

Bad & Boujee” is how Kim Kardashian describes a photo of herself and friend Stephanie Shepherd sipping coffee from takeaway cups and pretending to eat cookies, apparently taken on a disposable camera but posted to Instagram. If they weren’t on Kim’s private jet, it’s the kind of photo you’d probably see on the Instagram feed of any young, fashionable creative trying to make it in a big city while holding down multiple jobs, maybe nannying in the day and bartending at night. The aesthetic is bad and boujee (or bougie, depending on whether you listen to Migos or not). It’s just that Kim is not.

Since her return to Instagram this year after taking a much-publicized break from social media, Kim has been embracing this new, grainy aesthetic, which falls under the umbrella of “poverty chic.” Kardashian has posted pictures of herself and her family in a home that’s sparsely furnished with grimy walls, photos of Kanye eating cereal, and even one of herself cooking. These seemingly mundane scenes are a jarring departure from the glossy, lavish lifestyle we’re used to seeing Kim boasting — but they’re just as carefully staged and almost entirely fictitious. That home turns out to be music producer Rick Rubin’s house, and the meal Kim’s preparing is actually a delivery service Atkins meal.

These seemingly mundane scenes are a jarring departure from the usually glossy, lavish lifestyle we’re used to seeing Kim boasting — but they’re just as carefully staged and almost entirely fictitious.

Kim’s not the only member of the Kardashian clan jumping on the poverty chic bandwagon. Little sister Kylie Jenner has been spotted rocking the ultimate rural poor emulation trend from the ’00s : the Von Dutch trucker hat. Other wealthy celebrities, too, have been posting photos to Instagram of themselves acting “poor.” Vogue Australia’s latest shoot with Selena Gomez, for example, features the former Disney star posing in a run-down home. Supermodel Bella Hadid has posted a photo of herself gone full aughts-era mallrat with an ironic caption, “pinkys up.” On Instagram, Hailey Baldwin posed with McDonald’s food, calling it “#essentials.”

The question isn’t whether or not poverty chic is making a comeback — it’s why.

Much the same as cultural appropriation, poverty chic is an act of “cherry-picking.” As Refinery29’s Leeann Duggan writes, “It glibly looks at the world with a purely visual eye, and refuses to consider meaning.” The celebrities and fashion elites flaunting these signifiers of poverty have likely never lived through the abjection they’re mimicking.

This fascination with the lives of those less fortunate is nothing new for the rich and famous. Christian Dior’s spring-summer 2000 haute couture collection, designed by John Galliano, is often considered the birthplace of “homeless chic” in fashion. The collection was a mish-mash of ripped fishnet, belts made of found items, and scrunched-up garments in newspaper print, all twisted together in a futuristic, Dickensian style. At the time, it was harshly criticized by his peers and the media, in much the same way Kardashian’s photos are facing a backlash now. Galliano called his detractors “bourgeois people, condescending and smug,” excepting himself from actually being bourgeois — as Kardashian is currently attempting to with her Instagram pictures.

The rest of the mid-00s were bombarded with images of waifish celebrities dressed as “bag ladies,” and fashion culture insistently “cool-ified” the bottom echelons of the socio-economic spectrum. In 2010, Vivienne Westwood sent a whole tattered menswear collection down the runway. Photographer Miles Aldridge has deified the homeless in his work. The Olsen Twins dressed like homeless people through the mid-’00s. Erin Wasson heralded dressing like a homeless person as the pinnacle of style. Tyra Banks had the models in Cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model pose as sexy homeless, while the Sartorialist made a model of an actual homeless person. Terry Richardson went on to capitalize on all of this, creating that instantly recognizable visual aesthetic — celebrities shot in high contrast images, as if on disposable camera, against a sparse white background, often with dirty or unmade hair, simple clothes (jeans, t-shirts, in lingerie, or shirtless), smoking (both cigarettes and marijuana), blowing gum bubbles or wearing hipster-style reading glasses, caught in “natural” off-guard poses, capturing the way the rich imagine the less privileged should look.

The propensity to “dress homeless” eventually disappeared along with the global recession, fashion’s reclamation of ’80s “bodycon” and, ironically, the beginning of Kim Kardashian’s rise to pop-culture icon status. But almost a decade later, here we are again, asking ourselves: What is it that drives the upper class to aspire to look poor? Why are celebrities once again looking for dilapidated environments in which to pose in grungy, mismatched, oversized streetwear? Why are they eschewing the signifiers of their “success” — ostentatious jewelry, hero handbags, and Michelin starred restaurants — to hang out at Dave and Busters?

