We should start with the unavoidable: the sex tape. In the mid-00s Kardashian wasn’t famous like her friends Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, for whom she was a stylist. Richie and Hilton were catapulted into the public eye with their feckless and fantastic reality show The Simple Life, blasting a tsunami of velour Juicy Couture and Von Dutch trucker caps into society. They giggled and pouted on every red carpet and magazine cover going. But this kind of fame eluded Kardashian, despite her notorious parents and her social life. Until, that is, her sex tape – recorded in 2003 with her then-boyfriend Ray “Ray J” Norwood – was “leaked” into the public domain.
A new book, Kardashian Dynasty, by Ian Halperin, claims that the tape was a total set-up to bring Kardashian fame. He quotes a “source” that claims: “A mutual friend of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton had advised her that if she wanted to achieve massive fame, a sex tape would be the way to go and that Kim had discussed the idea of producing a tape with her family beforehand after watching how successful it was with her at the time best friend Paris Hilton.”
“It was Kim’s mother Kris who engineered the entire deal behind the scenes and was responsible for the tape seeing the light of day,” he continues, also suggesting that Kardashian’s subsequent threats of suing were all part of the masterplan. Kardashian has strongly denied this story over the years repeatedly, saying she was embarrassed about “humiliating the family”. Her mother has also denied masterminding the tape.
The tape was released in 2007 and now here we are in 2016: Planet Kardashian. The woman has both monetised fame and created a new definition thereof. As the inveterate clarion call goes: she is famous for getting her tits out and for, well, just… being. Stepping out of her car. Being famous.
But can it really be that simple? Hilton, too, is famous for a sex tape, (and has also denied any involvement in its leak) and her fame is but a faint stain on Kardashian’s now. What other questions should we be asking? In trying to unlock why Kardashian continues to occupy us so intensely, should we not also be examining ourselves?
First, let’s look at the facts: in 2015 Forbes suggested Kardashian’s net worth was $52.5m. Her fortune is attributable to clothing lines, iPhone games (Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, in which players are invited to create their own celebrity), emojis, appearing on her family’s reality shows – and, no doubt, the financial rewards that come from being a one-person advertising agency to her multimillion Twitter (at time of writing: 43.9m) and Instagram (67.4m) followers. She is, to put a finer point on it, “doing OK”.
It’s not just Kardashian’s businesses that ensure her celebrity continues to swell. It’s not just her marriage to Kanye West, one of – if not the – world’s most controversial and brilliant recording artists. It’s not just the selfies, the nakedness or the conversations she generates in real life and online on a daily basis, from the vast feminist soul-searching to the constant, kneejerk slut-shaming. It’s not “just” anything. Her fame is, within the context of fame itself, brand new. It is multicausal and hugely complex, and it is ours as much as hers. Why? Because, whether we love or hate her, we cannot get enough. We can’t get enough of people knowing we’ve had enough. The snake eats its tail.
On the matter of her human flesh and what she chooses to do with it, debate rages like an ocean. Kardashian’s naked body makes all kinds of people very angry. There are so many arguments surrounding how she is suffocating female empowerment and progress with the nude selfies. We argue that these images are not about liberation or female inclusion and are, rather, about exclusion, selling one thing and one thing only: the Kardashian brand. That the longer Kardashian keeps doing what she’s doing with her body, women – particularly young women – will continue to believe that it’s how they look that will make shit happen, not who they are. Why bother grafting if our bodies can make us money? “Try wearing a little dignity,” suggested Piers Morgan, kindly, after Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski posted their topless bathroom selfie. “RIP feminism,” was his mic dropper.
And yet. As Paris Lees argues in her latest Vice column, do such arguments not come with great risk of stirring double-standards, rather than edging us towards embracing equality? Isn’t the most brilliant, intoxicating part of being a woman in 2016 the knowledge that there are infinite ways of actually being a woman?
Morgan and his ilk don’t take umbrage at naked women. “We are surrounded by naked and half-naked women every day in the media,” says Lees. “Funny how you never see men complaining about Tom Ford adverts … when women are submissive, silent and even headless.” She’s right. It’s people’s arbitrary distinctions between what is “good” naked and what is “bad” naked that is the issue here – not nakedness itself. Is Kardashian’s bare body “wrong” because it’s bigger and occupies more physical space than, say, an adolescent model with exposed nipples on a catwalk at Paris Fashion Week? Is it wrong because she doesn’t fit with the “proper” fantasy women images of yore – the blonde, caucasian, all-American Pamela Anderson types that would be stuck to bedroom walls?
It seems we just cannot bear the idea that a woman might really enjoy getting her tits out because they are her own, wonderful, luminous orbs of maternity and desire. We can talk about the patriarchy and the male gaze until we are blue in the face, and we should, of course we should, but the fact remains: Kardashian chooses to get her tits out. She wants to, even though she doesn’t “need” to. That so many of us can’t stand it while she continues to do so – although not really, on social media, because they’re blurred out – keeps her suspended in conversation. Even those who view her trajectory into fame as a symptom of everything that’s wrong with the world today and those who assume she is stupid, who claim some kind of moral or intellectual superiority, keep talking about her. It is absolutely fascinating.
Paper Magazine’s “break the internet” cover with Kardashian in 2014 was a huge pop culture moment, when Jean-Paul Goude recreated his famous “champagne incident” image with her. As the man who brought an alien new sexiness to the fore with his muse-then-lover Grace Jones, you can see why he might be drawn to Kardashian’s subversiveness and the way she scratches at the modern psyche. She is nothing like Jones, who purposefully occupied otherness, but the Paper cover allows similarities to be drawn.
Kardashian’s family may also occupy the press on a daily basis, but she manages to retain an alienness that her sisters, her mother and Caitlyn Jenner don’t have. Such is her fame and the way she chooses to present her body, it’s only natural for us mere mortals to want more than she gives us. I’ve often wondered what Kardashian’s gums look like close up. Does she have the same little blonde spirals of hair on her neck that I do? What do her toenail clippings look like? I’ve no idea because she is in control of how I see her, and yet part of me wants to zoom in more. Then part of me wants to examine why on earth I do, and so on it goes, and I’m still thinking and talking about Kim Kardashian.
My dad asked me recently what I thought someone like Kardashian and her fame represented to my 12-year-old stepsister, who is just beginning to become aware of her body and its place in the world. Exploitation and consent are vital subjects to explore with young women, but Kardashian is a fully consenting adult woman. Personally, I can’t help but think that she shows us that we don’t all have to be the same kind of woman. Some of us like science, some of us like lipgloss, some of us like growing our body hair out, some of us like offal, some of us like taking naked photos. Hell, some of us like all or none of those things. Instead of asking why Kardashian is famous, we should be thankful that she is, because she gives us the chance to have a conversation about difference.