Kim Kardashian and her family’s Hulu reality show, The Kardashians, is back with a new season this week. When, if ever, will the Kardashian-Jenner machine stop working? Can it even stop working? Though the Kardashians and Jenners have milked billions out of their own overexposure, it feels like Kim herself matters a lot less than she used to. Her magazine covers don’t break the internet anymore. And before the Kardashians took their reality show from E! to Hulu, the ratings were dropping. Hard.
Sam has been wondering for some time now if Kim Kardashian is in decline. To figure this out, he called up MJ Corey, a psychotherapist by trade and the operator of the Kardashian Kolloquium, a suite of social-media accounts — on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube — where she uses media theory to analyze the Kardashians. (She’s even written about Kim and Kanye for The New Yorker.) You can read an excerpt of their conversation below, and you can check out the full episode wherever you get podcasts.
If you had to describe Kim Kardashian in only three words, what three words would you use?
Mmm … Cultural fractal icon.
What is a cultural fractal point? Expound a bit on that.
To me, analyzing the Kardashians is not much different than analyzing these other major entrenched American institutions, like Disneyland or Las Vegas or the WWE. All of these entrenched iconic conglomerates are telling us stories of America. They really are consequences of the American system in terms of media and its economic system. So the Kardashians are the same to me. That’s what I’m really doing when I do this project.
In the last few years, stopped being a symbol for a certain type of woman and became a symbol of some of the worst of late-stage capitalism (like when her and her family went to that secret island for her birthday). And yet, I’ll find myself being more mad about her being rich than someone like Jeff Bezos. There’s something about it.
I think that that hits on a really real thing about the Kardashians’ power. We’ve watched this family perform this illusion of the American dream. People still love to remind her, “You were Paris Hilton’s maid.”
And Brandy’s assistant.
Yes, exactly. People think they’re really getting her with that one, but all it does is serve this kind of “started from the bottom, now we’re here” construct. And of course, the bottom is still an incredibly elite LA. But we watch them social-climb to this point, now where they’re having private island birthday parties. Humans are drawn to watching depictions of transformations. Same with their faces, same with everything.
On the eve of season two of their reality show on Hulu: Is Kim Kardashian in decline?
Transition. Not decline.
Okay. Tell me more.
The family still collectively has over a billion followers on social media, and I think that’s just Instagram.
Wait. Stop, stop.
Is that crazy?
It’s very powerful.
They have a billion followers and then billions more of actual dollars.
They’ve got the capital. As far as the influencer economy goes, they’ve got social capital. Yes, Keeping Up With the Kardashians had falling ratings, but the show became less and less important really to their brand. It’s been connective tissue to all their different stories, their different endeavors, and their enterprises but it’s really just a commercial. It’s always been a commercial, but it’s a commercial for Kardashian brands, which are very successful. Skims jumped something like 90 percent over the course of 2021.
Skims is a billion-dollar business.Also, let’s be real: It’s just sexy girdles. I love how — my mama used to wear girdles, okay?
But good for them for making it work, right?
They take the fundamentals and then they kind of dress them up, innovate them, repackage them. And these are all really basic formulas they work with. Even the family-sitcom formula — they feel like America’s family. These are all constructs being filtered through media, but they sell that to us. So the decline is just us waiting for it, anticipating it, thinking it into existence, but really, she’s starting a private-equity fund. Her influence will be felt for generations.
What’s also happening is that we are seeing Kim shift her business priorities to things that could still be insanely profitable, or very influential — I’m talking about the venture-capital firm, her work on criminal justice reform — regardless of whether photos of her butt break the internet. This is the kind of thing that happens when you begin to age out of our culture’s prime age for the female body.
What’s interesting is that there was always so much focus on her body. The “break the internet” reference is a great one: If you look at the graph of Kim Kardashian searches on Google trends, it spikes for that month of that Paper cover. And that was building towards a shilling of shapewear body focused products. And now, they’re moving away from the body, as far as her products go — even acknowledging that aging is happening. It’s about skin care, aging prevention, her face. And I wasn’t expecting this move towards venture capital.
The venture capital surprised me. But then once I thought about it, I was like, “You know what? She makes good business choices.” I will give her that.
I think it’s worth saying, too, that it took her a decade-plus of selling her image on the basis of her body and the obsession that the public has with it, to then earn the capital — or, gain the capital we’ll say — into the more influential, fundamental things that run this fucking country on a deeper-level realm.
When we talk about her transitioning, we do need to check in on the success of her new ventures. She’s in this moment where there is this good dialogue around her possibly becoming a lawyer and helping folks get out of prison. But when you look at her other previous ventures, she’s currently fighting a cryptocurrency lawsuit and another lawsuit over an alleged lottery scam on Instagram. How should we examine all of that as we look to her next phase? She manages to ignore it all.
It’s similar to how we’ve seen her historically handle different Kanye meltdowns, where there will be long stretches of Kim silence and then the one mic drop, like an Instagram Story, that speaks to it. And then that’s it. And that’s a really powerful way to control the narrative. I think we can look at how the system runs, how power and capital in the American system work, then how it comes outward to us through the media. Like with Donald Trump: We’re wondering if maybe this latest inquiry is really going to do him in, but there were questions about his history of lawsuits and his business practices throughout his presidency. It didn’t change anything about the movement that he cultivated. So, as far as her power and her impact: When you’re at that scale, there’s a lot of insulation.
It’s funny — not funny, important — to hear you talk about Trump and Kardashian together. In many ways, they work the same model of celebrity and media manipulation. But if I had to say, I would say Kim worked harder to get to where she got than Trump worked to get to where he got.
Yeah. Kim has shown more grit than Trump just by being a woman doing all this.
And she can be a chameleon in ways that he never was good at. He’s always just been Trump. She has been different versions of herself at every phase of her career.
True. You’re so right. If you look at Trump’s history of cameos, he’s always been the Trump of Home Alone and all those pre-Apprentice-era cameos. With Kim, there’s been fascination with her family: Because they’ve depicted evolution in such an exaggerated way, people just fucking loved that on a primitive level.
I keep seeing this moment of Kim Kardashian as a big shift for her. To see someone who made a living and a career and became an icon on her body to say, Now, I’m doing venture capital and criminal justice reform, does her in this moment of shift change anything about the central theory of Kim Kardashian you might have had five years ago?
This is where I saw it going. After that Interview cover, where she was in the Americana aesthetic, people were saying that she’s going to run for president. I don’t know if she really will, but I’ve been asking that question for several years now, because this is world-domination stuff. She hasn’t actually dominated yet, but we’re seeing the groundwork of it. We’ve been seeing the groundwork of it bit by bit by bit over the course of this epic decade that she’s had.