Members of the Kardashian family have been on our televisions since 1994, when Robert, the late patriarch of the family, represented OJ Simpson in his defense trial for allegedly murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The family continued to build its brand over the years, but it wasn’t until after socialite and stylist Kim’s sex tape with singer Ray J. leaked in 2007 that the Kardashian name reappeared in the headlines. Since then, America hasn’t been able to get enough of the famed family.
In the fateful year of 2006, soon-to-be executive producers Ryan Seacrest and Kris Jenner partnered up with the dream of creating a reality television show about the Kardashian-Jenner family. The reality television market was ripe, with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s “The Simple Life” dominating the airwaves. One week after Hilton and Richie announced their show was ending, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (“KUWTK”) was announced, positioning it as a natural successor to “The Simple Life” on E!.
The show, now approaching its 21st and final season, has become one of the longest-running reality television series in the country, despite its consistently atrocious ratings (IMDb gives the series a 2.8/10). It quickly flourished into an iconic program, changing the way celebrities are made and how they interact with audiences. The show single-handedly “changed the face of E!,” according to network executive producer Lisa Berger in the Hollywood Reporter. “We were a place to report on celebrity; we weren't a place to break and make celebrity, which is now the whole idea of the E! Brand."
Most of the episodes of “KUWTK” revolve around the eldest Kardashian sisters, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney. We, the viewers, are invited into their homes, their cars, their business meetings, and — more than once — their bathrooms. We hear about their wild sexcapades and the stress of having to walk two red carpets in one week. It’s a show about the seemingly frivolous life of a (relatively) regular family with questionable eyeliner choices. But how did a show about a blended family in Calabasas endure for so long and give rise to such a sprawling empire?
“KUWTK” represents a side of America that extends beyond our penchant for “trashy” reality television; it’s a glimpse into the life of the American dream at work. The Kardashians may not have had the humble beginnings often associated with this foundation of American mythology, but relative to where they are now, the Kardashians have grown materially, economically, and socially at an exponential rate.
The Kardashian-Jenner family epitomizes the celebrated American melting pot, descending from Armenian immigrants on Robert’s side and Dutch and British on Kris’s. They came from a line of small business owners and soon established themselves as rich — but not too rich. Robert was a successful lawyer, positioning the family with a C-list celebrity status, but by no means were they a powerful, multi-billionaire dynasty like their Hilton predecessors. We don’t need to see Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, two rich girls pretending to be working class, or “one of us” — we see plenty of that in our daily lives. We met everyone: partners, dogs, spouses, half-siblings, ex-lovers, best friends, plastic surgeons, therapists, trainers. Even amid the turmoil of running billion-dollar empires, the family always stayed united, and more than that, they let us, the viewers, into their family too. We gained membership into the coveted K-family and got to witness their growth firsthand, all the while thinking that if their family could achieve the American dream, we could, too.
In the first few seasons, the show portrays a wealthy family, but one that is still quite real. Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe run their boutique DASH , working and fighting with each other about how to improve their business. “When the opportunity for our TV show came about, I wanted to do it to bring attention to our stores,” Kim once said in an interview with Variety. The show wasn’t just meant to document the lives of the Kardashians — Kim had a plan to build her business, just like any other entrepreneur would.
In the early days of the show, the content of the episodes is also somewhat more down-to-earth: footage of Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe manning the storefront of DASH, Caitlyn struggling to get pre-pubescent Kendall and Kylie in the car for school, Kris trying to book her daughters to appear on C-list red carpets. As the family’s fame grew, however, the content of “KUWTK” evolved.
DASH slowly acquired more employees, Kendall and Kylie began exploring the world of fashion and makeup, and Kris was able to book not just Kim — the “moneymaker” and famous sister for much of the show’s existence — but Khloe and Kourtney as well. Then the family’s fame skyrocketed: They sold dash, and in its place emerged countless product lines and companies — KKW Beauty, SKIMS, Good American, and of course, Kylie Cosmetics. Kendall was the world’s highest paid supermodel in 2018, and we got to see her prepare and bicker with her parents ahead of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Kim also gained ground in the fashion world, especially after marrying Yeezy creator Kanye West, with her brand SKIMS and her walks down the red carpet. And who could forget riding along in the car with Kim in 2019 on her way to the Met Gala as she told us how hard it was to breathe while sitting in her rib-shrinking Thierry Mugler dress? Now, Kris regularly books her daughters to appear on “Ellen,” “Playboy,” “Vogue,” and every other big name in television, fashion, architecture, and beauty.
We saw every moment of the family’s evolution, from their closets to their home renovations. Their concerns morphed from banalities such as dog-walking and the stress of buying a new car (read: Bentley) to being featured in “Architectural Digest” and meeting with President Trump to discuss prison reform. The show allowed us to witness a California family transform into a formidable empire.
The Kardashians family is a product of their viewership. They needed us to keep up with them to be who they are. Over the years, we participated in their development . Just as they remained loyal to their family on-screen, they remained loyal to us, seamlessly integrating themselves into our regularly scheduled lives. So we tuned in for nearly 20 years, and we kept an ill-rated, highly-scripted, 60-minute long show — one that eventually became little more than a commercial for Kardashian products — on the air from 2007 until 2021. The family exists through the television, and through that television, sitting right there on our couches, we were a part of that family. We were a part of that dream.