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How Kris Jenner became the internet’s arch villain

We’ve all loved to hate the Kardashian matriarch for years. And now she's playing us to her advantage.

“There's a lot of people that have great ideas and dreams and whatnot,” Kris Jenner told the New York Times in 2015. “But unless you're willing to work really, really hard, and work for what you want, it's never going to happen.”

For a woman whose entire life has been documented endlessly for the last ten years, we don’t actually know that much about Kris Jenner. We know she’s 62 years old, mother to Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob Kardashian, as well as Kendall and Kylie Jenner. We know she lives in and grew up in Los Angeles, was married to Rob Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner, and is now the “momager” (ie mom and manager) of all six of her children's’ lives. All-in-all, for a woman who’s been a part of 221 episodes of reality television, we don’t know much. However, what we do know about Kris Jenner is that she knows how to make money – and that her penchant for using her children to do it has landed her a near-universal bad reputation.

But over the last year, Jenner has taken note of this criticism and worked it to her advantage. Leaning into the negativity that surrounds her, she has managed to convince millions that her evils and wrongdoings are, actually why you should like her. They are, in fact, why you should see her as an icon. 

Jenner’s reputation for evil went mainstream in the final week of September 2017. In that single week, three Kardashian sisters (Kim, Khloe, and Kylie) either announced or sparked rumours of pregnancies. The news dropped, quite conveniently, the same week as the 10 year anniversary episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWTK) and just months after it was announced that the show’s ratings were slipping. In that week, the search term “kris jenner devil” spiked, and has experienced subsequent spikes correlating to the birth of Kylie Jenner’s daughter (4 February 2018) and Khloe Kardashian’s daughter’s birth (12 April 2018).

After the Holy Pregnancy Trinity dropped, so did the phrase “The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder”. What had previously been a minor meme became ubiquitous, not just on Twitter and Instagram, but as the opening line crutch for tabloid stories on the Kardashian family.

However, the meme, and, indeed, the icon that Jenner has become, goes back much further in Kardashian lore. Intentional or otherwise, Jenner’s coronation as the internet’s high priestess of evil has been a long, inevitable time coming.  

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Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered on E! on 14 October 2007, thanks to a bright idea from Kris Jenner herself after the leak of the infamous Kim Kardashian-Ray J sex-tape six months earlier. The show immediately received a warm reception, both in terms of critical reviews and viewership, with 1.3 million average viewers in its first ever month. Even from its inception, reviews noted the Kardashian matriarch’s morally dubious knack for turning her child’s trauma into a business springboard.

“The surfacing of this tape — in which Ms. Kardashian appears, not debating economic sanctions against Iran, with a former boyfriend, the hip-hop artist Ray J — was a mixed bag for her mother... As a parent, Ms. Kardashian’s mother, Kris Jenner, was concerned for her daughter,” Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times wrote on the eve of the show’s premiere. “But as her manager, she thought, well, hot-diggity.”

As soon as the show came out, fans and critics alike hastily headed online to criticise Jenner’s choices as a mother. Penning blogs, commenting on tabloid articles, and writing on parenting websites, they fed the perception that she had sold her daughters for the sake of the show. “What a dirtbag Kris Jenner is! Anything to try to get ratings!”, “Oh look, Kris Jenner is exploiting her personal life for her fame whoredom, she will never cease to surprise me”, and “Of course she takes a personal family matter and uses it for personal gain” are the entirely ordinary comments in response to articles about Jenner having her own talk show, speculation about Kylie having plastic surgery, and Kim’s divorce from second husband Kris Humphries respectively. “The devil Kris Jenner doesn't always have the best motherly judgment,” one blogger wrote. “Kris Jenner is a fame whore and pimps out her children… but she is a media mastermind,” wrote another.

Journalist and Kardashian family expert Amelia Perrin tells me: “I do think Kris's role as gatekeeper to the jobs, and money, for the girls originally gave her this bad rep, which while is now a joke, has made her a 'villain'.

“She saw the opportunities whoring out her children could get for her whole family and she took them.”

