If anyone can be said to embody the American Dream, it’s Kim Kardashian West. It’s almost hard to remember a time before she and her sprawling mega-family—mother Kris Jenner and ex-stepfather, Olympic champion Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner, sisters Kourtney and Khloé, half-sisters Kendall and Kylie, brother Rob, and various friends, husbands, boyfriends, and exes—invented a new kind of tabloid fame, one based on access rather than aspiration. Back in 2007 the affluent Kardashian-Jenner clan was known mostly for their patriarch, a gold-medal-winning decathlete, and for Kardashian West’s late father, the businessman and attorney Robert Kardashian, who served on the defense team at the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Kardashian West popped up as a member of Paris Hilton’s entourage on the hotel heiress’s reality series The Simple Life. But then, of course, Kardashian West and her mom took a gamble with an E! docuseries, and the rest is history.
A decade into Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the show has evolved from covering Brady Bunch antics and innocuous drama to serving as a rooted-in-real-life mirror to what the American family looks like today, bringing up topics such as race, gender, and, more recently, trans identity. Kardashian West, now 36, has grown up in front of the camera, getting remarried, divorced, remarried again (to rapper Kanye West), and having two children, North and Saint West. (It has been reported that the couple is expecting a third child via surrogate.) Kardashian West has, in the process, built an extremely lucrative personal brand, listed by Forbes as earning over $45 million a year, based entirely on being herself.
Though critics continue to scoff at how Kardashian West originally clinched her notoriety (by now, we all know the origin story), she’s laughing all the way to the bank. There is her Kim Kardashian West Official App; the mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood; and Kimoji (a set of Kim-themed emojis and GIFs that expanded into physical products). There are her modeling campaigns for brands such as Balmain, and her role as the perma-muse for her husband’s fashion line, Yeezy. There’s her newly launched cosmetics line, KKW Beauty, which sold out its first wave of contour and highlighting kits in less than three hours, and a fragrance, slated for release next month. And then, of course, there is the never-ending fascination—fed via Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat—with her bronzed, impossible beauty. As Kardashian West herself says in conversation with Janet Mock, “Not bad for a girl with no talent.” Kardashian West recently got on the phone with the writer, journalist, and trans rights advocate to discuss what it’s really like to be the most famous woman in the world.
JANET MOCK: I was going to start by asking you what you’re doing, but I saw on your Snapchat that you were just with North, and she basically renamed the dog. She was like, “No, her name is Diamond.”
KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: She changes that poor dog’s name all the time. We had to pick one and stick with it, so I said, “Her name is Sushi. We’re going with that.”
MOCK: [laughs] Have you gotten used to the fact that someone like me, a stranger, has this immediate relationship with you and your daughter?
KARDASHIAN WEST: I have. We share so much all the time on the show. I obviously get a little bit more protective of my daughter because that’s always been such a struggle: “Do we have her on the show? Don’t we?” We have strict rules about the kids. Some seasons they’re not on at all. Some seasons they’re on a little bit, just to show a bit of personality, although there are never storylines about them. But then there’s social media, on which I’ve always been really open. When I’m out and people call North’s name, that’s when it’s weird for me. She lives such a normal life, believe it or not, at home.
MOCK: When you’re not filming, what do your days look like? Or are you kind of always filming?
KARDASHIAN WEST: We usually have three months off between seasons. But this time, there are only two weeks, so it does feel like we’re always filming. On a typical day, without cameras, I wake up early, like six in the morning. I try to work out before the kids get up, and then I have breakfast with them and my husband. I try to make sure we have set meals at home, to keep everything as normal as possible. And then I get to work. If you saw the room I’m in right now—my office—I have mood boards of so many different things in front of me; maybe 15 perfume samples sitting on my table. And then for our kids’ line, I have maybe 200 samples of bathing suit fabrics that I have to go through. I’ll usually have wardrobe fittings for myself. Then I might have—and I’m not joking—300 makeup products to go through and consider for a future project. In between, I’m taking my son to a music class and my daughter to a horseback riding class.
