It’s 5:51 a.m., and Kris Jenner wants to talk. The text delivering this news arrives before the crack of dawn, but Jenner has already been up for hours. “She’d love to do soon,” her representative says in a message to a Variety reporter.
Jenner hasn’t taken many days off since 2007, when her family’s show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” premiered on E! and became a cultural phenomenon — making her and her five daughters (you know them, from oldest to youngest, as Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, Kendall and Kylie) into mononymic media moguls with their own business empires, with ventures ranging from cosmetics to liquor to fragrances to shapewear. In all, the Kardashians have dominated both popular culture and business, and are estimated to be worth more than $5 billion. But in September 2020, the family decided not to renew its deal with E!, and “Keeping Up” came to an end last June after 20 seasons. Even so, Jenner hasn’t slowed down.
“I was up at 4 so I could have my coffee and get dressed,” a chipper Jenner says over the phone. She’s calling from her second home in Palm Springs, a midcentury fortress that she scooped up for $12 million before the pandemic, where she’s shooting scenes for the upcoming reality series “The Kardashians,” along with her boyfriend, Corey Gamble, and her fun-loving daughter Khloé. “We’re filming all day,” she explains, “and I had to get up so I could watch the Prada show,” in Milan, “that Kendall was walking in — as a redhead! Did you see?” The self-described “mama bear” says her first-born, Kourtney, has just left the desert with her fiancé, drummer Travis Barker, while her youngest, Kylie, is coming soon with her 4-year-old daughter, Stormi, and newborn son, Wolf, whom she shares with her partner, rapper Travis Scott.
“It makes me so happy,” says Jenner, now a grandmother of 11. “There’s nothing better than a new baby.”
And she’s about to deliver another bundle of joy: “The Kardashians,” which has been shrouded in secrecy, will arrive on Hulu on April 14, with the promise of making America’s reality TV royal family even more rich. The ink on the deal had barely dried in 2020 when the show was announced at Disney’s Investor Day; the studio was trying to use the Kardashians’ notoriety to gin up interest in the streaming platform.
What we didn’t know until now is what exactly the Kardashians — and “The Kardashians” — would look like at Hulu. Under the pact, Variety has learned, the streamer will be launching two seasons, 40 episodes total, of a reality series that feels like a premium version (read: more expensive) of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The family also has an option for future projects within the Disney umbrella. Visually, “The Kardashians” is presented more documentary style, with scene openers shot overhead with drones. In true Kardashian fashion, the series doesn’t hold back on delving into the real-life tabloid sagas, including Kim’s public divorce with Kanye West and her new relationship with “SNL” regular Pete Davidson.
Witnessing the Kardashians in person, huddled at Kim’s pristine and sprawling new KKW Brands headquarters in Calabasas, Calif., is just like watching them on TV. “Wow, Khlo! Pretty cray-cray,” Jenner enthuses at our Variety photo shoot as Khloé walks out of hair and makeup. Jenner barely looks up from her phone to catch a glimpse of her daughter being photographed in a stretchy catsuit. “You’re doing amazing, sweetie,” Jenner says, casually quoting one of her own lines that’s been immortalized by memes. One foot away, a handler is holding a green crocodile Birkin bag that belongs to one of the women. When the shoot finishes, Kourtney changes out of her dress into a Kiss concert T-shirt; Khloé puts on sunglasses, borrows Kim’s Balenciaga wrap and steps outside — where paparazzi are waiting — to head to a design meeting at her new mansion, which shares land with her mother, now her next-door neighbor. Kim stays for another shoot, leaving her office 11 hours later, around 7 p.m., to tuck her four kids into bed.
Using internet math, the Kardashians are more popular than any network or streaming service. In total, the family has more than 1.7 billion followers across social media. Individually, Kim, Kylie and Kendall each has more followers on Instagram than Netflix has subscribers. As the third-most-popular person on Instagram, Kylie has a following of 315 million; Netflix’s last reported global subscription base was 218 million. “It’s overwhelming when I think about it too much,” Kylie writes in an email, days after giving birth to her second child.
