Creating the Kardashians

Kris Jenner once had few ambitions beyond motherhood. Last year she landed her family $65 million in TV shows and endorsement deals. Here’s how she made the leap.

by Amanda Robb
Kris Jenner, Kardashian
Photograph: Illustrated by Antony Hare

Even if you’ve never watched the reality shows, worn the clothes, sniffed the fragrances, popped the diet pills or snapped the Silly Bandz, there is no escaping the name of America’s most ubiquitous family: Kardashian. Now the clan is extending its reach to perhaps its most surprising frontier—that 118-year-old bastion of American values and power tools known as Sears. In August the chain will open splashy, Kardashian-themed boutiques stocked with clothes and accessories designed by daughters Kourtney, Kim and Khloé in 400 Sears stores nationwide.

“You’re going to be able to go into Sears and have a complete Kardashian experience,” beams the brains behind the behemoth, self-described “momager” Kris Jenner.

The family’s commercial endeavors got an undeniable boost four years ago when a videotaped romp between daughter Kim and her then-boyfriend wound up in the hands of Vivid Entertainment. But Jenner’s reinvention as a branding genius began two decades earlier, when she and husband Robert Kardashian got divorced. A year later, she married Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist.

At the time of their wedding, Jenner’s new husband was famous but $500,000 in debt. She was in no position to bail him out: Though Robert Kardashian was a wealthy businessman and lawyer—best known for representing his friend O.J. Simpson in his murder trial—Jenner says she chose to exit the marriage with no alimony rather than spend time in court splitting up assets. But while she and Bruce didn’t have much money, they did have kids—eight between them (three Kardashian girls and one boy, Robert Jr., plus Bruce’s four kids from two previous marriages); later on, the couple added two daughters of their own, Kendall and Kylie. “I wasn’t scared,” Jenner insists. “I said, ‘Let’s pump some air into this flat tire.’ ”

Using skills she says she learned from being both a Beverly Hills hostess and a Brownie-troop leader, Jenner revamped her spouse’s tired motivational-speaking career and turned the aging athlete into a home-fitness-product pitchman. And in the early 2000s she began landing him TV gigs on such reality shows as Skating with Celebrities.

By that time, Jenner’s older daughters were in their teens and early twenties, and the women of the family went into retail. Smooch, a children’s boutique (now defunct), opened in 2003, followed by the flagship Dash clothing store in 2006. Kim, the second-oldest daughter, began hovering on the edges of pop culture. She made guest appearances on The Simple Life, a reality show, and worked as a celebrity stylist. Then the sex tape went public, and Mom coped by squeezing the publicity lemon into an apparently bottomless glass of lemonade.

Jenner says she had always wanted to create a show about her family, and she told the Hollywood Reporter she had been inspired by The Osbournes to make a sample tape. Memories differ on exactly how Keeping Up with the Kardashians was born. No one, however, disputes what has happened since. Keeping Up is one of the E! network’s highest-rated shows, and it’s spawned three Kardashian-focused spinoffs. All in all, the family businesses earned some $65 million last year, and as momager to everyone—including Khloé’s husband, Los Angeles Lakers star Lamar Odom—Jenner collects 10 percent off the top.

The juggernaut of new projects appears unstoppable. Jenner says that her three oldest daughters are writing a series of novels and that she is at work on a memoir.

On the eve of the Sears launch, More caught up with the mogul at her 9,000-square-foot hacienda, located in a gated community within a gated community in Hidden Hills, California. Jenner, who can be seen on TV doing keg stands, sat behind a spotless chrome desk decorated with a large photo of Kourtney’s son, Mason. She wore a black Prada tunic, black Theory leggings and black Fendi boots and talked about her journey from stay-at-home mom to mother of reinvention.

A month later, between her 5 am workout and her 7 am camera call, Jenner elaborated a bit further, via speakerphone and then e-mail. We took copious notes.

First Published July 12, 2011

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