The family was gathered in a hospital delivery room waiting for Khloé Kardashian to give birth, mere days after a video surfaced online that showed Khloé’s boyfriend, Cleveland Cavaliers NBA star Tristan Thompson, making out with another woman.
At one point, Kim stood behind Thompson’s back and dragged her finger across her throat in the universal gesture for “I’ll kill him,” and then laughed and stuck out her tongue. When he turned around, Kim quickly stopped making faces. “Are you going to say hi to each other, or no?” asked Khloé, who had decided to temporarily ignore the turmoil while in labor. Kim faked a smile and the two hugged. After Khloé delivered their daughter, Thompson waxed poetic. “They say girls change your life,” he mused. Kourtney Kardashian smirked and exchanged a knowing look with her sisters: “We can only pray.”
That scene on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” captures so much about what both infuriates and delights people about the E! reality series that recently kicked off its 20th and final season. The Kardashians may flaunt their privilege (they took private jets to the hospital) and revel in fame (Thompson’s cheating scandal ignited the Internet), but they never escape the dynamics of fierce sibling loyalty and awkward family situations. Behind the outrageous wealth and cameras that follow them everywhere, they remain just that — a family.
“They’re so good at overcoming hardships, which is inspiring to people who are going through hardships in their own lives,” said Farnaz Farjam, an executive producer who has worked on the series since the Season 1 premiere in 2007. “Sharing the fact that you were cheated on, that’s embarrassing for people. … But then someone who has been cheated on watching [the show] at home can say, ‘Oh, it also happened to Khloé Kardashian? So I’m not a loser.’ ”
“Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” depending on whom you ask, is either aspirational, the height of escapism or the downfall of society. But no matter how you feel, its final episodes this spring mark the end of an era for reality television. The show proved that to enrapture an audience, there is power in sharing absolutely everything: relationships, fights, births, deaths, weddings, mental illness, body image issues, divorces, battles with substance abuse, criminal proceedings, filming an internationally mocked Pepsi commercial.
The series is also the end of an era for the Kardashians themselves — Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, half-sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and mother and manager Kris Jenner — who transformed from Southern California socialites to moguls who helped pioneer a cottage industry of social media influencers. Through the years, the cast included Kris’s ex, Caitlyn Jenner, who chronicled her journey as a transgender woman in one of the show’s many spinoffs, and Rob Kardashian, whose mental health struggles also became a plotline.
“People would be naive not to pay attention to this show. It was Shakespearean,” said Ryan Bailey, host of the reality TV podcast “So Bad It’s Good.” Business mastermind Kris Jenner, he noted, “at times sacrificed her family’s well-being and family’s sanity. But in doing so, she built an empire.”
That empire now dominates in the form of billion-dollar-valued companies, such as Kylie Cosmetics and Kim’s KKW beauty brands. And Kendall’s career as a supermodel for high-end designers. And the multiple fashion lines, apps and lifestyle websites. And the rabid interest in the entire photogenic brood’s lives, broadcast to their 900 million collective Instagram followers, and as seen in a host of glossy magazines and tabloid sites. (See: The Internet-breaking news in January that Kim and her superstar husband, Kanye West, planned to file for divorce.)
And yet, the most critical chapter in their dynasty — the one that launched them into the stratosphere — is winding down. How did they get to this level and manage to stay there? What does the future hold? And what does the end of “Kardashians” mean if they never really go away?
Some celebrities try to avoid scandals. To the Kardashians, they’re like oxygen. It seems like the moment one ends, another surfaces and ensures their names stay in the news.
Controversy was attached to the Kardashian name long before their current ubiquity: Kris’s ex-husband, the late Robert Kardashian, was one of O.J. Simpson’s close friends and attorneys during his murder trial in 1995. In the early 2000s, Kim rose to fame after a sex tape with her boyfriend at the time, R&B star Ray J, was released on the Internet. Both situations convinced TV producers this crew could carry the drama necessary for a reality show.
They have remained in the spotlight ever since, with the drama spilling over from “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” into headlines following the family that keeps multiplying with partners and children. No matter the situation, no backlash has ever been enough to bring them down. From the dubious Kardashian Kard (a credit card that the Connecticut attorney general said marketed “a dangerous financial fantasy”) to Kim shilling for “appetite suppressant” lollipops to multimillionaire Kylie asking her fans to donate to a makeup artist’s GoFundMe for medical bills, the list of outrages is long and consistent.
“Scandal has always been a part of them — getting written about in the press and getting attention is what matters,” said Erin A. Meyers, an Oakland University professor and author of “Extraordinarily Ordinary: Us Weekly and the Rise of Reality Television Celebrity.” “We expect controversy to be part of their image … their constant presence means there always has to be something new.”
They have also managed to sidestep issues that could bring down any other celebrity, including a well-documented past of cultural appropriation. Writer Sylvia Obell vividly remembers the extreme reaction to her viral 2016 piece for BuzzFeed about the rise of reality TV star Blac Chyna — and chronicled how satisfying it was to watch a Black woman upend the Kardashians’ carefully controlled narrative after she started dating Rob and announced she was pregnant with his baby. It was also a searing analysis of the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty and how the sisters were often praised as trendsetters any time they ripped off Black culture: wearing their hair in cornrows and calling them “boxer braids,” enhancing their lips, showcasing their famous backsides. They also had a reputation for “stealing” Black men who were already dating other women.