They’re not just people anymore, nor are they even just celebrities: They’re so famous, they’ve changed fame. They’ve become symbols of powerful businesswomen, but also public punching bags whose lavish lives are so detached from reality, they get dragged on Twitter for celebrating turning 40 on a tropical island during the scarier days of the pandemic (as Kim did). To some, they’re emblems of consumerist capitalism gone awry. Whenever the word “self-made” is printed next to their names, social media is up in arms. But with Kim’s Skims, beauty and fragrance brands and an upcoming skincare line; Kylie Cosmetics, Skin, Baby and Swim; Khloé’s Good American apparel; Kourtney’s Poosh lifestyle brand; and Kendall’s 818 Tequila, the sisters have worked to parlay their fame into a formidable conglomerate.
“818 has been an awesome experience so far,” Kendall says about her tequila line, named after her hometown’s area code. “We have been coming up with the liquid for years now, so to have the product finished and be available to everyone is so rewarding. I’m learning a ton along the way and have a great team surrounding the brand.”
Before the Kardashians had launched a single product, Jenner just thought having a reality show would be fun. “It really wasn’t this master plan,” she says. “When I started ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians,’ we were so excited to have our own show and so appreciative of the opportunity.”
At the time Jenner, the ex-wife of one of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” attorneys, Robert Kardashian, and remarried to Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, owned two neighborhood clothing stores, Smooch and Dash. “I remember thinking we were going to be filming in the children’s clothing store that Kourtney and I owned,” she recalls. “It kind of started out like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’re going to sell a lot of baby clothes!’”
The Kardashians have long been at the forefront of celebrity. Their decade and a half in the entertainment industry has seen a shift from linear television to streaming platforms to social apps, and they haven’t merely been along for the ride: They’ve been generating their own waves. With their finger on the pulse, they’ve always understood the way audiences consume content — and how they spend money.
Right after the first season of “Keeping Up,” Jenner noticed that they didn’t need to sell products — they were the products.
“I realized really quickly that we had something, and it was very special,” Jenner says, noting that after Season 2, her family couldn’t step outside their stores without encountering crowds of fans and paparazzi. “Once we knew it was a hit, that’s when you put on a more creative hat and you start to think, ‘Oh, I see where this might be going. Maybe we should do something a little more outside the box and use this show as an amazing platform.’ And that’s what we did.”
Even a non-Kardashian fan would know that Jenner has been instrumental in running her family’s businesses. The “momager,” as she’s been described, plays a hand in negotiating all the Kardashian deals, taking a lucrative percentage from each of the 16 companies in the Kardashian-Jenner portfolio, including her home cleaning products line, Safely, that recently launched in 1,700 Walmart stores across the country.
With all the success and immense wealth that her family has accumulated, why keep going with another show?
“Well, money always matters,” Jenner says when asked about changing networks. “I think that anybody would be foolish to say that money doesn’t matter anymore.”
Television has always been part of the Kardashian business model — they are TV stars first, and without an anchoring series, it’s possible that their ancillary businesses would suffer. Their reality show paycheck, which they won’t specify but insiders say is worth nine figures, makes up only a fraction of their net worth, yet it’s crucial for branding. All the family members will earn the same salary for the Hulu show, Khloé tells Variety. “We are all equals,” she says.
“It definitely played a factor because we give so much of our personal lives up for entertainment,” Khloé says of the financial terms of the contract. “We always have our private family conversations, and we’re pretty brutal, me and my sisters, with what we will settle for or not settle for. But not all money is good money. It has to be a good fit, and Hulu was just the perfect fit for us.”
Walt Disney Television’s chairman of entertainment, Dana Walden, was integral in signing the Kardashians — and confirms they didn’t come cheap. “We stepped up to a great deal that they very much deserve,” the exec says. “Who would you want more for your unscripted slate than the Kardashians? They perfectly symbolize our strategy, which is taking big shots, but the right shots, and betting on incredible talent and best-in-class opportunities in each genre.”
The sisters never enter negotiations. They leave that to Jenner. “She fights like a pit bull,” Khloé says of her mom.
