Kimberly Bryant is on the phone with me, explaining why she recently hired a professional manager to help out with her 17-year-old son Marshal’s theater career, when she pauses. “We're at a venue and we're not sure where we're supposed to go,” she explains. “Hang on one second.” Then, to Marshal, “Who sent that email? Chris?” Her son’s voice is muffled in the background. “What did it say?” Bryant asks. “Outside the Cobb Energy Centre? This isn't the Cobb Energy Centre. We need to go across the street. The concert is not here.” And then she snaps back into our conversation. “Okay, sorry — what was I answering for you?”
In addition to ferrying Marshal to shows, classes, and auditions, and working as a pastry chef for local Atlanta celebrities, Bryant, 38, runs the Momager Lifestyle, a website dedicated to offering advice to parents of aspiring performers, covering everything from what types of work permits minors need in different states to how to maintain your own career while you’re also managing your child’s.
Bryan is quick to clarify that she and her readers are not stage mothers: “I'm not an overbearing stage mom. I am not that woman,” she says. She uses the word “momager” to describe herself because, well, she’s managing her son’s schedule the way any other parent might — it’s just that Marshal’s schedule includes professional obligations in addition to friends’ birthday parties and SAT prep courses. And so Bryant’s work as a mom has by necessity become semiprofessional too.
Kris Jenner popularized the word “momager” when she and her family debuted their reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2007; in 2019 she actually trademarked the term. Proclaiming herself a momager was a smart piece of branding on Kris’s part: While most women share Bryant’s disdain for the term “stage mom,” “momager” hasn’t yet been weighed down by so many negative connotations. It still sounds cutely nonthreatening. Momaging, especially the way Jenner does it, is all about turning one’s family life into a sellable lifestyle, and leveraging that lifestyle into a successful brand. It’s a job with ill-defined hours and boundaries, which you can never entirely quit or walk away from. It makes domestic labor not just look and sound like an appealing, engaging pursuit, but it can also make some of that work financially lucrative.
While there’s a lot of mistrust around Jenner’s specific motives, “momager” has become a fun, semi-ironic moniker used equally by mothers who actually manage their children’s nascent performing careers and women who joke about how obsessively they photograph their children and pets. Etsy sellers hawk shirts about “Momaging my tribe,” or one’s dog; naturally there are also onesies for the infant clients of would-be momagers. For Mother’s Day last year, Kylie Jenner released a limited-edition Kylie Cosmetics collection in collaboration with Kris, which featured an illustration of her mother’s face emblazoned on the packaging, and the 10% fee she takes from her children’s checks inscribed in the lenses of her sunglasses. Real Housewife Lisa Rinna is a self-proclaimed momager, as are a host of lesser-known ladies. And that doesn’t even really cover the parents of kidfluencers, children as young as 4 whose social media presences are making bank for their families.
Women who aren’t Kris Jenner, however, quickly find that momaging not all that seamless. That’s why Bryant decided to hire a professional manager for her son last year; she wants him to be as independent as possible, especially since he’s turning 18 soon, at which point he won’t be legally required to have her sign off on his decisions anymore.
“What's more important to you right now?” she asked him before they decided to pursue professional representation. “Is it more important that I'm your mom, or is it more important that I'm running your schedule and telling you what to do all the time?”
Marshal’s response, according to Bryant, was what women trying to have it all have been asking themselves since that impossible idea was first floated: “Can you do both?”
“No,” she told her son. “You’re not gonna like me like that.”
The history of stage moms and momagers, which can be fraught with mistrust between parent and child as well as parent and public, suggests that Bryant’s answer was the right one: No, actually. You can be both, but not effectively, not at the same time.
Parents have been interfering in their children’s lives as long as there have been parents. Soccer moms, for instance, may not be sexy, but they’re basically synonymous with a certain kind of white-bread niceness.
The stage mom, on the other hand, is almost always presented as ghoulish: She tries to force her kids to succeed where she has failed, railroading their desires in favor of her own. Search the term and almost everything you’ll come up with is some kind of diagnostic quiz designed to keep women whose children want to perform from falling into this dreaded trap.
