Martha Stewart was the queen of the '80s and Oprah owned the '90s, but the 21st century's preeminent female pop-cultural brand-builder may very well be Kris Jenner. Jenner is, of course, the matriarch of the Kardashian-Jenner brood, which includes daughters Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and son Rob from her first marriage to the late attorney Robert Kardashian, as well as daughters Kendall and Kylie from her marriage to Bruce Jenner, her hoop-star son-in-law Lamar Odom (Khloé's husband), and the father of Kourtney's two children, Scott Disick. But while Jenner and her kin have encountered the sort of fact-of-life speed bumps that a lot of mothers might consider potential problem areas (e.g. leaked sex tapes, impulsive weddings, unplanned pregnancies, rampant fits of conspicuous consumption), they have managed to deftly parlay theirs into a seemingly endless array of business opportunities. It was Jenner herself who, in 2006, came up with the idea for a reality show about the Kardashian-Jenners (which undoubtedly took advantage of the public's prurient interest in her daughter Kim's infamous 2007 sex tape with ex-boyfriend Ray J), and turned what might have been 15 minutes of shame into a successful television franchise that has netted her clan, co-producer Ryan Seacrest, and E!, the network on which the Kardashian-Jenner television properties air, hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to the flagship, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which recently completed its seventh season, Jenner has, through her company, Jenner Communications, overseen the launch of several Kardashian-branded spin-off shows (Khloé & Lamar, Kourtney & Kim Take New York, and Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami) and books (Kardashian Konfidential, Jenner's own memoir Kris Jenner . . . And All Things Kardashian, and even a novel attributed to Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé called Dollhouse), as well as fragrance, apparel and accessory lines, and a string of boutiques. There are Kardashians and Jenners in ad campaigns for Poise and Skechers, on the covers of gossip magazines and on the homepages of websites like TMZ, and their every tweet is hungrily inhaled by millions of followers. And yet, despite their ubiquity, the world still can't seem to get enough of their very particular brand of blended-familial Southern California living, in all its splashy, flashy, leopard-print-and-Louboutin-clicking glory.
We caught up with Jenner, 56, on a recent Thursday at 6 a.m. as she was on her way to a workout with celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson near her home in the L.A. suburb of Hidden Hills.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: You've managed somehow to turn your family into a brand. How would you define the Kardashian brand?
KRIS JENNER: I think it's a brand for the fans. We pay attention to what everyone seems to be attracted to about us. My kids are really good with social media; that's really an important dynamic in our relationship with our audience, and it's a great way to connect. One of the first things that Kim did when she started her fragrance line was let her fans have a hand in designing the bottle. She would go on Twitter and say, "What shade of pink do you like?" And that was an amazing thing, how everybody responded. Very early on, we realized that we had a very interactive relationship with the people who are our fans and watch the show.
EHRLICH: Why do you think America has been so fascinated by your children?
JENNER: Well, I think that there are so many of us in my entire family that everybody finds someone who they can relate to or connect with. At the end of the day, our show is just about our family and what happens, and over the last seven seasons, you've watched my little girls grow up, you've watched people get married and have babies and graduate from school and go to college. You know, it's like so much that goes on in any family, but it's magnified and dramatic, because that's who we are. So I think everyone can look at us and go, "Wow! I can relate to them."
EHRLICH: What was your original hope or motivation in doing Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
JENNER: The goal for my girls and me has always been about beauty and fashion. Before we ever had the shows, my mom had a store for 40 years in La Jolla, and I grew up working there. As my girls grew up, they wanted to study fashion in college—Kourtney did that, and Kim was a stylist and a closet-organizer. So it was always about the fashion and the clothes. The girls opened a store in Calabasas called Dash, and it became very successful, and Kourtney and I had a children's store called Smooch. That was always my dream: to have a chain of stores. So I started thinking about how much fun it would be to have a reality show, and when we did the deal with E!, I thought, Wow, we're going to be filming this show in our stores! And when you have a retail store, the one thing you like to do is attract customers. So I thought, "This will be so fabulous because people will know about our store. It will create an awareness of this Dash brand." And now the girls have three stores: one in Miami, one in New York, and one here--one actually just opened on Melrose in West Hollywood.
EHRLICH: Were you surprised by the show's near-immediate success?
