The GIF of Kim Kardashian West, dripping wet in a black bathing suit, clutching her earlobes and crying “My diamond earring fell in the ocean!” is reality TV lore. It’s from a 2011 episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, an incredibly boring and yet interminable (until now) show about a family of famous women with impressive waist-to-hip ratios. But this moment from the series is lore for good reason.
Kourtney appears from her hotel room holding her oldest son, Mason, on her hip. The camera barely focuses in on Kourtney’s face because she’s so far away, but she then delivers the most deadpan line in the history of reality television in the last 30 years: “Kim, there's people that are dying.”
Deadly. It’s accurate and ruthless, cutting through Kim’s moment of plaintive selfishness with a calm reminder of the fact that she can afford $75,000 diamond earrings, and that she lost one while on a trip to Bora Bora so maybe she should just shut up for five minutes. Kourtney Kardashian’s time on the show was filled with moments like these. She was sometimes the protagonist, usually only because her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Scott Disick, kept fucking up. But more often than not, Kourtney was a surrogate audience member, reminding her sisters that they’re worthless.
So it goes. Earlier this week, Kim posted on Instagram that after 14 years and 20 seasons, Keeping Up With the Kardashians will be ending after one final season, set to air in early 2021. The family’s simultaneous posts about the finale seem to suggest it’s the Kardashians that are walking away from the show. Indeed, despite dipping ratings, the show is still one of E!’s more relevant products.
Conjecture about the reason for the show’s ending will likely be rooted around Kanye West, Kim’s husband and possible president-elect. (I mean, what, you’re gonna pretend you know how this is going to go, after the last four years? Sure. Whatever will get you to November.) In the last few years, and increasingly in the last few months, West’s public behavior has become more concerning, and often very dark, but I doubt that it’s the real reason why the show is ending.
That would be too simple. KUWTK, after all, is a product the Kardashian/Jenner family uses to control media narratives about themselves. They used the show to PR their way out of the alleged Tristan Thompson/Jordyn Woods affair (thwarted only by Red Table Talk, of all things), the Kylie Jenner baby news, the Kendall-Jenner-thinks-Pepsi-will-solve-police-brutality misstep. Their real-life scandals often become promotion for the show, while the series itself is a press conference for their real lives. They get to sit under soft lighting, answering softball questions, knowing that no matter how hard they fuck up, they have a soft place to land. There is no comments section to deal with, unlike with a YouTube apology or a Notes app Twitter post; television isn’t a participatory sport.
It was always true that the only person who could destroy this dynasty would have to come from within. Blac Chyna came close when she gave birth to the only Black child in the family with the surname Kardashian. “And so the Kardashians, a family often accused of stealing black men, black features, and black culture, got beat at their own game by a black woman,” Sylvia Obell wrote for BuzzFeed News in 2016. But the only person who could take down the Kardashian franchise needed to be one of their own. Enter: Kourtney.
More often than not, Kourtney was a surrogate audience member, reminding her sisters that they’re worthless.
“Kim, there's people that are dying” is an exceptional burn, but there’s a more recent example of Kim and Kourtney coming to blows over their respective personality types. Back in March — before the quarantine got real, when people could fight without masks, god, we were so young then — in the season premiere, Kim, Kourtney, Kendall, and Khloé were arguing about who works the hardest. Kim, as usual, reminds Kourtney that she works less than herself or Khloé, the two workhorses of the family. This is an old but consistent argument between these two women: Kim believes she works harder, seemingly because her accomplishments are more tangible. She has a makeup, fragrance, and clothing line. She’s on more magazine covers and does the most interviews. She’s the most famous and appears the most frequently on KUWTK. She does the work to ensure that the Kardashians remain not just rich people in Los Angeles, but a dynasty, impossible to topple.
From there, the argument goes off the rails pretty fast: Kim and Kourtney start slapping and kicking each other. The proof of their fight is on the wall; Kourtney slaps Kim so hard her cheek makes contact, and a strip of beige foundation is left on Khloé’s pristine white surface.
It’s the most extreme example of a fight that’s been going on between Kourtney and Kim for years now. They fight because Kourtney doesn’t want to rearrange her schedule to take the family Christmas card photo, which goes viral almost every year for its dystopian eeriness. (This haunted house one is of particular note for me.) They fight because Kourtney is on her phone too much and doesn’t want to connect with the rest of them (while cameras hover over them, as if that’s the perfect condition for raw, technology-free intimacy). They fight about having candy at a Candy Land–themed party because Kourtney thinks sugar ages you and has maybe forgotten that this is an event for literal children who have enough collagen for at least a few more years. Over the course of a decade and a half, Kourtney has clearly become less interested in the show, and less interested in having her fame be reliant on the series. That’s partly because Kourtney doesn’t seek out the same kind of fame her sisters do.
