Forbes Magazine’s latest issue features reality T.V. star and makeup mogul Kylie Jenner on the cover. The magazine, which sees Jenner dressed in proto-typical ‘serious businesswoman’ styling, declares her to be not only on track to becoming a billionaire before she turns 25, but one of the richest self-made women in the world. As you can imagine, this point stuck in the throat of many people, all of whom were quick to point out that the definition of ‘self-made’ hasn’t changed recently.
“Self-made”? Really? It’s easy to become a billionaire when you’re parents are millionaires…It’s called generational wealth + nepotism.— Shelby Ivey Christie (@bronze_bombSHEL) July 11, 2018
Try Oprah Winfrey, who was raised on a small Mississippi farm by her grandmother, for self-made *whispers Kylie also isn’t a billionaire yet* pic.twitter.com/UQGrJxno8z
Forbes magazine said that Kylie Jenner is worth $900m, and in the same article they wrote “Forbes couldn’t verify it” . So they basically took what Kris Jenner told them and ran with it? pic.twitter.com/loDDgS7GAz— Kelvin Lee Jones (@KelvinLeeJones1) July 11, 2018
Kylie Jenner on the cover of Forbes is nonsense not just because she was born rich but because she was literally HANDED her influence. She steals people’s work, style, and culture. A doctor gave her her appearance, and her mother keeps her name in the news. Businesswoman my ASS.— The Opinion (@SheraeSpeaks_) July 11, 2018
Forbes: Kylie Jenner is a legitimate self-made billionaire— mx bianxche (@jonnoxrevanche) July 12, 2018
The all-knowing Fran Lebowitz: pic.twitter.com/lbVneBp2ne
Jenner, the daughter of Kris and Caitlyn Jenner, grew up in immense privilege and has been in the public eye since her pre-teen years thanks to the success of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. While the bulk of her wealth has come from her own makeup line, which she owns 100 percent of, it would be naïve at best to pretend she scrambled her way to the top unaided by her family, their immense wealth, and the public platform they provide.
Jenner’s success is indicative of much: The intense financial clout of the teen demographic; the overwhelming influence social media and its stars can have on that audience; the strength of that aesthetic, born from appropriating blackness; the benefits of shilling impossible beauty standards; and, of course, the evolution of celebrity. I’m not that much older than Jenner but my instinct, whenever I hear conversations around ‘Instagram influencers’ and the boom of YouTube makeup tutorials, is still to look for a cane to shake at these damn youths. It’s an impenetrable world to most of us over the age of 25, and not even Kylie’s older sister, Kim Kardashian West, can wield that kind of force over a demo that considers 35 a prehistoric age.
It would be foolish and kind of unfair to assume Jenner doesn’t have some kind of business savvy. The devil works hard but Kris Jenner works harder, and the matriarch of modern reality television has always been open in declaring Kylie to be her true successor. She’s grown up in a household where youth, beauty, and capitalism are the holy trinity and she’s copied from the best. Kim augmented herself to appropriate the beauty characteristics of black women, so Kylie took it further, to the point where her lips became her major selling point. You gotta have a gimmick and if you’re not born with it, Beverly Hills can provide. Nobody ever believed Jenner when she said she simply overlined her lips, particularly as the crowning glory of her face became grotesquely overblown and uncomfortable to look at. Yet the sheer nerve of her using that artifice to shill a tool of aspiration to teenage girls was simply accepted. That’s just good business, after all.
I previously wrote that I felt sorry for Kylie Jenner, a statement that had some people calling for my blood, but I stand by it. I maintain that she didn’t really stand a chance growing up in a household where how you look is more important than education, and where making money is placed higher than everything else. It was cruel for her to be allowed to date an adult man with a child when she was a minor; it was abhorrent that her mother saw that as a good promotional opportunity rather than blatant exploitation; it was inexcusable that she was able to get major work done on her face before she was old enough to vote. Everything that helped her to become a Forbes cover darling should never have happened, and the way it was all dismissed as ‘drama’ or an inevitability of being a pseudo-Kardashian was exceptionally disheartening.
You can acknowledge this problem while also understanding that the immense privilege Jenner is surrounded by is something she wields like a weapon. She may have grown up in a household of white women fetishizing blackness, but she continued it for years as she built an empire independent of them. This is a game she has continued playing long after she gained the financial freedom that would have allowed her to take a different path.
What struck me most about the Forbes cover wasn’t the questionable headline but Jenner’s appearance. Gone was the costume-style make-up and hip-hop music video fashion she favoured for so long and in its place was professionalism as coded by whiteness: Slicked back hair, more modest make-up, and shoulder-pads that would make Melanie Griffith proud. Her lips are still large - larger than they would have been had she not gotten injections - but they are noticeably smaller than what they once were. Jenner herself admitted to having her lip fillers removed, thus signalling the end of an era for her. Therein is the problem of Kylie Jenner as a supposed ‘self-made’ woman: She made herself in the image of blackness, borrowing from a family lineage that had spent years doing the same thing, then once she had the money in the bank, she took it off, like it was a costume. Blackness had served its purpose for her, and now she’s a proper businesswoman, it would be gauche and unprofessional for her to keep it. So, it went. White privilege is the ability to adopt blackness when it’s convenient then discard it when it’s not.
Kylie Jenner isn’t self-made. She’s doing what her family always did and picking at the aesthetics black women spent centuries being discriminated against for. She made a ‘trend’ out of something black women have lived with since time began, and now she wants something new. No wonder Forbes celebrates it: That may be the most potent example of capitalism we have right now.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)