These days, it’s impossible to not keep up with the Kardashian-Jenners, even if you try. Not a day goes by where there isn’t at least one headline about the KarJenner clan, whether it be about their cheating scandals, simultaneous pregnancies, high-profile feuds, break-ups, make ups, product launches, product endorsements (and the backlash surrounding those endorsements) or fashion trends made popular by the family. If you add pretty much anything that Kim Kardashian West, Khloé Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner post to their combined total of 547.7 million followers on Instagram, it’s a badass empire.
All of these moments that happen in real time are then re-lived and revisited a few months later when they are aired on the family’s reality TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians (now in its 16th season), thereby generating even more Kardashian kontent. The New York Times describes this never-ending KarJenner news cycle as a “well-established Kardashian ecosystem: Family turmoil feeds the celebrity news cycle, which drives interest in the TV show, which then helps to publicize an ever-increasing number of sponsorships and branded products.” And while it’s generally the KarJenner sisters who are in the limelight, their fame and fortune would not be possible without one very important member of the family: Kris Jenner.
Kris is not only the family matriarch, she also manages their extremely lucrative careers, infamously branding herself as the KarJenners’ “momager” (she’s even trademarked the term). But she’s not applauded for being a mother who wants the best for her children or a successful manager and businesswoman who has accumulated significant power and wealth thanks to the influence she’s created for her daughters. Instead, the internet views her as a villain. She is characterized as a powerful puppet master who creates and controls the narrative surrounding her family in order to keep that Kardashian ecosystem alive and thriving. In essence, Kris is often characterized as a next-level stage mom in pop culture—and like most stage moms, she’s been blasted for the decisions she’s made as a mother, with people accusing her of exploiting her family members for fame and fortune.
“[She] dares to do what men always do in the business world, yet she is vilified for it, rather than venerated,” says Selena Pruitt, a graduate of Macalester College in Minnesota who wrote her senior thesis on the KarJenners. “[But] these opinions fail to take into account her incredible success as a businesswoman and as a female… and fail to see the bigger picture.” So, let us lay it out for you.
“The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder”
Maintaining the KarJenner empire takes a lot of work. As the manager of her six children, Kris Jenner (née Houghton, formerly Kardashian) assists Kim, Khloé, Kylie, Kendall and Rob with everything from arranging their sponsored content deals—for which each sibling earns a minimum of six figures per post—to helping them start their own businesses. For her work, Kris gets a 10 percent cut, which is a substantial amount of money, considering she’s the mother of millionaires (and one billionaire—Forbes dubbed Kylie the youngest-ever “self-made” billionaire last year).
Additionally, Kris is the CEO of Jenner Communications and the executive producer of KUWTK, which currently airs in 167 countries, has had nine spinoffs to date and has been E! Entertainment‘s top-rated series since 2010. Through these roles, the family matriarch has, as Refinery29 notes, developed the uncanny ability to reclaim the narrative around any scandal her family is involved in. An example: KUWTK originally premiered just three months after Kim’s sex tape was leaked. Episode four of the series featured Kim reclaiming and owning her sexuality by posing nude for Playboy, with Kris proudly taking behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot and delivering her now-famous line, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie!”
She also somehow manages to address and squash multiple controversies at once, like she did with the recent New York Times article on the KarJenner clan that touched on the Tristan Thompson-Jordyn Woods cheating scandal, Kendall’s involvement in the Fyre Festival and the drama surrounding Khloé’s flat tummy tea Instagram ads. She did this while also managing to plug Kim’s Carolina Lemke sunglasses collection, Kourtney’s new wellness brand Poosh, and, of course, the new season of KUWTK. It’s for this reason Kris is dubbed as harder-working than the devil by the internet. In fact, she’s seen as the devil herself—New Statesman reported that the week the Kardashian/Jenners’ multiple pregnancy rumours, searches for “Kris Jenner devil” spiked. This was most likely due to the internet looking for the viral tweet that started the whole “the devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder” saying, which Buzzfeed says “neatly sums up the way we see our OG Momager: as a charming, beguiling, and an ice-cold master puppeteer who’s not above pulling strings on her own children if it will add another zero on the end of their already massive fortunes.”
When Kris donned a short, blonde wig and channelled The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly during an episode of KUWTK, it fuelled the perception of this matriarch as a boss we love to hate. Kris loves the Miranda Priestly comparison, and in the episode said, “Kim is right… I mean, we are the same person,” reclaiming the narrative on her own terms.
“Jenner has leaned into this perception, if not actively curated it herself… it’s a scarily clever response,” observes the New Statesman.
Kris Jenner writing the script for the next season of KUWTK after the Khloe Jordyn and Tristan drama pic.twitter.com/DruXwxeQUI
— LΘUKΛΣ (@DJMCrown) February 20, 2019
From $200 to $60M
But how did Kris Jenner, a woman with no formal business training, learn to give such clever responses and build the Kardashian-Jenner empire as we know it? In an interview with Haute Living, Kris says it happened through “osmosis.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time around really powerful people who happened to be successful, and they were very positive influences in my life—great mentors,” she told the publication.
Two of those mentors were her mother, Mary Jo Houghton, and her maternal grandmother, Lou Fairbanks. While growing up in San Diego, Kris assisted both her mother and grandmother at the family candle store. In her memoir Kris Jenner… And All Things Kardashian, Kris says it was her grandmother who taught her the value of hard work—and who also inspired her to have a “ton of kids” and “become a wonderful mother.”
