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The Kardashians’ Greatest Trick

The sisters want you to look just like them, and they’ll happily sell you the makeup to make that happen.

The Kardashian-Jenner sisters’ faces are reflected in makeup compact mirrors Photos: Getty Images | Photo illustration: Doug Chayka

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There is an aura of intimacy that surrounds beauty products. They touch some of our most vulnerable skin: our thin, fluttering eyelids, our tender mouths. Makeup allows us to turn the faces we wake up with in the morning into the ones we want the world to see all day. Its application is a private ritual, performed in one’s own bedroom or bathroom. Putting it on in public has historically been considered tacky.

Makeup conceals or highlights, and either way, it transforms. Men worry that women wearing it have an unfair advantage, that they are working some kind of dark magic they don’t understand.

Pretty much everyone worries that the Kardashians are working some kind of dark magic we don’t understand. How else could they have become so omnipresent so quickly, and seemingly for doing so little?

They’ve done it in part by flouting the rules that are supposed to govern public and private, tacky and classy. They’ve turned themselves inside out, and given us access to the intimate details of their lives, both extraordinary and mundane. We’ve gotten to watch them fuck and fight and cry and cry and cry. We’ve spent hours watching them making food, and eating it, and then working out to work it off.

The Kardashian empire is vast and sprawling. What began as a single reality television show in 2007 has since spawned at least a dozen spinoffs, an app-based game worth over a hundred million dollars, several other apps, many clothing lines (the late Sears Kardashian Kollection; Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney’s lines through their boutique Dash; Khloe’s Good American; the Kylie Jenner Shop; Kendall + Kylie; Jenner sister collections for PacSun, Topshop, and Revolve; Kim and Kanye’s the Kids’ Supply; Rob’s Arthur George socks; and Kim’s Kimoji-inspired products, speaking of which...), one ever-evolving custom emoji set, plus untold quantities of brand ambassadorships. Kim alone has endorsed everything from Silly Bandz to Carl’s Jr. to toilet paper.

It is in the world of beauty, however, where they’ve truly established themselves, first as influencers, and now, increasingly, as successful businesswomen in their own right. A cascade of licensing deals and sponsorships signed over the course of their careers have put the Kardashian name on hair extensions, self-tanners, and fragrances. Simultaneously, they’ve also birthed a multimillion-dollar industry of beauty pros — hairstylists and makeup artists, wigmakers and dermatologists, who have, in turn, created product lines and sponsorship opportunities and brand collaborations of their own.

But it’s Kim and Kylie’s privately owned and operated makeup lines that have proven just how powerful the Kardashian brand actually is. It was recently reported by Women’s Wear Daily that Kylie Cosmetics has done $420 million in sales in just 18 months, a milestone it took Estée Lauder–owned Tom Ford Beauty, for instance, nearly a decade to achieve. Kylie’s brand is on track to become a billion-dollar company by 2022.

Beauty is, in general, a good business bet right now; the overall beauty market saw 6 percent growth in 2016. Makeup is an even better bet, having grown an astounding 12 percent last year. Makeup is an attainable luxury: No matter how high-end, it’s always more affordable than designer clothing or shoes or bags. It fits and flatters all body types (though questions of shade still linger for darker-skinned women). Someone who might not feel comfortable in a bodycon dress or thigh-high boots will look just as dewy-fresh in highlighter as the celebrity who sold it to her.

For most of the Kardashians’ careers, since way before they made serious money from it, beauty has been their primary currency. For all of the “famous for being famous” criticism that gets thrown around, they’ve always had something to sell.

Their first imperative was to get people to look at them, and beauty was the fastest way to do that: Turn a head, catch an eye. In a way, it’s better that we can still see pictures of Kim at 16 with her uncontoured nose, that we understand what Kylie’s mouth looked like before the Juvéderm and the lip liner. We know intimately what their money and their makeup has done for them. Is it any wonder we’re so wild to find out what it might be able to do for us?

The Kardashians are pulling off a magic trick, and, as any good magician will tell you, there’s much more to it than simple technique or sleight of hand. You have to attract and direct attention. You have to be someone who people feel drawn to watch. It’s a gift that no one can really teach you, and that cannot be bought. This doesn’t stop the Kardashians from promising to sell it to us, though. And it certainly doesn’t stop us from pulling out our wallets when they do.