Kris’ DNA, naturally, has rubbed off on her children. “I hope that I’ve inspired other women to take chances and follow their dreams,” Kylie says of her beauty empire.
When asked whether a bidding war ensued when the family left E!, Jenner remains coy. “We had options for sure, but I’m not one to kiss and tell.”
• • •
“I have the best advice for women in business,” Kim says. “Get your fucking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.”
The Kardashians have been the subjects of harsh criticism over the years, but they’ve never been accused of not hustling. Kim bristles at the characterization that’s followed her for years — that she’s just famous for being famous. “Who gives a fuck,” she says. “We focus on the positive. We work our asses off. If that’s what you think, then sorry. We just don’t have the energy for that. We don’t have to sing or dance or act; we get to live our lives — and hey, we made it. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Greg Swales for Variety
Kim says she’s just being “factual”: “With all respect, and with love, I’m not, like, being a bitch.”
On another day, before getting on the phone for a conversation, Kim has just returned from Milan Fashion Week, disembarking from her new $95 million private jet that’s customized with cashmere walls. Naturally, her mode of travel has become public fodder, like every other detail of her life. After touching down, she heads to her monochromatic mansion in the Los Angeles enclave of Hidden Hills and hops on the call. Like her mom, she’s a master multitasker.
“I literally just landed and walked into my house,” she says. “I had a really good time, but I never want to travel and be away from the kids for too long, so two days was perfect. I have to prioritize everything.” She spent the 12-hour flight studying law.
Last December, after failing three times, she passed the “baby bar,” an exam that in the state of California allows an individual to become an admitted attorney through an apprenticeship. “When I went to the White House and was able to get someone released from prison, that was the biggest moment for me where I realized I can make a difference,” Kim says. “Am I exhausted? Yes, of course, but I’ve come too far. You hear about a case, and it’s someone’s life that you can help for the better, and then you get re-motivated again. It’s an ongoing cycle.” Her goal is to start her own law firm that would employ formerly incarcerated individuals to continue the fight for prison reform.
“Sorry, I’m eating a little bit too,” she says on the phone as she chews on vegan Chinese chicken salad with pita bread that she describes as “grilled and crispy and the best thing I’ve ever had, actually. I’m stuffing my face because my daughter has a basketball game and I can’t be late to pick her up from school.”
Forty minutes into our conversation, Kim asks if she can briefly hang up and call back, so that she can jump into one of her luxury cars (all painted a matching custom gray) to drive to 8-year-old North’s game. All of the Kardashian women say they prefer to drive themselves, rather than be chauffeured. And whenever they can, they pick up their kids from school.
“The paparazzi are super respectful about school stuff,” Kourtney says in a separate interview. “I guess I stay in a bubble, but I’m really able to have really normal days. It’s not like the paparazzi follow us all day.”
That’s not always true: These days, photographers can’t get enough shots of Kim with new boyfriend Davidson. “I have not filmed with him,” Kim says when asked whether he’ll appear on the Hulu show. “And I’m not opposed to it. It’s just not what he does,” she says, speaking about Davidson for the first time publicly. “But if there was an event happening and he was there, he wouldn’t tell the cameras to get away. I think I might film something really exciting coming, but it wouldn’t be for this season.”
Kim says that when the new show premieres, viewers will see “how we met and who reached out to who and how it happened and all the details that everyone wants to know.” She continues, “I’m definitely open to talking, and I definitely explain it.”
At the same time, Kim admits she’s learned to be more private with some aspects of her life, especially after 2016, when she was famously robbed in a Paris hotel room and held at gunpoint. As a result, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” experienced a lull in its later seasons. The sisters seemed more guarded and less invested, and the series became a show about Scott Disick, Kourtney’s ex-partner, and Khloé pulling pranks on Jenner. “We used to share so much in real time, and once we realized that real time can get a little bit scary and tricky, we have saved so much more,” Kim says. “I think we’re still really good at sharing. I think we’re just really cautious and careful, and I think that’s OK.”
