Kanye West always knew his fate, it seemed. And this fate was Kim Kardashian.
He knew in 2003, when they encountered each other for the first time. He was recording a song with Brandy when her friend Kim came by — then in her era of smoky eyes, nude lip gloss, flat irons, and less ass. Kim was married to producer Damon Thomas, though, so she and Kanye stayed squarely in the friend zone. But as the years passed, the more smitten he became, he explained later in an interview with Ryan Seacrest. By 2006, he was basically in love. He would see pictures of Kim on vacation with Paris Hilton and ask his friends, “What’s up with Kim Kar-dijon?” or “Kim Kardi-shawn?” “I just dreamed about being next to her,” Kanye told his future mother-in-law, Kris Jenner, on one episode of Kris, her talk show. In the segment, he admitted to using Photoshop to insert himself into the Kardashian-Jenner Khristmas cards and emailing the images to Kim.
Maybe it was because he kept mispronouncing her name and the universe only manifests what you ask for clearly, but it took almost a decade’s worth of other relationships and Kanye’s steady, increasing persistence — which included dropping little lyrical love crumbs in his songs — before the two of them finally got together in 2012. They had been dating only a year when Kanye gave an interview to Hot 97 declaring the immensity of their relationship, expressing to host Angie Martinez that they had a big meant-to-be type of union: “I felt like our love story is like a love story for the ages. I felt like when we first got together, it was like a Romeo-and-Juliet kind of thing.”
Unlike TomKat, Brangelina, and Bennifer, the appeal of Kimye was simple; it wasn’t Scientology, or the thrill of a relationship possibly (probably) born of adultery, or matching habanero-orange spray tans that made them captivating. They earned our infatuation because they seemed preternaturally well suited for each other. It was strangely reassuring to see two people who had wrestled with their flawed pasts so visibly realize they were a pot and a lid. It was relatable, even if the pot was a hypertalented, egotistical provocateur and the lid was a member of America’s burgeoning reality-TV dynasty and an Instagram savant. No matter how you felt about the separate ingredients, the combination felt completely right and true.
In the beginning, theirs was a lavish, baroque, well-documented show of adoration. Kim thought Kanye was an artistic genius. Kanye wanted to “dip Kim’s ass in gold.” And since every moment of their courtship was catalogued online, we saw all the ways they fawned over each other — like when Kanye trapped Kenny G in a rose-strewn room to sing a Valentine’s Day serenade to Kim. And no matter how outlandish or garish their exchanges of affection were, they seemed grounded in real love worth rooting for.
But as much as Kanye wanted Kim, he knew he wanted to marry a woman who could hold her own in the power-couple equation, one who had her own capital and resources, as he told Details in 2009: “I feel like the type of girl I would be with is a fellow superhero. So we get that ‘already flying and now we’re just flying together’ thing.” So while Kanye’s comparisons to Romeo and Juliet weren’t wrong, exactly (they nailed the scale, at least), Kimye’s union became more Dido and Aeneas with divorce lawyers. As much as theirs was a love story, it was also a story about power. And it was that tale, with its moments of conquest and cross-promotion, of influence and wealth amassed, of equal playing fields, and of reversals, that became the most interesting to watch.
What image comes to mind when you think of the Greatest Love Story of the 2010s? There are tens of thousands of hours of footage and paparazzi shots, selfies, magazine covers, and lyrics so evocative they might as well have been visuals. For me, it boils down to two images of the couple’s own creation: the April 2014 Vogue cover on which they held each other sweetly one month before their wedding and a still from Kanye’s “Bound 2” music video in which a topless Kim straddles Kanye while he straddles a motorcycle in front of many Lisa Frank–esque backgrounds. These are the images that launched Kimye. Technically, their relationship had been public for more than a year, hitting all the milestones at breakneck speed: She’d visited his mother’s grave site, he’d attended a family christening and accompanied her on an Italian Vogue photo shoot, and in June 2013 they’d had their first child. They were a known and notable couple, but these two images were about shaping what their coupledom would mean to the culture.