The Kardashians’ early forays into the world of beauty were on behalf of products in keeping with their then-lowbrow aesthetic — as-seen-on-TV–type stuff promoted by as-seen-on-TV people. They endorsed a teeth-whitening pen called Idol White in 2009, and then worked with Perfect Science Labs to create a skin care line called PerfectSkin in 2010. Both accrued plenty of customer complaints for sketchy business practices and shoddy product quality; the Kardashians are no longer associated with either.

Around the same time, Kim signed up to be the face of Fusion Beauty, and collaborated with the company, Seven Bar Foundation, and Sephora on a “Kiss Away Poverty” lip gloss collection, which helped raise more than $100,000 for the foundation. By Seven Bar’s estimate, this also generated $5.1 million worth of free advertising for the charity. That’s the bonus of working with the Kardashians: They’ll help move product, sure, but they’ll also boost your company’s visibility just by putting their name next to yours.

Next up was the old standby of celebrity fragrance. Kim released her eponymous Kim Kardashian in 2009, with follow-ups like Glam and Gold coming out regularly until she took a break from that business in 2014. Khloe and her now ex-husband Lamar Odom created a unisex fragrance called Unbreakable in 2011, and the holiday-themed Unbreakable Joy in 2012. All of the sisters, including Kendall and Kylie Jenner, helped design a nail polish collection for OPI, which debuted in stores in 2011.

Makeup brush with dollar bills among the bristles Photo illustration: Doug Chayka

Then, in 2012, the sisters entered into an agreement with Boldface Licensing + Branding, which allowed the company to use their names in creating and promoting a cosmetics line.

Trouble began almost immediately. The line was originally named Khroma Beauty, prompting twin lawsuits from companies called Chroma and Kroma Beauty, both claiming infringement on their names. Despite Boldface taking action to rename the endeavor Kardashian Beauty, the case between it and Kroma quickly became convoluted and thorny — especially once Boldface sold its licenses to a newly formed company called Haven Beauty in 2014, after a series of financial troubles, and the relationship between the licensing company and the Kardashian family soured considerably.

Haven stopped paying the Kardashians royalties, claiming the sisters hadn’t done enough promotional work to earn them. In turn, the Kardashians sued Haven, pointing out that their promotional appearances were supposed to be conditional on the receipt of those royalties — as long as they weren’t being paid, they were under no legal obligation to work.

Haven continued to make and sell products using the Kardashian name during the two years the case took to resolve. In August of 2016, a judge granted the Kardashians an injunction against Haven Beauty, ordering Haven to either pay the royalties owed to the family, or cease selling products using their name. The decision was upheld after an appeal by Haven in 2017. Kardashian Beauty makeup is no longer available through retail stores but, of course, often pops up in the perpetually haunted graveyard that is eBay.

In the meantime, other deals were being put in place. After creating a line of Kardashian Glamour self-tanning products that sold exclusively at Sephora in 2010, the sisters branched out with a more widely available version in 2013. A 2015 hair care line (confusingly also named Kardashian Beauty) remains available for purchase. The range includes products like black seed dry oil as well as shampoos, conditioners, and styling tools — a blow dryer, a teaser comb, and a three-in-one straightening, curling, and waving machine.

All of these ventures were relatively low-key and lowbrow. They were also all the result of licensing deals, in which the Kardashians loaned their name and their image to brands without taking responsibility for the products’ conception or production. People still buy Kardashian shampoo and self-tanner, but we don’t particularly associate them with the family; they aren’t signature products or multimillion-dollar earners for them in the way that contour and lip kits are. They are significant not because of the revenue they generated, but because these first partnerships helped the sisters see what they could do for other people’s brands, and realize that, if they wanted to, they could do the same thing for their own.

The move toward owning their own companies instead of licensing their names was a shrewd one, turning the family brand from passively pretty into something that highlighted the sisters as savvy businesswomen, capable of keenly understanding and massively capitalizing on a marketplace that shifts too rapidly for most traditional businesses to keep up with.