MOCK: I’ve been watching the show from the very beginning, and while there’s obviously the beauty component—the eye candy of how you all look—what I’m most attracted to is the connection between you and your siblings. I’m one of five. I understand what it’s like to grow up in a house full of people who are always in your business. I see some semblance of that in all of you. But as you, specifically, have become more famous—and following the traumatic event of the robbery—have you shifted the boundaries of what you will and will not share?
KARDASHIAN WEST: You really do learn about boundaries over time. I look back at some of the episodes in the earlier seasons and think, “I can’t believe I shared that”—dates with random people when we were single, things like that. But I also think that going through the motions of something like the aftermath of the robbery, or situations that most people might not understand, there are some people who might really have gone through that. I think about them. I feel like I came out of that a better person. Our approach to the show is to film everything and then scale back later. That said, we all have boundaries: I don’t really talk about things that are going on with my husband. If I do, it’s from my point of view. It’s my story.
MOCK: I’ve written two memoirs, and as a writer, I’m able to pick and choose what parts of my life I want to share for public consumption, and what I don’t. I have the same rule, too, which is to write every single thing down, every traumatic event, every great event, every detail, every sip of tea. Everything goes into the first draft. After that, because I’m in control of it, I can pull it back. I feel as if the fact that you get to choose must also be an empowering piece of it. Because you, your mother, and your two sisters are executive producers of the show, you get to choose what’s put out in the world.
KARDASHIAN WEST: It’s very rare that we take out real content. We’ll say, “I don’t like the way that I look here. Just tweak that,” or, “We were talking about that, but this is more impactful.” By the time the episodes air, it’s already been thrown in and out of the press so much that it’s really good to share things, even when you think at the time, “Oh, I’ll never share that.”
MOCK: I got to have a conversation with your mom for my podcast just a couple months ago. She was telling me that one of the first things she realized was that you have this really great opportunity to communicate and engage your social media followers and fans as kind of a focus group. How much have your fans, and their opinions, influenced the way you work as a businesswoman?
KARDASHIAN WEST: Take, for example, my makeup line. There were a couple of opinions that other people might not have loved to hear, but they were really important for me as learning tools. I’m truly listening to these people and watching everyone’s tutorials on YouTube, and watching all these makeup artists use my products. I’m like, “Okay, we gotta fix that, guys. That’s something I really did not think about.” I take their advice to heart. I want to do better.
MOCK: No matter what folks may say about you, you are a beauty icon, because you’ve challenged standards of beauty to make it a bit browner, a bit bronzer, a bit curvier. I wonder how conscious you are of raising a mixed black girl in the world?
KARDASHIAN WEST: I’m very conscious of it. Kanye always has his family around and people who look like my daughter—that’s important to me. She’s obsessed with her curly hair, and if she finds someone who has the same hair, she runs to them and is like, “You have curly hair like me?” And we get to talk about it. We also talk about it with my niece Penelope, because she and North look really different, but they’re best friends and they’re together all the time.
MOCK: I love that. I think that often people are uncomfortable talking about identity and race, but on the show your family tackles a lot of these topics head-on, as well as the trans stuff.
KARDASHIAN WEST: We want to raise our kids to be really aware. I think that’s all you can do. The more you talk about things and keep them out in the open, the more they won’t be taboo. Kids are already so open. They say anything. So if you educate them, they feel like they have this knowledge and then they feel empowered.
MOCK: You were talking about being open to critique. What are the conversations like between not just you and your partners, but also you and your siblings around random controversies and critiques that flare up? Is there a group text? Is it FaceTime?
