Kim Kardashian: American Woman

How we learned to quit worrying and love the selfie queen

Credit: Photograph by Terry Richardson

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n a chilly morning during Los Angeles' "May gray," as mist rolls off the sea's marine layer to cool down the city, Kim Kardashian wakes up at 6 a.m. and an hour later heads to her "glam room." That's Kardashian-speak for her capacious dressing room, where even at this early hour, a professional makeup artist and hairstylist have already arrived, awaiting her with hundreds of little brushes, blushes and combs. She relaxes into her chair as layer upon layer is applied — she loves the feeling of getting makeup done, the way you can be at one with your eyeliner — while also glancing at a baby monitor in case North, her two-year-old daughter with husband Kanye West, wakes up. West has his own monitor too, and keeps it close in case North stirs while Kardashian's indisposed. By 9:00, Kardashian is on her way to a meeting in Santa Monica. She hates being late.

Does this sound pretty dull? Yes, but it's the stuff that Kardashian has spun into gold, transforming herself from a beautiful but average L.A. girl into one of the world's top pop icons and megabrands. She is everywhere in the media, from E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians, her 10-season-long TV show that's aired in 160 countries and spawned numerous spinoffs, to her mobile game, which has been downloaded 33 million times, to high-fashion magazines, which have, first grudgingly and then enthusiastically, accepted that the perfect, punctual, prettiest daughter of this extraordinarily powerful matriarchal clan is a force with whom they must reckon.

And as much as her thoughts and actions on this Earth may be quotidian, the way she looks is out of this world. As she strides into the meeting precisely on time and in an outfit made up of colors found exclusively in nature — dark-green ankle-length dress, sand-colored lace-up sandals and tree-bark Céline purse — the effect is like a photorealistic painting, meaning that the Kardashian on the TV screen feels more real than the Kardashian in the room. She's a jungle Aphrodite escaped from a forest of big-booty nymphs, with a mane as thick as a horse's and as black as volcanic rock. Her eyelashes flutter like teeny-tiny go-go dancers' fans. Her nails are small, elegant talons, painted a color that manages to be both onyx and the bloodiest red. But it is Kardashian's body that is the thing, of course, and today, as always, her clothing is so tight it feels transgressive, clinging in particular to that strange, glorious butt, a formerly taboo body part that is now not only an inescapable part of the American erotic but also our best and most welcome distraction from climate change, income inequality and ISIS.

Kardashian, 34, is poised as she takes a seat at a conference table, greeting, "My team who is putting together our new website experience — I don't know if I want to call it a website, to disrespect it." Whalerock Industries develops Web-based, magazine-like, subscription-centered media on the Oprah model. It streams from her glam room and real-time chats with fans, giving makeup tutorials and showcasing her favorite clothes. It's a digitally constructed Kardashian world, on top of the rest of the world, which Kardashian has already made bend to her will. Narcissism isn't Kardashian's thing, per se; it's solipsism, or a mode of living in which the world outside the self doesn't really, materially exist — that's the key here. In the past, she's put it this way: Her life is "like living on The Truman Show."

Now the group turns to a pack of "Kim-ojis" submitted by a graphic designer. "I wanted to do really fun, different emojis that you don't see on your phone," says Kardashian, then asks the group, "Is this designer Kanye-approved?"

Wielding a pen, she mulls over a long list of possible emojis, a mix of objects that she's come into contact with as well as people she knows, striking those that don't meet her approval. "A Speedo doesn't mean anything to me, same with disco-ball earrings," she says. She pauses at emojis of the other Kardashian women, raising the pen a little before swiping again: "I don't want any family members in it," she says. "They'll all want a piece." She keeps going. "But I love a waist trainer, and a Kylie lip. A fur-kini is kind of cute, and a patent pink dress." She smiles. "Oh, a pregnant belly. I can't believe I didn't think of that."

