Any writer who focuses on celebrity and pop culture must inevitably detangle their feelings regarding the omnipresent Kardashian clan. The reality TV stars turned inescapable cultural lightning rods are near impossible to talk about without eliciting fervent reactions on either end of the spectrum. For every person who adores everything they do and will tweet accordingly, there’s a think-piece in the making regarding their responsibility for the ultimate destruction of our society. You can live your life without having ever seen a single episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and still know everything about the family through sheer cultural osmosis.
The dominant leader of the pack, Kim, is something I’ve never been able to nail down my emotions on: I think she’s a savvy businesswoman with the keenest self-awareness of her public brand, but she also stands as the most visible example of cultural appropriation of blackness and the exploitation of black women’s culture in North America today. She’s made polished vapidity the capitalist venture of the century, and while she’s hardly solely responsible for decades of this shift, her influence is undeniable, for better or worse.
I don’t know enough about the other family members to make strong judgements: Kourtney seems relatively normal, Khloe’s stance as a body influencer confuses me, Kris is an evil genius, Kendall probably should have someone double check her endorsement deals before she signs then (and maybe switch from Pepsi to Coca Cola), and the less said about Caitlyn, the better. Their appeal mostly eludes me, like the Windsors but with better hair.
And then there’s Kylie Kristen Jenner.
The youngest of the family, Kylie is described on Wikipedia as being ‘American reality television personality, model, entrepreneur, socialite, and social media personality.’ Her cosmetics company is on track to garnering a net worth of $1bn by 2022, Time Magazine listed her as one of the world’s most influential teens in both 2014 and 2015, and her 98m Instagram followers have made her the pinnacle of the social media influencer.
She is also rumoured, at the age of 20, to be pregnant.
I keep up with the world of celebrity as much as I can, and I’ve seen plenty of stuff that makes me question the point of it all, but there is no major celebrity working today whose life wholeheartedly depresses me as much as Kylie Jenner’s. I do not wish to mock or dismiss her; I simply cannot separate her public persona from how sad she makes me.
The struggles of the child actor are as familiar a part of Hollywood lore as the rags-to-riches fairytale the industry prefers to submit as its default narrative. For as long as kids have been in the business in front of the camera, there have been troubles, from Jackie Coogan’s parents squandering his earnings (leading to a change in law) to the tragic ends of stars like River Phoenix. The pantomime that follows the zenith of their fame and adoration is practically public spectacle now. Just look at how Lindsay Lohan’s entire adult life has been the stuff of mockery. Turning kids into disposable commodities for profit was never going to end well, but in the new age of internet fame, reality TV and social media, it’s become a tougher battle to engage with.
At least with child actors, there are union regulations on work hours and mandatory parental supervision. That doesn’t seem to be a safety net that was ever in place for Kylie Jenner, a reality star since she was nine.
Kylie’s role on Keeping Up with the Kardashians seems to have been to simply look cute and be there. As she got older, there were glimmers of dry humour and a general bemusement towards the industry of fame and beauty her sisters worked in, and both she and her sister Kendall found work from an early age in this field, usually accompanied by ‘momager’ Kris. It’s hard to define anyone in the family as the ‘normal’ one given the extraordinary circumstances of their wealth, fame and social circle, but Kylie came close. She was a kid, but she was also an unwitting participant in a cultural debate of intense furor.
To talk about the Kardashians is to talk about ideas of femininity, sexual autonomy, pornography, cultural appropriation, racism, capitalism, the media, and much more. It’s a near impossible trek to navigate when you’ve voluntarily entered into the sphere of scrutiny, as her parents and older sisters did when they signed onto a reality TV show. Doing all that when you’re going through puberty is the ultimate nightmare, and Kylie found herself frequently attacked as the ‘ugly’ Kardashian. Never mind that she was a kid and certainly not an unattractive child, the label must have stung hard, especially as social media became a backbone of Kylie’s life and future endeavours. Go onto Twitter and search any Kardashian or Jenner’s name and it won’t take you long to find screeds of the most upsetting harassment and abuse that invokes the worst of misogyny and rape culture. Combine that with thousands of voiceless screams telling you that you’re the hideous one in a family of beauties and I can’t even imagine the mental impact.
By 2014, as Jenner’s solo star had begun to rise through modelling gigs and endorsement deals, Kylie’s appearance began to noticeably change. The worst of puberty had passed but the changes happening weren’t of the ‘losing your baby fat’ kind. The make-up became decidedly more Kardashian-esque - heavy brows, smoky eyes, the come-hither lashes so big they could cause hurricanes - but it was the lips that caused everyone to stop and take notice. Puberty does fucked-up things to your face but it doesn’t caused highly localized weight gain in your lips. Kylie originally denied claims she’d had collagen injections and said she simply over-lined her lips, but by the time she admitted to the procedure the following year, it was obvious that some major work had been done. Her lips weren’t just big - they were distractingly big. They changed her entire face, although the rumours of other work soon followed and it became tough to deny those augmentations (although she hasn’t commented on any other work). Her jawline is different, her nose somewhat thinner, her brows higher, and other rumours persist of a boob job and fat injections into her backside. It’s hard to quantify just how different Kylie looks now from even two years ago, let alone five.
