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The 2010s: The Influence Of The Kardashians

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're ending a celebrity decade. From "Real Housewives" to viral moments to electing a celebrity president, the 2010s have been propelled by reality-star power. And no one exemplifies that more than Kim, Kourtney, Kylie, Khloe, Kendall and Kris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA WALTERS: You don't really act. You don't sing. You don't dance. You don't have any - forgive me...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Talents.

WALTERS: ...Any talent.

KHLOE KARDASHIAN: But we're still entertaining people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KRIS JENNER: Kim, would you stop taking pictures of yourself? Your sister's going to jail.

KARDASHIAN: Do you know how to do your own laundry?

KYLIE JENNER: No.

KARDASHIAN: What?

KIM KARDASHIAN: Kylie...

KARDASHIAN: Mom used to...

KARDASHIAN: No, seriously...

Kanye and I shot the cover of Vogue.

FADEL: The Kardashians, of course. And don't think I can't hear you groaning. Just stick with us as we welcome Zan Romanoff. She's just written The Decade the Kardashians Took Over Everything for BuzzFeed. Hi, Zan.

ZAN ROMANOFF: Hi.

FADEL: So you've watched this family go from cable reality TV to being a conglomerate all birthed from a sex tape. What explains that? How did they do that?

ROMANOFF: Yeah. So they did two really interesting things. The Kardashians, like you said, started out in reality TV. And then, very smartly, they transitioned into social media. So they looked at their following. And they sort of thought, let's be on Twitter, be on Instagram, be on Snapchat, be creating our own apps so that our audience is directly connecting to us. And, like, we got to sell them whatever we want as opposed to having to use a middleman.

You know, at this point, if Kim Kardashian leaves Instagram, it's a much bigger deal for Instagram than it is for Kim Kardashian.

FADEL: Wow.

ROMANOFF: But then also, right around 2012, when Kim started dating Kanye West, he introduced her to Carine Roitfeld, who put her on the cover of, you know, magazines and Chanel. And so we got to watch them really close up going from being relatively regular people to being D-list stars to being, like, A-list stars. So it's been a really fascinating transition, I think.

FADEL: There's a lot of people who react to them viscerally. It's a family that a lot of people love to hate. What gets that visceral reaction?

ROMANOFF: You know, I think the Kardashians are a combination of a lot of things that we in American culture have not figured out how to metabolize very well yet. So they are a very female family. Kris Jenner is the matriarch. They're comprised mostly of sisters. They are very unapologetically sexual. They are very unapologetically ambitious and successful also, right? So there is this sort of collision of all these things that we are having these flashpoint conversations about in American culture - are all combined in this one family.

FADEL: You know, the Kardashians shifted the beauty standards - curvier women, women with maybe darker skin - but they've also been criticized a lot for cultural appropriation, for racial insensitivity. I'm thinking about Kim's shapewear line, which was originally called Kimono. And then just recently, she was featured on a magazine cover where her skin was darkened by makeup, and some people were saying it was a form of blackface. But it almost feels like that doesn't really get in the way or maybe is part of why they get more and more famous.

ROMANOFF: Yeah. And it's not the first time that Kim's been accused of wearing blackface. When KKW Beauty was launched a couple of years ago, they also had a photoshoot where she was very tan, was wearing dark makeup, and there was an uproar over that. And how do you identify their race is sort of arguable. But the three older sisters - Kim, Khloe and Kourtney - are half Armenian. There's a lot of debate about what that means in terms of race. Kendall and Kylie are both white. And then many of them have either married or had children with black men, so they have biracial children.

So there's a lot of really interesting stuff around race going on in that family. And I think they, again, kind of sit at the flashpoint of our conversation around race in this culture, like what is and is not appropriate? What do we want to allow each other to do? What kind of conversations do we want to have? And I think they tend to fall in the more controversial side of that line, I would say. But it is true that they are very smart about knowing when it's going to be too big of a deal and saying, oh, my God. I'm so sorry. I never intended to do this and then waiting six months before doing it again (laughter).

FADEL: Well, speaking of national conversations, another really big conversation this decade came out of that Kardashian-Jenner family when Caitlyn Jenner transitioned to a woman in 2015.

ROMANOFF: Yeah. People who would otherwise maybe not have gone out in search of, you know, what is trans mean were aware of this because they're aware of Caitlyn Jenner. And then also she presented a really different kind of trans person than a lot of the people who we had seen before, right? So we got to ask questions about, what does it mean for a trans person to be wealthy, to be conservative, to be in certain senses very radical and then in certain senses very not radical?

FADEL: Right. The Kardashians, you know, they're synonymous with reality TV, with the online influencers of today. They led a cultural shift that some celebrate and others really worry has taken us to a place where celebrity is king. I've heard people say Donald Trump can thank the Kardashians for being president. What do you make of that?

ROMANOFF: That's interesting. I tend to think that the Kardashians did not create a culture in which we worship celebrity. We live in a culture that worships celebrity, and we have for a really long time. You know, the way that they inhabit celebrity, they do whatever they want. And I think that they have shown us that a certain amount of blunt force will get you just as far in culture as we used to imagine these sort of, like, carefully crafted narratives would.

I think people love to talk about the Kardashians as if they're these apocalyptic harbingers of, like, the end of our culture. And there are moments when I see that, you know? There's - I spend a lot of time professionally following their careers. And there are moments when I think, oh, my God. I can't believe this is what I'm doing. This is horrible. I've got to get out of here. This is just, you know, nothing, and it's shallow.

And then there are these moments - you know, Kim's work on criminal justice reform, like, has lasting impact. So, you know, I think they are a juggernaut. And, you know, they're a force in the world. And that force has a lot of good consequences and a lot of bad consequences. But I'm always hesitant to say - either to diagnose a problem in American culture, like, and put it on Kim Kardashian's back. I think that's a little - that, to me, is a little bit where we get into sort of like, wow, it's this one woman's fault (laughter).

FADEL: It's a lot for one person to carry.

ROMANOFF: Yeah. I mean, even if you put it on all 10 of them.

FADEL: Well, this family will likely be around for the next 10 years, too. That's Zan Romanoff, a freelance writer and self-proclaimed Kardashian expert. Thank you so much.

ROMANOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.