The first time someone filmed the inside of Kim Kardashian’s bedroom was many years before Keeping Up With the Kardashians began broadcasting in 2007.
It wasn’t during her leaked sex tape with Ray J either – that was filmed in a hotel room. Nor was it anything to do with the paparazzi that followed her and Paris Hilton around in the early noughties. Rather, it was in 1996 when her father Robert Kardashian gave an interview about his best friend and suspected murderer O.J. Simpson to veteran American television journalist Barbara Walters.
In the clip he sits on the grey patchwork quilt of Kim’s four-poster bed, Simpson’s defence attorney’s bushy eyebrows furrowing with concern as he describes how the NFL player contemplated suicide after being charged with the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
“O.J. was sitting right where you are, Barbara, and as I walked in I saw wrapped in a towel, a gun. I said: ‘O.J., my daughter could never sleep in this bed. She’d know what happened here.’”
This was the first time the public leered into the private life of the future figurehead of the Kardashian matriarchy. Years later, Robert’s former wife Kris Jenner was able to use the notoriety the couple garnered during O.J.’s trial to secure a contract with E! to make a reality show documenting the personal lives of her family. The former air hostess promised producer Ryan Seacrest: “We will be vulnerable at all points of impact, no matter what presents itself.”
Thirteen-and-a-half years on, we know everything about the Kardashians, all the way from how Kourtney herself pulled her first child Mason out of her birth canal, to their favourite way to eat Nilla Wafers. Perhaps they taught themselves how to share things with people. Perhaps they knew how to do it from a young age. Together the Kardashian brood and their offshoots and hangers-on have a collective Instagram following of 905.6 million.
Before Keeping Up with the Kardashians launched on 14th October 2007, there was reality TV but it was – subtle but crucial difference – scripted reality. In The Simple Life, Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton played characters who were almost entirely manufactured versions of themselves. The famous line where Paris asks some farmers “what’s Walmart?” was premeditated, and her natural voice was several notes lower than the one she used during filming. Meanwhile, MTV’s The Hills had much more fakery in it than Heidi’s boobs, fabricating entire relationships including the idea that Audrina and Justin Bobby were ever official.
But KUWTK was different. Literal minutes into the first episode, Kim addressed her sex tape scandal by joking that she was “horny and felt like it”. Over the next 20 seasons and 210 episodes, we saw everything.
Khloé on the way to prison in a Juicy tracksuit after breaking probation for drunk driving.
Kim hitting Khloé with a purse after an argument over a Bentley.
Scott getting so drunk in Vegas he stuffed a $100 bill in a waiter’s mouth.
Kim pranking Kourtney by stealing naked photos of her.
Kim calling the FBI after the purse containing said photos was stolen, meaning whoever found them could leak them online. Kourtney was also underage in the images.
Kylie with two make-up artists at work on her face while she messaged a pregnant Khloé to let her know there was a video circulating online of her husband Tristan Thompson kissing someone at a bar.
And so much more.
Granted some of the show was set up – when there was no drama they invented it. See: Kris getting annoyed at whoever hired their hot blonde – but essentially useless – babe of a housekeeper Brandy; Scott ringing Kris all day pretending to be her ex-boyfriend. But for the most part, it was just their family, living and fucking up and making up, all packaged into addictive hour-long segments.
I mean, what more could they possibly show us? Kim even carried out an x‑ray of her butt to convince everyone she’d not had silicone implants.
Sometimes, though, it did feel as though they were following a script. Think how pre-rehearsed it sounded when Kim announced: “I’m kind of shocked I’m getting a fashion award when I’m naked most of the time.” Or that time when Scott said: “You know, they used to call me a social butterfly and I think I’m flying again.”
But this wasn’t because some TV exec was feeding them lines. Rather, it was because the Kardashians were so used to being recorded that they naturally spoke in quotable soundbites.
Think of how many screens are permanently pointing at them.
