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Kim Kardashian: In Search of the K Factor

Fearless in the face of scrutiny and a hopeless romantic in a cynical age, everywoman Kim is impossible to define.

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My mother calls me to say that her Wednesday-morning golf group is requesting a Skype call. They’ve heard I’ve interviewed Kim Kardashian, and the ladies have a few questions. 

Mostly, they’re concerned with how she looks: Is she really that pretty? Could I verify her eyelashes? What, if I had to guess, is the real-to-fake ratio of the hair on her head? They want to know why she decided on some see-through gray skirt she’s recently been photographed in, without underwear. They want to know if her “trunk,” their word, is as prodigious as it appears to be on television. 

“Well, did she talk about Kane?” Mom demands.  

“It’s Kanye,” I say, but she doesn’t really care and not only because this is a woman whose music collection consists of ABBA and Martina McBride, on CD. Although Kardashian’s love life is a steady topic of conversation—an Internet search for “Kim Kardashian boyfriend” generates more than 45 million results—she has long been the headliner of her relationships. The men in her life, even the famous ones, are largely an afterthought—at the very least, secondary to her hair, if you polled her multitude of fans. A recent photograph that Kardashian shared, for example, captioned “I cut bangs for real this time!,” solicited nearly 237,000 more “likes” than the one in which she revealed her relationship with rapper/singer Kanye West, her first boyfriend since the widely publicized divorce.

In the five years since the debut of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the flagship of the ever-expanding network of reality shows starring Kim Kardashian and her family, she has become an object of undeniable fascination, an American phenomenon, perpetual headline news. People love her or they hate her—Jimmy Kimmel once described her as a national threat; Jon Hamm said something much worse—but seemingly everyone follows her in some way, at entirely unprecedented levels. Even Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara have a Kardashian-inspired comedy bit. “If the United States had a royal family,” went a question on a recent episode of Family Feud, “who would it be?” The Kardashians came in fifth, following the names Kennedy, Obama, Bush and Clinton. 

“Kim truly represents a new sort of American,” says Janice Min, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter. “She’s post-racial and incredibly modern and intangibly alluring to a whole range of people. When my baby was born, my nurse flew from New York to L.A. to help, and the first thing she wanted to know when I picked her up at the airport was, Do you live near the Kardashians?” If her success often vexes people, says Min, it’s because she’s made it look so effortless. “There are millions of people in Hollywood who should be interesting, but aren’t, and the fact that Kim made it big through reality TV annoys many,” says Min. “But what if your talent is just being irresistible on TV? The public can sneer, but the fact is that this is the medium all people can relate to, and do.” 

Of Kourtney, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, the three sisters who form the focus of the shows, Kim, the 32-year-old middle, is the most popular,or at least the most paid-attention to, something she works to maintain. She’s in Twitter’s top 10 and has more followers than any other user on the photo-sharing site Instagram, where she posts daily shots of her nails, her shoes and what’s for lunch as well as the occasional inspirational aphorism, such as, Maybe you should eat makeup so you can try and be pretty on the inside, bitch. “When you live your life so publicly, like on a reality show, people assume that they know every side of you already,” Kardashian says when we meet in Miami in January. “But they always want more.” She obliges. When the cameras are rolling, they’re really rolling; the sisters don’t even remove their microphones to pee. An early episode of the recent season of Kourtney and Kim Take Miami featured a scene in which Kim slathers her legs with Kourtney’s breast milk in an effort to cure her psoriasis. 

“Doing a TV show with your family, it’s really hard to hide or be guarded,” she says. But really, the thinking is far more genius—and purposeful: By inviting viewers into her life in such an all-access way, she has provided their most unrestricted entrée into Hollywood to date. “Besides,” she adds, “we don’t want to film a show if we can’t be who we are, because that’s just too much work.” The shows’ relationships and personalities are convincing even when the situations seem contrived; she says most fans tell her they like KUWTK because it reminds them of their own family in some way. On-screen, she emits an appeal that’s particularly wide-ranging, with qualities that combine to form what Min would call “her X factor, her secret sauce.” 