Perrin tells me how, “like all good jokes”, Jenner’s association with evil came from internet discourse. In the early KUWTK days, hatred for Jenner mainly thrived in tabloid comment sections, but over the last four years Jenner has been subject to a mass social media “stanning” on the likes of Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. It was here that “the devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder” meme enjoyed its the early days, which in turn laid the groundwork for Jenner’s extreme pivot to villaindom.

Perhaps more surprising than the news the internet has vilified another woman is the fact that Jenner has leaned into this perception, if not actively curated it herself. Explicitly creating a devil aesthetic, she has on occasion compared herself to Miranda Priestly, the antagonist and "devil" of the 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada (and the 2006 film of the same name), and has cunningly inspired thousands of memes noting the likeness between the two women. And while the comparison may seem unflattering to the uninitiated, it has inspired headlines like “Kris Jenner Staring At Herself And Saying She Looks Like Miranda Priestly Is A Total Vibe” and “Kris Jenner Is An Icon, I Don’t Make The Rules”. For other celebrities, eg Taylor Swift, marketing yourself as evil after bad press is a risky move. For Jenner, though, it’s a scarily clever response.

“Being a key player in the internet's favourite family, Kris knows the opportunities the internet loving something can bring you,” Perrin tells me. “So she leant into it.”

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With all of this perceived malevolence and unbridled vitriol, you’d expect to find a terrifyingly sharp, intimidating personality to match. But, in fact, Jenner loves to play dumb.

Trawling through hundreds of clips from the show over the last ten years, you can see that Jenner is often billed as the butt of the joke. Whether it’s mocking her drunkenness, laughing at her inability to understand youth slang, or making her the target of pregnancy-related pranks, Jenner is often portrayed as the ditsy-est Kardashian – on a show that often displays the Kardashian women as less than clever. If you came at this backwards, knowing Jenner’s reputation without having watched a proper episode of KUWTK, the experience of viewing it for the first time would be jarring. She comes across as entirely unassuming. If anything, she comes off as the most charming of the klan; sweet and simple with a mom-ish affectation.

“Kris plays it carefully, she executive produces the shows so has total control over what fans see, but allows us to see her being humiliated or played by her daughters,” Perrin says. “Like the episode where her lips swelled up and she became a meme, or the episode where Khloe sold her fake art to prove she's fake-cultural – this kind of stuff keeps Kris lovable and relatable.”

Perrin explains that, thanks to the way she plays the character of “Kris Jenner” on the show, the real Kris Jenner gives herself the bandwidth to play any role. “The villain, the fashionista, the friend, the bumbling stay at home mom,” are all within her arsenal, with a sly capacity to put on different personalities to suit any situation (again: the butt of the joke but also the business genius). And her death-grip control over her image means that she can strike an artful balance that keeps her fans loyal – allowing her to, essentially, do whatever she wants.

“The balance also comes from her being reasonable,” Perrin adds. “Kylie requested privacy for her pregnancy and Kris agreed, but while agreeing, was also scheduling an entire life plan, reveal, spin off shows and merch for the kid. It's a give/take relationship. While they're her kids and that relationship has to come first, her job is also to get them as much revenue as possible.” And indeed, this level of consideration is important to keeping her fans onside. While documenting every second of her children’s lives she sees fit, she has to show her audience that she does, actually, take into account her children’s wants and needs. What mother wouldn’t? What do you think she is, a monster?  

And of late, Jenner has chosen to go with the digital tide, slipping into the villain character while the internet goes wild for it. “She's always been the glam 'more like a friend than a mum',” Perrin says. “But of late she's definitely been showing more of her 'bad' side.” And because of Jenner’s affable, unthreatening charm, she can play the villain and still be adored. In fact, she can play the villain, play it wholeheartedly, and be liked even more for it.

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Regardless of the obvious negativity around being shaped as a villain, the internet branding Kris Jenner as their evil priestess has been lucrative for the Kardashian matriarch. In short, Jenner is making an unholy amount of money.

“Merch popped up, she started making fun of herself,” Perrin says of Jenner’s pivot to devil. “She's so business-minded, and while I do think she finds it fun, it's all about the cash at the end of the day – what can get the family more fame? More opportunities? More followers? With their wealth and fame she doesn't necessarily need to do this, but she doesn't give up or get complacent, and that's why she's so successful.”