But it also makes it all the more glaring when the Kardashians don’t appear to consider the implications of their aesthetic choices, many of which are borrowed from black women. They hardly ever give credit to who they’ve taken from — and no one else does either. For instance, there is no such thing as “boxer braids,” as media outlets have taken to calling the plaited style the sisters regularly sport. They are, in fact, just the cornrows black women have been wearing for generations.

After Kylie Instagrammed herself in cornrows during the summer of 2015, Zeba Blay wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post about black hairstyles. “Black hair is not just hair,” Blay wrote. “There’s history and context tied to these styles that cannot be ignored, a historical legacy forever linked to the ongoing cultural remnants of slavery and institutional racism. A white person who wears these styles dismisses that context and turns Black hair into a novelty, a parody, a subtle form of blackface."

Blay’s piece raises the question: Are the Kardashians white? Kendall and Kylie certainly are. Their parents, Kris and Caitlyn Jenner, are both white, which is why even before you get to the question of her hairstyles, Kylie morphing into her half-sister Kim, with her darker skin and less traditionally white features, is particularly striking.

Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe are half-Armenian on their father’s side. Armenians have been legally considered white in the United States since the early 20th century (the ruling that allowed them to be naturalized as citizens also separated Jews and Assyrians from then-banned “Asiatics”), but changing legal and societal definitions of race and whiteness have kept them in a shadowy, ill-defined space between white and nonwhite; this identity is sometimes considered ethnic whiteness.

Increasingly, Kim embraces her Armenian heritage: “I used to hate this bump on my nose,” she told Wonderland magazine in 2016. “Hated it. Now I love that it makes me look more ethnic. People think I’ve had my nose done. I haven’t.” This followed an editorial she’d written for Time about the Armenian Genocide, as well as a post on her app in which blasted the Wall Street Journal for publishing an ad from a group denying that a genocide had ever occurred. People saw Kim’s willingness to highlight her background as empowering; it also helped establish that she saw that background as an active, important part of her identity. However, after the birth of her half-black daughter, North, she also admitted that for most of her life, she had thought of racism as “someone else’s battle.”

The specter of racial appropriation is one of the reasons that questions around whether the Kardashians’ faces and bodies are “natural” feel so urgent. When Kylie decides to have her lips plumped by Juvéderm, she is, consciously or not, replicating a feature that fuels desire and also ridicule for black women. To her, full lips are a disposable, removable fashion look.

If Kim’s butt is real, she’s celebrating a natural feature often considered unsuitable by mainstream (read: white) beauty standards. Janet Mock praised her in a recent conversation for Interview, noting that as a “beauty icon” she had “challenged standards of beauty to make it a bit browner, a bit bronzer, a bit curvier.” But if it’s fake, well, she’s still doing that, but she’s also displaying blackness without having to confront any of the realities of actually being black.

Kim Kardashian with makeup splatters over her face Photo: Getty Images | Photo illustration: Doug Chayka

The family’s troubled relationship with race goes beyond the beauty world: Kylie and Khloe have both been accused of stealing clothing designs directly from black artists. There are also the lawsuits against the Kendall + Kylie brand because of a T-shirt collection that featured unlicensed images of the late rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. In August, an image for the brand was criticized for appropriating the chola aesthetic deeply rooted in working-class Latino culture.

Every time this happens, there is an apology. And then, it seems, just as inevitably, it happens again. The Kardashians have taken ownership of their businesses, but this pattern makes it feel as if they have not yet taken full responsibility for the cultural underpinnings of the products they sell and the looks they wear.

And why should they? They’ve ridden out so many scandals already. At this point, it seems like they just aren’t all that concerned about surviving more.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a moment when it seemed like the Kardashian empire might really be starting to crumble. That moment occurred after Kim’s marriage to Kris Humphries fell apart in 72 days in 2011, when over 100,000 people petitioned E! to take their show off the air.

What could they even do next, we wondered? You can’t really pull off more than one stunt wedding in that vein. Had they finally created peak spectacle of themselves?

They could not, in fact, get more ridiculous, but they could get plenty more legitimate. And so: Enter Kanye West.

