Kim Kardashian West
Magazine Feature

The TV & Music Issue: How Kim Kardashian West Went From Reality Queen to Pop Culture Rock Star

Sorry, haters: With mogul status in TV, apps and social media and a model marriage to rap’s brash genius Kanye (plus two adorable kids), Kim Kardashian West has banished the notion that she’s “famous for nothing."

On a recent September morning, Kim Kardashian West woke up at dawn and dressed, as usual, in an outfit her husband, Kanye West, helped her select. She spent the morning shooting her E! reality series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and now, just after noon, is floating through a scrum of paparazzi waiting outside of New York’s Mercer Hotel. Her look involves clear vinyl thigh-high boots; an old pair of Levi’s denim shorts; a sheer, pale-blue, nipple-revealing La Perla bra, worn as a top; and an oversize denim jacket from the line of fashion-y merch that Kanye put out around his latest album, The Life of Pablo.

Zoey Grossman 
“ ‘Let’s try out for The Real World,’ I said to my best friend,” Kardashian West, wearing a Celine coat, remembers from when she was 12. “My best friend was like, ‘OK, well, let’s talk about it when we’re 18.’ I was like, ‘No, we have to do this!’ ”

In the time it takes her to step out of her chauffeured Mercedes and reach the hotel door, photographers snap the outfit dozens of times. The images quickly make their way to the Internet, and by the time Kardashian West, 35, is halfway done with lunch in the hotel lobby, texts begin flooding her phone. “I have maybe 10 messages from Kanye’s publicist, my publicist,” she says, glancing down at her iPhone and sounding low-key excited. “Everyone wants to know, ‘Who makes those boots?’ Everyone is trying to do a story about the boots!”

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In fact, the boots, which make Kardashian West look a little like she stepped out of an Austin Powers movie, are the world’s first glimpse of the fourth season of her husband’s Yeezy fashion line. The clothes debuted the following day, in the most attention-getting and polarizing show of New York Fashion Week, marked by frazzled buyers and fashion editors, who were bussed hours early to the event’s remote location, and models sporting layers of outerwear under the hot New York sun.

It’s no accident, of course, that Kardashian West was teasing Kanye’s big moment. She has become not only her 39-year-old husband’s muse, but his sounding board and amplifier of his message — and thus one of music’s most influential non-musicians. Kanye, meanwhile, brags about the success of his wife’s apps, her era-defining sex appeal and powers of mass communication. The two are, says Kardashian West, “obsessed with each other.” In a world where they have both been the recipients of more than a little ill will, they each have the other’s back.

Zoey Grossman 
“We value each other’s opinions so much,” says Kardashian West of her and Kanye. “I ask him about every last little thing.” Kardashian West wears a vintage T-shirt from Chapel NYC Vintage and Balenciaga boots.

“They’ve elevated each other,” says Ryan Seacrest, a longtime friend of Kardashian West and a producer of her show. “Kanye is constantly thinking about innovation and different perspectives, and you’ve seen that influence manifest in the things she has done over the last handful of years.”

Kardashian West is a little sleepy today. She was out late last night, hanging backstage after the first of two Saint Pablo shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where Kanye played to a packed house that included friends like Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Naomi Campbell, as well as daughter North West, 3, who, at her first big concert, was alternately captivated by Daddy and focused on her iPad. Kardashian West, who’s attending almost every show on the tour, spent the first couple of nights moving around the arena to experience it from different vantage points, including dipping into the “pit” — the general admission floor, which often turns into a roiling mosh zone underneath Kanye’s floating stage. “Everyone was grabbing my ass,” she says, sounding amused but vaguely scandalized. “I was like, ‘I have to get out of here.’”

In person, Kardashian West is friendly and focused, with a more down-to-earth vibe than you might expect. Still, her makeup-enhanced beauty gives her a slightly surreal quality, as if she somehow managed to get a Snapchat filter to function in real life. She orders a bowl of chicken soup and a kale salad, adding, “Oh, the fries here are so good. Should I do it?” (She does not.)

Music, of course, is just one world in which Kardashian West has worked her magic. She has not only leveraged her role as history’s greatest reality show star into unparalleled influence in social media, fashion and beauty, but established herself as a Silicon Valley power player, standing to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in 2016 from her blockbuster apps Kimoji, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Kim Kardashian West Official App, which provides subscribers with exclusive content about, well, you know who. And she’s not just a businesswoman — she’s a mother of two with an African-American husband, biracial kids and a dazzling work-life balance, a woman who glamorously models a distinctly modern American life. She’s even taking steps into politics, endorsing Hillary Clinton and recently placing a full-page ad in The New York Times challenging denials that Turkey’s early 20th-century slaughter of Armenians was genocide (an issue of great importance to her late Armenian-American father, Robert Kardashian).