Kardashian may not come off as book smart, but she is extremely savvy and possesses a high EQ, both of which are much more valuable in this day and age. The TV self and Kardashian's real self are "pretty much the same," she says, when asked to define the difference. "When I'm filming, when I'm in my most comfortable state, at my home, with my family — I can't get any more comfortable than that. . . . But there's so much more to me than that, and I believe that I am so much smarter than I'm portrayed."

Who could have foreseen that in 2015 the Kardashians would be the most interesting story in America? But in terms of cultural fault lines, sometimes it seems like Kim Kardashian's creamy thighs bestride an entire nation. She's the immigrant daughter done good, the world's most famous Armenian-American. She's an interracial pioneer, a Caucasian woman married to a black rapper who pushes the boundaries of race not only in music, but also by demanding a ticket into the predominantly European club of fashion and design. She's at once a sexual muse sparking creativity in her husband, and also a working mom. She's outrageously feminine in an era of sex-role instability and gender-queer Miley, and also the stepdaughter of Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner, the most famous transgender woman in the world. (When I share these thoughts with Kardashian, however, she says, "I don't look at myself like that. But my husband would.") 

Kardashian is also at once extraordinarily human — don't you want to hear about the way she does her makeup? — and a master of what critic Jerry Saltz has called the "new uncanny," or art that blurs the line between human and a robot pretending to be a human. In her video game, you not only can change her clothes and hairstyle, but eye color and skin color. And over the course of the several times we meet, her skin shifts from a deep equatorial brown to a laid-out-in-Palm Springs honey to a morning soy creamer, depending on the makeup and tanning spray. "Something about Kim is very appealing to digital natives," says prominent tech journalist and Re/code editor Kara Swisher. Kardashian also says things like this: "When I go on vacation, I only go to the beach certain times of the day, and lay out by the pool the rest of the time," because the sun is often too flat, and if someone takes a picture of her, she'll get caught looking less Kim Kardashian-like than she'd like. "In Miami, I'll get up at six and swim in the ocean at seven in the morning right before the harsh sun comes up — and the pictures always look amazing."

What else makes Kardashian so weirdly appealing? At one point, I begin telling her that I also think that in a country of dysfunctional families, the fact that her family communicates is also amazing, but all I can get out is "and the other thing about you that's appealing—" before she interrupts to say, "Right, I think it's great that the show is aspirational. I started off in a small apartment, and now I'm in this huge home." That someone might not find the Kardashians aspirational is simply something she would not consider. She's not conflicted about the point of life: It's to be happy and make money, and she's doing both. Kardashian is a nice person — there's no way to spend time with her and not come away with that impression.

Does she hear the haters, sharpening their sticks over her Pandora-like release of crass commercialism and oversharing on the world? She doesn't read anything about herself anymore, not tabloids, no Google alerts, nothing. Nevertheless, the hate came to her one day in May at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan at the book signing of Selfish, a book consisting of a collection of her selfies from the past eight years. Inside the midtown shop, she sat on a carpeted dais surrounded by 300 fans, few of whom had shown up for a signed book — they wanted selfies with their selfie idol, the woman who has made "a science of the selfie," as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom puts it, adding, "Instagram wouldn't be the same without Kim."

Today, at first, there's a ban on selfies, enforced by a bodyguard and put into place in order to move people through as quickly as possible. After staring into the eyes of too many devastated teenagers, Kardashian soon overturns this decree. "If you're fast, you can take a selfie," she says, decisively. "That's what the book's about." Fans rotate in at an incredible clip, blurting out, "You're like a Barbie!" or, "You are a role model for my daughters," or, "I want to say, 'Fuck the haters,' because you're amazing." Girls in pink bedazzled shirts reading 'All Hail KKW' tell her they missed school for this — "Oh, no, I don't want to get you in trouble!"

