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January 03, 2018

The Game Of Show and Tell: Understanding The Kardarshian Phenomenon

Text by Shefalee Vasudev. Illustration by Tanya Eden

The Kardashianisation of style is about fame, flamboyance and flaws propped up against existentialist realities. It is, perhaps, culturally unsuited to India where the deepest and most intimate revelations are still at a nascent stage

Lucrative as a performance art and entertaining as a spectator sport, the game of show and tell is symptomatic of our times. More so this year when privacy got royally damned. US President Donald Trump’s Twitter-trigger presidency, Lady Diana’s personal disillusionments turned into public chronicles to memorialise 20 years of her passing, the mythically ideal ex-couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt ‘breaking their silence’ on their marital split or Indian actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui having to withdraw his memoir An Ordinary Life within days of its release because he hadn’t considered seeking the consent of the women he had intimately described; these are different expressions of similar compulsions. Compulsions that have been polished to professional perfection by those whose name combos include Kardashian, Jenner and West.

The bevy of the cool-hot, attention seeking K girls — Kim, Kylie, Kendall, Khloe, Kourtney — who wear controversy like couture; their diversity-chasing parents, their babies, butts, boyfriends, brands, bodyguards and spouses have been living a very (weary?) public life for a while now. They have aced publicity stunts, amassing millions of social media followers with image magnetism and manipulation. According to Forbes, Kim Kardarshian alone makes 300,000 dollars per sponsored post on Instagram. Even three years after an erotically oiled Kim balancing a champagne goblet on her butt broke the internet with a Paper magazine cover that nominated the Desirable Derriere as a worthy peer of The Big Boob, the collective and individual lives of K Inc roll with roaring success. Out there for the world to like, loathe or lash out at.

This past year has seen a surge in their influence. Despite so many celebs, half-celebs and non-celebs making millions in the business of brashness, a bunch of Kardashians remained among those in top recall. Kylie as the youngest on the Forbes 2017 list of highest paid celebs, Kim there too at number 47 and for the launch of her new brand KKW Beauty, Kendall for her controversial Pepsi ad, Kanye for returning to the music stage this November after almost a year, Kris Jenner for signing another deal that will keep Keeping Up with The Kardashians on TV through 2019 and Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner for becoming a strong voice on LGBT rights.

‘Kardashian’ is officially the surname of only some of these breathlessly popular people. Its branding derived from the title of the reality TV show that the family stars and wars in. But it is a fat industry metaphor now. In promotional skills, ‘Kardashian’ stands for being starry and stand-offish, hardcore, gilded, strategically self-interested. Even embattled and emotional. Who would forget the crazy publicity of Kim as a victim of an armed robbery in Paris last year and husband Kanye West being hospitalised for exhaustion or Kendall tearing up while talking about her Pepsi ad — contextualised around Black Lives Matter — that drew a lot of flak.

In style, the Kardashians direct an entire fashion and beauty lookbook. If Kim sells the tan and the pout as her personal statement as well as the promise of her beauty brand, Kanye manages an unsmiling countenance as a rapper-designer. Kendall is a brand ambassador for Adidas and a Victoria’s Secret model. But besides their endorsements, the Kardashians have their own fashion politics. Boobs without bras in tiny crop tops, slinky bodycons, provocative lace corsets, sheer vests with nipples free to smirk or smile, leather minis with bralets, fishnet stockings, snakeskin boots, cage heels, latex, leather, lingerie, lunches at Nobu in LA, children in tutu frocks and net stockings, late nights in New York pubs. A pair of ripped jeans Kim wore this year was captioned The Most Ripped Jeans by Glamour magazine, while Kylie’s selfie on her bed in a black mesh bra and fluorescent nails this September got billed as the Sexiest Selfie by The Sun. Shortest LBD, wet hair, nude lips, tallest denim boots, all that is K fare. Kim K bleached her eyebrows blonde for the Met Gala last year — calling herself a ‘blingy sexy robot’ and this year for the Balmain show in Paris, she wore a crocheted dress by the brand without any underwear.

The Kardashians push this formula even if it means being anti-trend. Kim’s unabated exhibitionism of her curves, nude-ish pregnancy images and appearances without underwear defy the normative beauty ideal, edging it towards a frothing-at-the-mouth sensuality that sometimes raises ire. In 2015, Refinery29, the American digital media and entertainment company, received a petition asking it ‘not to post articles about the Kardashians’. The portal ran an article explaining the relevance of the K brand.

K Inc is also relevant because of its commercial value. If Kim makes millions by democratising make-up across humanity’s diverse colour card with her new beauty brand KKW, Kylie Cosmetics that is now headed towards becoming a billion-dollar brand is intimately marketed by its founder’s puckered pouts, raunchy selfies and orchestrated confessions like the one to her therapist about her lip plumping due to personal insecurity on Life of Kylie, her solo reality show on E!

Besides an authorship on how to wear big butts, big boots, big boobs, big brands and big boyfriends in uncanny pairings, the Kardashian reality show airs in more than 160 countries. Besides beauty, they also own fashion brands — Kanye’s label Yeezy for instance. They have been on covers of a dozen glossies, have front-row seats wherever it matters and a 200 million-dollar revenue-making app called Kim Kardarshian: Hollywood.

But even all that money doesn’t dilute their ironical existence. Their fame and flamboyance are flanked by flaws. Materially, physically, psychologically, financially and fashionably, the family represents almost every nerve and crack of what is called a modern (American) life.

Consider this: a black rapper (Kanye), a new generation supermodel (Kylie), an Olympian gold medalist who chose a sex-reassignment surgery (Bruce became Caitlyn), a weight loss book called Strong Looks Better Naked (by Khloe K), divorce (Kris and Caitlyn, as well as Khloe are divorced), diabetes (Rob Kardarshian), drugs (Khloe’s ex-husband and NBA player Lamar Odom was caught in a drug overdose), basketball (Kendall is reportedly dating Blake Griffin, an NBA player) and cute, unconventionally named babies (North and Saint West). Where do you find so many variables sandwiched between two slices of bread — one called Jenner and the other Kardashian?

Or, as the New York Times put it in a 2015 profile of Kris Jenner, the self-declared mommager and architect of the Kardarshian brand: ‘The Kardashian/Jenner megacomplex…has not just invaded the culture but metastasised into it’.

The Kardashianisation of style is ostensibly about appearances but it has its roots in oversharing and overexposing. A style culturally unsuited to India where body display as well as personal revelations (and Nawazuddin Siddiqui may agree) are still at a half-virgin stage. In society and on social media, voyeurism and exhibitionism raise eyebrows. With ready-to-wear hypocrisy being our top trend, candid confessionals get labelled and shoved into jarring ghettos like the Bigg Boss show.

On the other hand, with their irrepressible posturing in beauty, fashion and passion, the Kardashians make privacy and the sparkle of individual mystery that authors lasting glamour, seem pointless.

The spectator then must decide what he or she should applaud and who he or she should emulate.

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