Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation
Top

The modern muse? From 'It Girl' to global brand, how Kim Kardashian West became an icon

Venus_Photo.jpg

If you tap “famous for being famous” into Google, the first entry is Wikipedia describing the phenomenon, and in the first paragraph, the name Kim Kardashian appears.

Type it into Google images and the vast majority of pictures feature Kim, Kim and her sisters and Kim and her husbands (the latest being Kanye West). Being famous for no discernible reason isn’t a new concept but it’s fair to say Kim K W has redefined the term.

It used to be purely pejorative; a phrase slung at anyone who courted attention by having too much money/beauty/admirers while displaying no obvious accomplishments. But today, in 2015, the above no longer applies.

Kim has become so well-known, so adept at selling her life, that she has become too famous to lose. She’s bigger than the papers that clamour to run her picture, bigger than the news channels that scavenge over every titbit. Even your dad knows who she is. She broke the internet. No talent is no longer a problem.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t struggled with it. Over five years ago, when we launched Stylist, one of our basic values was to celebrate women with talent, who had grafted and achieved something worthwhile. But today, with 30.4 million Twitter followers, 28.3 million followers on Instagram and 10 seasons of Keeping Up With The Kardashians under her belt, Kim is a household name who has graced the cover of US Vogue and has a net worth of an estimated $65million (£44million). It’s clear Kim is enormously, ridiculously gifted at fame. So, is it time we took a different view on her success?

Since the first series of the show was commissioned by E! in 2007 (a few months after the release of a sex tape of her and singer Ray J was distributed under the name Kim K Superstar), she has chronicled every moment of her life on film or social media. She has submitted to a relentless publicity drive, posing for every one of the Kardashian ventures from self-tan to clothing lines, and she has been tweaked, pinned and prodded in her quest for fame. Every time she leaves her house – for the gym, the front row or the red carpet – she is on, selling the brand. She’s extremely busy for someone who is famous for doing nothing. As we wait for her next venture (a book about selfies, out next month), we asked five writers to explain how Kim K won over the world. 

Stylist Kim K

How Kim conquered the entertainment world

By Julie Burchill, columnist and broadcaster

“It’s strange to think that Kim Kardashian West started out as sidekick to simpering stick-insect Paris Hilton, whose name is now little more than a punchline to a joke nobody remembers. The clue to the rise of Kim and the fall of Paris is the difference in their small-screen personas; while Hilton seems unable to express any sentiment other than that of having a smouldering smell under her nose, Kardashian West is a weeping, seeping, shrilling, cavilling bundle of emotions.

Keeping Up With The Kardashians combines the hysterical Hollywood glamour of Valley Of The Dolls crossed with the family dynamics of Little House On The Prairie – and at the bleeding heart of the endless merry-go-round of emotions is Kim. Launching in 2007, within a month it became the highest-rated Sunday night series with Americans aged 18 to 34, seen by 1.3 million viewers.

The second season saw a 23% increase; by season five, the episode Kim’s House Party pulled in 4.67 million, becoming the highest-rated episode to-date. Season six’s heavy-hitter was Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event with 4.39 million viewers but the season seven premiere was down to 2.85 million, season eight 3.02 million and season nine 2.56. A domesticated Kim (albeit married to a mono-maniac while dressed like a sex-maniac) is less of a ratings-puller, obviously; trapped between the bullying sisters and the money-mad mother, hers was a Cinderella story in which not the shoe but the sex tape was the tight fit which opened the door to a whole new life.

I loved the gory glory years of KUWTK. Whether watching Kim being bullied by her sisters for not being rude to the salesman who was late with her car (Khloe said that Kim’s courtesy meant she was not a “strong queen”) or seeing her break down in tears over her doomed marriage to an athlete (“He’s a good heart. He’s everything on paper, exactly what I want in someone, but for some reason, my heart isn’t connecting. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I don’t know what to do”), I’ve been genuinely affected by the rawness of her emotion: the Ugly Crying Face which everyone has picked up on and which I don’t believe someone as dependent on their beauty as KKW would invent. If that was acting, she’s a great actress; if it wasn’t, she’s very honest. Either way, I like her.

I don’t care for Kim as a body (which is why I’ve never slobbered on the sly over her sex tape, as many of her duplicit detractors doubtless have) or a brain (which is why I would never *follow* her anywhere) but I’m enchanted by her as a Being. For this reason, I’m tuning in to the new season of KUWTK – not because of the ass she has, or the ass she’s married to, but because of her sheer small-screen presence.” 

How Kim conquered the business world

By Rosamund Urwin, Evening Standard columnist

“Think of today’s greatest businesswomen. Perhaps Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg springs to mind or Karren Brady. I’d add another name to that list, though: Kim Kardashian West.