When Kim and Kanye first got together, people thought his association with the Kardashians would ruin his career. On “Bound 2,” his dark, romantic, messy love song to Kim from his 2013 Yeezus album, Kanye pulled out all his Kanye-isms to exalt her. She was his muse. He had to silence the critics. His lyrics, over soaring soul hooks, are characteristically filthy (“Can’t get spunk on the mink”) but uncharacteristically optimistic about love (this was one that could last past Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even to “the church steps”). On October 21 of that year, Kanye spent $3.3 million to propose to Kim at AT&T Park in San Francisco while a 50-piece orchestra played “Young and Beautiful,” Lana Del Rey’s song from The Great Gatsby soundtrack. And the “Bound 2” video, released that November, reflected his “Fuck it, I’m in big love” feelings. To him, they were the new American Dream — and the video made a point by putting a Black man at the center of traditional American iconography. Just a man on a motorcycle with his naked, hot wife (a nod to her infamous sex tape, a crash course in rewriting a narrative) amid running stallions and Windows-desktop nature vistas.
The tenderness between them was palpable even in the shots intentionally framed to make it look as if Kanye were railing her on a motorcycle — but also fun and multicultural. Kanye debuted the video on Ellen, a talk show designed specifically for stars to charm and warm the hearts of Middle America — the segment before, full of North photos, elicited “aws” and approving chuckles, and the audience cheered for the video of America’s new sweethearts. DeGeneres’s response was an inscrutable “It’s very cool.”
After Kanye’s subversion came his push for normalization. If “Bound 2” was a love letter to prove it was all real, the Vogue cover was the debutante ball. They were taking their place in the culture, and anyone who didn’t accept it now would be forced to eventually.
It was always Kim’s dream to be on the cover. And at last, there she was, more pared down than she had ever been seen, in a demure strapless Lanvin wedding dress with her husband nuzzling her neck adoringly. She gazed at the camera with a coy smile, daring any snob to say shit. Which of course they did.
Back then, Kanye was divisive but still respected. Kim, despite a highly rated TV show that commanded a $40 million three-year contract (then the most profitable deal in reality-television history), still didn’t have enough distance from the sex tape or the fact that her fiscal empire was built on “trash” TV. Her profile wasn’t worthy of Vogue. In fact, Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, had reportedly banned Kim from attending the Met Gala on the grounds of her being too C-list. Kim later told People that the first time she went — in 2013, as Kanye’s pregnant plus-one in a floral-couch-print Givenchy dress she would get memed to hell for — she knew nobody wanted her there.
Some critics who didn’t understand where entertainment and celebrity were heading said Kimye’s cover devalued the Vogue brand, and there was a rumor circulating that Kanye had either begged or bullied Wintour into allowing the couple (read Kim) to be on the cover instead of Kate Upton. But Kanye’s A-list status helped Kim enter the upper echelons of fashion. To land a cover after tabloids reported you couldn’t even buy your way into the ball? That’s like get-back-at-your-ex, glow-up energy on steroids.
The issue sold as well as the Michelle Obama and Beyoncé covers of that year. This was the beginning of a new type of joint cultural domination, but for Kim and Kanye, the work of revamping their image had already been years in the making.
Despite his acclaim, when Kanye, a man of great power and ability to self-sabotage, survived tempestuous waters and landed on Kim’s shores, he was battered and blacklisted. He was still mourning the sudden death of his mother, Donda West. He had apologized, sort of, but he couldn’t really get rid of the stink of the “I’mma let you finish” moment from the 2010 VMAs, which formally cast him as pop culture’s villain. He was seeking a home and stability. Kim was more than just a body to rap about or an ass on which he could always rest his hand — though he did that a lot — she was his grounding force, something he had lost when his mother died. Upon marrying Kim, he said of family matriarch Kris Jenner that he was happy to have someone to call Mom again.
There’s a way that becoming a father and devoted wife guy smooths out the bumps in difficult men. It’s too easy, and still is, for men who were once openly misogynistic or who objectified women as a hobby, or worse, to be made virtuous by the love of one good woman and the offspring they create together. Kanye benefited from this law of the universe. It was almost too on the nose that he announced Kim’s pregnancy during a 2012 New Year’s Eve concert by stopping midway during “Runaway,” his ballad of romantic mea culpas and deep-seated self-loathing from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to gleefully ask the audience to give it up for his “baby mama.” It was a record scratch, an announcement but also a declaration that he wasn’t that guy anymore — he was Kim’s soul mate and North’s daddy.