Kanye offered the Kardashians a more comprehensible, art-based star power that they had previously lacked, and his insistence on his own genius loaned them credibility in the fashion world. Kanye materially changed Kim’s wardrobe, as famously seen in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, taking her garish pinks and turning them into sleek nudes. But more than that, his interest and attention in the family suggested that the Kardashians had themselves been style icons all along — just because the sisters’ aesthetic didn’t match up with the fashion elite’s sensibility didn’t mean it wasn’t a deliberate (and very sellable) one.

The Kardashians had always been rich, but they had never been classy. Kim’s sex tape was bad enough; when she chose to capitalize on the fame it gave her, rather than hiding from it, her and her family’s fate was sealed. They were seen as strivers who flaunted their curvy bodies, their “ethnic” features, their hunger for sex and wealth.

They were not nice girls. They were from Los Angeles. And not even a nice part of LA: Calabasas, a deep Valley suburb, basically just a bunch of empty space the nouveau riche had built sprawling mansions on to raise their bratty broods in. The Kardashians were established as the last word in tacky, an explosively unacceptable combination of suburban soullessness, new-money flashiness, and female brazenness.

But together, Kim and Kanye were the perfect storm of sex and celebrity. Their cultural power was so potent that it seemed to transcend class. They were simply riveting. There was no way not to look.

As proof of this, Anna Wintour put them on Vogue’s April 2014 cover, a coveted spot it was rumored she’d long been holding out of Kim’s grasp. (Wintour later told reporters that it was Vogue’s role to “reflect what’s going on in the culture.” She added that “I think if we just remain deeply tasteful and just put deeply tasteful people on the cover it would be a rather boring magazine,” which many took as a thinly veiled swipe at the not-deeply-tasteful reputation of the Kardashian-Jenner clan. Since then, Kendall has appeared on the cover of the magazine twice, once solo and once with a gaggle of fellow Instagram-savvy models.)

And so the Kardashians’ tackiness transformed into a low-end–turned–high-end chic, and their cultural power went from incomprehensibly enormous to full-on unstoppable juggernaut. In 2015, Snapchat announced that Kylie Jenner posted the most-viewed videos on its platform “by a long shot,” further confirming that people cared, really cared, what the sisters were up to.

More recently, their stranglehold on reality ratings seems to be faltering — both Keeping Up and the newest spinoff, Life of Kylie, posted lackluster numbers this summer — but that’s hardly going to hurt the empire in the long run. Because that’s just a tiny corner of their kingdom at this point. Even if we’re tiring of watching the Kardashians, we don’t seem to be getting tired of buying their products just yet. So what if they stop being TV stars? These days they’re much more interested in being moguls anyway.

When Kim launched her mobile game Kim Kardashian Hollywood in 2014, it put her on the path to landing the cover of Forbes; Now she speaks at business conferences. After years of being accused of not having any skills, of being famous only for being famous, the existence of an actual product for sale (and its immense earning power) had finally begun to convince people that maybe there was some actual business happening here.

This shift was further emphasized with the launch of KKW Beauty, which, Kim told attendees at the 2017 Forbes Women’s Conference, is not another licensing deal but a project in which she has “full ownership.” Kylie too is “founder, chief executive officer, chief marketing officer, and chief creative officer” of Kylie Cosmetics. Her mother, Kris, serves as its chief financial officer, and spoke with Kylie on behalf of the brand to WWD. These positions grant the sisters the status of creatives as well as entrepreneurs. The titles position them, very literally, as the kind of women who are capable of making something of themselves, or in this case, from themselves.

Differentiating the sisters’ brands has been key to their collective success. Kim had always been the most famous Kardashian, so it’s no surprise that she had been the first to strike out on her own with her solo fragrance line. The rest of the sisters flirted with individuation over the years too, but Kylie was the first to do so definitively, with a line of hair extensions called Kylie Hair Kouture in 2014, created in collaboration with Bellami Hair.

Being “a Kardashian” is tempting, but ultimately far too general. Think of Peggy Olson in the first season of Mad Men, telling the men running a focus group that she doesn’t want to try just any lipstick color, she wants to put on hers. You don’t want to be one in an interchangeable group. Instead your power comes from the control of being able to make a selection, and declare your uniqueness. You don’t want to be “a Kardashian.” Instead, you want to be a Kim, or a Khloe, or, increasingly, a Kylie.

