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Kim Kardashian’s career can be mapped by a series of nudes: the leaked tape that turned her into a national sex symbol; the bathroom selfie that brought her into the feminist discourse around “empowerment;” and now, in her mogul phase, comes her eponymous makeup collection, KKW Beauty, a line of contour kits, highlighters, and flesh-colored lipsticks that render her history of nudity symbolic. We know that Kim Kardashian’s skin is one of the most profitable enterprises going these days — who wouldn’t want to buy the promise of being able to wear a version of it for herself?
Kim has built an empire on the power of her body, and she’s done it so effectively that she doesn’t have to sell it to us directly anymore. Kim’s career — and the promise of KKW Beauty — is that we, too, can finally learn the secret of the magic trick that turns nudity into cash, which allows someone who has been naked in front of us for a full decade now to still seem mysterious, and ultimately untouchable.
Consider one of Kim’s wardrobe staples, the nude bodycon dress: an article of clothing that is specifically designed to look like nothing. Or to look like a particular vision of nothing — in fact, it lends the wearer a Barbie body, monochromatic and spectacularly smooth: no nipples, no pubes, just a sheath of flesh that would be uncanny if it weren’t for the fact that you can so often see the actual flesh moving underneath it. Sex appeal is about what’s kept private as much as what is revealed, and the nude bodycon manages to suggest oceans of skin without ever letting you actually see very much of it at all.
This kind of color story — camel, khaki, dusty pink — used to be the province of the rich, restrained, and, of course, white. Imagine a girl on a boat in Maine: blonde ponytail, camel cashmere sweater, khaki pants cuffed to show pearly pink, barely-polished (but definitely polished) toenails. The French manicure — not the acrylic nightmare kind, but the original vision — is meant to make nails look like a slightly amped-up version of themselves: healthy pink, sturdy white.
That’s the real thing about nudes: Do them wrong, and they look cheap as hell. Our eyes are attuned to the minute peculiarities of living human skin, and badly made facsimiles gross us out. The illusion netting on a figure skating costume might read beautifully from an arena seat, but seen by an HD camera it’s just mall-store stuff, rhinestone and nylon, nothing luxe about it. A well-done nude reveals but also effaces the wealth it took to create that look, the same way that it reveals and effaces the body that wears it. To be beautiful enough to truly not need makeup is its own kind of wealth. To be so wealthy that you can create beauty that appears natural is another.
Kim’s relationship to race is complicated, but she’s certainly not the kind of WASP we picture when we say “white girl;” she wasn’t born with the kind of looks that we understand belonging on a boat in Maine. And while many of her features are increasingly “acceptable” by mainstream beauty standards, there are some that remain stubbornly coded as ethnic. She has an Armenian nose she claims she’s never had “fixed,” and baby hairs she admits to having had lasered off her forehead. Kim knows she’s not a normative vision of all-American beauty when she wakes up every morning, and she’s not afraid to let us know that, either. Her power comes from how she transforms into that beauty, and how, in doing so, she’s simultaneously helped transform the beauty standard, pulling it toward her with what seems at times like gravitational force.
Contour is makeup that says you don’t have to be born with the right bone structure, and you don’t have to pay someone to break and re-set those bones for you, either. Looking “right” is just a mask. For $48 plus shipping — add another $45 if you want the set of four crème lipsticks Kim did in collaboration with her sister’s makeup line, Kylie Cosmetics — you can reshape your face, giving it the angles of “good breeding” and the glow of healthy living.
It’s not even about beauty, per se: Beauty is accessory, excess. It’s about creating the architecture of cheekbones and nostrils, a “short forehead,” as Kim says in one of the videos of her doing her own contour. It’s about recreating your skin as an avenue to recreating your whole entire self. In the same video, Kim mentions that it’s long been her habit to use bronzer as eyeshadow: “It gives you a kind of warm feeling, so you look alive,” she says.
“What do I look like?” I later wondered, looking in at my bare face in a coffee shop’s bathroom mirror. “Dead? A little bit dead honestly seems right.”
In another video, Kim tells her longtime makeup artist, Mario Dedivanovic: “If I had to choose one product to be stranded on a deserted island with, it would definitely be contour.” A deserted island might seem like the best place to sport an actual no-makeup look, but this does not seem to occur to Kim. She does not imagine a world in which it might not matter what she looks like, perhaps in part because being looked at is how she’s constructed the persona and the empire that have earned her her millions. Part of who Kim Kardashian is is a vision — and that vision always has to look like the best possible version of a “real woman,” somehow simultaneously fantastic and aspirational, but also always palpably real.
That’s the trick of the nude: It looks laid-back, but in fact it’s just as much work as slicking on a bold red lip. The question is how hard you’re allowed to look like you’re trying. Kim’s always been new money, too flashy, too busty, too sexy: way, way too much. Of course her makeup is designed to make you look naked, like you have nothing to hide.
Kim Kardashian is an empire built on an illusion, and KKW Beauty reminds us that Kim is the visionary and the architect of that illusion. She’s figured out how to sell herself to us and make it look easy. Her next trick is letting us imagine we could step into her skin: that we, too, could split the difference between naked and nude. She’s selling us to ourselves, and if the speed at which KKW Beauty disappeared from her website when it went live last week is any indication, that’s a product we’re still ravenous to figure out how to buy, to feel like we’re allowed to own.