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The conventional wisdom about Kardashian West is that she’s famous for doing nothing, and that her world-conquering celebrity is a symptom of the cratering of civilization as perilous as Brexit or the popularity of stuffed-crust pizza. But of course that’s not really true. If anything, Kardashian West means so much to so many people — 82.9 million Instagram followers, 48 million on Twitter, 10 million U.S. viewers of her show each week, the countless fans who have driven her apps to the top of the Apple charts — because she does so many things, and does each of them so well.

“She multitasks on a whole other level,” says Kardashian West’s mother, Kris Jenner.

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Kardashian West’s iPhone, which has an old photo of her nestled in Kanye’s arms as its lockscreen, buzzes. She picks up. “Speaking of the devil!” she says brightly, before shifting to a huskier register and adding, “Or the angel.” She pauses to listen, then explains to Kanye, who is on the other end and clearly confused: “I was just talking about you, and I was like ‘speaking of the devil,’ and then I’m like, actually, ‘the angel.’ Wait, babe, I’m in an interview. You need ... OK, Naomi just sent over her new management’s number. OK, OK. Calling her right now. Bye.”

“Fashion week,” she explains, when she hangs up. The West family is camped out in New York for a chunk of August and September both for the Yeezy show and because it’s a convenient hub for Kanye’s East Coast tour dates. At home in Los Angeles, they live in a gated community in Bel Air, but are close to finishing renovations on a house in Calabasas, down the block from her mom’s place -- convenient both for babysitting purposes and because it’s the main location for the TV show. Here in New York, the couple still owns Kanye’s pre-marriage apartment, but it’s too small for their family, so they made a deal with Airbnb to provide a five-story place in Chelsea in exchange for social media posts. The apartment, she says, is “the sickest.”

When it comes to Kardashian West and Kanye’s status as a pop-culture power couple, their only real rivals are their friends Beyoncé and Jay Z. But where Bey and Jay furiously guard their privacy (even a relationship statement as seemingly revealing as Lemonade only gets more cryptic the closer you look), Kardashian West and Kanye are less remote, more relatable and, seemingly, less complicated in their love and partnership. Kardashian West has always weighed in on the full range of Kanye’s work, from in-progress records, which she has loaded into her iTunes, to the current tour’s stage design. “I’ll be a full critic,” she says. “I could just say, ‘OK, the lighting should be different here.’ He loves the opinion. And then he will go into rehearsal the whole next day and totally perfect it.”

During the key moment of Kanye’s year, however, she didn’t merely offer her opinion — she masterminded the entire narrative. The story is already something of a pop-culture fable. Kanye released the song “Famous,” which includes the lines “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous,” then tweeted that Taylor Swift had approved the lyric. Swift issued an statement condemning the song and claiming she had never been onboard. The issue simmered for weeks, until Kardashian West gathered up all her swagger, celebrity and influence and struck back, saying in an interview that she had proof that Swift approved the song. Then, timed to a KUWTK episode centered on the topic, she released, on Snapchat, video of the call, in which Kanye shared some of the lyrics with Swift — thus ending the feud with a resounding win in the court of public opinion.

How did the couple settle on Kardashian West as the messenger? She sighs theatrically and says, “Ugh, do we really have to talk about Taylor Swift?”

Jeff Kravitz/MTV1415/FilmMagic
Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian embrace during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on Aug. 30, 2015 in Los Angeles. 

Just a little bit. “I’m so over it,” she says with a laugh. “If it were up to Kanye, it all would probably never have come out. He can handle it, he has no hard feelings. He doesn’t even really care. I just wanted to protect my husband. I saw him getting a lot of shit.”

You did a good job of it. “It wasn’t even about a look or anything, or to have this feud — it was like, ‘OK, here’s the truth.’ Done. Let’s all move on. I feel like I don’t want to talk about her anymore.”

Kardashian West really does sound worn out by the whole thing —  more exhausted than triumphant. According to Jenner, it’s easier for her daughter to deal with criticism directed at herself than at Kanye. “She’s a protective wife and mom,” says Jenner. “Today’s social media-filled world can be so toxic. People angry and unhappy and lashing out — my kids weren’t brought up that way.”

Kardashian West was impressed by David Schwimmer’s performance as her late father in the FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (which won five Emmys in September). She was less pleased with the show’s suggestion that her father’s sudden prominence after joining Simpson’s defense team sparked her attraction to fame. In fact, she grew up adjacent to celebrity. Her father published the trade magazine Radio and Records and worked with Irving Azoff at MCA, where she got to meet stars like Tiffany. “She was, like, everything,” says Kardashian West. She remains close to Azoff, who she calls Uncle Irving. “His wife Shelli is texting me right now,” she says at lunch. “They’re like family-family, all cameras and bullshit aside.”