The era of serious Kardashian beauty began in 2015 with Kylie Cosmetics’ first capsule collection of $29 “lip kits” (a set of matte liquid lipstick and liner in matching shades), which came in a mostly pink-to-neutral palette. The first drop, which was available only through Kylie’s website, sold out near-instantly.

Kylie’s drops sold out, again, and again, and again. She now keeps a permanent line well-stocked on her site; the range has been expanded to include brushes, eyeliner, blush, and highlighter, alongside those signature lip kits. Apparently foundation is coming soon to complete the look. Special-edition collections still sell out almost as soon as they go on sale, and sold-out editions fetch high prices on eBay.

However, the line has not been without controversy. Beauty bloggers quickly raised questions about the fact that the ingredient lists for Kylie’s lip kits bore a striking similarity to that of a brand called ColourPop, which sells liquid lipsticks for about a third of the price of Kylie-branded lip kits. Why were they being asked to pay more for what was essentially the same product?

Shipping box with Kylie Cosmetics logo sitting in a pool of pink goo Photo illustration: Doug Chayka

"ColourPop and I are not the same formula," Kylie responded in a video posted on her subscription-only app in October 2016. "I have an exclusive formula that I created myself,” but, she went on to explain, the two do share a manufacturer, a company called Seed Beauty.

Then there were issues with the products themselves. In that initial lip kit shipment, many arrived with shoddy brushes; the launch of Kylie’s highlighters (called Kylighters, naturally) saw customers receiving empty palettes and empty boxes. A woman recently received a lip kit that contained live ants. Some complaints came from customers who had purchased counterfeit products via eBay or on the street, but many more were from folks who’d bought legitimate Kylie Cosmetics.

The hunger for Kylie’s makeup — and anything that looked like it— meant the company also had to change the branding on the boxes it was shipping products in, because the signature design was proving too recognizable to thieves.

That design was the source of a controversy of its own. After Kylie posted an Instagram of makeup artist Vlada Haggerty’s work without credit in December 2015, Haggerty started noticing similarities between her work and the art Kylie was using to brand her line. Haggerty threatened to sue for copyright infringement in January 2016, after artwork for Kylie Cosmetics’s holiday line once again resembled one of her images. That never happened — instead, there was presumably some kind of private settlement made, and Kylie started promoting Haggerty’s work on her Instagram, this time with attribution.

(Another artist, Sara Pope, recently accused Kylie of ripping off some neon lip imagery from her work in the promotional images for the reality show Life of Kylie; that case is still pending.)

Even when what’s going on isn’t questionably legal, there remains something unsavory about the line. Kylie likes to tout the fact that she doesn’t have to buy any advertising for the company (she can speak directly to her 97.9 million Instagram followers, after all), which made it all the more uncomfortable when she recently revealed that she uses her housekeeper’s arm to swatch new products on for her Instagram and Snapchat. It’s one thing not to pay an advertising agency, but what about a model or two?

None of this — the accusations of artistic theft, the sloppily made and shipped products, complaints about prices and the variety of shades available — has done all that much to hurt the brand. The release of Kylie’s most recent collection on August 1st, in honor of her 20th birthday, didn’t sell out instantly, but everything from the $325 “I Want It All” bundle to the $14 loose-powder highlighters disappeared in under 24 hours. WWD reported that the company did $10 million in sales that day alone. (It wasn’t the highest single-day total for the brand, though, which was closer to $19 million for last year’s holiday collection.)

Perhaps most tellingly, one of the first items to go was a liquid lipstick in one of the brand’s best-selling shades. A tube of Candy K will typically run you $17, but this version, with a bedazzled cap that matches the one in Kylie’s personal collection, was a super-fast sellout hit at $60 a pop.

The collection was fully restocked four days later. The bedazzled Candy K was gone again in the first five minutes.

Kim was next to launch her own standalone line, KKW Beauty, in June of this year with 300,000 contour kits at the ready. (She had learned from her sister, whose first collection of lip kits consisted of just 15,000 sets — three colors in editions of 5,000 each.) One shade was gone within minutes; the rest disappeared in an hour or two.

