How Kim Kardashian became the most famous woman on the planet during her 14 years in the spotlight
SOME say she’s a feminist icon, an inspirational self-made woman who built multi-million-pound fortune with her social media savvy and shrewd business brain.
To others, Kim Kardashian West is the polar opposite of female empowerment, promoting an unhealthy body image and representing everything wrong with popular culture today, where it’s possible to become celebrated and filthy rich despite possessing no obvious talent.
Whatever you think of her, there’s no denying that what Kim K – pioneer of the selfie, queen of the brand endorsement and mistress of opportunism – has achieved during her 14 years in the spotlight is extraordinary.
She changed the game and is now the most famous and influential woman on the planet, with an Instagram following of 189 million and a bank balance estimated to be more than £700million.
And anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians will have spotted that she’s no bimbo – she’s switched on, entertaining and naturally funny.
“I love when people underestimate me and then become pleasantly surprised,” she has said.
“I think as long as you learn from your mistakes and don’t make them over and over again, you’re on the right path.”
But as she prepares to celebrate her milestone 40th birthday this month (arguably looking younger than she did on her 30th, ahem), Kim finds herself at something of a crossroads and facing the most painful crisis of her life, reportedly fighting to save her marriage to Kanye West, 43, whose recent manic episodes have caused widespread concern for his mental health.
She’s also about to start a new chapter professionally, as KUWTK finally comes to an end next spring, after 14 years and 20 seasons.
Team Fabulous has twice had the unforgettable experience of shooting Kim for the cover – both times quite unlike any other celebrity shoot. The first was early 2011, around the time it was really taking off in the UK for Kim, who was already showbiz royalty in the States.
We flew to LA to meet her and sister Kourtney, who we were shooting together as part of their Kourtney & Kim Take New York promo.
Both girls arrived with entourages in tow and worked to their own schedules (as opposed to the one on the call sheet), spending hours in hair and make–up, constantly tweeting and driving the photographer to distraction as the sun went down and he found himself losing crucial light for the epic rooftop shot we had planned for the cover.
In the end, we got it just in time – the final shot (pictured right) shows how close we came to being plunged into darkness with the sun about to disappear behindthe buildings.
Of course, Kourtney and Kim seemed utterly unflustered by the urgency of the situation – they pay other people to do the flustering – as they wafted about with their heads buried in their Blackberry phones (remember them?).
Kourtney was cute, bubbly and approachable, but it was Kim, with her other-worldly beauty, who had the unmistakable star quality – perfectly polite and gracious but with a definite air of inaccessibility.
“I’m absolutely high-maintenance,” she said in our interview. “I’d love to not wear make-up, but there are photographers outside my house every day.”
Her face was flawless and her frame absolutely tiny – even the famous bum wasn’t nearly as curvaceous in the flesh, although she’s rumoured to have had surgery to increase its size since.
When we came to shoot her again in 2013 – this time with both Kourtney and Khloé, as the sisters launched their Kardashian Kollection with Dorothy Perkins – the entourages had grown to the size of small armies.
It meant our studio in downtown LA was swarming with people, all surgically attached to their phones, and although it was never quite clear what exactly everyone did, they all appeared to have a role, which made the whole operation slick beyond belief.
When one of the sisters was ready to emerge from her dressing room, word would filter through the studio, ensuring everyone was in position and standing by when she arrived on set.
And if, for example, Kim, Kourtney or Khloé wished to change the studio music, the request would work its way down the chain of command, Chinese-whisper-style, to the person whose job it was to do just that: task executed in a matter of seconds.
Like the previous time, the girls seemed oblivious to the fuss. It was a circus, a whirlwind; simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting to be around. After the girls and their respective teams swept out of the studio for the final time, leaving the room suddenly silent and still, it felt a bit like you’d been punched in the face.
Kim was pregnant with her first baby, North, with Kanye, whom she married in 2014. She seemed uncomfortable with her blossoming figure, tugging awkwardly at her blazer during the shoot, nowhere near as confident in front of the camera as she had been when we’d shot her last.
Throughout that pregnancy she faced the most appalling body scrutiny and spoke about the trolling she suffered on a daily basis.
“I used to Google myself, but not any more,” she said. “The internet is very informational… but people take advantage of it and use it to do something negative. I definitely avoid certain things, like looking at the comments. It’s just not worth my while.
North, now seven, was born later that year and three more children followed – Saint, five, and then Chicago, two, and Psalm, 17 months, who were born to surrogates after Kim was apparently warned by doctors that after previous childbirth complications, another pregnancy could kill her.
“I could do two more,” she said recently, “but I don’t think I should. I’m gonna turn 40 – I don’t want to be an old mom. I think four’s good… I want to pay attention. Everyone needs attention.”