In a Spin roundtable of female journalists discussing Yeezus, critic Anupa Mistry noted how Kanye’s previous girlfriends were “gilded, pneumatic, hyperreal arm trophies perfectly calibrated to complement his public persona.” But Kim was different. The guy who dated Amber Rose, then slut-shamed her in an interview (“It’s very hard for a woman to want to be with someone that’s with Amber Rose — I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim,” he said), was now a changed man. This messy firebrand was now out there sounding like a damn goober. Even the best publicists couldn’t have orchestrated a reputation-saver this good — and Xenu knows they’ve tried.
Through Kanye, we came to accept the things we hadn’t previously noticed about Kim: She was the most beautiful woman in the world, and it was okay that she was famous for being beautiful because she was incredibly good at it; she was also a smart businesswoman. It was becoming clearer how all of the things that had made her the butt (sorry) of many jokes by late-night hosts — her body, her femininity, her narcissism, that sex tape (how was that considered “free material” for so long?), her many high-profile relationships, including the micromarriage to Kris Humphries — were actually keys to relatability and profitability, and it eventually became anti-feminist to consider them otherwise. Not all of it was Kanye — culture was shifting in a way that likely made Kim’s celebrity status inevitable — but his work as her relentless hype man didn’t hurt.
He also gave her a visual rebranding, dressing her in better designers and getting rid of the bandage dresses — the equivalent of the rom-com trope of turning a nerd into a heartthrob by removing their glasses. While they had acknowledged the relationship in magazine and television interviews, the very first glimpse of Kimye as a true couple was on season seven, episode 15, of Keeping Up With the Kardashians — in Kim’s universe, nothing is real until it’s on the E! network. Kanye, in one of the rare early appearances on the show, came over to Kim’s mansion with his stylist. There was Kim as we haven’t seen her since: in a pink fit-and-flare dress, with a neon spray tan, watching tearfully as Kanye cleared out 250 pairs of spiky Louboutins and several Louis Vuitton bags. When he put her in a simple, seductive black dress, she stared at herself in the mirror and pushed her boobs up to her chin, where she was most comfortable having them. “Do we not like these?” she asked Kanye, who replied that he liked a more natural look. She relented, and the last beat of the scene is him again nuzzling her neck, assuring her that she looked “awesome, baby.” It was an expression of love to him, but viewers criticized him for acting “controlling.” It was the moment he decided he wouldn’t be on the show anymore, but he continued to dress Kim. People blamed some of her worst Phantom Thread–cosplay–style looks on Kanye, but the aesthetic he created for her marked a shift: Her sex appeal became a powerful promotional tool, not just something her critics used for censure.
It’s easiest to see Kanye’s influence on Kim through the fashion world. With him, there were front rows at Fashion Weeks and friendships with high-end designers, and eventually, it wasn’t just Kim at the Met Ball — it was the whole damn family. Kanye dressed everyone in Balmain at Paris Fashion Week. Kylie Jenner walked in a 2015 Yeezy show in New York with the rest of the family in attendance. He also allowed the Kardashian-Jenners easier entry into parts of the celebrity world they would come to dominate. In 2016, cultural critic Sylvia Obell, in an article about the soap-opera-level relationship drama between Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna (which included a love triangle with Kylie and Blac Chyna’s ex, rapper Tyga), noted the hairstyles, body parts, clothing, slang, and social-media tactics that aided in the Kardashian-Jenner empire-building and pointed out that the family had “long acquired their spots at these tables by borrowing from Black culture.” Along with Kanye, the Kardashian-Jenners have dated or married some of the world’s biggest Black hip-hop and sports celebrities, including Travis Scott, Tyga, Lamar Odom, A$AP Rocky, Ben Simmons, Corey Gamble, Reggie Bush, James Harden, and Tristan Thompson. (Khloé Kardashian has been documented saying she has “never seen a white penis.”) Their relationships with Black men, and the multiracial children they had with them, seemed to offer some sort of cultural cover for their appropriation.
