Could it be a new reality show? Might she be opening a restaurant in Dubai? How about a new television programme set in the UAE? When, earlier this week, The National saw a press release stating that fearsome Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner would make an “international reveal” in Dubai on Tuesday, the gossip machine went into overdrive. One thing is certain: with the Keeping Up with the Kardashians film crew accompanying this unique woman on her eagerly awaited business trip, it won’t be your normal press conference.
But then, Jenner has never been normal in all of her 60 years. It takes a special kind of mother (to, for the uninitiated, Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kendall, Kylie and, er, Rob) to call her family a “brand”, as she did in 2013 when discussing the worldwide success of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. There is something heroically appalling about this reality television series, soon to enter its 12th season, which follows Jenner and her five ridiculously OTT daughters as they get Botox and discuss their relationships and body parts in shocking detail.
So as their self-styled “momager”, Jenner isn’t just responsible for a Kardashian roadshow that takes in catfights and break-ups, weddings and births – she actively encourages the drama. And yet, for all the derision that comes the Kardashians’ way, consider this: in 2014, Kim Kardashian alone is said to have earned $24 million – while also having a baby and getting married to Kanye West. That, for Kris Jenner, is success.
The New York Times called that wedding – naturally Jenner ended up putting their first dance on YouTube – a “historic blizzard of celebrity”, and there has always been the accusation surrounding the Kardashians that they are simply famous for being famous, forced into ever-more-outlandish behaviour to remain in the spotlight and be able to peddle spin-off shows and workout DVDs. And it’s true that Jenner’s lack of scruples – there is one episode where she discusses the shape of a very private part of her daughter’s body – means the family is at the mercy, fairly or not, of any kind of salacious rumour. The most recent being that Jenner had leaked an intimate video of her own daughter in a bid to bolster Kim’s career back in 2007.
Whether that – and the many other saucy revelations about the Kardashians in Ian Halperin’s forthcoming book Kardashian Dynasty: The Controversial Rise of America’s Royal Family – is actually true doesn’t appear to matter if it keeps them in the public eye. And that’s Jenner’s real skill: the Kardashians might be famous for being famous now, but it’s taken years to manipulate her family and businesses to this point.
Yet the fame and fortune her family enjoy now didn’t simply fall into Jenner’s lap. It may be difficult to believe watching the Kardashians’ antics but, in the beginning, Jenner’s life was about as far from a chronicle of an entitled Beverly Hills family as possible. Her father was an engineer, but left the family home in San Diego when she was young, and Jenner (then Kristen Houghton) was brought up by her mother and shop-owning grandparents. “My mom took me to work with her, I was the gift-wrapper,” she told the London Evening Standard last year.
So far, so normal – but it was a chance meeting at a horse race with a budding lawyer named Robert Kardashian that changed the course of her life.
Kardashian had to bide his time – Jenner went off to be an American Airlines flight attendant – but they married when she was 22 and moved to Beverly Hills, where Jenner first dipped her toes into the party-heavy social scene. OJ Simpson was a friend, and Jenner would play tennis with his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. This relationship would end up being played out in the courts as Kardashian later represented Simpson after he was charged with Brown’s murder.
But despite four young children, an impressive home and burgeoning position in Los Angeles society, Jenner was far from happy. She spent huge amounts on: “A luxury lifestyle … nothing was too good for our family. Even our children’s clothing was purchased at exclusive boutiques”.
It won’t come as a surprise that those revelations are taken from the couple’s endlessly pored-over 1991 divorce documents published online in 2012. Still, they make for eye-opening reading, not least because Robert Kardashian told the courts that his son had recounted a time he had to sleep on the couch because his mother was in bed – in the same room – with her new squeeze.
The picture of a slightly outrageous and self-destructive personality begins to form. But it was out of the ashes of her marriage that Jenner began to make a name for herself – literally – on her own terms. Marrying former Olympic decathlon gold medallist Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner just a month after her divorce papers were signed, she took on his struggling motivational speaking business and made it work, signing up huge companies and branching out into workout videos that made a virtue of Bruce and Kris training together. The family brand was just beginning.
Admittedly, it would take some time for that brand to develop, and Jenner insists it’s based on empowering women who work hard rather than image for image’s sake. But after the death of Robert Kardashian in 2003, Kris began to formulate an idea for a show that could perhaps cash in on the increasing notoriety of some of her socialite offspring. The New York Times tells a fantastic story of how she marched into the offices of television producer and presenter Ryan Seacrest, saying: “Everybody thinks that they could create a bunch of drama in their lives, but it’s something I [don’t] even have to think about. It would be natural.” Natural if your daughter’s friends include Paris Hilton, of course.
And when a producer went to do a test shoot at a family barbecue, he didn’t need long to call Seacrest and say: “We have a show. This is going to be amazing.” As for Seacrest, he watched the tape and was sold on “the craziness that is their family”.
Craziness that could be troubling. The very first episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians dealt with Kim’s very public “private film” with singer Ray J (as well as Kris’s clothing boutique and a pole dance). But there was something worrying about Jenner’s assertion that “as her mother, I wanted to kill her, but as her manager I knew I had a job to do.”
That job being to frame what could easily have been the incredibly irritating exploits of wealthy California socialites into something entertaining. And for that, Kris Jenner has to take plaudits, even if for most people her show is the epitome of car crash, so-bad-it’s-good television. It’s aspirational – in the sense that people don’t actually want to be like the Kardashians but enjoy living vicariously through these outrageous people. Jenner clearly understands this.
In a way, Jenner’s real achievement has been to approach this celebrity in the same way a sports agent might direct his up-and-coming football star. There are endorsements aplenty, for everything from laser hair removal to teeth-whitening. Jenner has had a brief dalliance as a talk-show host and children’s boutique owner. Kris and Kim’s opening of the Millions of Milkshakes in Dubai Mall in 2011 generated huge public interest. The crowds were of the kind one might expect from a Bollywood star. And yet Jenner will maintain – has always maintained – that “nobody has the kids’ best interests at heart like I do. I don’t want anything ever compromised – either one of my kids, or the brand”.
So, whatever Jenner announces next week, it’s likely to have been well planned. It will no doubt have that inimitable mix of the populist and the trashy that Jenner has basically made her own. True, she has made a career out of shamelessly revealing all to the cameras, to the point where the fact that Bruce Jenner – who she recently divorced – last year revealed herself as a transgendered Caitlyn barely seems surprising. But as the millions who wait for the next instalment in her unique family’s tale with great glee are testament, there are plenty of people still trying to keep up with the Kardashians.