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA
Shelli Azoff and Kim Kardashian West attend LACMA 2015 Art+Film Gala presented by Gucci at LACMA on Nov. 7, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Most weekends, she says, the Kardashian kids would go to concerts and end up backstage with, say, Michael Jackson or Earth, Wind & Fire. (She even celebrated her 14th birthday at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, when she was dating Jackson’s nephew T.J., although Michael wasn’t there.) Kardashian West listens to music all the time, especially in the bathroom when she’s prepping to go out, through iTunes — and she still makes mixed CDs for friends. “Back in the day I loved Shania Twain,” she says. “Celine Dion is my favorite, favorite, favorite. I love Ariana Grande, Sam Smith.” Her preferred non-Kanye rappers? “Chance the Rapper is pretty dope. Big Sean, Eminem.” And of course there are perks to being married to Kanye: “When I was pregnant he made a song just for the baby to listen to.” She even gets a little giddy about spending time with old idols, like when Kanye hired Andrea Bocelli as a surprise to sing at their wedding, or when she hung out with Britney Spears before introducing her at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. “She’s Britney!” says Kardashian West. “I mean, how fun.”

When she was in grade school, Kardashian West became enthralled by the first season of MTV’s The Real World. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I want to do,’ ” she says. “It’s crazy that it has come full circle — the producers of my show were the ones that created The Real World.” She got some of her first genuine media exposure as a sober pal to a hard-partying crew that included Paris Hilton. “I just thank God for my rhinestone Sidekick,” she says of that era. “I would sit there checking Myspace all the time. They probably thought I was so boring.”

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Kardashian West had always planned to be a mom someday, but when she and Kanye first learned she was pregnant, it came as a surprise. “I freaked the f— out,” she says. “We weren’t trying or planning on it and I just didn’t think I was ready. But you’re never ready. It happens when it’s supposed to happen and at the right time.”

According to Jenner, Kardashian West and Kanye are devoted parents. They have a rule to never argue in front of the kids. “Right as my parents were splitting up I overheard one argument,” she says. “One time in my whole life.” They watch a lot of animated movies, which Kanye loves as much as the kids do, and when it’s just the two of them, they binge-watch shows like Empire. “We’ll go to Big Sur and not leave our hotel room for two days and just watch show after show,” says Kardashian West.

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At first, Kanye insisted that North not appear on the show or social media. So for a chunk of her daughter’s early life, Kardashian West made sure that even her toys were kept off-camera. But given how much her family had shared through the years, the decision began to feel absurd: “I would have to, like, change my clothes because I would have throw-up all over me.” And anyway, she’s pretty sure her kids (including Saint, who turns 1 in December), of all children, will be able to handle fame. In fact, it’s fate. “Both times when I was pregnant I’d literally just pray, ‘I hope my baby can handle this life,’ ” she says. “I believe their souls choose us to be their parents — that they choose this life. That’s my belief.”

In Midtown Manhattan, on the 11th floor of a glass-and-steel office tower, the Keeping Up With the Kardashians cameras are rolling. Kardashian West is here to meet with executives at Givaudan, a vast Swiss company that is collaborating with her on a new line of e-commerce perfumes. In a small office attached to a conference room with views of Central Park, an array of snacks have been laid out. Kardashian West and her best friend, Jonathan Cheban, a publicist-turned-food blogger and regular character on the show, are trailed by the crew as they ponder their drink options. “Guys, what’s better: Pepsi or Coke?” asks Kardashian West, sounding way more Valley girl than she did just a few minutes earlier. “Should I mix them together? Has anyone ever done that?” She cracks open one can each of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi and pours a half-and-half mix into a wine glass. Cheban’s mind is apparently blown. “Nobody has ever done that before,” he says solemnly. “I would have never thought of that.”

You get a slightly different Kardashian West when the cameras are off. She’s sharper, tougher, more formidable. She’s noted this before — that her on-camera depiction isn’t quite as smart as she is in real life. “I just don’t think it’s exciting to see me building an app,” she explains. “The most exciting stuff is just when we are at home, in our kitchen, doing absolutely nothing. So I get that. I take one for the team.”

James Devaney/GC Images
Kim Kardashian, North West and Kanye West seen on the streets of Manahttan on Aug. 29, 2016 in New York City.  

For a decade now, KUWTK has chronicled the lives of Kardashian West’s entire family, notably Caitlyn Jenner, whose transition brought transgender issues into homes all over the world. Her sisters Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall (the fashion model) and Kylie (like Kim, a force in cosmetics, apps and social media) have all become megacelebrities. The show is a commitment Kardashian West makes for 10 months a year, five days a week, often 12 or more hours a day. “It’s the best way to tell our story our way,” she says. “TV captures so many demographics. And I’m proud to have brought light to some issues.” (The latest spinoff, Rob and Chyna, debuted in September to strong ratings.)

Kardashian West continues to see the TV show as the central thing, the vehicle for all the other opportunities. But as her life and career have expanded in the four years that she and Kanye have been together, as she has made waves in the authenticity-obsessed world of music and appeared on covers of formerly hostile magazines like Vogue, reality TV is no longer the only way, or even the main way, Kardashian West cultivates an audience. What does the show’s access reveal now? She has a (borrowed) theory about that. “I read an article that said when we first started it was like, ‘Oh, my God, we want to be famous,’” she says. “But now? It proves that we’re actually normal.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Billboard.