What is it that drives the upper class to aspire to look poor?

Our return to this trope of “acting poor” has a lot to do with the romanticization of poverty, projecting a purity onto the poor that the rich just can’t seem to buy. For Kardashian, the turn to this new aesthetic might be reactive. Following the robbery in Paris in 2016 which saw her held at gunpoint over around $10 million in diamonds, many commentators saw her lavish displays of wealth as courting that exact sort of trouble. Downplaying her wealth, then, might be a form of repentance, where she actively attempts to distance herself from the notion that her excessive having makes her deserving of being taken from.

In an article addressing the phenomenon of poverty chic from 2002, writer Zoe William posits in The Guardian that the notion of poor equating to “cool” is “timeless.” This, it is argued, is rooted in religion, and the core “notion of the poor being inherently pious.” The poor, unlike the privileged, are exonerated from guilt, something the upper class rich are eternally shouldered with. This condescending idea of the “pious poor” might be what’s propelling the currency of struggle in the modern climate.

The glorification of poverty is intrinsic to the wider perception that this generation’s trendmakers have never actually endured any kind of palpable struggle. Taylor Swift’s girl squad and the Kardashian family’s Instagram photos are too clean and neat, and all celebrities can do to earn “authenticity” is to co-opt the visual signifiers of struggle — a yellow stained wall, blurry photos, ripped jeans and dirty hair. Essentially, the socioeconomic barriers that preclude people like Kardashian from being viewed as “genuine” or “empathetic” can’t be dismantled. The best she and her peers can do is to attempt to appear like the every person.

But the rich acting poor isn’t emulation or flattery. Indeed, the aesthetic Kardashian is glamorizing is a daily reality for many — often born out of cyclical patterns of institutional bias, social stigma, cultural abuse, and a whole system that is rigged to ensure that those poor stay poor, while the rich jealously guard their privilege. As July Westhale, writing for The Establishment, points out, many of the appropriations that take place — from Instagram-friendly hipster bars promoting trailer park aesthetics to preposterous lifestyle trends for wealthy young people extolling the virtues of “minimalist” living — are often things for which the poor are scrutinized and belittled. We celebrate the performance of poverty, but we demonize the the poor, and according to Westhale, because of the “systemic oppression that makes it difficult for them to have the same access to upward mobility, [the poor] are considered socially uncouth and lazy, while white anarchists…are praised for their radically subversive actions.”

Whether it’s the burden of an unfair tax system, the Republican attack on health care including the defunding of Planned Parenthood, or the onerous user-pays education system, poverty isn’t really a choice, but something that’s been foisted on the working class — and disproportionately on communities of color — in America and across the globe since time immemorial. The rich are happy to perpetuate dangerous stereotypes of the poor for their own gratification, but when it comes to the actual poor, judgment abounds. What Kardashian and her peers have therefore failed to understand is that just because they choose to romanticize poverty, that choice isn’t a universal reality.

Dressing in shabby chic and posing against the background of a dilapidated domestic environment suggests that despite unknowable wealth, these rich have been humbled — something Kardashian seems adamant on proving post-robbery. Writing in Salon, Brook Bolen suggests poverty chic is an attempt at “enlightenment” where those performing it show how they “pared down possessions to live more simply and happily.”

Celebrities are attempting to disavow themselves of dirty words like “privilege” and “entitlement,” and mainstream aesthetic culture, once again, is drawn to the latest iteration of “slumming it.” In a climate where even a billionaire businessman was able to win a presidential campaign by positioning himself as a man of the people, it pays to pose as poor.

It might be an outward projection of humility, or a grasping at some kind of inner solace against the guilt of privilege, but either way, for Kim Kardashian and her peers, lavish displays of wealth have been sidelined as alienating. Instead, they’re standing on the precipice of the echo chamber where rich people go to shout, “Hey, I’m just like you!”

But in the attempt to create something “authentic” by embracing “realness,” Kardashian and her peers have created an incongruity that’s difficult to witness. It’s a modern absurdist art form in which the counterintuitive goal is self-aggrandizing through the craven mirroring of “humble” subjects.