At the sight of her, gay men cry, and then recover quickly to take the perfect selfie. There are grandmas, a few straight guys and lots of people who just don't look like they should be here, which is what makes it hard to identify the half dozen or so animal-rights activists with sleeve tattoos and gauge earrings in the line, who wait until they're right in front of Kardashian's dais before beginning to attack. "Fifty animals skinned for one fur coat, and you dress your kid like that?" they angrily shriek at Kardashian. "Shame on you!" "You're the most disgusting human being on the planet!"

Kardashian's face freezes, the lips in a rictus grin. This is a special day, and they will not ruin it — she will not allow it. The bodyguard disappears the angry activists, and soon everything's back to normal, with another teenage fan worshiping at the altar. "You've inspired me to be hot and famous," she says. The two of them take a pouty-face selfie. "Aw," says Kardashian. "I love you." 

The activists waited outside Barnes & Noble for Kardashian, but she outsmarted them, sending her car to idle at the front door while she sailed through the side. Today in Santa Monica, though, there isn't anyone on her tail, not even paparazzi. "I love these days when no one's following," she says, stepping into a black SUV and heading to Hillstone restaurant for lunch. Talking to Kardashian can be fun — when we first met, we spent 20 minutes talking about how we don't like dogs, and the kind of dogs we don't like — "I am so not the type of girl who carries a dog in my purse," she explains — though at other times, she's like a politician, answering the question she wants to hear instead of the one she was asked.

In an orange leather booth toward the back of Hillstone, Kardashian orders an average-size meal: grilled artichokes with a side of rémoulade, French fries and a veggie burger without the bun. Her weight is a touchy issue. She eats about half of what she's served, with perfect table manners and a neatness that includes absent-mindedly folding and unfolding her white cloth napkin after the meal has been cleared.

For a while, Kardashian talks about growing up, the way that her dad, Robert, was the disciplinarian and her mom, Kris, a born-and-bred California girl who met Robert at a racetrack while clad in a snappy outfit paired with a necklace reading 'Oh Shit,' was a fun-loving yet warlike Mother Goddess who would do anything to protect her baby gods: Khloe, a spitfire Athena, with a thunderbolt of jokes; Kourtney, puss-faced Hestia, keeping close to the house; Rob, a jolly Apollo; and Kim, steady and sweet. From Armenia, Robert Kardashian's family immigrated to California early in the 20th century and pursued the American dream by making a fortune in the meatpacking industry. Robert got out of the family business and was a success, founding the influential music-industry publication and conference Radio & Records, and then selling music and videos to movie theaters to run before the films.

"Music was always such a huge part of our life," says Kim. "As kids, we were at concerts like Michael Jackson every weekend. My first concert was Earth, Wind and Fire. I was so young — we were walking to our seats, the lights went off, and I was so scared." She describes superstar manager Irving Azoff as being "as close as an uncle." He says the young Kim was "a bright light destined for great things, and always a great little businesswoman. I coached her soccer team and, once, she said, 'I don't want to play goalie, but for $100 I'll be goalie,' and she actually convinced me to give it to her."

As an adolescent, she liked Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and played Mary J. Blige and Jodeci on her bedroom record player. "I still make mix CDs," she says. "I have an older computer with a disk drive so I can do it." In high school, she was obsessed with 'NSync and the Backstreet Boys — "really obsessed, though I was more of a Backstreet girl." She also listened to Snoop, Dre and Ice Cube. Did she daydream about being a girl in a rap video? "No," she says. "The runners at my dad's office would say, 'I can't wait until she's 18, I want to go on a date with her,' and I'd be like, 'Not a chance, get away.' I always had a boyfriend. I loved having a boyfriend."

In her teens, she dated TJ Jackson, Michael Jackson's nephew, for several years. Her dad "explained to me that he's had a lot of interracial friends, and it might not be the easiest relationship. He said I should prepare myself for people to say things to me. . . . When I was growing up, when I was in high school, I'd get magazines and see interracial couples and think, 'They are so cute.' I've always been attracted to a certain kind of look." Of the Jacksons, she says, "They were the nicest family I've ever met. . . . Michael definitely was never this disreputable person."