Sure, the 34-year-old started out with a hefty inheritance (her father Robert’s estate was estimated to be worth $100million when he died in 2003) but there are plenty of pretty heiresses, perhaps even some with equally implausible bottoms. And yes, she gets good advice – but then a big part of being successful in business is surrounding yourself with the best people. The $65million broad couldn’t have built an empire without a sense of entrepreneurship and some financial savvy. KKW has also given a masterclass in branding – it’s just that brand happens to be herself.

Even when a leaked sex tape first propelled her to global fame eight years ago, her reaction was a bank manager’s fantasy. The rights to the video had been bought for $1million by Vivid Entertainment, which released it. Kardashian West understandably sued Vivid but then dropped the case for a $5million settlement.

She then refused to retreat into Z-list obscurity, using her heightened profile as a springboard to launch Keeping Up With The Kardashians. KKW now earns an estimated $80,000 an episode, and she’s managed to sustain viewers’ interest over 10 seasons. That isn’t easy. It also means working long hours: the family films all day, sometimes not finishing until 9pm, six days a week.

it’s a family affair: keeping up With the karDashians, season seven

It’s a family affair: keeping up With the karDashians, season seven

That’s only a small part of her dominion, though. This is a woman who really understands technology. Her savviest move of all was to turn her own life into an iPhone game. Predictably, the goal of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is to become famous. It’s free to download, but then entices you to buy “K-stars” to accelerate your ascent to the A-list. I’ve played (as Kosamund, naturally) and it’s essentially human catnip; so addictive it made $43million (of which KKW got a sizeable cut) in just three months.

Her social media status is another money spinner – and she capitalised on the power of virtual networking long before others. In 2010, Armani paid her $25,000 for a single tweet; it sent an extra 40,000 people to the fashion house’s website in just a day. Real-world appearances are even more lucrative, with Kardashian West making $100,000 for a 20-minute appearance at an event, and up to $1million to turn up to an event or a nightclub. Imagine being paid to party.

What’s impressive is that she’s managed to put her name to cheaper brands – QuickTrim weight loss, slimming DVDs and her own Kardashian Kollection clothing line with Khloe and Kourtney – without damaging her own brand or losing luxury appeal. So Louis Vuitton still wants her on its FROW. Part of that is her supercouple status with Kanye, and her social media profile, but I think it’s also because she isn’t someone her fans necessarily admire – they’re enthralled. For someone whose whole life is on display, KKW has managed to remain remarkably captivating, and any brand will want some of that.

Forbes estimated Kardashian West’s earnings for last year at $28million. A year earlier that sum was $10million – her financial power is ballooning. I bet she’ll be strutting all the way to the bank in her six-inch stilettos for a long time yet.”

the Kim Kardashian: hollywood app is worth $200million

the Kim Kardashian: hollywood app is worth $200million

How Kim conquered the fashion world

By Jess Cartner-Morley, Fashion Editor of The Guardian 

“She broke the internet with her bottom, but she broke the fashion world with her Manuela. No, it’s not a euphemism: the Manuela is the Max Mara camel cashmere coat which Kim Kardashian West shoulder-robed around Paris Fashion Week, back in September 2013. The Manuela, you see, is a classic of chic understatement. It’s an in-the-know status symbol, the sort of investment piece that a fashion insider would buy. What’s more, it covers any bottom.

A year and a half into her relationship with Kanye West, three months after the birth of North West, the Manuela moment was the tipping point in Kim’s campaign for the hearts and minds of the front row. Because here’s the thing: fashion is absolutely, categorically, 100% not about looking hot.

To make it as a fashionista, you have to embrace this. Which is why an endless stream of starlets and popstrels turn up in the occasional front row, smiling their little chops off, doing their best teapot-arms for the cameras – only to disappear off the fashion radar as fast as they arrived, never to be seen again. Looking pretty might get you in the front door, but to make it on the front row, you have to be prepared to sublimate sex appeal for chic appeal.

Kanye, Kim and Kris on the front row at balmain in march 2015

Kanye, Kim and Kris on the front row at balmain in march 2015

From Anna Wintour to Anna Dello Russo, from Alexa Chung to Audrey Hepburn, the icons of the front row have long tended to be angular rather than hourglass, to look striking rather than appealing. Kim, in her pre-Kanye incarnation, was the polar opposite of this. Dresses were tight and tiny, shoes were pure Spearmint Rhino. But once Kim had embarked on her fashion charm offensive, she cracked the necessary code with cunning worthy of Bletchley Park. The squeaky-shiny satins were swapped out for double ply cashmere; the party-bright colours for a stealth wealth palette of camel, blush, white and black. The beauty-pageant rollered curls were traded for hair slicked back, or falling in the kind of nonchalant, just-got-out-of-bed soft waves that require two hours in George Northwood’s salon.

With Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy as her fashion fairy godmother, Kim has for the past two years used Paris Fashion Week as a global platform for her style message. Where the royals have state visits, the Kardashian Wests have fashion weeks. And in the past year, a US Vogue cover and a Givenchy wedding dress (angular, ultra-chic) have kept her on the fashion front line, even when she’s not on the front row. Her looks are planned with military precision. They are sufficiently covered-up to send a strong message of demure, understated elegance – but always with just enough flesh on show to keep those flashbulbs popping, to ensure that message is heard around the world. Loosely shoulder-robing an oversized coat not only channels Anna Wintour, it allows you to display a super bodycon dress underneath. When Kim does a crewneck sweater with a pencil skirt, there is a crucial inch of bare skin visible at the midriff. When she wears a long skirt, it is slit to the thigh, with bare legs and high strappy heels.

Although notorious for snootiness, the industry loves a Cinderella story: think of Victoria Beckham, another celebrity who hauled herself by the bootstraps from the bottom of the fashion pile to the top, assisted by a judicious helping of Céline tailoring and a 180-degree turnaround from showcasing her figure to spotlighting her wardrobe. Reinvention is the raison d’être of fashion, after all. This is a multi-million pound global industry predicated on the belief that with the right clothes, a woman can conquer the world. Of this, Kim Kardashian West is living proof.”  

Take a look at Kim Kardashian's style evolution

How Kim conquered social media

By Emma Gannon, social media expert and blogger at Girl Lost In The City

“Eighty two million. That’s the number staring back at you when you add up all of Kim Kardashian West’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers. That’s just over the population of Germany. That’s more than the entire UK. That’s two Canadas. I could go on.

Personally, I don’t get what we’re meant to be following. But here’s the thing: Kim’s career started in reality TV, and social media is simply an extension of this fly-on-the wall type of surveillance. Human beings are nosy, so our enjoyment of watching reality TV manifests itself in our obsession of refreshing Instagram every day. We want to know more, more, more. Thanks to social media, we have a direct peephole into the lives of the rich and famous straight from our phones, and the more celebrities overshare, the bigger our fill.

THE EArLy yEArS: KIM IN 2006

THE EArLy yEArS: KIM IN 2006

Kim Kardashian West isn’t my cup of tea, but I can admit that as a social media editor myself, she is incredibly savvy, especially in terms of her social media strategy. She’s also a gifted editor, filtering out the best parts of life and creating a world class personal brand. If there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s how consistent she is with her social content.

So what does she do well? First of all, she posts on average five times a day on all her platforms (loads for a celebrity). She has a sense of humour, for example when she cropped out her baby in a selfie (North had her eyes shut) and the world overreacted, Kim took to Twitter to write, “Wait is this really news that I posted a selfie and cropped my daughter out? LOL.” She’s honest too; in a recent photo she looked half her size, in which she captioned: “Had to post this pic also bc this angle is everything!!!” She reposts ‘fan edits’ as a way of giving back to her followers.

She also sticks to things that clearly work; her best performers are cute baby photos (of course), couple selfies (using fan-generated hashtag #Kimye), getting her nails done, sexy underwear poses and of course selfies (which generate on average 1.9 million likes). Every week she embraces popular hashtags such as #ThrowBack Thursday, #MCM (Man Crush Monday) which is usually a sultry pic of Kanye, and posts regular pictures with her equally famous Kardashian Krew which ramp up her likes threefold.

Kim shares so much of her everyday life that when it comes to promotional content, her fans don’t seem to mind at all. In between #nofilter selfies she posts screengrabs from her app, magazine covers, adverts for clothes brand Dash and promo shots from KUWTK. Whether it’s personal or professional it’s all totally on brand. Baring it all is her selling power. Belfies and all.” 

THIS IMAGE HELPED PAPEr GENErATE 5 MILLION UNIQUE VISITOrS TO ITS WEBSITE

THIS IMAGE generated 5 MILLION UNIQUE VISITOrS TO ITS WEBSITE

How Kim built her brand

By Cheryl Giovannoni, Chief Executive Officer, Ogilvy & Mather Advertising

“Kim Kardashian West’s rise to global megabrand status has been acted out in painstaking public detail and it’s been a masterclass in modern-day marketing. From her disastrous 72-day marriage, to the arrival of North West, through to the new peroxide blonde hair, her whole life is played out in the most calculated but brilliant way. Like her look? Mimic it by visiting her fashion outlet Dash to pick up the Kardashian Kollection. There’s even a tanning range so you can achieve the same skintone.