JENNER: Well, there are a lot of big personalities in our family, and because of the way that we interact with each other—and the fact that the girls are beautiful, the little ones are adorable, and my husband is an Olympic champion—there was this perfect storm, where I think you kind of wanted to watch and go, "Wow, what's happening with this family?" And if you got invested emotionally, it turned out to be very entertaining . . . Apparently.
EHRLICH: Apparently. [both laugh] So what's your plan after the kids are all grown—other than keeping up with the Jenner empty nest?
JENNER: Well, I actually enjoy working on the clothing line that I have on QVC, so I think I'd like to concentrate on growing that brand and just doing my own thing. My motivation is to be creative and have fun. You want to do something that keeps you on your toes the rest of your life and keeps you busy. That's why we're creating these clothing lines and the kids' fragrances and all the things we have our hands in. I'm really good at multitasking, but I always look at the amazing opportunity that we've been given . . . You know, at this point, we've filmed more seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians than they did of I Love Lucy.
f you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing a reality show, and there would be an episode where my ex-boyfriend from an affair I had 23 years ago appears on this show, I’d have said that you were out of your freaking mind—Kris Jenner
EHRLICH: On a recent episode, the show addressed some rumors that Khloé might not be your late husband Robert's biological daughter, but the product of an affair that you had during that marriage. There were suggestions that she take a DNA test, which she was hesitant about, but you were encouraging her to take it—which is obviously a very personal thing to do in public. Do you ever worry about the emotional effect that moments like that might have on your kids?
JENNER: Obviously, you would never want to do anything or say anything that would be uncomfortable or ruin a relationship with one of your kids. But I think that that's what makes our situation so unique. My kids are very open and honest and truthful with one another and with me. You'll see them snap if there's something that they aren't happy with. But I think that because we're all so comfortable with each other, it makes it very comfortable to share things with our audience. It just sort of happens. If I ever for one second thought that my kids would be uncomfortable with something or didn't want to do this anymore, then it would be over.
EHRLICH: Has there ever been a moment through all of this when you've said, "Stop the cameras from rolling. This is just too personal?"
JENNER: We have never stopped the cameras from rolling.
EHRLICH: Bruce is, of course, famous for winning a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics, so he was actually the first one in the family to experience celebrity, albeit in an era before the Internet and reality television. Have you and the kids learned anything from Bruce in terms of how to handle fame and maneuver in the spotlight?
JENNER: Bruce has had an amazing career that he built off of the fact that he was the gold-medal winner in the decathlon. He had two really good days in July 1976, and managed to become a television correspondent on Good Morning America, and, of course, on the Wheaties box for years, and wound up doing Tropicana commercials, and on and on. What I learned from that was definitely to listen and pay attention and take advantage of your opportunities. I also learned a lot about marketing, from just seeing how things have evolved over time . . . When I first met Bruce, he didn't have business cards or a press kit. I remember, we made a promo reel of Bruce speaking, like little clips, and we mailed these VHS tapes with the press kits.
EHRLICH: No beta tapes?
JENNER: [laughs] No! But it's just so funny how things have evolved. Now you can just click your computer and download a video. But those were the things I kind of cut my teeth on. I had to do it by hand. I had to think and project. And then I learned how to dream! You know, Bruce's philosophy is "Dream big, work hard." That's his motto. So I thought, "You know what? I can wrap my head around this." That's exactly what I did with the girls. Kim and I, at the beginning of each of the last seven years, have sat down and gone, "What's our dream? What's our goal? What do we want to do this year? Let's aim for the sky."
EHRLICH: Your late ex-husband, Robert, was an attorney, and famously represented his friend O.J. Simpson during his murder trial in the mid-'90s. I also know that you were very close friends with Nicole Brown Simpson. You and Robert divorced in 1990, before Nicole's death and O.J.'s trial, but how did that all play out in your relationship?
JENNER: It was tough because we were definitely on opposite sides of a very public murder trial. It was devastating for me and for my family, and then at some point, the night before the trial started, Robert wrote me and the kids an amazing letter and said, "I hope you can someday understand what I need to do, and I'm doing this for my friend. I'm by his side because I need to be." And that, to me, was such an amazing thing for him to do, to somehow hope that we would understand as a family that he needed to do what he needed to do. Whether or not the end result was what we had hoped for, I think it gave me some clarity of what kind of a person Robert Kardashian really was. He had such a big heart and he was so loyal. At the end of the day, I had to have respect for that on some level and teach my kids that you can get though any kind of adversity if you love each other as a family. So that was the changing point.