KARDASHIAN WEST: It’s usually me starting a group chat. I’m really aware of what’s going on. If there’s something being said about one of my sisters, I’ll be the first to jump in a group. We have family chats that happen all day, every day. A lot of us are traveling, so one of us will inevitably wake up at four in the morning to 30 messages. I’ll be the first to jump in and say, “Guys, I’m seeing this. This is not cool. Tell me what’s going on.” I’m usually the ringleader for stuff like that, and I’ll say, “You’re wrong. You need to apologize.” Or, “This needs to be fixed. Everyone just lay low, chill out, don’t say anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s all lies. I know it’s frustrating. I know you want to speak up.” We always have to remind ourselves of stuff like that. We don’t do everything perfectly, but there really are so many lies, so many rumors.
MOCK: I heard you just describe yourself as the ringleader. Watching the show, I see you as the most strategic of the siblings in that sense. You’re the one who pulls everything together. I think about Caitlyn’s story and how you stepped forward as the public supportive face of transness and her journey. Who do you turn to when you need advice?
KARDASHIAN WEST: I usually go to Kanye for advice about my brand, my life, my image. But if it’s other drama, I go to one of my best friends, Tracy [Nguyen Romulus]. She used to be Kanye’s publicist, and I met her 12 years ago. Now we have kids who are best friends. She’s just a really smart girl, so I always get her opinion on everything. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, or if this doesn’t work out one day, I could so be a publicist. I feel like that’s my job for the family sometimes, at least the crisis part of it.
MOCK: You’re basically your family’s Olivia Pope. [laughs]
KARDASHIAN WEST: That’s the perfect description!
MOCK: When you were coming to prominence, what was the best piece of advice that you got about the “fame monster,” as Lady Gaga would call it?
KARDASHIAN WEST: Gosh, I don’t know if I ever really got advice. There was no real path. There was no definitive career. It was just my mom and me trying to figure it out, especially when reality TV wasn’t the most respected.
MOCK: What was the early vision that you and your mom had for your career? What were you looking for?
KARDASHIAN WEST: At the time, there was nothing specific. We were getting calls to do this and that. Our thinking was that maybe there’s power in saying yes to things. I look back on certain business ventures and say, “Well, I wouldn’t do that today.” I did everything from endorse a cupcake mix to travel to Vegas to open up the Sugar Factory. We had so many great experiences along the way, and so many times we thought, “Well, this has got to end soon. We’re only going to do one season.” My initial reasoning for wanting to do the show was to blow up our clothing store. I had to talk my sisters into it. They really didn’t want to do a TV show. I was like, “You guys, it’ll be amazing press for our store.” To think that we just filmed our ten-year anniversary special—it’s crazy to me.
MOCK: But there has to have been something that you really wanted.
KARDASHIAN WEST: Stupid little things. I would look in a magazine—there was this page in Us Weekly that I remember vividly. It’s just a spread, and it has one person and all the fashion moments that they love. I remember looking at it, being like, “It would be my dream to be this person.” I was so excited when I got it. I still don’t take anything for granted. I am genuinely still so excited about my career. I feel like now is when someone would turn off and think, “Okay, I’ve done this for ten years. I’ve done pretty well for myself. I can chill for a bit.” But instead I’m like, “No, let me turn it up.”
MOCK: Someone who mentors me has said that one of the greatest gifts you can ever have as a public person, and a businessperson, is the gift of being underestimated. That sound bite continues to follow you and your family—the sense of, “They have no talent. They’re just famous for being famous.”
KARDASHIAN WEST: I used to say, “I love being underestimated.” But now when I hear, “They’re so not talented,”—ten years into it—I’m kind of like, “Okay, give a girl a little respect.” If I’m so not talented, if I do nothing, then how is my career my reality? And I poke fun at it, like when I was on the cover of Forbes I posted the hashtag #NotBadForAGirlWithNoTalent. I don’t mind being underestimated because it does fuel me. But after a while, I do feel like, “C’mon, you can recognize a little bit.”
MOCK: Well, no one makes something like $14 million in mere hours, like you did during the launch of KKW Beauty. That doesn’t just happen. That takes a lot of thought and planning and work.
KARDASHIAN WEST: You can say a lot of things about me, but you cannot say I don’t work hard. I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I don’t act. But I am not lazy.