Kylie Cosmetics began by smartly capitalizing on Kylie’s singular, trademark look: her lips, which she’s admitted to having enhanced with fillers. KKW followed this formula by selling “contour kits,” a set of two double-ended makeup sticks intended to make drawing shadow and light onto your face a child-with-a-crayon–simple process.

Kim claims contour is responsible for accusations that she’s gotten her nose done, but the first ads for KKW Beauty drew much more serious fire. Some thought that she’d gone too far in shading and bronzing, making her look like she was attempting blackface. (Kylie touched off a similar scandal in 2015.) The image was quickly replaced with a lighter-looking Kim.

“I was really tan,” Kim told the New York Times. She didn’t apologize exactly, but she did say, “Of course, I have the utmost respect for why people might feel the way they did. … [W]e made the necessary changes to that photo and the rest of the photos. We saw the problem, and we adapted and changed right away. Definitely I have learned from it.”

This wouldn’t be a Kardashian beauty launch without a lawsuit, and Danish makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis provided Kim’s, suing KKW Beauty for copyright infringement, alleging that the name was too close to her trademarked KW Beauty line.

Why doesn’t any of this bother us more? Why doesn’t the scandal stick? Perhaps in part because what the Kardashians are selling is not makeup as much as access: to the fantasy of their lives, and their wealth. When I interviewed a young man who’d stood in line overnight to be among the first to enter Kylie’s Calabasas pop-up shop in December of last year, I asked him what about the Kardashians he loved so much. “I want my bank account to look like Kylie’s,” he told me.

We might not be able to be rich, famous, or beautiful, but we can own the things that rich, famous, beautiful people own. Our bedazzled Candy K lip kits can precisely match Kylie’s. The promise of Kardashian beauty is not just that they’ve approved it, but that they use it; that our bathroom counters, at least, can look exactly like theirs do.

The success of the Kardashians’ own beauty ventures has slowed, but hardly stopped, the sisters’ endorsement deals. As long as Instagram continues to make product-shilling absurdly easy and lucrative, there’s no reason for them to quit. Forbes estimates that a single Kylie Jenner Instagram post can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for a brand in advertising value, and that she’s compensated for it accordingly, earning up to an estimated $200,000 per post. Influencer marketing agency Mediakix’s list of the 10 highest-paid celebrities on Instagram features three of the Kardashian-Jenners: Kendall, Kylie, and Kim.

Many of these endorsements remain beauty-related. All five of the sisters have done ads for a gummy vitamin called SugarBearHair, which Mic called out as “a Tangled Web of Lies;” BuzzFeed also reported that the labeling on the vitamins was largely inaccurate. Kourtney, who in general has fewer public-facing responsibilities than her sisters (perhaps because she has three children and their dad’s a deadbeat), works with Manuka Doctor, a honey-based beauty line currently at the center of an appellation dispute between Australia and New Zealand. Kim recently joined sometimes-nemesis Amber Rose in stumping for a $49-a-month subscription to the Queen Pegasus 2 Step Lash Elixir Kit, which shares a parent company with perennial Instagram presence Flat Tummy Tea.

Kendall has a slightly different relationship to all of this. She tends to draw a stronger line between her work as a model and herself as a brand. She’s the sister least likely to be putting in extra hours on Snapchat to make sure we know who and what she’s wearing on any given day, though she still spends plenty of time selling beauty in the public eye. She has, for example, been one of the faces of Estée Lauder since 2014. The Estée Edit, a millennial-focused line she fronted, flopped, but her signature Kendall lipstick and eyeshadow products were sellout successes for the brand.

She did sue a skin care company called Cutera to the tune of $10 million for claiming that their treatments were responsible for her “flawless skin,” but the suit was later quietly and mysteriously dropped. Court documents revealed that Kendall would have charged in the tens of millions of dollars for a similar endorsement.

The other Kardashian tradition that Kendall doesn’t often participate in is promoting the glam squad she works with.

Many of these hair and makeup experts have turned their Kardashian connections into full-blown businesses. Hair stylist Jen Atkin created Ouai Haircare, which has smartly and successfully run a social-media-first marketing campaign that puts Instagram at the center of its branding. Makeup artist Joyce Bonelli is working on a beauty line of her own scheduled to be released this fall. Not every spinoff is a beauty product, though: Scotty Cunha, for instance, has parlayed his hairstyling expertise into a hat and scarf line through the clothing company Streddo.