“I saw a lot of Black women on my timeline who were very excited about Blac Chyna being pregnant by Rob Kardashian, but not really understanding why,” said Obell, co-host of the “Okay, Now Listen” podcast. “I knew why: Because it had been so long built-up, feeling robbed of our culture by these women who built their success on the backs and literal butts of Black women.” (Chyna has ongoing lawsuits pending against several members of the family, including for defamation and interference with prospective earnings over her spinoff’s cancellation.)
The Kardashians rarely address these frequent critiques head-on, though Kim has made a publicized push toward criminal justice reform in her current quest to become a lawyer, citing the responsibilities of raising four Black children. “I never knew much about the system until I started to dig in,” she told CR Fashion Book in an interview last year. “Once I learned and saw how many things were wrong, I really couldn’t stop.”
But the criticism remains a part of the Kardashian legacy, particularly among the younger generation. Isabel Molina-Guzmán, a professor of Latina/Latino studies at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the family is typically the first pop culture example students in her classes bring up when they discuss cultural appropriation.
“Blackness and Black aesthetics have been identified as cool and hip, even as Black people have been discriminated against. My students really responded to Kim’s cornrows as another example of that,” Molina-Guzman said. “They were ubiquitous — and you can’t avoid the Kardashians.”
Much of the critique aimed at the Kardashians over the years has been valid. Some has also been misogynistic, which is no surprise given that their show centered on women who talked candidly about their relationships, children, bodies and sex lives. A common complaint was that the sisters were just “famous for being famous” and didn’t actually do anything.
However, if you share those feelings with anyone born between the years 1996 and 2012 — known as Gen Z — that would just make you sound … well, really old. While they may not have the same attachment to the Kardashian family as millennials who grew up watching the show, many in Gen Z respect the family’s business savvy.
“For people who are younger, they see the Kardashians as social media stars,” said Brittany Hennessy, author of “Influencer: Building Your Brand in the Age of Social Media.” As opposed to dismissing them as drama-filled reality TV personalities, they recognize them as moguls who own lucrative fashion and beauty companies. “They just have a completely different reference point to what the Kardashian family actually contributes to society.”
Maddie Bregman, the 22-year-old founder of youth marketing firm GirlZ, agreed. Although she knows a couple of friends who are “obsessed” with the Kardashians, most of her peers treat the family with indifference, or occasional mild interest if they’re in the headlines.
“I would say Kim is interesting just because of who she is and what she’s going through with Kanye right now. And Kanye West is one of the most relevant people for this generation as well — Kanye and Kylie Jenner,” Bregman explained. “So sort of by default, a lot of people are paying attention to Kim.”
“From a purely business perspective, I think they’re awesome,” she continued. “Personally, I don’t really care that much about them. Which I think is not necessarily unique to me and them, but a generational thing with celebrities where we feel way more of a connection with the influencer kind of people who are posting on TikTok and becoming famous off of YouTube.”
These days, TikTok parodies of the Kardashians can garner even more interest than videos about the real-life family. Yuri Godinez, also known as TikTok influencer @yurilamasbella, plays the roles of Kim and Kourtney to an unnervingly accurate degree in several Kardashian parodies, which rack up a huge number of views.
“It’s a pretty comical show to me,” Godinez said. Her TikToks poke fun at Kardashian tropes that fans easily recognize: the endless shaking of salads, long pauses while Kim is distracted by her iPhone, “arguments” over things that would not matter to anyone but the supremely privileged. “I feel like they’re just so disconnected from actual reality now.”
And while some TikTok users may not get the jokes, they can still appreciate the Kardashians’ overall impact. “In my generation’s eyes, they’re iconic cultural shapers,” said Connor Blakley, a 21-year-old entrepreneur. “Kris Jenner is a genius.”
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story echoed a variation of the line you can see any given day floating around social media: “The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder.”
Jenner, the matriarch, is credited as the architect behind her children’s successes — the one who engineered the reality show deal with executive producer Ryan Seacrest in the first place and launched her kids on paths so successful they would far outpace a TV series. (Eventually, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” essentially became an hour-long commercial for their various products.) And even though the show now averages fewer than a million viewers an episode — nowhere near its peak of nearly 5 million for the Season 4 finale when Kourtney gave birth to her first baby — it probably could have kept going. But Jenner has said in interviews that it’s clear social media is the future. They also recently signed a deal to produce “global content” for Hulu.
So that’s where the Kardashians will be after their longtime reality show ends: still all over the place, with millions of followers eager for updates. But their place in TV history will loom large. Farjam, the show’s executive producer, can’t count the number of times that other producers breathlessly said they found the “next Kardashians.” They haven’t.
“They were lightning in a bottle,” Farjam said, remaining open books about their entire lives while still appearing relatable to fans. “No matter how famous they get, they’re still people, they still have feelings, they still have regular problems,” she said. “And because they have each other … they’re able to overcome a lot, which I feel like is inspiring and an important message.”
Obell said one overlooked aspect of the Kardashians’ connection to viewers is their vulnerability in opening up about so many deeply personal, often fraught topics. “We were here for the mess, and they shared the mess with us,” she said. “I’m curious to know how much they regret or don’t.”
Either way, it’s hard to imagine the past 15 years without the family and all the questions and arguments they inadvertently sparked about fame, money, race, politics, parenting, marriage and everything in between. No matter where they go from here, it will probably be impossible to ever stop talking about them.
“To me, this was Kris Jenner’s dream from Day One,” Bailey said. “It’s a real American story. Where else could something like this happen?”