It was the hashtag heard ’round the Internet: #worldsmosttalkedaboutcouple.
And whether it was art reflecting the sign of the times, or, as Vogue intends and has always intended, stamping a self-fulfilling prophecy by labeling what would then come to be, it’s true.
By finally — finally! Dear baby North Yeezus, how Kim has wanted this — putting Kim Kardashian and Kanye West on the cover of American Vogue, Anna Wintour and the rest of the Condé Nast crew have done something that speaks beyond the street style stars, socialites, starlets, and fashion houses that usually fill the glossy pages of a magazine that is as aspirational as it is unattainable.
Because I remember buying Vogue when I was 11 — begging my mother to buy it for me, really, when we were going through the grocery store line and the last thing she needed to add to a grocery cart full of store-brand popsicles and value-pack chicken cuts was a magazine that was filled with thousand-dollar dresses her daughter was too young to buy, let alone wear. I’d flip through the pages, reading the interviews that always had the same tone — a down-to-earth yet beautiful woman, purported to be a style icon, usually promoting some film or album or campaign, sometimes demurring over a salad, sometimes playing coy when talking about a boyfriend or a husband or her children, sometimes standing proudly as she discussed how she turned some rustic country estate in England or Calabasas or the Hamptons into a home, and how she managed to stay lithe and lean and tanned and usually blonde and glowing. It seemed like a lot of work. It always seemed expensive to live a Vogue life. As a chubby, awkward, loudmouthed, little brown girl in a not-then-cool neighborhood of Los Angeles, it seemed all so close, and yet so very far away from my own reality.
Somewhere in another part of town, a richer part of town, I imagine Kim Kardashian bought copies of Vogue and poured over them when she was my age, too. 9 years my senior, she’d already graduated from the “rich” all-girls Catholic school when I enrolled in the “average-priced” one; she was not then famous. But when I was in high school, rumors of her sex tape broke throughout a town that exists largely on the gossip it tries so hard to make for itself. At the time, most of us replied, “Who cares? Brandy’s brother? What does that matter?” There was little thought given to the woman with whom he’d made the tape.
And then her family’s reality show came screaming onto the scene – the brain child of Ryan Seacrest, l’enfant terrible of reality television. Though Los Angeles would like to tell you otherwise — that we still hold dear the grounds where Gone With The Wind was filmed, that we are making important movies and groundbreaking television shows — there is still just a lot of Other. There is a lot of manufactured “reality” in a town that is overwhelmingly manufactured. There are paparazzi galore. There is a lot of fame, but a lot more people who are hungry for that fame. They will take infamy if they can. Reality television is then a bit of a sore spot. We all consume it, but none of us want to. It is the lower rung to true fame.
Still, I found myself sucked into the dynamics of a family that was just that much richer than my own, that much closer than I was to my own siblings, that much more dysfunctional and zany and power-hungry than I could have ever dared to be. And they were shameless about it. It was an act, I was sure of it — after all, in addition to being fabricated, reality TV can only survive on the principle that you’re giving about 40% of your life to the camera. Today, as a writer who reflects largely on my own experiences, I understand that. You go a little crazy if you don’t keep some things to yourself. You feel like a gaping wound. Keeping some things to your heart is how you stay sane, and how you keep your identity. It’s how you can go on playing a character, while still knowing who you are.
Kim, however, seemed different. Malleable to her mother’s cunning managerial style, she was willing and eager to jump at any chance of fame and put the sex tape behind her (pun only partially intended). If you watch the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians on Netflix, it’s a fascinating character study. Kim, who looks markedly different from the sleek, polished woman we know today, is unsure and confused a lot of the time, trying so hard to please everyone while still testing the boundaries of what she felt was okay for her own sense of self. Her Playboy shoot feels downright painful and invasive, which may seem hypocritical for somebody who filmed a sex tape, but I’d like to give the girl the benefit of the doubt that she filmed that tape with her boyfriend at the time for their own pleasure, and Playboy is a vehicle for mass consumption. She could have said no, of course, but if you want to be famous, you don’t say no to much. Especially not in Los Angeles. And we were both two Los Angeles girls. I understood that.
She also looked like the woman my body was shaping into. At a time when Blue Crush was at its height, and the Rachel Zoe-influenced blond, bohemian, twiggy, pretty little things were rushing to the forefront of fashion and tabloid magazines, Kim was the closest thing I had to someone to whom I could relate. (Not that I ever had any ambitions of posing for Playboy, but you know what I mean.) Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz were and still are people who I saw a little bit of myself in, but those stars was a little too glossy, a little too established, a little too aspirational. And beyond that, who else did I have? There was even a point where I clung to Catherine Zeta-Jones because she had dark hair and dark eyes and was cast as a Spanish-looking woman in Zorro. Though the Kardashians are Armenian, I saw the butts and boobs and the dark eyes and the long hair and all that hunger and ambition and said, right there, those are women to whom I can relate.