Their phone as they take selfies, in the background of their sister’s Instagram story as she records the chicken and kale salad she’s eating for lunch. A whole TV crew. A flashing camera as they pose for a magazine. Another photographer videoing for a behind-the-scenes YouTube video of the shoot.
They are always on everything, except Snapchat because as Kylie said it’s “sooo over”. They don’t have a public and private self, they only have a public self that they also use in private. The Kardashians act as though someone is always watching, partly because they always are.
It’s a big sacrifice to let go of your private self. To become less a human, more a cyborg permanently living through facial enhancing filters. But the Kardashians were so Z‑List in the beginning, Kris had to give Seacrest an explanation as to why E! should make a show about them and not one of the other hundreds of other wealthy families living in Calabasas.
Contrary to popular opinion, they weren’t “famous for no reason”, they just had to invent a reason for people to make them famous. Willingness to bare it all was what they chose. Critics from the time didn’t like it. The New York Times said: “The Kardashian show is not about an eccentric family living conventionally; it is purely about some desperate women climbing to the margins of fame, and that feels a lot creepier.”
It didn’t matter because the public loved it. The first episode drew in 2.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched show on the E! network since 2002. And at its peak, 10.5 million people tuned in over two episodes in October 2011 to watch Kim ugly cry over her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries.
Sharing everything on TV is normal now. On Geordie Shore, you can watch Nathan Henry insert Chloe’s curling tong into his ass. Just last week Megan Markle and no-longer-prince Harry went on TV to tell us how they were silen-CED by the royal family. It shocks us, but only slightly, because the Kardashians laid down the blueprint.
Now we all share this much of ourselves online, uploading onto Instagram a catheter in our arms as we lie in a hospital bed, filming ourselves waking up in a tent at a festival. All of us starring in our own little reality series, albeit one that only about 500 people follow.
To the end, Kris Jenner remained faithful to her promise to share everything, with the last few seasons proving to be more exposing than ever before. But the same drama that made the show so entertaining is exactly what’s tearing it apart.
After Kourtney and Scott broke up, she started seeing a therapist who asked her to reconsider how much of her life she offered up for sale. In series 18 she missed the family’s yearly Christmas card shoot. In response, Kim, knowing Kourtney was in hearing distance, said: “I need Kourtney to not be so fucking annoying with the fucking stick up her ass like she runs this shit, because she doesn’t. She’s the least exciting to look at.”
Later, Khloé called Kourtney and put her on speakerphone, her anger crackling out of the phone screen: “I’m not here to be fucking mistreated by my fucking bitch family!” she screamed. “Kim saying I’m the least interesting to look at? Who even speaks like that?
“We have a disgusting family,” she continued, her eyes bulging out of her face in shock. “I’m ashamed to even be a part of people like that.”
The conflict that forms the narrative is no longer babies or divorces but the dismantling of the show itself, the drama-mega-machine cannibalising itself from the inside. It looks as though Kim’s divorce from Kanye West seems set to be a big theme in the final season. In teaser clips she can be seen sobbing off her contour in a beige leotard, screaming: “I feel like a fucking loooser.”
Kris also sheds tears, not for the end of Kimye but for their reality TV contract, or what the family once nicknamed their “mothership”. She turns to the crew and tells them: “We won’t be going forward with filming the show anymore.” Cut to Kim in front of a rose pink background, pulling off her mic from under her long, glossy extensions for the final time.
The Kardashians have broken the fourth wall to show the reality not just of their lives, but of their lives being filmed. It’s like at the end of The Hills, when the director yelled “cut!” and the Hollywood sign came down to reveal a staged set. Except this time there’s no set, it’s just people’s lives.
I’m sure E! is already casting for another hot family of a rich film director or plastic surgeon, looking to extend their 15 minutes of fame. I’m less sure they’ll find one willing to give quite so much as the Kardashians did. And for that, the world thanks them for their service.
Because, to paraphrase Kim, they came with a lot of baggage. But it’s like Louis Vuitton baggage – you always want it.
Keeping Up With The Kardashians is available to stream and download on hayu