When Kardashian was 10 years old, her parents divorced, with her mother quickly marrying Jenner. The kids split their time between their parents' homes, though Kim was living at her dad's house when O.J. Simpson was accused of murder in 1994. Simpson briefly moved into Robert's house, living in Khloe's room. "It was surreal, with Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro and all these guys having meetings at my dad's house," she says. Kris was close with Nicole Brown Simpson and believed that O.J. was guilty, creating a massive amount of tension in the family. "I definitely took my dad's side," Kim says. "We just always thought my dad was the smartest person in the world, and he really believed in his friend." As far as what she believes now, she says, "It's weird. I just try not to think about it." 

Kardashian doesn't drink or do drugs except for "five shots of vodka in Vegas every three years," she says. Envisioning herself as a clothing-boutique owner, she took college classes locally but didn't graduate, and her rebellion from her family, if there was one, was her getting secretly married to music producer Damon Thomas at 20. "She was a teenager then, and teenagers do a lot of crazy things," Kris Jenner says. Kardashian explains it this way: "I was very happy at home learning how to cook and clean and keep a house. I knew that was where I wanted to end up."

In 2003, Robert Kardashian died suddenly of cancer, and in 2004, Kim's marriage broke up. Soon, she was rolling with Paris Hilton and the "celebutante" crew. "We'd go anywhere and everywhere just to be seen," Kardashian says, matter-of-factly. "We knew exactly where to go, where to be seen, how to have something written about you. All you had to do is go to this restaurant, or this party, talk about whatever you want to talk about, and it would be in the paper the next day." What about the phase when some members of the clique, most notably Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, were caught by paps exiting cars without underwear? "I rarely wear underwear, but that never happened to me," she says. "I was never drinking. . . . I think that saved me a lot."

In 2007, she passed Hilton in terms of popularity by enduring an infamous sex-tape scandal. She heard rumors in L.A. that the tape she made with her ex-boyfriend Ray J, the singer Brandy's kid brother, was making the rounds, but "I just never thought [the rumors] were real," she says. Then, "I was on a trip to New York, and I'd landed, and then someone called me — maybe my sister? I didn't have a Blackberry then. . . . I think I went right to my mom's house, and she was there with me every step of the way. She didn't call me screaming or call me crying. She was just there. She was like, 'I don't know what you want me to do.' So we went through it." How did she stay sane? "There was a period of time when I just stayed home. Khloe's like, 'I've never met someone who's moved back in with her mother as many times as you.' "

Given that Hilton had experience with a sex tape too, did Kardashian commiserate with Hilton about the scandal? "No," she says. "I don't think she was that happy. We didn't really talk about it. I probably would have thought, 'Oh, my gosh, let me give her advice,' but we had no communication. But our friendship had fizzled before that." Did she ever figure out who leaked the tape? "We did, and we're in major confidentiality, so I can't talk about it." Does she still think about the fact that a great deal of humanity has seen her in flagrante? She folds the napkin in half, and then in a neat square. "I don't really think about it," she says quietly. "I thought about it for a long time. But when I get over something, I get over it." 

As Kardashian finishes her meal, saying, "I've got to get this food out of my face," I ask the question that must be put to her after Lena Dunham, a prominent feminist if there ever was one, posed, unironically, with a copy of Selfish: "Kim Kardashian, are you a feminist?"

"I've never really been one on labels, and I don't like to push my view," she says, folding the napkin again. "If I feel something, it's how I feel. I never say, 'I feel this way, so you should feel that way.' Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I just am who I am. But, yeah." She smiles. "I think you would call me a feminist."