This is perhaps in part because early stage mothers were interfering in the professional realm long before it was considered acceptable for them to do so; performing onstage and then in movies offered a way for single women and their families to earn money at a time when well-paid work for women was otherwise scarce to nonexistent. The celebrity gossip columnist Lloyd Shearer once wrote that “Hollywood has long served as a refuge for widows, divorcees, hookers, the deserted, the dispossessed and the disappointed. For years mothers have brought their daughters here — Loretta Young, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Judy Garland are just a few who quickly come to mind — hoping, plotting, scheming, working to wedge their progeny into the film industry.”
Even now, the income gap between women and men affects who becomes the stage parent in the family. Bryant, whose husband works full time, points out that “somebody has to have a steady income.” Since women make, on average, 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, whose paycheck would you rather rely on? Factor in the housework gender gap, which sees even women with demanding jobs taking on more than their fair share of domestic labor, and it makes perfect sense that most of the parents you see backstage will be moms.
The stigma against stage mothering isn’t all because of sexism, however: A lot of these women legitimately treated their children terribly. Garland’s mother, for instance, famously fed her young daughter speed to keep her spirits up and her weight down; Dorothy Dandridge’s mom Ruby took up with a woman named Geneva Williams, who helped Ruby groom her daughters for the stage with singing and dancing lessons, as well as regular beatings. This tradition of abuse has been continued by modern stage parents, who have mismanaged funds and straight-up embezzled from their kids.
All of which adds up to a culture that has traditionally portrayed stage moms as little more than boogeymen: from Mama Rose, the stifling, power-hungry mother in the 1959 Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy to the women of reality shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and Dance Moms, we’ve been trained to equate stage mothering with rapacious greed and narcissistic delusions of grandeur.
Then came Kris Jenner. Jenner was the person who pitched Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Ryan Seacrest Productions in 2007. (She’s reportedly now in “tight negotiations” with the company on contracts that will take KUWTK into its 21st season.) She was already managing the public speaking career of her then-spouse, Caitlyn Jenner, so when KUWTK debuted, it made sense that she would start managing Kim’s career as well, handling media requests and booking her daughter’s appearances on magazine covers and in local fashion shows.
Many early episodes of KUWTK center on friction between Kris and her daughters about Kris’s momaging: In the show’s second episode, Kris double-books Kim, and Kim gets so mad that she interviews a couple of new managerial candidates before ultimately deciding to stick with Kris. In the third season, Kourtney takes Kris on as a manager only to find that on the day of her big photo shoot, her mom has forgotten all about her and headed to San Diego Comic-Con with Kim. It made for good television — family dramas heightened by professional stakes — and that is perhaps why Kris still manages all of her children, helping them arrange everything from sponsored content deals to starting their own businesses. For all of this, she takes a 10% fee for her work.
Kris sees her management duties as part and parcel of her work as a mother. “I felt like I had a responsibility … to use the show for a springboard for something permanent, something lasting for the kids,” Jenner writes in her 2011 autobiography, Kris Jenner…And All Things Kardashian. “I was responsible for their futures. I took my job very seriously.”
It makes sense that Kris would be thinking about providing for herself and her family, since she had already endured a divorce, from her first husband Robert Kardashian Sr., that had left her completely broke. After leaving Robert, she writes in Kris Jenner, she realized that “I had never paid a bill. I didn’t even know how much we paid the gardener. I had no money — not one dollar — to my name. It never occurred to me before that moment in this dark time that I had no power.”
At that point, she made a resolution that this was “a situation [she] would never be in again.” And so despite her claim that she’d taken Caitlyn from having $200 in her bank account when they met to being a sought-after public speaker, Kris still wasn’t satisfied: She knew how quickly it could all go away again. And her youngest kids, Kendall and Kylie, were 12 and 10, respectively — legitimate dependents who needed their mom to be solvent.
The rest of her children, though, weren’t really kids anymore; Kim was 26 when Keeping Up With the Kardashians first began airing, while Rob, the youngest of her adult children, was 20. Most of Kris’s babies were old enough that they could reasonably be expected to be in charge of building their own futures. A different parent might have been more interested in encouraging individual independence than in finding a way to establish a source of communal, generational wealth.
But that’s not Kris Jenner’s style. Instead of pushing her children out of the nest, Kris created a role that would make her continually inextricable from her children’s financial success. Her refusal to allow her children to succeed or fail on their own terms toes the line between a parent’s natural protective instincts and the kind of overprotective stance that ultimately hinders a child’s ability to grow.