She is at once very serious and very funny. She tries to do the right thing, though it doesn’t necessarily always work out, which helps keep fans on her side. She is almost cartoonishly beautiful and sometimes makes questionable fashion choices. She talks of dieting and her gym addiction one day, and professes her love for Golden Oreos the next. And she is an unapologetic workaholic who isn’t afraid to admit that there’s also something really appealing in the idea of falling in love and living happily ever after. In this way, she is not so unlike her personal icon, Elizabeth Taylor (whose public image was, of course, similarly polarizing). But as Roddy McDowall once said of Taylor, his friend and co-star, “People who damn her wish to hell they could do what they think she does.” And so it goes with Kardashian. 

Bruce Weber, who photographed Kardashian for DuJour at his home in Miami, says it was Kim’s complexities that drew him to her, and that her similarities to Taylor inspired much of the story. “I didn’t know Kim loved Elizabeth Taylor before we met, but I imagined she would,” says Weber, who regarded Taylor as a close friend. “The great thing about Kim is that she’s so strong and independent, but she also makes you want to take care of her. Working with her made me really miss Elizabeth.” 

Five days after West announces to an Atlantic City audience—and, thus, the world—that Kardashian is pregnant with his child, she is on the couch at her friend Loren Ridinger’s Miami house, giving herself a manicure. She’s flown in from a paid appearance in Calgary by way of Houston, a 12-hour travel day she made, three-months pregnant, in a pair of brand-new five-inch tan suede Jimmy Choo pointy-toe stilettos and full makeup. She says she does not wear flats, not ever, unless she’s on the treadmill; tomorrow at 8 a.m. she will show up at the photo shoot wearing a pair of Lanvin track pants and Tom Ford platform suede boots, with fringe.

In her everyday life, Kardashian says she wears formfitting clothes less out of a desire to look sexy than to dress for type; she loves fashion but favors what she thinks is flattering, for which she has been called, at turns, “the sparkly showgirl” and “Princess Leia gone wrong.” The barbs don’t bother her and, in fact, she’s even called herself out on a few fashion misses, like a boxy canary-yellow jacket, about which she wrote on her blog, “Where were my sisters or my boyfriend when I needed a good opinion?! LOL.”

“I think because I have big boobs it could make me look heavier if I don’t, like, show off my waist or something, so I just have kind of learned to dress one way only,” she says. “Khloé can wear flowy, pretty things because she’s really tall. Kourtney is, like, really little. I’m just kind of in between, so it doesn’t really work.” 

The manicurist has forgotten the right shade of nude. While she’s off at Walgreens, Kardashian wastes no time sitting around and begins to clip and file her nails herself. She thinks she knows how to remove the semi-permanent shellac nail polish, so she swabs some sort of solution she finds in the manicurist’s kit across her toes and wraps them in tinfoil. “I used to have to do this myself all the time, manicures and whatnot,” she says. “I actually like it. It’s sort of like meditation.” 

West’s announcement wasn’t exactly planned but, Kardashian says, was a nice surprise, as was the pregnancy itself. Doctors had told her that, like her sister Khloé, she would have a difficult time conceiving. “I just feel so blessed and excited and ready for the next phase,” she says, noting that 2012 was not her best year, and she’s grateful it’s over, even if her brief marriage to professional basketball player Kris Humphries technically is not. Humphries has refused to sign divorce papers; he’s suing her for an annulment instead, claiming Kardashian orchestrated the wedding as a moneymaking PR stunt, which she says it wasn’t—that is, either a PR stunt or, after expenses, particularly moneymaking. She and her sisters spent most of January publicizing the new season of Kourtney and Kim good-humoredly delivering the following line to talk-show hosts: “If it were for PR, she might have married someone people had heard of!” She’s annoyed she’ll likely have to appear in court to get divorced while many months pregnant. 

