We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
In a brief interview with Ellen DeGeneres that aired in October, Khloé Kardashian was the first member of her family to publicly comment on how Kim Kardashian West was holding up after five masked men broke into her Paris penthouse suite, tied her up, gagged her, and left her there, bound and silenced, before they fled the property with millions of dollars worth of her jewelry in the early hours of October 3. They stole her 20-carat diamond ring, a recent upgrade from the gargantuan, emerald-cut stone that Kanye West had presented to her on the night he proposed. They stole a small jewelry box, which contained a seven-figure tangle of precious metal. And they also stole the public likeness of Kim Kardashian West, who turned reality television fame and notoriety into a tech-driven empire based on her shrewd understanding of the economics of give-and-take.
Give a little — a coy selfie, a sound bite of baby Saint’s chuckle, snaps of North trying various Snapchat filters on for size, a not-so-casual snippet of a phone conversation between Kanye and Taylor Swift, an exclusive Kardashian-West family portrait for the cover of Vogue — and count the clicks, the likes, the views, the ever-widening reach. They’re valuable, those zeros and commas that inflate the number of followers flocking to her social media accounts. But they still don’t come close to the worth of the gold standard of Kim’s own economy, the currency for the empire she built: the two-dimensional rendering of her own face. We’ve got bills with Franklin on the front, but Kim’s face is what she trades on, a modus operandi that’s been adopted by every member of her famous family at large, along with BFFs/publicists, BFFs/stylists, and the second tier of adopted family members employed by the Kardashians to keep the machine in gear.
Khloé was talking about the traumatic impact the robbery had on her sister when Ellen pressed her for details, and the public coldly — and correctly — processed the ordeal as a professional impasse as well as a personal one. When those thieves violated the little privacy she has, Kim — the one who’s built this empire by broadcasting her life through Keeping Up With the Kardashians and her various social media channels — disappeared. Her sisters followed suit, but they've slowly crept back into the regularity of Snapchat posts, Instagram campaigns, Saint Pablo tour stops, and public appearances with their respective significant others; they’ve all got businesses to run, after all. Kendall Jenner was the only one who made a conscious effort to temporarily step away from social media, deleting her Instagram account for a week.
Kim has been photographed since her Parisian nightmare, but her face remains protected: her eyes covered by sunglasses, her body swathed in oversized cotton, her presence absent from Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, her own app, and elsewhere. The fake lashes, trademark contour, and lacquered lips are gone. The only exception to this rule came on Halloween, when Kim dusted off an old Princess Jasmine costume and posed for photos with her family. Filming for KUWTK halted and then resumed at the end of October. In the wake of the incident, a number of outlets and insiders scolded, blamed, or framed Kim for bringing this upon herself, as “her decision to seek more discreet lodging away from the spotlight seems to have come back to bite her” and “she loved flaunting her wealth.” Even Karl Lagerfeld, a family friend and champion of Kendall’s, tut-tutted the role oversharing played in the incident: “You cannot display your wealth and then be surprised that some people want to share it with you.” (She went after those who printed that she “faked” the robbery on the grounds of libel and promptly settled before the close of the month.)
People pointed out that her withdrawal from public life is drastically affecting her livelihood, and consulted experts who were quick to note that she stands to make a fortune on her return to posting if she “positions [it] correctly.” Chrissy Teigen got caught up in the churn of a Twitterstorm when she spoke up for her friend and voiced disgust at the chortles bubbling up in her feed at Kim’s expense: “Fame is interesting. Celebs are supposed to love you guys while also knowing you’d make a meme of our dead bodies to get retweets.” (In the days following this post, Teigen temporarily set her Twitter to private.)
For a 60 Minutes interview with Kim that was taped before the robbery, the topic of privacy came up, as did her ability to manage her tenuous relationship with it: “There are pitfalls — lack of privacy, loss of privacy — and that’s not for everyone. For me, I can handle it. … I totally attribute my career to social media.” When asked if she’s managed to monetize the act of living, she’s modest, and shrugs. “I guess so.”
That’s exactly right, if we’re going by the give-and-take mechanics by which Kim and the Kardashian family at large operate, and the profits don’t lie. But Kim Kardashian isn’t “doing that well,” and the traumatic event she survived is being eclipsed by the dissection of its aftermath. It has less to do with hating Kim and the celebrity she’s created, and more to do with the hyperspecific and peculiar species of celebrity worship spawned by a popularity even the best, most seasoned publicity and management team couldn’t control.