The real golden age of Kimye spanned from 2014 to 2016. Their wedding, the mythically lavish ceremony and party in Florence’s Forte di Belvedere on May 24, 2014, gave enough material for 100 Us Weekly covers. During this time, Kim “broke the internet” habitually (first the Paper magazine cover with her completely oiled-up naked ass, then subsequently every week on Instagram), and the Kardashian-Jenners launched beauty lines and app games. In February 2016, Kanye had his biggest fashion show yet, for Yeezy season three. It doubled as a listening party for The Life of Pablo, and he packed out MSG. It was the perfect cross-promotion opportunity: Kanye dressed the entire Kardashian-Jenner family — Kris, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie, Caitlyn, and North — in Yeezy x Balmain pieces. Even Odom was there in his first public outing since the drug overdose that left him on life support for three days. And of course there was Kim, sitting between 2-year-old North and Anna Wintour. And afterward, almost every Kardashian and Jenner wore Life of Pablo merch on the next season of Keeping Up, as if it were Pepsi product placement. The power of Kim and Kanye was in perfect balance, their worlds in symbiosis.
And then the scales began to tilt — with Kim becoming bolder and asserting more control. She used both her growing social-media platform and the show to promote herself and her businesses as well as Kanye’s albums but also largely to tell people to shut the hell up about her man. She set stories straight on Twitter (yes, Kanye was on his phone during The Cher Show musical; he was taking notes, not being rude). A well-placed Instagram could end a feud, smooth out Kanye’s erratic rants, translate his bizarre behaviors, and, not infrequently, vanquish enemies. She felled his biggest one — Taylor Swift — with a mere Snapchat. (Though some would argue there are really no winners in this ongoing fight.) On the song “Famous,” Kanye, well, famously, included the lyric “I feel like Taylor and me might have sex / Ah, I made that bitch famous.” Swift took offense. And Kim launched an offensive: She had proof Swift knew about the lyrics in advance of the song’s release — a recording of a phone call between Kanye and Swift on which he played her the song. Kim detailed this drama in a GQ cover story that became a plotline on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Finally, she released the audio on her Snapchat and teased it from her Twitter account. Kanye could have defended himself (and did in tweets he took down), but the incident became Kim’s narrative — a crusade to ride for her man.
Kanye wasn’t often on KUWTK, but when he was, it was largely good for his reputation, like in season 13 when the family went on a trip to Cuba. Kanye was just a dad on vacation, drinking fruity cocktails at dinner, marveling at North as she told him she wanted to be a bunny when she grew up. Singing “Magic Stick” to North until Kim had to explain why you can’t sing “Magic Stick” to a child. He just looked happy and goofy and kind. (By then, they’d had a son, Saint, and would go on to have two more children: Chicago and Psalm.) But even as he stepped into the Kardashian sphere, he was still Kanye West, a man who had once declared, “I do not need a manager; I cannot be managed.” Lesser men had been reduced to disposable sometimes cast members, their best hope to get their own spinoff or at least a good season-long story arc. But there would never be a Kimye spinoff. There would have to be room for both of their egos.
When Kim got robbed at gunpoint in Paris on October 3, 2016, Kanye was already struggling on his Saint Pablo Tour. He had been exhibiting bizarre behavior onstage and on social media. (At a show in San Jose, he went on a rant, telling the crowd to “stop focusing on racism” and calling Donald Trump’s communication style “very futuristic”; at another, a couple nights later, he blasted everyone from former friends Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Mark Zuckerberg.) He canceled the rest of the tour to be with his wife and one month later had a breakdown that resulted in an eight-day stay at UCLA Medical Center; he later told Charlamagne from “The Breakfast Club” that the robbery had contributed to it. Kanye was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2017, though he told the New York Times that he had begun “learning how not to be on meds.” The public acknowledgment of his mental-health challenges added context to his bewildering actions. It also illuminated the deep cracks in the Kimye universe, the power balance shifting into seemingly its final position.
Kanye started appearing on the show more (the aftershock of the robbery was a major story line in season 13). He taped his first confessional. And the more he lost his footing as Kanye West — the more erratic he became, the more apparently red-pilled — the more he became part of the Kardashian brand, hosting Sunday Services that were plot points on episodes.