Kris met Robert Kardashian (who would later become O.J. Simpson’s lawyer) at 17 and married him at 22. They had four children: Kourtney, Kim, Khloé and Rob. After she cheated on Kardashian, the couple divorced, and Kris married Olympian Bruce Jenner (now known as Caitlyn Jenner) shortly after. However, the couple and their blended family, consisting of Kris’s four kids with Kardashian and Bruce’s four kids from previous marriages, was broke. When they met, Bruce only had $200 in his bank account and was trying to make a living doing motivational speeches. That’s how Bruce, as the New York Times puts it, became Kris’s “first project.” Not only did Kris help her husband market his motivational speech, “Finding the Champion Within,” to a wider audience, but she also created a series of workout videos with him called “Super Fit With Bruce and Kris Jenner.”
“He didn’t have a business card. He didn’t have a bio. He didn’t have press, nothing,” Kris said in an interview with Lenny Letter. “I think I spent my last dime… We put together 7,000 press kits, and we mailed them to every speakers’ bureau in the United States. Then we sat back, and we waited for the phone to ring.”
Luckily for the Jenners, the phone did ring, and things went uphill from there. Kris and Bruce went on to have two children together (Kendall and Kylie) and in 2007, Kris pitched the idea for KUWTK to Ryan Seacrest. “My focus at that time was to develop something my kids could have for the rest of their lives—something they could create for themselves,” Kris told Haute Living.
And that was just the beginning. After E! picked up the show, Kris executed a strategy to push her family beyond a TV show and used every opportunity she could to create new deals for her children.
“I knew we were onto something big. And I loved the business side of all of this,” Kris wrote in her memoir. “Every time we renewed for another season, I would think to myself: ‘How can I take these 15 minutes of fame and turn them into 30?’… I felt like I had a responsibility to not only turn out a really good show season after season but to use the show for a springboard for something permanent, something lasting for the kids.”
She continued, “I started to look at our careers like pieces on a chessboard… Every day, I woke up and walked into my office and asked myself, ‘What move do you need to make today?'”
Should Kris Jenner Be Getting More Credit?
The Kardashian-Jenners have long been criticized as being “famous for being famous,” but as the New York Times notes, “we have reached the point at which the Jenners and the Kardashians are not famous for being famous: They are famous for the industry that they’ve created, the Kardashian/Jenner megacomplex, which has not just invaded the culture but metastasized into it, with the family members emerging as legitimate businesspeople and Kris the mother-leader of them all.”
Through her business decisions and strategies, which she describes as “calculated” and “intentional” in her memoir, Kris has built an empire which The Hollywood Reporter says has “forever changed” reality TV, female body image, social media and the “economy of celebrity.” The New York Times says, “No one in her family knew what they were doing until Kris took charge.” So why is it that Kris Jenner still isn’t seen as the powerful, influential businesswoman that she is?
Pruitt, the Manchester College student who studied the KarJenners, believes it has to do with sexism.
“People don’t immediately think of Kris Jenner [as powerful or influential] because she is a woman, she only has a high-school degree, and because the Kardashian empire is built upon her daughters’ beauty and sex appeal and caters to societal beauty and female ideals,” Pruitt explains. “I believe men either see her as a threat, business-wise, or as uneducated, and not worthy of their time, and that women see her as a threat to feminism and women’s rights.”
Instead all we hear is "bad role models" and "shallow, materialistic" or "trashy". It's all sexist BS. There are legit critiques of the Kardashians (mostly based on race/appropriation). But 95% of the hate toward Kris & her family would never exist if they weren't women.
— joanna schroeder (@iproposethis) February 22, 2018
Eliza Cummings-Cove, a graduate of Durham University who wrote her dissertation on the famous family, shares similar sentiments, attributing it to the public’s perception of what a powerful person should look like.
“Kris Jenner is not a white man in a suit running a corporation, or even a woman in a suit running a corporation,” she says. “She doesn’t fit the mould of what we think when we say ‘powerful person’. Her empire is also based on things people don’t inherently take seriously—reality TV, beauty and fashion, etc. It’s all about perception.”
In a way, nothing about Kris’s business is familiar. She looks different than the archetypical tycoon, and she’s blended the ideas of business and motherhood on a scale we don’t often see. Elaine “Lainey” Lui, the maven behind celebrity gossip blog LaineyGossip.com, reporter for CTV’s eTalk and co-host of The Social, says the reason why Kris Jenner isn’t taken seriously in the business world is because her business products and decisions involve her family members.
“That is a really tricky space to navigate,” says Lui. “Kris is the CEO of a company, grooming her children to take over the company, but the company is their personalities. The fact that the company is the family and the company product is the personalities… it’s hard for people to envision… it’s a new way of doing business.”
Rather than call her a great businesswoman, Lui instead sees Kris as a “really great coach” who creates the plays and calls the shots for her “team” of daughters.
“She’s coaching a championship team. She’s getting the best play out of her players—the way that she’s calling the plays, every player gets equal time, every player gets opportunities to shoot their shot,” explains Lui. “Kim shoots her shot, Kylie has been shooting her shot, Khloé, Kourtney and Kendall have all been able to shoot their shot. They all can take different positions on the court and be successful.”
“To me, that is the most tangible way that we have to communicate Kris’s effectiveness. And from there, you could say many people believe that coaches would make great business leaders because they understand their players and they can see the whole game,” says Lui.
But whether you consider her a coach, a villain or a legitimate businesswoman, there’s no doubt Kris Jenner has created a brand and business that has serious staying power. And when the business is that successful, perhaps formal recognition isn’t even needed. So, Kris Jenner, you’re doing amazing sweetie, no matter what anyone else says or thinks.