When the first season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUTWK) premiered on television back in 2007, the semi-scripted reality show which turned dramatic domestic squabbles into breathless entertainment followed one relatively unknown family: the Kardashian-Jenner clan.
Over a decade and 19 seasons later, that show has now become a 21st century pop-culture artefact. Today, the Kardashian-Jenner clan isn’t made up of family members as much as it is made up of impossibly lucrative brands. The household at the heart of the show has transformed, breathlessly multiplied to form several smaller families – each rivaling the other’s influence – appearing at times closer than they actually are. It goes without saying that in the last decade, the Kardashian-Jenners have heralded a new standard for global fame birthed out of reality TV, one that permeated and influenced every fabric of society. In the same way, it is impossible to think about the landscape of modern reality TV without acknowledging all that it owes KUTWK. Or envision a future without countless seasons of the show – except we might just have to.
Last week, a couple of days before the upcoming premiere of Season 19 of KUTWK, Kim Kardashian West, arguably the most famous member of the Kardashian family, also married to the most ridiculous musician of our generation, announced that the reality show would come to an end after its 20th and final season next year. The news comes neither as a shock nor a surprise solely because it wasn’t entirely unexpected: the three older sisters have been on uncooperative terms for the last few years, considerably reducing the time that they individually committed to the show. Over the years, amid personal controversy and tragedy, they’ve also displayed a visible hesitation in auctioning off facets of their privacy to temper public discourse.
It came to a terrifying head in the show’s last season when Kourtney, the eldest of the Kardashian sisters, and Kim got into a charged physical altercation with each other after the latter brought her work-ethic into question. Then on 3 April, as the pandemic raged across the world forcing an entire population to retreat back indoors, Kourtney announced her decision to stop filming the show once and for all. Despite what must have been incredibly persuasive efforts on the part of “momager” Kris Jenner – potentially the most ruthless and brilliant business manager of our times – the curtain call for KUTWK, one could say, has always been in the offing.
And yet, this past week the news has been widely dissected in a manner that can only ascertain that it still comes as both a shock and a surprise. It’s true that KUTWK isn’t the first show in the history of TV to have decided to halt its run – shows end all the time. But at this point, it seems almost reductive to label KUTWK a show given that it didn’t feel filmed but instead, like an extension of life itself. Unlike other reality shows at the time, in particular, hotel heiress Paris Hilton’s A Simple Life (Kim Kardashian’s first TV appearance was as a guest on the show), KUWTK showed that celebrityhood didn’t depend on the fame one was born with but instead, on their propensity to cultivate and sustain it. That is to say, KUWTK offered a whole new understanding of fame, one that was attainable and out of reach at the same time.
In a recent Guardian essay, writer Hadley Freeman described the Kardashian-Jenners as “capitalism in human form, utterly meaningless except for the meaning onlookers place on them.” It’s probably the most accurate ways of situating how the family became a phenomenon, by utilising KUWTK to not just build their influence but more importantly, monetising it into wildly successful, billionaire status-inducing business ventures. KUTWK then, doesn’t just exist in a vacuum as other reality shows often do. Instead, it exists in conjunction with their identities, an advertisement for their media empire. Together, the Kardashian sisters along with Kendall and Kylie Jenner, their two high-profile step-sisters, have made inroads into merchandising every aspect of consumerism possible: think doomed music festivals, widely anticipated makeup and clothing lines, sneaker deals, designer handbags, cosmetic surgery, and even, body positivity. Never in the history of reality TV has there been a show where its participants have been the advertisers as well as the product.
It’s perhaps why a KUWTK-free reality TV universe seems really unfeasible to envision because this was the show that set the rules for the genre in the first place, legitimising it in the process and revealing to us the extent of our collective depravity. Every reality show spawned in the years since has been informed directly or indirectly by the existence, success, and the persistence of KUWTK. The cultural reverberations of the show is evidenced in the fact that before 2007, the idea of monetising a society’s voyeurism as a means of entertainment would have seemed unimaginable. Today, our TV consumption has come to a point where we seem to know no other way besides being clued-in onto the lives of others, whether it is in knowing if they believe in love being blind or in Indian Matchmaking.