Kardashian has not extensively studied the knowledge found in schools; she draws money and power toward her by the force of intuition. On her show, she and her sisters have their own language on issues more complex than glam rooms: They don't know things, they feel things; they don't want something, they deserve it. At the same time that they have championed the waist-trainer product, which bears much resemblance to a Victorian corset, they also exhibit an attitude toward their bodies that can only be called revolutionary. Women have long asked for fair vagina representation in media, for their vaginas not only to be sexual objects but to smell and bleed and pop out babies, and on their show, Kardashian vaginas do all that and more, which is very different than other pop-culture vaginas.

And if you doubt they are influential, consider that "between all us girls, we have 300 million followers on social media," says Kris. Here is the way Kardashian describes some of her selfies: "I do shoots that are nude, and I don't want to say every girl, but all my girlfriends send me these sexy selfies of themselves," she says. "Just being like, 'Oh, my God, I've been working out for two weeks — look at how good of shape I'm in.' Girls send them to each other. I don't want to say it's normal, but it's just what I've been used to. . . . And I think it's part of the whole selfie phenomenon." So it's not about the male gaze? "I guess not," she says uncertainly. "You wouldn't send the picture if you didn't like it."

I next ask, "But when you look at sexy pictures of yourself, is it sexually exciting?" She shakes her head violently, quickly changing the subject. So I say, "In 20 years, do you want to be remembered as a sex symbol or a businesswoman or what?" She says, "Both. I think you can be both. You can have it all."

We start talking about West. Is she his muse, or is he her consort? Here's the way she describes their relationship: "I think we're definitely opposites. I calm him down, and he pumps me up." When they're home, I ask, does West rant and rave while she's secretly praying he would be quiet? "No," she says, stiffening a little. "At home, he loves to watch movies. Anything animated he'll watch with North." 

West doesn't want to be on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which is why he isn't, most of the time. "And I respect that," she says. "You can't expect me to jump up onstage and start singing — it's not what I do." But he has spent the past few years dressing his wife. "The makeover Kanye has given me is amazing," she says. She's set a fashion trend — pairing a blouse as tight as a leotard with an overcoat — and was early to the current contouring fad in makeup. "I'm obsessed with contouring," she says. "My nose is a completely different nose because of contouring." Would she have started wearing runway fashion if she hadn't married West? "No," she says, then reconsiders. "Well, you know what? I think it would have taken me a lot longer to figure it out."

West is the product of a strong mother, to whom he was famously devoted, and it makes sense that he's found his way into the Kardashian matriarchy. If Kris says she is Kim's "twin soul," and Kim says she's Kanye's "twin soul," where does Kris fit into Kim and Kanye's relationship? "A lot of people don't see the real, soft, wonderful side of Kanye," says Kris. "We fell in love with who Kim fell in love with. I will never be able to replace the relationship he had with his mom, but I sure can make him know he's loved, unconditionally, and we would do anything for him."

But what about the matriarchy's relationship to the men in their lives? Many who have heard their siren call end up on the rocks, one way or another. Marriages flounder, substance problems are rampant, and even brother Rob has vanished from the TV show. "It's not that mysterious, what's happening with Rob," Kardashian says. "He has gained weight. He feels uncomfortable being on the show, and that's OK." She pauses. "Do I think he smokes weed, drinks beer, hangs out and plays video games with his friends all day long? Yes." Is she sure that it's not more like hookers and meth at the Ritz? "No, no," she says, laughing a little. "Or he'd be skinny."  

The situation with Caitlyn Jenner is more complicated. "I'd heard a rumor when I was 11 or 12 that he was caught cross-dressing," she says. And then, when she was 22, she walked in on Jenner dressed up in the garage. "I was shaking," she says. "I didn't know if I'd just found out his deepest, darkest secret, and he was going to come after me. I grabbed my duffel bag . . . ran out to the car." Jenner called her on the phone a half hour later, and said, "One day, I'll talk to you about this. Until then, don't tell a soul." I said, "OK." Eight years later, when she was 30 years old, he said, "Let's have that talk."