Money was at the heart of what originally gave Jenner her “evil” reputation, and she flaunts it unabashedly. One of the most popular memes surrounding Jenner is the “10 per cent” meme, referring to the 10 per cent cut Jenner takes out of her daughters’ sales for her fee as their manager. And, indeed, many of the internet’s memes surround Jenner’s unsurprising focus on the cash she has earned – memes she does not shy away from. In a collaboration with her daughter Kylie, Kris Jenner released a cosmetics line under the Kylie Cosmetics label called the “Kris Kollection” complete with lipstick, eyeshadow palettes, and eyeliners branded with the symbols and language that gave Jenner her villainous reputation – “Momager”, “10 per cent”, and stuck up middle fingers. The collection was wildly successful, selling out in a matter of hours.

“I do think there's something to say, without sounding too deep, about the way women interact with wealth." Perrin says. "For women, it's gauche to talk about money, what they're owed, to work for it or to want it. Kris Jenner doesn't give a fuck, she's determined to get her rightfully owed dollars, even to the extent '10 per cent' has become a catchphrase of hers.” 

And this, crucially, is what sets Jenner apart from the equally rich, equally money-driven other members of the Kardashian klan: Jenner embraced her negative reputation (and spun it into a money-making positive). As Perrin points out to me, other Kardashians, if not all them, have well-known connotations and reputations for being obsessed with financial earnings. Social media sites like Twitter and Quora have always been chock-full of users asking "Why are the Kardashians obsessed with fame and money?" and calling them "classless, brainless, money-obsessed" and "crazy fake money-obsessed bitches" without specificity. Kourtney Kardashian, the oldest of the six Kardashian siblings, in particular has had storylines where she is portrayed as money-obsessed – arguing for pay to help design Khloe Kardashian’s house and infamously demanding compensation for appearing as a character in sister Kim’s video game.  

“She's refused to lean into the role like KJ has,” Perrin says. “Instead she's built up a persona of being a dedicated mum who just does the TV stuff on the side to make a living, implying in recent series she hates it and wishes she was allowed to stop.

“But this has also caused [Kourtney] to be the least liked Kardashian… She's often seen as stuck up or rude. Whereas Kris has a similar outlook on business, but leaning into the glam villain role has benefitted her massively.”

And where the other Kardashians fall down, Jenner remains standing. Negative press surrounds every Kardashian child – Kourtney and money, Khloe and body negativity, Kim and fetishisation of black culture, oft-forgotten Rob Kardashian and revenge porn, Kendall and that Pepsi commercial, and Kylie and her insensitive clothing line. All of this negative press became something to shy away from. But with Jenner, negative press not only doesn’t hurt her: it makes her stronger. And her business acumen has helped her turn negative press into a goldmine.

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If the last 11 years have taught us anything, it’s that every one of the Kardashian klan has the capacity to reincarnate and regenerate into newer, more fascinating versions of themselves as the years go on. Despite their ratings dip last year, viewer numbers are up from the start of 2018; no doubt thanks to the convergence of the three sisters’ pregnancies. But even so, the Kardashians have long been a family that’s needed nothing but the internet – embracing Instagram, fuelling rumours and feuds (not just with other celebrities, but among themselves), and selling merchandise and apps through single tweets and Snapchats. And while she does regularly post on social media, Jenner tends to take a backseat to her daughters’ drama. While they tweet about high-end products and fight with one another, Jenner sends support to her children and retweets their personal brands.

But even among this benign content, Jenner still sneaks in malevolent posts. “I could buy designer but this @FashionNova Fits” Jenner tweeted out on 8 October accompanying a picture of herself in a black maxi dress. While the average Kris Jenner tweet gets around, roughly, two or three thousand likes, this got 17,000. Why? Because it shows she took a brand sponsorship from Fashion Nova – a brand Kim’s husband Kanye reportedly advised her to turn down just days before. Not only was Jenner showing her darker side by stealing a brand partnership from a fellow celebrity, but that celebrity was her own daughter. And her fans went wild for it.

 

 

“Kris Jenner made a deal with the devil,” comedian Luenell quipped in an interview with VladTV in January of last year. But, if anything, the devil is the one who needs to catch up. The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder – and for as long as it serves her, Jenner will retain the title as the internet’s arch villain.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.