Kylie Jenner is rarely alone in photographs. If she’s not posing with one of her sisters — sporting rose gold spandex in an ad for a Kylie Cosmetics collaboration with Khloé, or wearing matching flesh-colored bodysuits with Kim as promo for their joint makeup collection — then she’s likely to be captured twinning with one of her girlfriends on the ‘gram.
Until February, that girl would have been Jordyn Woods, Kylie’s middle school BFF and closest confidant. But then TMZ broke the hugely scandalous, widely read news that Woods had hooked up with Tristan Thompson, the father of Khloé’s daughter, at a party at Thompson’s house. (Woods said that Thompson kissed her briefly, but that was all that happened.)
Kylie deleted photos of Jordyn from her Instagram, and then unfollowed her. The pair are apparently amicable but no longer close. So lately, when Kylie needs someone to pose with her in a set of Balenciaga crushed velvet minidresses or sheer Missoni maxis, she calls on Anastasia Karanikolaou, a YouTuber and Instagram model much better known as Stassie Baby, to be her double.
Kyile’s followers noticed the switch: “I love how Kylie rarely acknowledged stass when her and jordyn were bffs and now that jordyn isn’t in the pic Kylie is all up stass’s ass again lol,” Twitter user @canudoublenot noted in June.
Kylie’s habit of using another woman — as Jordyn and Stassie’s interchangeability demonstrates, it doesn’t seem to matter much which one — as part of her brand is nothing new for the Kardashian/Jenner family. They have always drawn power in part from the promise of women’s solidarity and sisterly closeness, often gilding their girl power with a sexualized edge. And they’ve solidified their “girl’s girl” bonafides by touting tight friendships with other women. (After all, Kim’s first claim to fame was as Paris Hilton’s BFF and stylist.)
When Larsa Pippen split from then-husband Scottie, tabloids circulated a rumor that Kourtney was keeping her afloat financially; Khloé’s best friend Malika Haqq briefly had her own KUWTK spinoff, Dash Dolls. Kendall and BFF Gigi Hadid did a super-cute ad campaign for Chanel in 2016, which saw the pair sliding around a hotel room in haute couture and sock feet. Before they broke up, Kylie went so far as to “marry” Jordyn in a traditional Peruvian commitment ceremony in the season finale of her own KUWTK spinoff, Life of Kylie.
The Kardashian Cinematic Universe contains many characters: the sisters themselves (as well as lone brother, reclusive Rob); their husbands, boyfriends, baby daddies, and exes; their children, now numbering nine in total; and their glam squads and assistants, who also sometimes double as friends (see figures like Hrush Achemyan and Stephanie Shepherd).
The men in their lives affirm the Kardashian women’s desirability (and their closeness to and often problematic ties with the black community); the children remind us that they are fertile goddess mamas, whose abundant sexuality is being put to its proper use. Their employee-friends demonstrate that they have the taste and money to hire good help — but also that they’re too fun and personable to set anything as boring as “boundaries” in a workplace.
But above all, the Kardashians’ world is a girl world: They would never use this language, but watching them, you get the sense that their lives are a safe space for the feminine. They live in a land where spending hours getting your makeup done isn’t a waste of time, but rather an event worthy of a 20-minute YouTube video — a place where the only people grabbing at your boobs or your butt will be your sisters praising your sexiness or giving you a good-natured hard time. Anyone who’s tried it will tell you that being a woman is difficult, and often we feel like we aren’t quite getting it right. But the Kardashians seem to have it all figured out: They are a sorority of beauty queens, girls who know how to be girls, and how to get along with other girls.
Everything the Kardashians let us see is part of a carefully crafted image, something they think will help them make more money. They sell us a fantasy version of themselves, attempting to physically embody our aspirations. So what are all of these other women doing in the picture, these girlfriends, their fraternal twins? What does the way the Kardashians telegraph their vision of sisterhood tell us about how they want to be seen, and what they think we want to buy from them?
To some extent, publicizing and promoting friendships with civilians (or just less-famouses) is a smart move for any celebrity looking to seem relatable. There’s nothing more charming than a famous person who doesn’t care how famous her friends are; it shows that she’s grounded in other people’s lives, not just wrapped up in the dramas of her own. Think of Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps — it’s very humanizing when Michelle takes Busy to premieres and awards shows, demonstrating her willingness to trade the opportunity to debut some arm candy (and maybe be the subject of buzzy gossip) for a night with someone she actually likes.
But it was Taylor Swift, of course, who took the BFFs-as-branding practice to the next level with the girl squad that dominated her social media and occasionally appeared on her concert stages around the time she released the album 1989. “The friends Swift chooses to present to the world serve to support crucial, carefully crafted components of Swift’s image,” Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a piece about the squad in 2015. In other words, Swift used a group of women like Lena Dunham and the Haim sisters to round herself out, to give her image dimension and depth beyond the established media narrative of a boy-crazy man-eater. They suggested the selves Taylor couldn’t or wouldn’t show us directly: her politics and the subtleties of her taste.
