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.
A lot of people think the heavens opened for your family and dropped fame and fortune into your laps.
I wish it were that easy. I’ve been working nonstop for 20 years. When I married Bruce, it was sort of hit the ground running. I married a guy who was really talented and had been doing motivational speeches for Fortune 500 companies—and this is a guy who didn’t have a business card or a press kit. People who were in his business had all these marketing tools, and Bruce was just winging it. I knew he could be much bigger.
In his book Finding the Champion Within, he says that when he met you, he was $500,000 in debt and living in a one-room apartment.
He was at a place where he had really low self-esteem and thought, Now what do I do with my life? I think I was probably a breath of fresh air. But he brought the goods. Managing isn’t a magic show. You don’t work with somebody and instill talent in them. I am blessed to have these children who have the most amazing work ethic. I have a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old [Kylie and Kendall Jenner], who were at a meeting at 8:30 this morning with Ryan Seacrest Productions to talk about their careers. They were at this crazy-long conference table with executives, who are fascinated by what the girls have to say. That’s better than any education I could offer them.
You started as a flight attendant and then became a housewife. Were you prepared to become a business manager?
I was the Brownie leader and the soccer coach and room mother and car pool driver. Being a mom gave me great knowledge of how to be a professional multitasker. I see a problem, and I fix it. To me, Bruce was a problem that needed to be fixed.
Did you have professional ambitions during your first marriage?
Oh God, no. I was working 24 hours a day trying to raise four babies. I didn’t want to be anything but a mom for a very long time.
So after you married Bruce Jenner, how did you know the right way to package and market him?
I just figured it all out. [I used] gorgeous folders for his press kits. I made stickers of him crossing the finish line, and that was his logo. To me, it’s all about the details. I think everything wrapped in a beautiful bow makes it that much more attractive.
When I wanted to get Bruce into the Sherwood Country Club [with the idea of making business contacts], I had his press kits on everybody’s deskalong with little Hasbro Bruce Jenner dolls and his Wheaties boxes. I had thrown the most amazing parties for so many years [while married to Robert Kardashian]. It’s like, “OK, these are your party favors.” You have to figure out a way to communicate with people.
What’s the secret to becoming self-made?
If someone says no, you’re asking the wrong person. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Get organized.
What’s been your biggest success since you became an entrepreneur?
The thing I’m most proud of right now is our relationship with Sears. I’ve been working on getting the girls a lifestyle line—apparel, shoes, bags—for the last three years. When I came upon the Sears opportunity, it was perfect. My grandmother took me there all the time; it’s one of my favorite memories. Who knew that all these years later, my girls would have their own line at Sears?
How do you know a business opportunity is right for the brand?
I use my intuition. When something starts to feel really forced or not natural or doesn’t resonate with my family, I know it’s time to walk away.
Your family really knows how to leverage social media; you’ve got more than 770,000 followers on your Twitter feed alone. Any tips?
I absolutely love Twitter and think it’s such an important tool. I can go to two places—TMZ and Twitter—and pretty much tell you what’s going on socially in about 30 seconds. I personally like to tweet something I’m really excited about and want to share that might enhance someone’s life or just something silly I think might be interesting to a reader. I often think, Would I like to read this? Or would I want to know this? If the answer is yes, then I tweet it. I loved this juice my trainer turned me on to called Ritual Cleanse. So I tweeted about it . . . I was notgetting paid for it. Tweeting is also an amazing way for me to keep up with my kids! I just log on to Twitter, and I can pinpoint just about anything they are doing.
Do you have any rules for working with family?
Everyone has to have the same work ethic. If one is really lazy or drinks all night and can’t get up in the morning, [it won’t work]. Every single one of my girls gets up at the crack of dawn and works really hard. They work all day long until they fall down. And then they get up the next day and do it all over again.
How do you respond to critics who have suggested that you’re exploiting your children?
[I respond] by working hard. My job is to take my family’s 15 minutes of fame and turn it into 30. It’s a very rewarding feeling when I go to sleep every night knowing I did the best I could for my family.
How do you psych yourself up for meetings? Any negotiating tips?
Ask for what you want. You’d be surprised—you just might get it.
AMANDA ROBB is a New York–based writer and frequent contributor to More.
Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of More.
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