Her marriage to Kanye West seems to have propelled her to greater heights of global megabrand status, with even the most hardened fashionistas admitting that Kim in the front row and Kanye DJing represents a new era of cool glamour for fashion week events around the world. Brands, aware that Kim will get their new collection in the papers, are now using her to bolster their existing marketing strategies. However, her attempts at more edgy high fashion could end up alienating her legions of fans. Something to watch out for if she wants to remain connected to her heartland, rather than selling out to Kanye and joining the ranks of other untouchable power couples.

There is no question that she is an influencer of young women and it’s because the image she presents is ‘real’ and transparent that she resonates as much as she does. Has she redefined the way celebrities market themselves? Only in as much as celebrity oversharing has become a form of marketing in itself.” 

What Kim's appeal says about us

By Eva Wiseman, Observer columnist

“The world is Kim Kardashian West’s camera. Except she’s pressed the little button to switch on selfie mode, so in the glassy symmetry of her face, we see ourselves reflected. Her new gaming app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, is the only title in the App Store’s top 10 with a five-star rating. This year Kardashian West is publishing a book of her own self-portraits, and someone you know will get it for Christmas. She is famous for being famous, and it’s all because of us. What does it say about us that we have made a person known almost solely for having a big bottom one of the world’s richest women?

I think it says maybe, perhaps, just possibly, we’re in trouble. It suggests we are obsessed with wealth. We are preoccupied with image. We are seeing our jobs collapse around us, becoming more and more disillusioned with real life, we are swapping our religious icons for those on the front of OK!, we are burying ourselves further and further into the internet, so it makes sense that we are obsessed with Kim Kardashian West. Fascinated by somebody who seems to get whatever she wants, whenever she wants it, without appearing to work, without appearing to sweat, and without any apparent consequence. Lessons in Kardashian West will be taught to our great-grandchildren. She is our hero: she has hacked the system.

And, like that big white wall in her Hidden Hills screening room, the very blankness and emptiness of her invites projection. She can stand for whatever we want. Essays have been written on Kim Kardashian West and racism. On Kim Kardashian West and feminism today. On Kim Kardashian West and the female body. The working mother. Cosmetic surgery. The internet. Beauty. Fame, of course. America. Because she appears to have so little to say, we can put our words in her mouth.

But do we need her – do we need someone to rest our gaze on while we wait for something... better? Someone to mock, to envy? Does it make us feel calmer, the sight of wealth happening, somewhere? The sight of life speeding forwards, through marriages, babies, screening rooms, selfies? Or is it time we tried to look away?

Increasingly it feels like she broke the internet, and we keep stepping on the splinters.” 

We’d love to hear what you think about the rise of Kim K W. Wade into the debate @StylistMagazine using #Kimyay or #Kimnay

Related

rexfeatures_4427600ab.jpg

Kim Kardashian's style evolution

Chanel 3.jpg

A-list Instagram highlights from the week so far

Kim Kardashian.jpg

Kim Kardashian shares her beauty secrets

kim-kardashian-cara-delevingne.jpg

Cara Delevingne interviews Kim Kardashian on trolls and North's name

Brad and Angelina.jpg

Our favourite magazine covers starring real couples

Solange Knowles gets married 1.jpg

The most extravagant and beautiful celebrity weddings of 2014

Comments

More

The best A-list Instagrams from the week so far

From Reese Witherspoon's birthday shout-out to the Beckhams' glam evening

by Nicola Colyer
02 Dec 2016

Jessica Chastain on how she learned to love being a redhead

The actress used to struggle with low self-esteem as a result of her fiery locks.

by Moya Crockett
02 Dec 2016

Claudia Winkleman gets honest about her ‘overwhelming’ work schedule

“It left me crying my eyes out”

by Kayleigh Dray
02 Dec 2016

Fawlty Towers’ John Cleese pays emotional tribute to Andrew Sachs

Andrew Sachs tragically passed away at 86 following battle with dementia

by Kayleigh Dray
02 Dec 2016

Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher welcome baby boy

But the Black Swan star has vetoed her husband’s baby name

by Kayleigh Dray
02 Dec 2016

Beyoncé’s magical new video reveals more of her life behind the scenes

Featuring her wedding day, her friends, and a baby Blue Ivy.

by Moya Crockett
01 Dec 2016

Demi Lovato opens up about her battle with bipolar battle disorder

“My life is a work in progress”

by Kayleigh Dray
01 Dec 2016

“I didn’t ever want to rely on a man to provide for me”

Chelsea Handler on the importance of financial independence

by Kayleigh Dray
01 Dec 2016

Jennifer Aniston wants women to take a stand against sexist media

“Women do far more incredible things than just procreate”

by Kayleigh Dray
01 Dec 2016

“Why are women such doormats when it comes to friendship?”

"We still have some crazy idea that society ‘rewards’ women who are nice to each other"

by The Stylist web team
01 Dec 2016