She may give plenty away on social media, but we’ve taken plenty away from her, too — and this started long before she flashed a diamond the size of a glacier cap on Instagram.
The selection of candy, batteries, and other sundries that flank the checkout line at the grocery store may change, but the faces on the magazines that stare up at you from the shelves haven’t in nearly a decade. With the rising popularity of KUWTK, Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and a revolving roster of parents, siblings, lovers, and haters have taken up prime real estate on the cover of your tabloid of choice. Weddings, divorces, plastic surgeries, transitions, pregnancies, the births of their children, the identity of their fathers: The most personal milestones a person can hit have been spun and rescrewed time and time again to keep the family the most visible in the United States.
For years, this is where the Kardashians comfortably perched: The covers of In Touch Weekly, Us Weekly, People, Life & Style, and other tabloids were the appropriate print foils for reality TV, the cultural equivalent to the candy bars you impulse-purchase right next to those mags on the way out the door. When members of the family started to break out of the confines of KUWTK’s plot lines through high-profile relationships (à la the Kardashian-West marriage) or noteworthy accomplishments (Kendall’s modeling career; Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics enterprise), the most valuable social clout came not from their own accomplishments, but from the associations and endorsements of established cultural figures that elevated them by proxy. If Lagerfeld can book Kendall repeatedly for Chanel’s industry-shifting presentations, the rest of the world can trust that an authority on his level wouldn’t be wasting his time, money, or reputation on a kid who landed a career in reality TV before she got her learner’s permit. For Harper’s Bazaar, Kendall and Lagerfeld exchanged pleasantries while interviewing each other about their professional relationship and the friendship it fostered. “There was a good feeling coming from her,” he replied when asked about his first impression of the young model (whom he didn’t watch on KUWTK, as he notes earlier on in the conversation). “And I don't see that with everybody! There is something very warm, human, and sweet about her. ... And she is on the way to becoming [an icon].”
The tone in these stories has shifted, and with it came the weird tendency to acknowledge and defend the act of keeping up with Keeping Up With the Kardashians: The more famous they became, the more OK it became to admit that we were interested — that we cared about them, even. Kim covered Complex and Playboy the year that KUWTK hit the small screen and a steady flow of cover stories followed, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the newsstand reached peak Kar-saturation. This is best demonstrated by the November 2015 issue of Cosmopolitan, which featured matriarch Kris Jenner surrounded by her beautiful daughters, all dressed down in minimal makeup and crisp white oxford shirts under the bubblegum pink title of the magazine. In that year, Khloé was the sultry image of body positivity and personal growth on the cover of Complex; Kylie covered Interview as a latex-clad, emotionless mannequin in the vein of high art; Kourtney was picture-perfect as the single mom with a designer’s flair for the decorative on the cover of Architectural Digest; and Caitlyn Jenner — who had been previously living as Bruce, the decorated Olympian triathlete and father and stepfather to the Kardashian brood — transitioned, and did so by announcing the major life change with a revealing profile and glamorous, Annie Leibovitz–shot spread for Vanity Fair.
It was a drastic shift from 2012, when the Kardashians were reportedly banned from Anna Wintour’s Met Gala. Kim’s romance with Kanye and the start of their family landed them the cover of Wintour’s Vogue by April 2014, a move that signaled the Kardashian ability to socially climb the headlines, as even Wintour couldn’t deny the cultural thirst that demanded their placement. Kendall’s burgeoning modeling career netted her prime cover placement on her own, from the first proper profile on her for GQ’s April 2015 issue right on up to Vogue’s coveted September spread. But the justification for her success relied, again, on the say-so from seemingly legitimate voices in that GQ feature: “There was a moment, not too long ago, when Kendall’s modeling aspirations seemed like maybe just another reality-TV plot device, a story line as ephemeral as the episode about Kris’s inconveniently tiny bladder or the time Kim became a private eye. But then Kendall went and built an actual career — one at which she is considered genuinely gifted by those who would know.”