The Kardashians, on the other hand, seem to mostly be surrounded by women who live — and look — a lot like themselves. Their girlfriends affirm but never outshine them, acting like a hall of mirrors, always guiding our eye back to Kim, Kylie, Kourtney, or Khloé from whom everything originates, and to which everything returns. Taylor used her friends to expand her brand; the Kardashians use theirs to fortify and amplify their message.
While Swift’s friendships, like the rest of her image, were insistently wholesome, the Kardashians’ friendships are more explicitly sexualized. They take the intimate physical language of sisterhood and walk it right up to the edge of pornographic, giving us images of smooth, tanned limbs intertwined and open mouths almost touching, a visual code that manages to simultaneously imply narcissistic self-fetish, the possibility of queer desire, and at the same time their willingness to perform for the male gaze.
The use of lady lookalikes to titillate is nothing new: “Seducing a lookalike can be read as a self-empowerment narrative,” Shannon Keating recently wrote in an essay on the phenomenon. But the Kardashians don’t just seduce their lookalikes — first, they create them. There’s a distinctly autoerotic flavor to the idea of Kylie styling Stassie Baby, a woman who’s already had some of the same cosmetic enhancements as Kylie (both use lip fillers to plump their pouts; Stassie has also had two breast augmentations). It’s almost like Kylie puts the two of them in matching outfits because she literally cannot get enough of the way she herself looks.
There’s also an extent to which the Kardashians display their hot bodies and the hot bodies of their friends the same way straight men show off the women in their lives: as desirable objects, proof of the power they wield.
Kylie, in particular, is eager to express power in masculine terms. While Kim is the president of Kimsaprincess Inc., Kylie’s company is named King Kylie (also her Snapchat and YouTube usernames). The phrase brings to mind Cher’s mother advising her to settle down and marry a rich man, to which Cher responded, “Mom, I am a rich man.” The ultimate expressions of wealth in our culture involve showing off property, cars, and access to other people’s bodies, particularly women’s; King Kylie is a rich man, and Stassie Baby looks great half naked on her Instagram.
Finally, presenting an army of doppelgängers gives the Kardashians an opportunity to demonstrate just how powerful their command of our culture is. The photographs of women styled to look like Kim that Kanye West used to promote his Yeezy sneakers in 2018 — which included her former BFF and onetime employer Paris Hilton, done up in Kim drag — demonstrated that her aesthetic is both omnipresent and also clearly branded. If you see long straight hair and a dark tan in skin-toned Spandex, your brain knows it means Kim K. The message is: Everyone wants to look like me, and I love to look like myself. Clearly, it resonates.
Beyond making their friends a part of their bid for Instagram followers and influence, which they translate into cash via sponsored content deals, the Kardashians also sometimes use their friends to literally co-brand their products. In late 2018, Khloé and Malika Haqq collaborated for cosmetics company Becca on a capsule collection called #BeccaBFFs, which “curates the perfect product pairing to unlock your best glow.” In September 2018, six months BT (Before Tristan), Kylie Cosmetics dropped a Kylie x Jordyn line, which includes an eye shadow palette sporting color names like “No New Friends,” “Inseparable,” “Best Life,” and “Together Forever.”
It’s almost like Kylie puts the two of them in matching outfits because she literally cannot get enough of the way she herself looks.
Shortly after Kylie and Jordyn’s falling-out, the Kylie Cosmetics website dropped the price of the “Jordy” lip kit by 50%, which fans took to be a prelude to discontinuing the line. Kylie later told the New York Times that the price change was entirely coincidental — the company happened to be in the process of switching from white to black packaging, she said, and trying to off-load outdated stock. (Whatever the truth of that statement, it appears that the Jordy kit is no longer available via the Kylie Cosmetics website, but it is in stock — at full price — on Ulta.) A week after the TMZ story first appeared, Khloé removed Jordyn’s likeness, who had been a model and brand ambassador for her clothing company Good American, from the company’s website.
Jordyn has been mostly erased from the Kardashians’ social media timelines, but if you scroll back far enough on the Kylie Cosmetics Instagram, you can see Kylie and Jordyn’s friendship preserved in amber: There are photographs of the pair in the requisite matching nude-toned outfits, lounging seductively against each other, their faces done up in products whose names declare that they are sisters and wives and ride-or-dies.
This is what happens when you translate your friendships into objects and commerce: They stick around long after the emotion that inspired them has burned off. It reveals the fundamental cheapness of friendship-as-branding: Kylie can’t quit selling Kylie x Jordyn stuff, not without looking petty. But who wants to buy a monument to a ruined relationship?