Otherwise, she says evenly, pregnancy has so far been no big deal. She’s had no morning sickness, no cravings, no fatigue. She says she rarely drinks alcohol anyway—although in a recent episode of Kourtney and Kim she does get drunk and forget where she left her new kitten. “I don’t even like champagne,” she says, noting that not having to spend her twenties hungover allowed her to be very productive. Back when she was 15, her father, Robert, taught her two things: the importance of a strong work ethic and to drive, so that she could take over when Kourtney and her friends partied too hard. Kardashian says she liked being the good girl. As close friend and designer Rachel Roy says, “Kim has very nurturing, calm and fair qualities about her. And her work ethic is like no other.” 

Now, since she’s had to forgo her Diet Coke, her worst vice is the occasional iced tea. “I used to always say I can’t wait to get pregnant because I will just eat whatever I want, but it’s completely different,” she says as she makes her way through an apple pastry. “I’m like, OK, I want to eat as healthy as possible. Though lately I’ve been watching shows like I’m Pregnant and Addicted to Meth. It definitely makes me feel better if I’m wanting one sip of Diet Coke or, you know, too much sugar. I’m like, This woman is on meth.” She loves real-life murder mysteries and cop shows and says in another life she’d be a crime-scene investigator.  

She and West have been dating since April, though they have been friends for many years. But, she says politely, tucking her foil-wrapped feet beneath her, she doesn’t really want to talk about him. She won’t even refer to him by name. “My boyfriend has taught me a lot about privacy,” she says. “I’m ready to be a little less open about some things, like my relationships. I’m realizing everyone doesn’t need to know everything. I’m shifting my priorities.” She’s started to be more selective when fans ask for her photograph in airports or when out to dinner, especially when she’s with West. “I just tell them, sorry, but my boyfriend won’t let me,” she says. West has not been interested in co-starring on any of his girlfriend’s shows, though he made the occasional appearance on last season’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians, in which he’s seen giving Kardashian’s closet a makeover, weeding out anything too bright, too tight or too shearling, and then selling it on eBay. Kardashian says that the upcoming season of KUWTK, which began filming last month, will not include any explicit “baby stuff,” including doctor appointments, pre-baby shopping or giving birth, but she can’t say for certain whether West will appear or not. “We haven’t really gotten that far yet,” she says.

Certainly, Kardashian has reason to limit the amount of airtime her love life gets. Having to watch the demise of her relationship with Humphries play out and see herself cry all the time on TV was upsetting, and she didn’t think the public backlash she faced was fair, either. “Going through a divorce for anybody is devastating and heartbreaking, and then to have to do it and feel like you have to explain what is happening is such an awkward thing,” she says. “You have to explain your choice to millions of people, and then they’re disappointed. I’m disappointed. Why are they disappointed?” (Khloé says, “Kim never had to endure any bullying in her younger years. I think to be thrown into a lion’s den with everybody attacking her really hit her hard. It was very painful.”)

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And yet the fact that her humiliation and heartbreak played out on such a public stage has also earned Kardashian a unique sort of adulation. Like Elizabeth Taylor, she is a hopeless romantic, and her willingness to love, and fail, and love again makes for compelling celebrity. “Kimberly believes in fairy tales,” says Khloé. “It’s the best part about her.” Adds Roy, “Kim loves very strong and very hard. What would break many, she pushes through with grace and dignity.” When we look back on Kardashian 40 years from now, perhaps her greatest legacy will lie in that fact: She really can’t be kept down, at least not for long. 

“When the Kardashian hype first started, people said, This will be over soon,” says Min. “When her 72-day marriage ended, people said she was through. But Kim perseveres. She actually came back bigger. One day, there will be academic courses taught on the topic of Kim Kardashian.” 

