For reality stars to reach this level of fame is unheard of. Yes, the Hills girls graced the cover of Rolling Stone and, sure, Bethenny Frankel’s achieved massive success post-Housewives—but the Kardashian-Jenners have penetrated culture in a way only the super-famous can. It’s forced people to take them seriously—and, by proxy, reality TV itself. “You unconsciously always absorb the Kardashians whether you want to or not,” says Comments by Celebs co-founder Julie Kramer. “That’s made it impossible not to accept reality TV as a legitimate medium.”
Farjam agrees. “There are reality TV shows that are more competition-based that got the respect it needed earlier than the Kardashians,” she says. “But the Kardashians definitely brought respect to people living their lives on camera and making themselves vulnerable.”
Vulnerable. It’s an interesting word to use when talking about the Kardashian-Jenners. After all, this is a group whose edited Instagram pics are criticized (rightfully) for promoting unrealistic body standards. Whose bevy of businesses—SKIMS! Kylie Cosmetics KKW Beauty!—churn out billions of dollars (and billions of controversies, many poorly-handled). A group whose lavish lifestyles, wardrobes, and pandemic vacations enrage people as well as entertain them.
And yet vulnerable, in a very specific context, is a good way to describe the Kardashian-Jenner women. Frankly, it’s how they’ve transcended reality TV and become undeniable A-listers.
Maybe Kim’s multimillion-dollar “fairytale” wedding to Humphries wasn’t relatable, but the aftermath—the ugly crying, the realization she made a huge mistake—absolutely was. Maybe her blood-curdling screaming match with Kourtney over Christmas card photos was ridiculous, but those family dynamics are familiar to…well, anyone with a family.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians has worked, endured, and transformed the lives of its stars because peppered throughout its outrageous glitz are true moments of universal emotion. The sisters make no apologies for the parts of their lives we can’t relate to—but at the same time, they have no problem showing us the things we can. That’s made them the biggest stars in the world.
And it’s set a precedent for all entertainment. Pop stars with the most impact (Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift) expertly toggle between fierce theatricality and forthcoming confession. Shows like Bridgerton are escapist one minute and poignantly heartbreaking the next. The Kardashians, in a way, popularized this winning formula by embracing both their opulence and their open hearts. They showed every public figure that in order to connect, you must reveal something—and that something must actually be real.
“As soon as your ‘relatability’ is deemed forced or deemed inauthentic, you’re worse off than if you weren’t relatable to start off with,” Diamond says. That’s why she thinks Kim freaking out about Regé-Jean Page leaving Bridgerton was such a moment: “When you get this rare glimpse that she’s finding out something with the rest of the world—meaning Kim Kardashian is finding out at the exact same time you are—it sets a whole other vibe.”
Kramer concurs. “You think about the saying, ‘Stars, they’re just like us.’ Stars are not like us,“ she says. “But for one moment they can do something that makes us think, ‘Oh wow, I feel just like them. I know exactly what that untouchable person was doing and feeling in that moment.’”
Keeping Up With the Kardashians has provided plenty of those moments—and with the family’s Hulu deal, we’ll surely get more. But even if we don’t, even if their new content is less transparent, Keeping Up proved there’s power in getting personal. This revelation will continue to affect pop culture, even if the Kardashians themselves don’t partake.
That being said, Farjam doesn’t think fans have anything to worry about. “I see them continuing to make archives of their lives,” she says. “They’ll be as big as—I don’t know, I just feel like they’re going to be icons even when they’re gone.”