They’ve also helped established brands find new followers. Anastasia Soare turned brow-shaping, and herself, into a multimillion-dollar brand after she moved to the United States from Romania in 1989. She’s been the go-to expert on the subject for years. She worked on every ’90s supermodel imaginable and thanks to her Kardashian cred (she started doing the sisters’ brows in high school), she’s become a new-school sensation too. Soare now has the highest earned-media value of any beauty brand on Instagram, according to WWD. For context, MAC is only at about half of Anastasia’s value.

The Kardashians have plucked would-be beauty pros from obscurity, too. Kylie found then-20-year-old makeup artist Ariel scrolling through Instagram in 2015 and sent a DM asking him to work with her; he’s since acquired over a million followers on the platform. Kylie also found Tokyo Stylez, who is, according to his own description, a “master stylist, hair guru, and visionary,” on the platform.

Tokyo is a black man. His presence in Kylie’s inner circle could offer her an opportunity to open a conversation around race and beauty: to acknowledge that some of her looks draw on black beauty practices, and then to note that she pays a black man for his labor in creating them, and promotes his work to help him build a career off of them. She hasn’t done that, though, and her silence is notable.

Photo illustration: Doug Chayka

“I don't think it matters that she has a black hairstylist in terms of legitimizing the type of hairstyles that she has,” says Ashley Weatherford, a senior beauty editor at The Cut. Surrounding yourself with black friends and black talent isn’t the same as talking to the black community directly, and if Kylie wants to gain its respect, Weatherford thinks, that’s what she needs to do. “To the best of my knowledge, Kylie hasn't talked about race. When you look at the way Kim addresses race, she does it in a very clumsy way, in a way that shows she doesn't understand a lot of things about blackness or about being black in America. But she at least acknowledges it.”

Weatherford wonders whether this difference is due at least in part to the fact that the most prominent black people in Kim’s life are her husband and children, whereas for Kylie, Tokyo is an employee. “Kim, her family now is black,” she says. “She has to acknowledge it. Kylie doesn't have that. She doesn't have to acknowledge it, and she chooses not to. I can imagine not wanting to open the conversation with an employee about whether what I'm doing is hurtful or harmful to the black community.” It will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes if Kylie is, as TMZ reports, pregnant with boyfriend Travis Scott’s baby, a child who would be half-black.

If Kylie claimed a hand in Tokyo’s career as evidence that she supports black artists, it would also raise questions about the kinds of careers she and her sisters help their stylists establish. Just how durable are their brands when they get detached from the Kardashian name? Weatherford considers Jen Atkin the Most Likely to Succeed: “She really has made her own brand and become powerful because she's diversified her clients.” Atkin counts Bella Hadid, Chrissy Teigen, and Gwen Stefani among her loyalists.

But it’s also true that Atkin’s signature look is a beachy wave that’s very casual and very white. Tokyo not only has the uphill battle of translating a beauty practice traditionally associated with blackness — wearing wigs — to a nonblack audience, but his wigs also tend to be dramatic (ice-blue or platinum-blond, for instance) and pricey. “What Tokyo does is a very specific rich-people thing,” Weatherford says. “Wigs are super-expensive! If I see something that Mario is doing, I want to copy it because I know I can re-create it at home. I can't re-create Tokyo's wigs at home.”

Mario is Mario Dedivanovic, perhaps Kim’s best-known makeup artist. He knows his looks can be re-created and capitalizes on the public’s desire to Get the Look by offering master classes: opportunities for plebeians to watch him work his magic up close and personal — well, in an audience of several hundred other people, usually, but closer and more personal than they can otherwise get. Tickets for Dedivanovic’s classes, which feature Kim as his “celebrated muse” and live model, typically run between $500 and $1,500, and, since they only happen a few times a year, fans frequently fly in for the privilege of attending.

They attend these workshops for many reasons, but some are professionals themselves, men and women like Linda Mehrens, who in 2015 told the LA Times that she’d traveled from Sweden to attend a master class because “I’m using it as a marketing scheme” for the beauty academy she owns. “I'll go on my blog and Instagram and say that I learned the American style of doing makeup from Kim's artist. I want to be one step ahead."