The morning after the manicure, I arrive to the shoot to find Kardashian enmeshed in a Twitter exchange with a disenchanted fan. “She keeps saying I’ve changed,” Kardashian says frustratedly, without looking up from her phone. “She says I’m a snob. She’s calling me all these names.” She doesn’t get it, but she won’t drop it, either, as if she can’t let it go until she’s convincingly pleaded her case. (Second to crime-scene investigator in her list of other life careers, says Kardashian, she’d have been a lawyer, like her dad.) An hour later, she’s still going back and forth with the girl, whom she’s never met nor likely ever will. She thinks she may live in the Middle East. 

Since she was a kid, Kardashian has always cared what people thought of her. This constant need for approval has made her likable to millions of women who feel the same way—but it’s also helped fuel her brand. She is the rare star who asks for fan feedback and then actually takes it. She’ll ask her Twitter followers, all 17 million of them, what they want her perfume to smell like, what nail-polish colors they love, what they think of a certain shade of lipstick from her new makeup line. This may be one reason that although her face and name have proved themselves powerful sales tools—she’s branded everything from cellphones to diet pills and has appeared on enough magazine covers to wallpaper an entire room of her house, and not just theoretically—she’s still trying to finesse high fashion, an industry not especially interested in the notion of crowd sourcing, even if she does move product. As UK designer Roland Mouret noted, he’s more likely to get orders on a dress that Kardashian’s worn than, say, Kate Middleton. 

But she is trying. In the last year, Kardashian’s clothing choices have become more streamlined and classic. The wild patterns and plunging necklines that made her an easy target for sartorial snobbery have been replaced by tailored blazers and pants and feminine dresses in blacks, grays, whites and neutral tones, not to mention a sophisticated black crocodile Birkin. Exceptions are made, of course, like for the $6,000 calf-leather-and-pearl booties designed by West that Kardashian wore not long after telling the ladies of The View that she was chasing “a simpler life” of staying home and cooking in. Though she started out as a wardrobe stylist before opening the first location of Dash, the sisters’ chain of clothing boutiques, Kardashian has stopped styling herself. In recent months, Mugler creative director Nicola Formichetti has worked with Kardashian to help her re-create her image and use clothes to capitalize on her relatability. “I think she is so fucking hot,” he’s said. “She isn’t just a pin; she is much more sexy. Kim represents a very important woman now. We know everything about her; I am really into her.” 

Shown: Kim and sisters

Though there are now three locations of Dash, the store has largely become a tourist attraction and a branding tool. There are still clothes—midpriced contemporary lines, mainly, “California casual” stuff the sisters wore back before they became the brand themselves. But there’s also $10 bottled water featuring the sisters on the label and a line to get in. Kim and her sisters don’t get there much anymore. “I love styling, so I would love putting outfits together and seeing someone come out of the dressing room and really feeling good about herself,” she says. “I miss that. Back when we started, we were painting the walls and I was doing the register, and that was a fun time for us. But now when we go in the store, we take away from the customers’ experience. It becomes about, you know, just something else.” 

The family has signed on for two more seasons of KUWTK—season 8 began filming in February and will premiere in June. The show, Kardashian says, has been “truly, the best family movie ever,” even when she’d rather not replay some of the scenes. And she’s not talking just about those with the exes in her life. In the second episode of this season’s Kourtney and Kim, for example, which aired three weeks after she announced she’s expecting but was filmed long before, she calls older sister Kourtney, a mother of two, a “slob kebob” and says that she’d “die” if she had children right now. “If you knew how boring you’d become,” Kim asks her sister, “would you still have had kids?” After season 9, she says, she’s done. 

But, as always, she makes no apologies—or promises. Today, she says season 9 will be the last, but a branding superstar like Kardashian doesn’t ensure longevity by being inflexible. “I think there’s always an evolution of, you know, what you want to do in life,” she says. “It’s all about finding things that really excite you and motivate you and spark you all over again. I’m realizing that no matter what, if you go into something with all these expectations and plans, once you’re actually living it, it could be completely different.” And that, in fact, it probably is.   

STORIES DUJOUR