Which is, unfortunately, not uncommon these days — we saw a particularly nasty strain of this kind of parenting in the recent college admissions scandal, in which celebrity parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman paid tens of thousands of dollars to fake their kids’ test scores and athletic accomplishments on college applications. Instead of insisting that their kids work hard and trusting that they could handle disappointment, these parents sought to protect their children so thoroughly that their protection actually inflicted its own kind of psychological (as well as reputational) damage on them.
Parents who treat their children this way are often also trying to protect themselves: They see their kids’ accomplishments as evidence of their own worth and success, so they’re driven to make those accomplishments as intimidating and visible as possible. It’s not enough to have a generally happy, healthy child; “You want your son or daughter to not only do well, but to look like they're doing well to others,” Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained in a recent interview.
Bonnie Wallace, who works as a consultant to parents of fledgling child performers, says parents’ need to prove that their children are successful accounts for a certain amount of stage parenting — and ultimately, creates a strain on the relationships between parent and child. “I think there's a problem in our society in general right now with parents who over-identify with their kids,” she says, “and that leads to really troublesome results. You want them to reflect on you like your kids are some kind of designer accessory.”
Wallace, 54, who has published a book about this subject (The Hollywood Parents Guide: Your Roadmap to Pursuing Your Child’s Dream) and hosts a podcast called Hometown to Hollywood, has plenty of practice navigating this boundary: her daughter Dove Cameron convinced Wallace to move to Los Angeles from Seattle so she could pursue a career as an actor when Cameron was just 14. It proved to be a worthwhile gamble: Cameron, now 23, was cast in both of the title roles on the Disney show Liv and Maddie, for which she won a Daytime Emmy in 2018.
“I was effectively Dove's manager for years,” Wallace explains. “Until she had a career to manage, and then at that point — and you know when that point is, when all of a sudden, projects are starting to happen, jobs are starting to show up — that's when you want to start finding a professional manager and do a graceful handoff.”
It’s hard not to end up involved with your child’s career when they’re still a child, Wallace acknowledges, but “if your kid is lucky enough to be in a place where professional management is a good idea, and you don't help them get a real manager, you're selling your kid short on two incredibly important fronts. You're not letting them have the management they deserve, and not acting in your full capacity as a parent. It's not healthy for the relationship, and it's not great for the kid's career.”
Plus, as Bryant points out, it’s probably not great for your own sense of self to have your personal and professional lives tied up in one person. “I want to make sure I'm not just becoming ‘Marshal's mother,’ or ‘Marshal's manager,’” she says. “Marshal's mother has her own job. She owns multiple companies. I have an identity that is separate from him.” To that end, when Marshal’s schedule got hectic and required her to travel with him regularly, Bryant shifted the bulk of her work teaching pastry-making classes from in person to online so that she could keep working while they were on the road.
Both Bryant and Wallace want to make sure that it’s clear that they’re in their children’s lives primarily as mothers, not managers. “I always look to Usher and his mom, where she worked as his manager for so many years and they fell out,” Bryant says. “I was like, I would not want to fall out with my kid.” Usher’s mother Jonnetta Patton managed his career until right around her son’s 2007 engagement to now-ex-wife Tameka Foster. Patton refused to attend the wedding, sparking rumors that she’d fallen out with Usher over Foster. Over the years, their relationship has remained publicly rocky.
Wallace saw similar cautionary tales. She notes that during her first years in LA, the people in her life who’d warned her that she and Dove were chasing a foolish dream switched to warning her that Dove’s success could come at a price.
“We got this second layer of blowback, like, ‘Well, you know, I hope she doesn't go off the rails, like you know who, and you know who, and you know who,’” Wallace says. “The thing about the kids who end up making headlines for going off the rails is that those kids almost always have some kind of broken relationship with their parents. And what underlies that, most commonly, is disagreements about money and career direction. You just know that the parents were too involved in the wrong way with their kids' career, and if there had been a firewall there to protect that relationship, things could have gone differently.”
Wallace views her relationship with Cameron — and all parents’ relationships with their kids — as “sacred.”
“Nothing is worth destroying that sacred relationship,” she says.