Before their wedding, Kardashian told West what she knew about Jenner. "I wasn't sure if Bruce was going to be comfortable walking me down the aisle. He had just had his trachea shaved, so I knew something was going on. I thought that Kanye should know that this is the reality about one of his daughter's grandparents." She was afraid of what West might think. "[Kanye] obviously moves to his own drum," she says. "He lives his life the way he wants, a really authentic life, and he was like, 'If you can't be authentic and you can't live your life, what do you have?' "

Back in the SUV after the meal, Kardashian starts talking about her blond hair, and the way gossip blogs were confused about why she so quickly dyed it back to black. She wanted it dark for a trip to Armenia, plus what pregnant woman wants chemicals on her hair? "I'd have done anything for this [pregnancy] to work out," she says, then looks at me hard. It's a scoop, I think — am I grateful? "Anyway," she says, turning to look out the window, "that's one of the reasons I dyed it back." She pats her stomach. "That was the most satisfying meal, you have no idea. It's going to keep me full."

What else should one know about Kim Kardashian? She's a prolific handwritten-thank-you-card sender, and a devoted watcher of Dateline and forensic TV shows. She's not allergic to anything and doesn't usually drink coffee because she's "not into the taste." She won't eat anything with mustard — or sardines, escargot, "anything like that. Kanye can be more of a fancy eater than me." She's taking piano lessons — is that hard? "Um, I mean, it's just if you put the time into it," she says. She's also a car girl: "Cars don't mean anything to Kanye — he hasn't bought a new car in seven years. I have a personal relationship to my cars." She adds, "I love, love, love a Rolls-Royce. I know this may sound bratty, but I'll own up to it: It's the best car if you have kids, spacewise. It's low, and I like a low car to put in the car seat and the baby." 

The SUV begins rolling into the loading dock of a furniture store, where she's meeting Kris and Kylie to tape a little bit of the TV show. If the show were a total lie, it would never work; but one imagines that it is not completely real, either. "Oh, good, the lighting panel is here," says Kardashian, spying a crew member whose exclusive job is to hold up a special lighting panel so that the family looks perfect at all times.

The setup today is Kylie needs furniture for her new house. Does Kim herself have a shopping addiction? "Well, I have a saving addiction right now, so that makes up for it — I put myself on a budget," she says. "That's why I started the eBay store a long time ago. I told myself I had to come up with a certain amount of money if I wanted to spend that money for the month. And I still try to keep myself in that budget. I sell stuff I've worn, if I don't archive it." She adds, somewhat unbelievably, "I try not to shop that much."

In the furniture store, Kylie and Kris are wandering around endless living-room setups, discussing getting measurements for a chaise lounge and if small mother-of-pearl and black tables might be cute for Kylie's new house. Kim slips a microphone under her green dress to join the conversation. "Are you sure you want to go black and white like Mom?" she asks. Kylie plays the typical teenager who dips in and out of attention, sometimes looking at her phone, other times chugging from a water bottle and staring into space. Kris plays the overexcited mom who is watching her almost-grown daughter move into her first home and wants everything to be exactly right. It's the roles they really inhabit, or so they tell us, and the filming — despite the five or so cameramen, lighting-panel guy and sound folks who trail them as they walk, ducking behind gigantic mirrors and floor lamps in order to make sure a crew member is never in the shot — flows easily.

Kardashian stays only 20 minutes and leaves to see her daughter; North was a little sick yesterday, and she made her special bottles of tea with honey. She'll go home to her mansion. West is in his home recording studio and asks if Kardashian would come hang out since they didn't see each other much the day before. "He loves when all the guys are there and they're talking about things, pop-culture events," she says. "They have these think sessions where everyone sits and talks and hangs out, talk about theories and so many different things. I've learned so much, just culturally." She'll go to sleep early, and then the next day do it all again — the makeup, the tweets, the filming, everything that makes her professional and personal life, her human and digital self, the fake and the true, unreal and real, so intertwined and seamless. We're not done watching yet.