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How Keeping Up With The Kardashians became a pop culture phenomenon

The Kardashian sisters – Kourtney, Kim, Khloe – as well as their mother Kris Jenner, became internationally famous thanks to their reality TV show (PA)
The Kardashian sisters – Kourtney, Kim, Khloe – as well as their mother Kris Jenner, became internationally famous thanks to their reality TV show (PA)

Keeping Up With The Kardashians, an unlikely pop culture phenomenon, is coming to an end after 14 years and 20 series.

The reality TV sensation arrived in 2007 and has since entertained millions of fans by providing a front-row seat to the glamorous lives of the Kardashian-Jenner family.

Kardashian sisters Kim, Kourtney and Khloe – as well as their half-siblings Kendall and Kylie Jenner – have become global superstars, all under the guidance of matriarch and “momager” Kris Jenner.

Kim Kardashian West
Kim Kardashian West became a household name around the world thanks to her family’s wildly successful reality TV show (Jennifer Graylock/PA)

Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which begins airing its final series this week, brought the family huge fame and fortune – but how did it happen?

Media executive Ted Harbert was overseeing the E! network in 2007 and revealed the series almost never was.

Harbert told the PA news agency his staff rejected Keeping Up With The Kardashians before American Idol host and show creator Ryan Seacrest urged him to take a look at the sizzle reel he had put together.

He said: “He sent it to me that day, I took it home that night and looked at it. If I remember correctly it was just seven minutes of a barbecue put together. And I went in the next day and said to my staff, ‘we’re putting this on the air. This is a hit.’”

The sizzle reel – a short teaser video – featured the Kardashian-Jenner family at a Sunday backyard barbecue and Harbert, then president and CEO of the Comcast Entertainment Group, spotted the makings of a TV juggernaut.

Despite the objections of his baffled staff – they complained the soon-to-be stars “don’t really have talent, they don’t really do anything” – Harbert knew he had found gold.

Hairfinity UK Launch Party – London
Khloe Kardashian (left) and Kim Kardashian West have launched successful businesses since becoming reality TV stars (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

He said: “This follows a classic family drama formula, which I’d done a lot of in my life at ABC. It’s the oldest formula in the book and this one follows it exactly to the tee.

“They fight, they scream, but at the end they really love each other. And that had a lot to do with Kris as the matriarch pulling the whole family together after whatever they were fighting about.”

Keeping Up With The Kardashians was an instant hit and grew in popularity throughout its earlier seasons.

It was particularly popular among younger viewers, a much sought-after demographic for advertisers.

The family was able to capitalise on its success to build business empires, encompassing fashion, video games and beauty.

Kim and Kylie now preside over global cosmetics companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars,  businesses built largely through exploiting the vast social media followings the reality show attracted.

Kylie Jenner
Kylie Jenner owns a cosmetics business that made her enormously wealthy (PA)

Mary Murphy, an award-winning journalist, pop culture expert and associate professor at the USC Annenberg School, said a mastery of social media has been key to the success of the Kardashian-Jenners.

She told PA: “They were raised by the internet. They understood social media. They were really the prototype for future influencers.

“That’s what made them so interesting – many people in reality TV have products they want to sell, face creams or whatever. But they don’t sell it on their show.

“The Kardashians did. They used their show to brand their products. So they emerged, not just as reality TV stars, but as reality TV stars who created this worldwide empire.”

Keeping Up With The Kardashians has followed its stars through marriage, divorce, children, scandal, business success and, in Caitlyn Jenner, taught America how to discuss transition, according to Murphy.

It influenced a generation of women, Murphy said. And all while the women at the heart of the show stuck together as the men – including Kardashian brother Rob and Kourtney’s ex-partner Scott Disick – remained peripheral figures.

Murphy said: “So it’s not only this show, it’s everything they have done in their lives through the show that has made a difference.

“And I think the theme is, you can be a billionaire, and you can be married to famous people, and you can be a famous model, or you can have a famous body, you can have children, and when each one of those things falls apart, the one thing you still have is the family.”

She added: “Many people in the family have left or broken up – but not the women. They’re still together. So in a sense if you were going to say they were a positive role model, I’d say that part is.”

Not everyone, however, would describe the Kardashian-Jenners as positive role models.

Throughout the show’s run, bewildered TV critics have hammered the series, though their protestations appeared to have little impact on ratings.

And the family has been criticised for setting unrealistic beauty standards. Kim’s body especially has been pored over in the media.

Astrid Longhurst, body confidence expert and author, said Kim turned her body into a multimillion dollar brand.

She told PA: “Whether you view Kim Kardashian’s body shape as a celebration of curves or as an unrealistic image that needs the help of cosmetic surgery to achieve it, there is no denying that her body and how she ‘uses’ it stirs up feelings, emotions, aspirations, condemnation and, in some cases, anger.

“This in itself shows the power of the body and Kim Kardashian wears her body as her brand and her brand is her business.”

Kim, inarguably the show’s star, is facing the close of the series as she encounters the reality of the end of her marriage.

The mother-of-four filed for divorce from Kanye West in February, signalling the end for one of the most talked-about showbiz marriage of the decade.

While once dismissed as just a reality TV star, the 40-year-old has become a prominent criminal justice reform campaigner in the US and is studying for a law degree.

She made multiple visits to Donald Trump’s White House and a potential career in politics has been suggested. It should not be ruled out, according to Murphy.

She said: “If reality TV created a television president, why can’t it create a television senator?”

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