Although Real World was the mother of reality television and Survivor and Big Brother pushed it to a new level, reality superstardom didn’t truly arrive until Keeping up with the Kardashians. Sure, we had had Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey on Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica but both of their music careers had fizzled out and their show was a last resort. They had been somebodies who were well on their way to becoming nobodies.
Keeping up with the Kardashians is an amazing feat in that it is simply a show that focuses on the various siblings, half siblings, parents and stepparents of a quintessentially Los Angeles family that had been on the periphery of the entertainment industry. No one is particularly smart or beautiful or educated. Yet there was money (some) and access (some) to the entertainment industry and something of a pedigree – albeit in a Byzantine manner. For instance: Elvis Presley’s girlfriend at the time of his death – Linda Thompson – later married former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner who himself later married Kris Houghton – mother of Kim Kardashian This, apparently, was enough for producer Ryan Seacrest to take a gamble and his gamble paid off.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians is immensely popular, has spawned numerous spin-offs, has made Kim Kardashian a superstar and has made her other family members stars, if not quite so super as Kim. She has accomplished nothing of note aside from being herself. The only historical pop culture reference that comes to mind is the Gabor family – sisters Magda, Zsa Zsa, Eva and their mother, Jolie. The three sisters had 19 marriages among them and Magda and Zsa Zsa even shared one husband in common: George Sanders. Unlike the Kardashians, the Gabors acted between personal antics. Perhaps that was simply because the medium of reality television was unavailable during their reign. It certainly does not take a stretch of the imagination to visualize “Keeping Up with the Gabors.”
However, the Gabors were envied and coveted for their beauty and the Kardashians are envied and coveted for their fame. Their popularity is a reflection of our society’s current values: as fame has diluted and become easier to achieve the Kardashians present a template for those who want to achieve similar levels of success. Kim has managed to work her way all the way up the entertainment industry’s food chain, from Ray J to Kanye West.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians is also the first (but likely not the last) show that would not exist, save for a sex tape. Kim’s private sexual antics with musician Ray J were filmed in 2003 and leaked, conveniently, in February 2007. In October of 2007, Keeping Up with Kardashians premiered. The advance publicity generated by the sex tape and ensuing legal settlement created significant buzz for the series. Rob Lowe’s tape chilled his career; Pamela Anderson’s kept hers going and Kim Kardashians’ launched hers. Of the three tapes, Kardashians’ is also the most sexually graphic and closely resembles commercial pornography.
Since the 1990s there have been a few moments where it appeared as if society might win out in the war against the paparazzi: the death of Princess Diana and the brief “shallow news” blackout post-9/11 come to mind. But neither ignited any significant movement. What has had endurance, however, is the impact of Us magazine relaunching as a celebrity gossip weekly through the leadership of its cutting edge former editor in chief, Bonnie Fuller.
What Fuller did with Us Weekly was recognize that there was a large swath of society that needed permission to indulge in celebrity voyeurism so she took what had been the domain of supermarket checkout lines – the tabloid – and glossed it up, reduced the word count and upped the visuals. Suddenly, what had been a “closet read” became acceptable.
Us Weekly was wildly successful and had enormous impact on publishing. It contributed to the proliferation of gossip blogs such as Perez Hilton, guaranteed that the paparazzi would always be needed to fill a bottomless pit of content, shortened copy drastically, and ensured that the term “celebrity” would continue its redefinition.
Ultimately, Fuller pushed journalism down to the level of the tabloids – a formula she would later repeat, albeit in reverse, for Star magazine.
Cable television and, even more so, the Internet presents a relentless and ever-expanding appetite for content. Content can mean D-list celebrities (think Octomom and Coco) on obscure blogs or it can mean increasingly shallow “journalism” that seem designed primarily to encourage accidental click-throughs to weight loss advertisements. We’ve gone from “10 Tips” to “5 Tricks” to “3 Secrets” and, of course, 140 characters.