What will it take for the Kardashians to get kancelled? No one courts public opinion quite like the reality show family. Between five sisters and their powerhouse momager Kris Jenner, they have a combined Instagram following of more than 1.8 billion and business ventures spanning the wellness, fashion, beauty, alcohol, food and tech industries. With great fame comes intense scrutiny, and the Kardashians have had their fair share. But as their peers become forever tainted by their own controversies – will Will Smith ever not be associated with slapping Chris Rock? Or Olivia Wilde not with the Don’t Worry Darling drama? – the Kardashian reputation remains largely unscathed. Even when we’re all horrified by them.
Earlier this week, both Kim and Kourtney faced an intense backlash for making light of the climate crisis while ignoring their own environmental impact. The eldest of the sisters, Kourtney was named sustainability ambassador of fast fashion brand Boohoo. It’s a match made in Greta Thunberg’s worst nightmares. The Environmental Audit Committee has named Boohoo one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK, while Kourtney regularly flies by private jet and was recently criticised for overusing water during a drought. Kim – who is alleged to have fired up her jet for mere 10-minute flights – punctuated the Kardashian Klimate discourse by simultaneously telling Interview magazine that she “picks and chooses” how to support the environment. “No one’s going to be 100 per cent perfect,” she added.
It all felt like a slap in the face for poor nations across the world who are grappling with the real-life consequences of climate catastrophe. Around 30 million people have been displaced by widespread flooding in Pakistan and it is estimated that a third of the country is currently under water. More than 1,300 people have died, and water-borne diseases are now spreading among flood victims. According to Our World in Data, as of 2020, the country is responsible for just 0.3 per cent of global cumulative CO2 emissions, compared to 4.61 per cent by the UK and 24.56 per cent by the US.
While Kourtney is by no means obligated to use her platform to raise awareness of, well, anything, sustainable fashion activists have accused her of using the very real climate crisis to further her own image and status. Campaigner Venetia La Manna says that the partnership “feels like satire” and “one of the most shameless greenwashing campaigns” she has ever seen from a fashion brand. Fellow advocate Brett Staniland, who previously protested outside a Pretty Little Thing’s runway show, rebuked it as “clickbait for even more sales”. He adds: “[The Kardashians] are the royal family of overconsumption and have churned out products year after year in the name of greed. Even if they claim they do want to save the world, they’re partnering with brands that clearly don’t. The only thing these parties care about is money.” Meanwhile, Celine Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory, says the Kardashians display a “lack of perspective and compassion”, which “cannot afford them the experience and knowledge to act as good stewards of our land and good ambassadors of what human rights represent”.
There was outrage, but little of it seemed to last. Critical headlines blared for a day or two. There were a few dozen viral tweets. We moved on to other things. Perhaps anticipating the backlash, Kourtney herself did not promote her new Boohoo role on any of her social media accounts. Or maybe sustainability isn’t very high on her list of priorities? Perhaps such a role just isn’t worth showing off to her 169 million followers. Come the end of the week, Kim’s fans were treated to a new SKIMS drop, while Kourtney had moved on to teasing the arrival of her upcoming brand, named lemme.
This careful silence before vaulting to the next product launch or tidbit of news is a key component of the Kardashian’s armour against criticism. When a video showing Kim’s advice for women in business (“get your asses up and work… it seems like nobody wants to work these days”) went viral on social media in March, the mogul kept quiet for weeks. In 2014, Kylie Jenner remained silent as people speculated about her ever-growing lip size, even when some young people began using dangerous vacuum devices to try and emulate her bee-stung appearance. Whenever the Kardashians do make statements, their approach is often calculated and deflects responsibility. Long after the Variety interview, Kim told Good Morning America her comments about work were “taken out of context”. Kim’s claim was refuted by Variety’s chief correspondent Elizabeth Wagmeister, who said Kim was asked a “very direct question”.
In other instances, they rely on the power of ignorance. In May, Kim revealed she had lost 16 pounds in three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s Jean Louis gown for this year’s Met Gala. The Kardashians have long been accused of perpetuating harmful beauty ideals, and eating disorder charity Beat said Kim’s rapid weight loss could be “very attractive to those affected by eating disorders, who may treat it as inspiration to carry out dangerous eating disorder behaviours”. In response, Kim said the criticisms were unfair, and that her diet was no different to actors losing weight for an upcoming film role. She was seemingly oblivious to the impossible beauty standards society places on women.
Experts believe the perception that the Kardashians are “detached from reality” – coupled with how much of their lives we see on their reality TV shows – is a key factor in their appeal and the public’s willingness to overlook their mishaps. In a trailer for the new season of their series The Kardashians, Kim is seen saying she was “mortified” by the backlash from the Variety interview. But by the time the show airs, the interview will be more than six months old and just another plot line for viewers’ entertainment. “Not only do they seem otherworldly compared to us and therefore different rules apply,” says psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, “for many of their fans, the Kardashians provide a form of escapism. It’s a part of human nature. We like to be removed from our own humdrum lives to enjoy watching their antics.”
Fans have lauded the family’s impeccable “PR machine”, namely Kris’s impressive distraction tactics. Last month, news of Kim’s split from Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson broke within hours of the news that Khloe Kardashian and Tristan Thompson had welcomed their second child together. One social media user noted the “convenient” timing, adding: “The devil works hard but Kris Jenner works harder.”
Of course, each of these tactics is underpinned by the truth that controversy is central to the Kardashians’ success. They are not at odds with their critics – public opinion is the very thing that allows them to thrive. It’s a feeling echoed by public relations experts like Sophie Attwood. “Ongoing drama with pregnancy, relationships and fights only work to drive interest further,” she tells me. “It doesn’t matter what the Kardashians say or do – audiences will keep listening, watching and buying. Ultimately, they keep the train moving forward at pace. Everyone – albeit some with a slight grumble – sits down for the ride.”