In an interview last December, she paid tribute to the two women who acted as surrogates and allowed Kimye to complete their family.
“I’m so thankful for my beautiful kids, no matter how they came to me. I’m so thankful for surrogates. I grew up with so many siblings, I just loved being in a big environment. I would have gone through the same pain and back for the result of having my babies. It was all worth it.”
But the woman who seemingly has it all is currently grappling with the heartbreak of Kanye’s bipolar disorder, which has left their six-year marriage hanging in the balance.
In the last few months, his behaviour has become increasingly erratic, and he’s tweeted about seeking a divorce from Kim who he labelled a “white supremacist”.
For someone who turned self-promotion into an art form, sharing every spit and cough of her colourful private life with an endlessly fascinated public, Kim has been uncharacteristically discreet about this latest personal heartache.
The only thing she’s said publicly has been via the moving Instagram post that addressed the family’s distress without the usual sensation or drama. It was written with emotional intelligence as Kim spoke about her “brilliant but complicated” husband.
“Those that understand mental illness or even compulsive behaviour know that the family is powerless unless the member is a minor,” she wrote, referring to Kanye’s claims that Kim had “tried to bring a doctor to lock me up.”
She added that she needed privacy in order to protect her four children as well as Kanye’s health, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that last month the family revealed their decision to pull the plug on KUWTK, although the final season is sure to cover at least some of these difficulties.
“This show made us who we are,” wrote Kim on Twitter, announcing what will be the end of an era. “I will be forever in debt to everyone who played a role in shaping our careers and changing our lives forever.”
Up until KUWTK was commissioned in 2007, Kim was only vaguely known for being Paris Hilton’s stylist mate who had been the victim of a leaked sex tape.
The story generated a tidal wave of publicity that “momager” Kris, 64, was quick to capitalise on, convincing TV host and producer Ryan Seacrest that the family needed their own reality show.
Ryan said later: “She [Kris] said: ‘We will be vulnerable at all points of impact, no matter what presents itself,’ and that struck me.”
Kris kept to her word. The show, a warts-and-all docu-soap on the lives, loves and relationships of America’s most dazzling, hilarious and ridiculous family was an instant hit for E! and made Kim and her sisters, Kourtney, 41, Khloé, 36 (from Kris’ first marriage to the late Robert Kardashian) and Kendall, 24, and Kylie, 23 (from a second to Bruce Jenner, 70) into global stars.
Over the years, viewers have been privy to everything from pranks, physical fights and heartbreak, to the infidelities of some of the sisters’ partners (they sure can pick ‘em) and the fallout from Bruce’s transition to become Caitlyn in 2015.
We’ve witnessed iconic moments, such as Kris chastising Kim for taking selfies while en route to Khloé reporting to jail for a probation violation following a drink driving arrest (“Kim, stop taking pictures of yourself, your sister’s going to jail!”).
Then there was the time Kim lost her $75,000 diamond earring in the ocean during the family holiday to Bora Bora. And who could forget the episode in season one where Kim was shooting for Playboy under the watchful eye of Kris (“You’re doing amazing, sweetie”)?
The show itself spawned several spin-off series, and its final season will earn Kris, Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kylie and Kendall more than £20million each. The fame it gave them led to clothing ranges, beauty lines, books and brand partnerships.
And with no shortage of controversy to keep the gossip columns filled, such as her 2011 marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries, 35, a union that lasted just 72 days, Kim’s ascent to global domination proved unstoppable.
Perhaps the moment that confirmed her as the world’s biggest celebrity was the day she “broke the internet” in 2014 with her jaw-dropping Paper magazine cover shot by Jean-Paul Goude in which she posed naked from behind, her bare bottom on display in all its oiled-up glory.
But for Kim personally, finally getting a solo American Vogue cover in May 2019, was the pinnacle. It came seven years after editor Anna Wintour reportedly banned her from attending the Met Gala.
“Kim, of all of them, I feel has possibly changed the most,” said Anna, showing her feelings had softened. “I personally admire the way she’s become a little bit more minimal in the way that she’s dressing and a little bit more covered.”
Kim will still have her critics. There will always be (justifiable) accusations that she encourages self-obsession and she should have more sense than to advertise the likes of weight-loss lollipops via her social media.
And, as singer Pink said in an interview with Fabulous: “Naked selfies are not empowering. Nobody respects that.”
But Kim has hit back at the haters, pointing out that she’s only guilty of taking pride in her body.
“I don’t do drugs, I hardly drink, I’ve never committed a crime – and yet I’m a bad role model for being proud of my body? I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin.
“I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”
So, happy birthday, Kim. We’re sure, wherever you are, you’re having the last laugh.
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