Jordyn isn’t the first BFF to get cast out of the Kardashian/Jenner circle: Kim had been palling around with model Blac Chyna and her then-fiancé, rapper Tyga, for a few years when Tyga dumped Chyna and started dating Kylie, who was, at the time, barely 17. Chyna was, understandably, heartbroken, and the feud between her and the Kardashian/Jenner family — which involved several radio show interviews, dueling photos of diamond-encrusted Audemars Piguet watches, and many Twitter clapbacks — was instantly legendary. Chyna later dated Rob; though they are no longer together, they share a daughter, Dream.
The fallout from these fallings-out illuminates the power dynamics at work in the Kardashians’ friendships. Kim and Kanye have more serious A-list cred, but in general the family tends to hang out with other influencers and reality TV types. And the Kardashians are the most famous influencers and reality TV stars in the world, which acts as a kind of social insurance policy; in any given friendship, they’ll have the upper hand.
Kylie can’t quit selling Kylie x Jordyn stuff, not without looking petty. But who wants to buy a monument to a ruined relationship?
There’s an extent to which these relationships are mutually beneficial: Malika has enough Instagram followers, at 4 million–plus, that she can make a living from sponsored content deals whether or not she and Khloé stay close. The same goes for Jordyn, whose modeling career and activewear line are made possible in large part by the popularity boost that being Kylie’s best friend afforded her. And Blac Chyna got her own short-lived reality TV show with Rob, thanks to her involvement with the family.
But it’s also true that all of the women caught in the Kardashian/Jenner’s crosshairs are black, and black women are uniquely subjected to harassment when they’re involved in high-profile scandals. Add the fact that the Kardashians have not just their social media channels but an entire television show dedicated to telling their side of the story, and it’s hard not to feel like when conflict arises, the scales are heavily weighted in their direction. At the end of the day, the sisters are the ones who have the power to control the narrative, cancel the product line, take someone off their websites, and pretend she never existed.
The exception to many of these rules is Kendall, who hangs out with supermodels of equal stature to herself, women like Cara Delevingne and Bella Hadid; she is also the least femme of her sisters, and the only childless one among them.
Kendall doesn’t speak publicly about her love life, and never has. So it’s not surprising that, even though she engages in performative lady love less often than her sisters, she’s the one whose sexuality has been the subject of persistent rumors. (Kendall’s response: “I don’t think I have a bisexual or gay bone in my body, but I don’t know!” she told Vogue in 2018.)
At the end of the day, the Kardashians are the ones who have the power to control the narrative, cancel the product line, take someone off their websites, and pretend she never existed.
She hasn’t let those rumors deter her from public displays of affection with queer women, though: In 2017, Kendall and Cara, who is sexually fluid and has dated multiple other famous women, attended the English music festival Glastonbury in matching T-shirts that read “CaKe Tour” — CaKe being the ‘ship name for Cara and Kendall.
Kendall will go along with her sisters’ desires to pose in outfits from the Victoria’s Secret runway show for Halloween, but in general she’s the family member least likely to post pictures of anyone’s body but her own. Kendall seeks to define herself as singular: to stand apart from her family and their coterie of followers and friends. She famously asked her family not to come to her first Victoria’s Secret runway show, knowing that if they did, the story would be about the Kardashians, not about Kendall herself.
She has plenty of friendships, but she doesn’t do much to advertise them. Her sisters are constantly suggesting the pleasure of being part of the in crowd; Kendall’s whole deal is standing apart from it, making a name for herself and herself alone.
There’s nothing that capitalism won’t try to sell us, and in the era of Instagram it’s easier than ever to turn friendship into a branding tool. The Kardashians in particular show off their friends as a means of showing what they have access to: beautiful women and unlimited leisure time to spend with them.
These women aren’t just as close to them as sisters, they assure us — often they are styled as twins, suggesting an almost-psychic bond, a frictionless connection. They look alike and dress alike, so they must think alike, right? What could be more desirable than someone who’s just like you, but not you, but who loves you, sister-wifey?
But the minute one of them misbehaves, or becomes a liability, she’s not just dropped from the friendship but erased from the timeline. Ultimately, the Kardashians are loyal only to each other. “I had no choice but to take my sister’s side,” Kim says in a 2016 episode of KUWTK, discussing how upset she was that the Blac Chyna feud had pitted her against a former friend. “That’s my sister.”
At the end of the day, these friends are like sisters — but they aren’t actually part of the family, which makes them disposable. The Kardashians bring women into the glare of their spotlight — but when there are issues, they leave them to fend for themselves.
This is a childish vision of friendship as something that happens between people who are fundamentally similar, who support but do not seem to ever challenge one another. This ideal of friendship and sisterhood prizes sameness instead of valorizing what can be learned from people who are not like us, who do not look like us, who do not want to wear matching outfits because actually they have their own style. And so, when any BFF does challenge that vision, she must go.
In other words, the Kardashian idea of mind-meld friendship is appealing in some ways, but not remotely realistic. They’re selling us fantasy: something everyone wants and no one — themselves included — actually has. ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever out now, as well as Look, which is forthcoming from Dial Books in March 2020. She’s a full-time freelance writer; her work has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.