Photo of Kim Kardashian West via Getty
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First, the Kardashians sold their lives. Now they’re selling stuff

How the Kardashian business model went conventional. 

The Kardashians are a phenomenon which many people – both genuinely and wilfully – seem to struggle to comprehend. They’re probably the most famous family in the world, and yet middle-aged men frequently respond to coverage of them with such witty repartee as, “What’s a Kardashian?” “Isn’t she the one with a sex tape?” And, of course, “Aren’t they the family that are famous for being famous?”

The Kardashians (and in particular Kim Kardashian West) made their fame and money through non-traditional routes. A sex tape boosted the success of an already planned reality TV show, which in turn sparked paid public appearances, photoshoots, several spin-offs and, later, branded social media posts. But Kardashian West never coasted on her success, continuing to find ways to monetise a life lived in the spotlight. She brought out mobile video games, emoji packs, and pay-to-view lifestyle apps. These ideas seemed faintly ridiculous when they were first announced, but they are now an accepted revenue stream for many social media star profiles.

“Kim’s the best marketer I’ve ever met,” says Jared Heinke, the head of digital operations at Whalerock, the company which makes the Kardashians’ lifestyle apps and her custom emoji, called Kimoji. “I’ll go to her with an idea on marketing Kimoji and say, ‘Kim, this is how we’re thinking about doing this.’ I’ll plant the seed, and then she’ll come back to me with something better.”

For years, Kim Kardashian West and her sisters have essentially been marketers of their own lives: selling their daily activities as entertainment and lifestyle products. Want to know more about me? Watch my show and pay for my behind the scenes app. What to live like me? Buy the products I use and promote on my social media feeds, or play my life on my video game.

So it might come as a surprise to see the Kardashians going down a much more traditional money-making route: designing and selling physical, not digital, products. It was recently announced that Kylie Jenner, Kim’s younger half-sister, is the youngest person on the Forbes list of the 100 richest entertainers thanks to her cosmetics company and clothing lines. The majority of her income comes from Kylie Cosmetics, which focuses on lip kits (packs including a lipstick and lip liner in the same shade; Jenner’s lips are probably her most-discussed feature) but she has branched out to several other kinds of make-up.

Kylie also has a clothing line with her sister Kendall, and sells clothes and merchandise in her own online shop (which has recently been accused of plagiarising designs from smaller, black-owned businesses: more on that later). Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian West has been selling branded Kimoji merch on her site, has a children’s clothing line with her husband Kanye West, and recently announced her own cosmetics company is coming later this month. These are all expected to make a significant contribution to her fortune.

But surprising as it may seem, Kim and her sisters have long been interested in traditional forms of business. A pre-megafame Kim essentially started her first business on eBay, under the username kimsaprincess. She would buy designer items when a good price came up, and resell them on the auction site at a high markup. “I discovered eBay and I loved shopping,” she explained to Variety. “I had to be on a budget. I didn’t have credit cards. How do I figure out how to make this a business?”

It started with a five pairs of $700 Manolo Blahnik shoes and $3,500 borrowed from her father. “He let me buy five pairs. I had to pay him back plus interest,” she recalled. “They were these Manolo Blahniks that Jennifer Lopez had worn in her first or second video. Everyone had to have them. I called at the right time and the girl at the store had five pairs and I took them. I sold every pair on eBay for $2,500. I became so obsessed with seeing that return I would sell off the things I wouldn’t be wearing.”

This later morphed into a wardrobe organising business – Kim would rid clients of clothes they no longer need and reorganise their wardrobes to make the most of the best pieces. “My closet business came about when I was at my godparents’ house, Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife Bernadette,” Kardashian explained to Player Magazine in 2006. “Bernadette’s closet was massive and had so much stuff in it. I said to her, ‘You really need to clean out your closet.’ Well, we spent the whole night doing that.” Soon she was doing this for celebrity pals like Paris Hilton. She opened a clothing shop with sisters Kourtney and Khloé in 2006, called Dash, which still has two physical branches in the US. But this is where any sense of Kim as a glamourous Alan Sugar-style wheeler dealer disappears: until now.

So what is it about these products that makes them so popular? Kylie Cosmetics are manufactured by Seed Beauty, an independently run company based in Oxnard, California. Seed also manufactures ColourPop products: a brand that has become famous as a mysterious overnight sensation. Rumours abounded in the beauty sphere that Kylie Cosmetics products were, in fact, just repackaged ColourPop products, something that Kylie quickly clarified on Instagram: “we do not use the same formula or exact colors”. Beauty brands using the same production companies and facilities are nothing new – but this story does suggest that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the formulas themselves.

In February of this year, some customers accused Kylie Cosmetics of repackaging old shades with new names. And the design of the original packaging of Kylie Cosmetic lip kits, which feature a drawing of lips dripping in bright colours, was met with controversy when it was unveiled due to its similarity to the work of LA make-up artist Vlada Haggerty. Indeed, Haggerty has repeatedly claimed that Kylie Cosmetics have copied her work (the two parties seemed to settle the dispute earlier this year). Now Jenner faces new accusations – this time related to the clothing she sells on her store, after a designer of remarkably similar items posted evidence of Jenner’s team ordering her designs. Khloé Kardashian, too, has been accused by fashion designer Destiney Bleu of ordering her work before copying it (her legal team called the accusations “flagrantly false and defamatory”). This kind of thing is par for the course in the fashion industry, where there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation.

Taking existing products with proven appeal and marketing them with a Kardashian name starts to look less like coincidence, and more like a deliberate business strategy. “The Kardashian klan is tapping into a long history of American entrepreneurs who spot trends and then repackage them for new markets,” writes Amy Zimmerman in The Daily Beast. In this instance, “they’re taking from predominantly black designers and influencers, and making their aesthetics accessible and desirable to new demographics—in Jenner’s case, teenage Keeping Up With The Kardashian fans with twenty bucks to blow on matte lip gloss.”

It seems as though the design, packaging, and almost everything about the products themselves, are, to the Kardashians outsourceable. They’ve taken their previous experience to extremes. It’s the Kardashian brand – which has always benefited from its associations with blackness – that sells products for them. So while moving into physical goods might look like a gear-change, really they’re practising the same strategy they always have - marketing themselves.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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