Here’s Arabelle Sicardi, writing for Racked about attending one such class:

It was meditative, actually, to watch Kim zone out and trail off as she answered questions while getting her eyebrows shaped: you could see that it relaxed her. Mario and Kim have built a relationship as important to Kim as any of her others: a creative partnership that has outlasted marriages and scandals alike. Mario helped make her as much as Kanye helps create her with outfit choices and Kanye-approved collaborators. … He’s done her makeup through tears — he tells her to breathe in through the nose and just keeps going, reapplying it and clearing the snot.

Dedivanovic is one of the few people who’s regularly allowed to see Kim’s face before he helps turn it into the one that allows her to be Kim Kardashian every day. Even when she goes without makeup, as she did at this year’s Paris Fashion Week or on Snapchat, she’s still presenting herself consciously to the public: She may be bare, but she’s never entirely raw. It’s no wonder that Dedivanovic has amassed a massive and dedicated following.

You might think he would have used his fame to start a product line of his own. However, he recently told People that even designing his Master Palette eyeshadow for Anastasia Beverly Hills was ultimately too stressful. “I learned I was incredibly indecisive,” he said. “It made me extremely afraid of failure and put a lot of pressure on me. They had to push the launch date one entire year because I kept changing it.” Instead, he’s now focused on a different kind of collaboration. Dedivanovic has been signed to Laura Mercier’s Makeup Artist Collective, where he became the first artist other than Mercier herself to create looks for one of the brand’s campaigns.

Racked reached out to Ariel, Tokyo Stylez, Jen Atkin, Anastasia Soare, and Mario Devadinovic for comment on this story. Atkin’s publicist said Atkin was too busy to talk. Someone from Dedivanovic’s team wrote back “who else are you interviewing,” and then stopped responding to emails entirely. Other than that: silence.

There’s something palpably too big to fail about the Kardashians these days. Their collective sense of self seems to have overtaken whatever our own sense of them might be. They’re not just a brand but an establishment, not just a family but a dynasty. Of course they fuck up sometimes. That doesn’t mean we get to just quit caring about them, or lusting after the luster that keeps them from tarnishing in the way we feel certain they ought to have by now.

It is basically impossible to quantify how much money moves through the economy because of the Kardashians every day, but suffice it to say that, between the products and the experts and the master classes and the knockoffs of the knockoffs, the eBay resellers and the out-and-out counterfeiters and the hazy sphere of “influence,” it’s a much heftier chunk even than the massive personal fortune each member has managed to amass. (Kim is the wealthiest Kardashian, at an estimated $150 million, with Rob the family pauper at a reported net worth of merely $6 million. Kylie, $41 million and rising quickly, recently became the youngest person on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-paid entertainers.)

Beyond that, though, there’s the magnitude of their cultural influence: the way they’ve shaped the broader conversation around what’s attractive in terms of women’s appearance, about how we do our makeup and take our selfies. About whether we can acknowledge how much money and time and product goes into making ourselves presentable.

The Kardashians didn’t invent anything: not having curves or tan skin, or wearing braids or nude lips or contour. They’re curators and collaborators and promoters, part of a massive team. They steal as much as they borrow. When they steal, it is all too often from people who are less wealthy and powerful and privileged than they are, people who are less likely to be taken seriously in the first place because of how they look.

There is nothing ethical about their aesthetic.

These are women who defy certain cultural expectations while wholeheartedly embracing others, giving us bodies at once defiant and conformist, dizzyingly dense with signifiers of simultaneous rebellion and submission. They explicitly sell access to but not ownership of their bodies. And so, in our frustration, we buy the things that get closest to their bodies, hoping to close the gap.

The Kardashians are the witches who turned being attractive women into big business; of course we want to know their spells and rituals, to come as close as we can to wearing their skin. We want to construct ourselves the way they construct themselves. We want to wave their magic wands. The magic is their secret; probably, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t teach us that. But the rest of it, well, those are products they can sell us, and so, happily and profitably, they do.

Zan Romanoff is a writer in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


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