It’s not just that she looks different, it’s that she has engineered her appearance to be ‘perfect’ on two levels - one in terms of the Kardashian standard of beauty, and the other along the definitions of Instagram ready. She is a living, breathing photo filter of her sister Kim, one perpetually ready for the selfies that close to 100m people follow her to see. It’s the face that’s become her brand and made her millions of dollars, but it’s also not a face for the real world. Watching interviews with Kylie is a surreal experience because her face looks strange in motion. When she talks, it just doesn’t look right. It feels cruel to even say that but it’s hard to overlook the massive changes the surgery has made to something as simple as her talking.
Most of the time, she also sounds and looks staggeringly bored with everything she’s saying and doing. The glimpses of humour and wryness previously seen have evaporated, replaced by nothing. Interviews, particularly print ones, reveal a young woman who seems trapped by her situation. In a profile with V Magazine, she reveals her living with a stalker so casually that you wonder if she even realizes what she’s said. Later on, she admits to not knowing what it’s like to not be in the spotlight. In a sit-down with Interview Magazine, she got even more candid:
‘I’m not myself on Snapchat or Instagram. That’s totally not me. I’m way flashier on Instagram and Snapchat, because I feel like that’s what people want to see and that’s what I’ve always done, so I’m not going to stop. People want to see my cars and my purses. People love fashion. But that’s so not me.’
Later on, the interviewer asks what she would do if she didn’t have to ‘feed those timelines’:
‘I would probably just never dress up. I would never wear makeup, because I honestly hate wearing makeup. Lately, I’ve just been so over it. I feel like I’m way too young to wear such heavy makeup all the time. It’s just bad for your skin, but I’m always doing photo shoots or red carpets and events, so I just obviously want to look good.’
That piece in Interview is accompanied by a bizarre photoshoot that essentially turns Kylie into a sex-doll. She was 18 when they shot it.
It’s tough to stomach the irony that the defining marker of Kylie’s business model are the lips she had augmented beyond belief. Her lip kits, the foundations of her best-selling make-up line, are an implicit promise to her predominantly young fan-base that they too can look like her if they buy this gloss and liner. They barely care that collagen injections were the real cause because the fantasy is exciting enough. This is nothing new for the Kardashians - surgery defines that family as much as contouring, Kanye West and appropriating blackness - but the crushing reality of knowing a parent had to approve then-16 year old Kylie having her lips done reveals much about our world’s attitude towards girls.
Kylie has never really been a girl. Girlhood is hard package to advertisers. You can’t have a teenager in a swimming costume posing for the masses with the constant reminder that she’s just a girl. Womanhood is the goldmine, and Kylie has been treated as such from an early age. She claims Kris cut her off financially at 14 and has been working across various mediums since then, but the true cash was made in fashion and beauty. Kendall was the supermodel but it’s Kylie who has tapped into the social media aesthetic and weaponised it beyond even Kim’s capabilities. I can only guess how much direct involvement Kylie had in the dictation of her burgeoning sex appeal for business purposes. It’s unnerving to wonder if she ever truly understood what it would mean to work so hard to convince the world she’s a decade older than she really is (her surgery has made her look much older than 20).
A large part of that branding came in the form of her relationship with rapper Tyga. We first saw the pair together when he performed at Kendall’s sweet 16 party. At the time, Kylie was 14. The pair insist they didn’t start properly dating until she turned 18 but nobody believes that, least of all the rappers like Drake who took digs at her through songs (towards Tyga on his song 6pm in New York, Drake rapped, ‘You need to act your age and not your girl’s age.’) Her family defended the relationship. Kanye West condoned Tyga for being smart enough to get in early with Kylie. The impression given was that her family thought the entire arrangement smart rather than safe. E! News, who have made a lot of money off the family and hope to do so for many more years, positively reported on the pairing. The phrase ‘statutory rape’ seemed to disappear from everyone’s vocabulary for a while. A moment of family intervention rather than managerial advice would have gone a long way.
And now she is allegedly pregnant with the child of rapper Travis Scott.
I’m not sure who Kylie Jenner really is, but I’m not sure she knows either. I don’t think she’s ever truly had the chance to explore what that means, independent of the need to strengthen the family brand and make money. Years of noise have clearly affected her greatly, with little to no true support from the family who originally sold themselves as a tight-knit clan who would do anything for each other.
Yes, I’m aware that Kylie Jenner’s fate is hardly the stuff of major world events. I’m sure the comments will be full of people reminding me that she’s rich so who cares. She’s an immensely privileged white woman, that’s true, and one who has followed her sisters in appropriating black womanhood for personal gain, treating their bodies and culture as something to be cherry-picked for lip gloss samples or Snapchat clips. Kylie’s clueless but ignorance is no excuse when you have the resources of the world at your disposal.
And yet every time I see her, I cannot help but feel crushed by pity for her situation. She could be or do or accomplish anything with her life but this is the situation she finds herself smothered by, cheered on by her family, the media and 98m Instagram fans. The poor woman never stood a chance.