While for some women, being a momager feels like a healthy alternative to the title of stage mom, the general public doesn’t seem particularly interested in the distinction. In 2018, the New Statesman reported that the week of the Kardashian/Jenners’ triple pregnancy announcement, searches for “Kris Jenner devil” spiked — and they did so again six or seven months later when Kylie and Khloe announced the births of their daughters. Many of those searches were likely for some version of this viral tweet’s sentiment (“the Devil works, but Kris Jenner works harder”), which neatly sums up the way we see our OG Momager: as a charming, beguiling, and an ice-cold master puppeteer who’s not above pulling the strings on her own children if it will add another zero on the end of their already massive fortunes.
For most women in history, that kind of reputation would have been hobbling; even now, if you’re not famous, there’s not a lot of love for ladies who are seen as ambitious and manipulative. But something about the sheer mass of Jenner’s power, combined with our current cultural vogue for unlikable heroines, means that she’s been able to make it work for her. We stan an evil queen; we attribute everything that happens to the Kardashians to her behind-the-scenes work, sometimes going to near conspiracy theory–level lengths to try to figure out how it all fits into The Ultimate Momager’s master plan.
Which means that Jenner and the momaging she represents isn’t just aspirational because of the wealth and power they imply; it’s also because she’s gotten so rich by turning her most highly despised character traits into cash. She’s transformed her stage moming into a source of power, something you can’t shame her for because she claims it so brazenly, and does it so immaculately well. You might not like Kris Jenner — many people don’t — but she’s the living embodiment of fuck the haters, whose negative attention is currency for her, just as the positive kind is.
So it’s tempting for the rest of us to imagine that momager will work for us the way it does for Kris: that using the word will make space for women to be demanding and wildly successful, to not care about whether anyone likes us or not because we’re too busy raking in cash.
But that’s not how it works. “Momager” is a rebrand, and like most rebrands, it offers a new aesthetic and not much else. Momaging can be used to acknowledge the hybrid personal/professional role women fall into when their kids start working; beyond that, though, it isn’t really doing us any good. The word doesn’t magically erase the very real conflicts of interest between parenting someone and managing their career. Momaging also doesn’t meaningfully elevate the status of motherhood in our culture; instead, it makes the job more nebulously defined, more demanding, and ultimately more suspect when we see mothers and suspect them of trying to monetize a deeply personal, intimate, and singular relationship.
The idea is that momaging protects children from the big bad outside world — “Who else is going to take care of me like my mom?” Kim asks after deciding not to fire Kris as her manager in the first season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
But it also puts the managed kid in a position where they can never be 100% sure if they’re getting advice as a child or as a client. Even Kris’s own children are aware of the friction here: “It’s like a high-paid prostitute,” Khloe says of her mother’s relationship to Caitlyn, in a third season KUWTK conversation with Kourtney about whether she should take Kris on as a manager. “They sleep together, and she gets 10%. What kind of life is that?”
Social media has made it easier than ever for us to sell ourselves: to generate what feels like passive income — in the form of likes and their aura of social approval, and even sometimes actual money — just by documenting the most attractive and/or interesting parts of our lives. There’s an extent to which we’re all our own momagers, managing our personal and professional lives and as they collide and combine, establishing ourselves as people and then figuring out how to spin those people into consumable brands.
So momaging is perfectly of the moment and, in that way, very specifically dangerous: It embodies cultural trends toward personal branding and hyper-involved parenting so neatly that it can be hard to see it for what it is. “What’s water?” one fish asks another in an often repeated joke about the things we’re too immersed in to notice. What’s momaging except doing the things mothers are supposed to do: making their children as successful as humanly possible, and showing the world about how good they are at doing it?
But as stories like Kimberly Bryant’s and Bonnie Wallace’s illustrate, momaging in action is complicated and fraught; it forces those who do it to ask tough questions about what they value, and how they value it. For Bryant, those are the real questions that momagers who aren’t already famous have to grapple with. “How do you get your kid to the spaces they need to be in if you don't have a name like Jenner or Kardashian?” she wonders. “How do you become somebody?” And how do you do it without damaging your relationship to your child or yourself in the process?
It’s all about the unsexy, adult work of setting boundaries: acknowledging that we can’t be everything to our children, to one another, or even for ourselves. The fantasy of momaging that famous women like Kris Jenner present gives short shift to the very real demands of mothering and of managing: It insists that they can and should be seamlessly combined, and that no one and nothing will suffer in the process. ●
Zan Romanoff is a freelance writer and author of A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever. She lives and works in Los Angeles.