I continued to watch the reality show, and slowly, it struck me that it was a wonderful kind of escape. Some people, who want more than anything to travel the world, lose themselves in The Amazing Race or Survivor or something like that. Even The Real World provides a bit of an escape — because the world it portrays is in no way real, but chances are good it’s still a hell of a lot different from the life you’re living, and so you tune in and check out from whatever you’re dealing with, and you relish watching the trials and tribulations of a bunch of strangers, picked to live in a house, whom you will never, ever meet. That is what television does. It gives us ready-made escapes in 30- and 60-minute intervals.
But the thing about the Kardashians is that their show came at a time when the internet exploded, and the internet loves its spoilers. We’d hear the gossip mills churning about a breakup, a heartbreak, a pregnancy, a baby, a fight, anything — and then see it come to fruition a few months after the event had used up its 15 minutes of fame, but was still processed through the editing room and regurgitated back at us with some shiny new angle, the “side we hadn’t seen.” And we ate it up. We still do. We heard that Kim Kardashian divorced her husband after 72 days, but we still tuned in to find out “what went wrong.” In real life, the fact that your friend divorced is usually enough. They grieve, you console, they file the paperwork, you all move on together. In reality television, the “why?” is all that matters. Why did we want to know how these people, whom we claim so vehemently to not care about, crash and burn?
Because we do care, no matter how much we say we don’t. Schadenfreude, the German term for “happiness at the misfortune of others,” is still a feeling. It is still a level of care. If we honestly did not care about the Kardashians, they would not still be famous.
And yet they are famous. Though there are other children in the Kardashian-Jenner brood (I once jokingly diagramed it for a coworker who did not quite understand the hierarchy) Kim, the pick of Kris Jenner’s litter, her fiancé — and their baby — are, according to Vogue, the #worldsmosttalkedaboutcouple.
Because this is fame these days. The Kardashians could have lived a very comfortable life nestled away in Calabasas, California, and never said a word. A lot of people do. Kris Jenner could have been a homemaker for Olympic hero Bruce Jenner, by then a public speaker, instead of a manager for her children’s careers. Kourtney could have continued to manage the Dash boutique — and indeed, the fact that they continue to open Dash stores and have not shuttered those doors speaks either to work ethic or appearances or a combination of the two — and Kim could have continued to work as a celebrity stylist. She might have still met and married Kanye West by doing that. Who’s to say what would have happened to Khloe, Robert, Kylie, and Kendall? They were young when the show started. They were still finding their own ways, and when they were thrust into the spotlight, they capitalized on it. All of the Kardashians did. And they turned a minor blip of fame into a multi-million dollar business and world-class name recognition.
(It’s also notable to add that though Kanye shares the cover with his fiancée, this cover is not so much about him as it is her. He is famous in his own right. We don’t need a magazine cover to reinforce that. Whether you like his music or not, he is still a huge artist, and Vogue has a small-but-noteworthy history of putting men on their cover to bolster the female cover stars, though they do not always think their intentions through to the overarching messages they’re sending.)
You can’t go anywhere without people knowing the Kardashian name. My iPhone recognizes ‘Kardashian’ as a properly-spelled, properly-capitalized word. The Kardashians may be manufactured, but they are honest about being manufactured. They genuinely seem to be aware that their fame is little more than a shiny Amaro filter glossed over their real lives – still only 40%, or so, I’d guess, but their lives nonetheless — and we go to them to escape our own lives, to hate on somebody else’s lives, to wonder how the astronomically richer other half lives. In a world where social media lets us interact with people by giving them only the side that we want them to see, the Kardashians seem to be capitalizing on that the most.
For that, we purport to hate them. But for that, they are famous. And Vogue, I warrant, has an interview to accompany what, admittedly, I think is a very sweet behind-the-scenes video, and Kim will be demure and humble and gracious and lounge around the home she has made with Kanye West and their daughter, and I will buy my copy and obsess how she manages to stay tan and glowing and buxom and curvaceous and every other adjective our society lauds on Kim Kardashian. Because even with her haters — and I know there are a lot, and with good reason, and sometimes, I am even disgusted with myself for how readily I consume the Kardashian narrative — she has managed to claw her way to the top and be on a cover of Vogue. Not many woman get that. And whether you believe she deserves it or not, the fact of the matter is, she made it happen. That was her dream come true.
Because the Kardashians — and their husbands and fiancés and boyfriends and children, who are now in along for the ride — don’t resemble the new American dream so much as they resemble the new social media dream. That is a thing now. This is the world we live in.
And if this is a world where a woman who looks so unapologetically like Kim Kardashian as Kim Kardashian does is what Vogue deems “in style”, then maybe, it’s finally a little bit of an olive branch to women who have to claw their way to relevancy. Not every woman has sex appeal or sex tapes or sexy bandage dresses or tanning lotion endorsements or anything in between going for her (and nor should she.) Not every woman wants to be famous. But lots of women want to work hard, and be relevant in their own right. You can’t say that the Kardashians aren’t relevant. Whether that is for better or for worse is up to you.
But somewhere, there is a little girl who might look at that Vogue cover and see a very glossy version of a woman who went after what she wanted and got it. Maybe that little girl won’t want a Vogue cover. Maybe she aspires to something different, something a little bit more. The Kardashians may not be role models, but they are proof that anything, really, is possible. And that, to me, will always be in style.