While Kendall and Kylie essentially grew up becoming more and more famous the older they got, Kim and Khloé (and Kris) are still largely working in 2000s-era fame, where paparazzi and narrative control are important. Unsurprisingly, they’re also the ones who seemed the most enthused about continuing the show, year after year, despite having to display their blunders and humiliations on camera. The show is important to them as a way to control their public narratives — don’t get me wrong, Kris Humphries sucks, but would we have the same amount of compassion for Kim had we not watched her marriage implode in record time? KUWTK gave us a view into their marriage that no People cover or Instagram story could provide, one where we actually felt sorry for Kim. Like, ugh, she had to give back so many presents.
But Kourtney has adapted to a new kind of fame, similar to the youngest of the brood, Kylie Jenner. She’s a lifestyle blogger on Poosh, her wellness website that talks about skincare routines, motherhood, stretches that can improve your sex life, vegan chocolate chip cookie dough recipes, energy orgasms (what???), biodegradable glitter (this is just mad libs at this point), and keto salads. It’s all the sort of stuff that I imagine would make Gwyneth Paltrow and the staff at Goop quake ever so slightly. On Instagram, Kourtney has fewer followers than her sisters — 101 million, how pedestrian — but it’s hardly a paltry number. Her Instagram posts seem less like those of someone who’s already Calabasas rich, Late Show with David Letterman–appearance rich, and more like someone who’s influencer rich. She’s certainly acting like it — in the summer, she posted a few photos with semi-famous TikTok teen, Addison Rae (is no one social-distancing?), and was spotted out for dinner with her, too. (Rae is also featured in Kim’s latest Skims advertising campaign.)
Maybe for Kourtney, this is enough. The money she makes — less than her sisters — is enough, because it still means she and her family will forever be rich. Her notoriety and name recognition — less than her sisters — is enough, because it still provides her privilege and cachet and the ability to get into whatever raw vegan restaurant she wants. It’s enough because Kourtney yearns for a more low-key kind of fame. If she really didn’t want to be famous, there would be a million ways to hunker down and avoid the public eye. Instead, she wants fame on her terms completely; even KUWTK means she doesn’t own the full narrative. But she does have control over Poosh, on Instagram, and increasingly, on TikTok.
Another legendary argument between Kourtney and Kim happened in 2018, this time over that Christmas card picture Kourtney didn’t really want to take, and it ended with Kim hurling what she thinks is the most cutting insult you could possibly deliver to a Kardashian. “Maybe if you had a fucking business that you were passionate about, then would know what it takes to run a fucking business, but you don’t,” she said. “She’s the least exciting to look at.”
It’s enough because Kourtney yearns for a more low-key kind of fame. If she really didn’t want to be famous, there would be a million ways to hunker down and avoid the public eye.
But that’s actually the opposite of Kourtney’s problem. She’s objectively incredible to look at. At 41, she’s maybe the best looking of all her sisters, the Kardashian/Jenner least likely to be accused of Facetuning herself online, and somehow the one who looks the youngest even though Kylie is a tender 23. The problem isn’t that Kourtney isn’t an exciting visual — it’s that she’s all visual. Like a lot of her influencer peers, her worth is in the aesthetic, in the beauty of what she’s selling. Do you want to read about a keto salad from just anyone, or from someone who looks like Kourtney Kardashian?
This is the misunderstood part of influencer fame. A lot of people think the way to get it is by overexposing yourself until you’re everywhere, until people know every inch of you. That can help, but it also can make you nothing more than a flash in the pan. Part of influencer fame is restraint, which isn’t something neither Kourtney nor her family have been known for. If you hold a bit back, people will ask for more.
Plus, she’s the oldest child, with the oldest children. Mason, who’s now 10, can watch his family’s worst moments on national television basically anytime he wants. He can watch his dad shove money in a waiter’s mouth and say, “Shut your fucking mouth,” or tell his mother that her ideal weight should be 93 pounds. Mason can watch his dad cheat on his mom, get drunk and go to rehab and then back again, on a loop.
At the same time, Mason is now old enough to be on TikTok himself — he’s already pretty online, so it seems — which means Kourtney and her little family could be starting a new kind of fame dynasty. Instead of one born out of club appearances, paparazzi shots, and sex tapes, this one is more holistic for the times. If she’s pivoting more into lifestyle blogging, monetizing her role as “mother” above her role as “public object of interest,” her children could eventually join her. Mason could start a TikTok of his own, dancing and hawking his uncle’s hideous sock collection. Maybe one day Penelope will have a YouTube channel, and Reign a customizable face mask line sold exclusively on Instagram. Whatever it may be, Kourtney knows she’s getting older, and being in the zeitgeist requires adaptation. A few of her sisters think they can bend the world toward themselves; Kourtney knows it’s she who needs to be flexible.
“I work my fucking ass off,” Kourtney says to Kim right before they go to blows, Kim’s expensive foundation moments away from streaking along a wall. “We don’t all have to do things the same way.” ●
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Kourtney's statement to Kim.