Another arc of Kim’s life that is playing out on the world stage is her divorce, though she’s handled the personal matter with great restraint. Last week a judge granted her motion to drop “West” from her name, and she’s set to rebrand KKW Beauty this year. West has persistently harassed Kim online and in his appearances tied to his latest album, “Donda 2.” In court documents, Kim claimed that West’s posts have caused her emotional distress.
But before things turned acrimonious, West filmed scenes for the Hulu series, and he figures into a major arc in the first episode. “Being in the public eye and having disagreements publicly is never easy,” Kim says. “But I do believe in handling it all privately. I believe in championing publicly and criticizing privately. I don’t think I would ever criticize the father of my children on my TV show. That’s just not really what I’m about, and I just don’t think that would ever make me feel good.
“I’m always really respectful of what the kids will see. The reality is, we’re always a family. We always will have a love and respect for each other. And even if there’s moments where it might not seem like that, there are so many moments that are super positive. I do think it’s important for people to see that things aren’t perfect all the time, but that they can get better.”
• • •
Kim gasps when she hears that this reporter has seen the first episode of the new show. “I’m dying to know what you think,” she says. “I haven’t talked to anyone that’s seen it except for you, my friends and my family. Did you see the drones at the beginning? My goal,” she explains, “was that it was familiar and felt like home, like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re back.’ But updated or just a little bit more intimate.”
Family docu-series have struggled to succeed on streaming services. Gone are the days of cable’s celeb-reality boom, when anyone who craved fame strove to land a show at E!, Bravo or MTV. In the new era, audiences care less about reality TV and more about Instagram.
Greg Swales for Variety
Retaining what made “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” a hit was critical, says executive producer Ben Winston, whose production company, Fulwell 73 (James Corden is a co-partner), is behind the Hulu series. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Winston says. “It feels different, but yet, ultimately builds on the great show that they did.”
To make for a better production schedule for the busy women, the cast regularly shoots individually, whereas “Keeping Up” often had everyone together for scenes. Variety has learned that Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned in 2015 and ran for governor of California as a Republican last year, will not appear in the Hulu series. Rob Kardashian, the son of the family, is not a main cast member, though audiences might eventually see him in a cameo. Rob was a significant presence in early seasons of the E! show, but he dropped out due to mental and physical health issues, which were touched on during the series. He reemerged in his own 2016 spinoff, “Rob & Chyna,” which chronicled his doomed relationship with Blac Chyna, with whom he has a child. Ever since, Rob has stayed out of the limelight.
Rob isn’t the only one who had personal issues crop up on camera. For Kourtney, the final years at “Keeping Up” became “a really toxic place for me,” attributing that solely to her own personal burnout. But she wants to make clear that she is not the reason the show came to an end. “No,” she says. “I think that we were all ready to move on to something else.”
The streaming structure allows for a tighter turnaround, so events playing out on-screen are closer to what’s actually happening in real life, flipping on its head the model of reality television as evergreen content. “We wanted it to be as current as possible,” Kim says. “We hated how long we had to wait. That was like the death of us, because once we got over something, we had to rehash it all over again.”
In early conversations with Walden at Disney, Kris Jenner considered a home on a linear network, but ultimately settled on streaming solely on Hulu. “We wanted to be with someone that’s tech forward, so we’re with the times,” Khloé says. “For us to be still on cable was just not so on brand for us.”
In addition to Kim’s divorce, the show will also pull back the curtain on the status of Khloé’s relationship with NBA player Tristan Thompson, with whom she shares 3-year-old daughter True. In January, Thompson, who is on the Hulu series, admitted a paternity test confirmed he fathered a child with another woman. “I wish I never had to talk about that because it’s not a fun thing to talk about,” Khloé says. “But it is part of my journey in life, so we will see it on the show.”
But just how long will the Kardashians document their lives for TV?
Kourtney believes the Hulu show will be the last chapter of her career in reality TV. “I see myself living in another city,” she says. “I don’t think I see myself filming on a show in five years. I would probably envision myself, like, just living.”
Kim has also pondered such a possibility. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, my God, the dream. I can stop being Kim K. in 10 years,’” Kim muses. But when asked if she truly considers a life away from the cameras, she laughs.
“No,” she says. “I don’t.”