Kanye’s MAGA-hat phase and frequent controversial comments — like declaring that “Slavery was a choice” on TMZ in 2018 — were most readily understood as symptoms of his mental illness, but they also felt like a sort of rebellion. After all, this was the man who once said, “I am Warhol. I am the No. 1 most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh, Walt Disney, Nike, Google.” It was hard to imagine his acquiescing completely, allowing himself to be fully absorbed by the Kardashian world.
Kim, for her part, tried to focus on his role as a good husband and father. There is so much about her struggle supporting him that we won’t understand (at least until it becomes a plot point on this 20th and final season of the show). No matter how far from Earth Kanye got, Kim has always been the person to translate him to the rest of us. She was the relatable convoy, demonstrating how to digest his behaviors if you’re not, say, a creative and difficult genius. Confused by Sunday Services, well, Kim and the whole family attended and made it seem just like a regular old “We go to church” thing. Didn’t understand the appeal of Yeezy’s monochrome spandex girdles? Maybe it made more sense when Kim wore one out into the world to run errands or, even better, when she launched Skims, which were actually monochromatic spandex girdles — Yeezy made practical. When she defended his cartoonish brand of conservatism, it at least left room for the possibility that it could be a long con, performance art, or a stunt to be revealed later, instead of a reason to cancel him.
While Kanye clowned around, Kim was building a more serious political brand for herself. As Kanye continued to cozy up to Trump, Kim went to the same Oval Office to speak with the president about prison reform. And she’s credited with helping to convince the president to release a non-violent drug offender and embrace a criminal-justice-reform bill that would eventually become law. As Kanye descended more into incomprehensible buffoonery, there was high-profile coverage of how Kim helped free Alice Marie Johnson after 21 years in prison. Kim then featured her in a Skims campaign.
But that could work for only so long, and in her 2019 Vogue cover story — this time, she was on her own — Kim spoke of her ambition to become a lawyer while firmly distancing herself from Kanye’s increasingly pro-Trump sentiments. She said of people’s accusations that she should stop him, “I can be sitting there crying, ‘OH MY GOD! TAKE OFF THE RED HAT!’ Because he really is the sweetest person with the biggest heart,” she said. “I used to care so much … It gave me so much anxiety.” The article painted a portrait of a woman who was ready to be taken seriously as a lawyer — Van Jones took great pains to remind readers that Kim was the “daughter of an accomplished attorney” and “the mother of three Black kids.” It can be true that while Kim was leveraging Kanye’s intolerable political pandering into something impactful, her ambitions were amplified by her proximity to the racism Kanye himself experienced and the racism her children might one day experience. But it is a slightly uncomfortable thing to witness: At the same time we’re seeing some of the ways Kanye’s experience of race and racism broke him, we’re watching Kim legitimize her next career.
There is a theory that Kim knew the marriage was in trouble in 2018, and it’s telling that the show in the last few seasons documents their fights, threading in the narrative that Kim is sick of his antics. You have to imagine, this season, that producers were prepared for a story line about a marriage restored or one that centered on a divorce.
By July 2020, when Kanye hosted a rally in South Carolina announcing his short-lived bid for president, it was clear which way the story was going to break. At this relationship-shattering event, he made comments about the couple nearly aborting North, then unleashed a series of tweets against the family, alleging that Kim and Kris were trying to “lock him up” and calling Kris a white supremacist. Kim released a statement on her Instagram, this time not defending Kanye, just begging for compassion for his mental-health struggles. Later, photos were released on TMZ of Kim in Wyoming crying during a fight with Kanye in his car. So far, Kim isn’t saying much on-camera — but one episode shows her attempting to fly to Wyoming to reconcile and Kanye refusing to see her. She filed for divorce in February, a month after the show wrapped.
Three days after the announcement, Kim, ever relatable, released an Instagram Story of her driving, singing along to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” a.k.a. Gen Z’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Post-breakup, Kim’s Instagram has been freer, funnier, nostalgic, and thirst-trappy again. She is working on her degree and most likely plotting how best to document her postdivorce life as an activist, a billionaire, a mother, and a lawyer. At this point, at the end of this epic relationship, one could more feasibly imagine a Kim presidential run than a Kanye one. Hopefully, there’s still a chance that the end of a love for the ages will inspire a divorce album for the ages.