EHRLICH: In 2008, O.J. was sentenced for armed robbery. At the time, you said that you had "mixed emotions" about the sentence. What exactly were your mixed emotions?
JENNER: You know, he was a very dear friend for many years. Obviously, he was one of my best friends. So to see anybody go through such a messed-up situation . . . I felt really bad. I felt bad for him and his kids and just the whole thing. I just feel bad for people that get themselves into that kind of a situation.
EHRLICH: You released a memoir last year, and one of the things that you revealed in the book was that you had an affair during your marriage to Robert with someone you referred to as "Ryan," who later went public as Todd Waterman, and, in fact, appeared on the most recent season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Why did you give him a pseudonym?
JENNER: The reason I gave him a pseudonym in the book was that I wanted to protect his privacy. I was writing about my life and what I experienced, and we have millions of fans around the world who have asked me, "Why did you get divorced from Robert Kardashian?" And you can't write your life story and leave out one of the most important things that happened to you in your life. I think that that would be dishonest, and it would be something people would be very angry about: "You wrote this whole book and you're asking us to trust you, but you're not telling us why you got divorced." So I needed to explain. But it wasn't my position or my right to expose Todd. I didn't want to do something that would give him any grief at all. It was his choice to come out and say, "Yes, that was me."
EHRLICH: There have been some rumors that Todd's reappearance has rubbed Bruce the wrong way. There have also been rumors that there's been a renewal of your affair. What's the reality, if any?
JENNER: Well, if you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be doing a reality show, and there would be an episode where my ex-boyfriend from an affair I had 23 years ago appears on this show, then I'd have said that you were out of your freaking mind. So that's been a real surprise to me, the way that this has evolved. And the way that Bruce reacted was, I think, the way any husband would react to something like that. But you work through that stuff. I think that Bruce, at the end of the day, realizes how great that was for me just to have that closure. Because there was this big wide-open door, and there was no period at the end of that relationship. I think it was healthy for me to be able to see somebody that played such an important role in my past and not just have it be this endless black hole . . . I was able to reconnect with Todd and say, "Wow, look at what we went through and look at where we are today."
EHRLICH: You have tattoos on your lower back of the names of your two youngest daughters, Kendall and Kylie. Does Kim ever say, "Hey, Mom, why is my name not tattooed on your back?"
JENNER: I've explained to my kids that I have way too many kids, and if I had a tattoo for every child, I would have no body parts that were normal anymore, so I think that that's just fine for me.
EHRLICH: I've worked on reality shows before, so I know that it's common practice for the producers to sit down and work on plot arcs and story lines. What do you say when people claim that your show is scripted?
JENNER: First of all, maybe our show is so successful because we don't have writers. We don't have scripts. We don't have story lines that we preconceive before we start filming. We do have a big meeting at the beginning of a season and say, "What is everybody doing?" Because we all have about five full-time jobs apiece. So I think the beauty is that there are so many of us and there are so many things going on that we don't have to sit and think, Oh, what would be interesting? I mean, you can't make up Lamar getting traded and Kourtney giving birth and the kids getting married—you can't write that stuff. Or Khloé going to jail.
EHRLICH: How do you feel about Scott now?
JENNER: Actually, Scott and I right now have the most amazing relationship. We have evolved over the last couple of months into a little lovefest. I really think Scott is a great dad, and that makes me very, very happy. He's also a great boyfriend to Kourtney. I think since Mason was born, he has really turned his life around, and I'm really proud of him. You know, we've watched Scott grow up, too. It took me some time to wrap my head around Scott, but he's great.
EHRLICH: I don't know if you've read this, but there was another rumor that Kris Humphries's alleged ex-girlfriend Myla [Sinanaj] said that Kris told her that you were behind the leak of Kim's sex tape. Is there any shred of truth to that?
JENNER: Absolutely not. They're delusional.
EHRLICH: Which of your daughters is the messiest?
EHRLICH: And what's your favorite moment on the show so far?
JENNER: Khloé and Lamar's wedding.
EHRLICH: Finally, how would you feel about Kanye West as a son-in-law?
JENNER: He's fantastic.
DIMITRI EHRLICH IS A CONTRIBUTING MUSIC EDITOR FOR INTERVIEW.