This upgrade in focus — from a lowbrow lens to a highbrow one — did two things: It not only deemed it socially acceptable to read up on and follow the lives of the Kardashians, it rendered them human. The consuming, sharing, and liking public started to treat them as celebrities instead of characters plucked from the non-reality of reality television. Paragraphs were suddenly spent justifying their presence on the page: Khloé’s slimming down wasn’t just about shedding sizes but self-empowerment and reclaiming her identity following the dissolution of her marriage; Kendall’s talent received its due spotlight; and Kylie’s efforts as a beauty entrepreneur weren’t written off as the superficial endeavors of a rich kid with free time on her hands. Kim, in particular, saw fewer mentions of the sex tape brashly brought up in the early days of her career (it hits in the second paragraph of this 2010 Los Angeles Times feature) and more of her business acumen, preternatural understanding of social media trends and behaviors, and ability to build on both. She’s still covering GQ — and naked, too — but she’s earned her place on the cover of Forbes as well; the very real gains and clamor for all things Kardashian is hardly a laughing matter. As Kim said herself when the Forbes cover dropped, “Not bad for a girl with no talent.”
Accolades and accomplishments aside, these features in the last year, especially, pay close attention to the darker complications of fame, be they remarks made in Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair profile about her marital woes (that were so upsetting to her children and stepchildren that Khloé’s anguish soaked up a good few episodes of KUWTK), Kim tearing down Taylor Swift to defend Kanye’s #Famousgate in GQ, or the image of a panicked and shaking Kendall trying to calm her nerves after a mob swarmed her on the streets of Paris. They also demonstrate the precarious transaction that takes place in every one of these situations in regards to the Kardashians' privacy and how much of it they sacrifice in the pursuit of success.
Through it all, the members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan have lived alongside and in spite of their plot lines, taking the social media shit storms in stride, addressing haters when they feel compelled to do so (as Kendall recently did when she was criticized for her ballerina-themed Vogue spread), and staying post-happy and present as their digital lives provide the livelihood for their IRL ones. But the script changed, as it always has, with Kim, and the family uncharacteristically stumbled over how to comment and when on the matter: Khloé’s uncomfortable Ellen interview was one thing, but Kourtney followed that up with an even more stilted chat that dodged questions about Kim’s recovery, opting for technical difficulties instead of answers.
Now, two months after Paris, Kim’s social accounts remain stuck on Fashion Week, where her biggest inconveniences came in jabs at her wardrobe that seemed to jack Rihanna’s style. Her website was updated by her brother, Rob, who shared snapshots from the Kardashian-West family’s Halloween: North is apparently in the middle of a Princess Jasmine phase, and photos of Kim and her daughter’s matching costumes flooded thousands of Instagram feeds, save her own. Kanye went back on the road for his Saint Pablo tour, but not for long: The remaining dates, which were scheduled to have West wrapping up his year and his road time in Brooklyn on December 31, were canceled following performances that had West ranting about everyone from Donald Trump to Beyoncé, voicing worries for his own safety, and ending the shows abruptly or early in a couple of instances; he was placed under psychiatric observation on November 21. North makes brief cameos on the Snapchats of her aunts, Saint just celebrated his first birthday, and Kim’s siblings attend to their growing families, their business ventures, their budding romances. The world may have warmed up to the practice of KUWTK and justifying the affection felt for the lives they live in public, but Kim’s robbery is a reminder that the face we’ve seen photographed a million times belongs to a breathing human, one we’ve watched, mocked, adored, abhorred, clicked on, followed, downloaded, and checked in on multiple times a day.
So, how is Kim doing? She is hiding, at times in plain sight. She is missing, as every public version of herself — the celebrity, the entrepreneur, the cast member, the producer, the spokesperson, the client, the muse — has fled the flashbulbs, the hoisted cell phones, and the rolling cameras. She is losing money, as living — this act she’s so successfully capitalized on — needs to be done in public and online for the cash to come in. She is healing, presumably, as what happened in Paris is the stuff of nightmares, a horror-show scenario that taps into human fears immune to the spotlight, and the “pitfalls” became adversaries instead of inconveniences. She is in recovery mode, as are her closest kin in varying degrees.
But if there’s anything Kim has proven, it’s that she doesn’t have to be doing well by anyone else’s metric but her own. She is not beholden to the weight of tabloid fury or the pressures of the many industries that follow her lead, but to her own standards. When Kim is ready to return, she won’t be the woman we knew before Paris, but a new Kim entirely, as she’s lived out the cautionary tale of a selfie-snapping generation while they watched with bated breath.
So, no, she’s not doing that well. But she can handle it.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.