As ''Keeping Up with the Kardashians'' returns for a fifth season, we explain why Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe have become household names

By Jeff Jensen
Updated August 27, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

  • TV Show
  • E!

You expect outrageousness. You expect hot messes. You expect tabloid headlines come to life when the Kardashian family circus comes to town. But when Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney show up for one in what seems like a lifetime full of photo shoots, the riotous stars of E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians are all business. After five hours of meticulous grooming behind closed doors, 29-year-old Kim emerges, packed in a button-down shirt and snug gray skirt — the pinup vixen as CEO. She sticks around to cheer her younger sister Khloé, 26, through her shots. ”You look beautiful,” she coos. Khloé returns the favor for the oldest of the three girls, Kourtney, 31, albeit in her typically Khloé-like way, barking, ”YOU LOOK LIKE A SEX GODDESS!” An E! camera crew captures the action for a future episode, though all things considered, this photo shoot is a comparatively respectable manifestation of Kardashimania — which may not make for good TV, but that’s fine with 54-year-old mom and manager Kris Jenner. ”I’m just passing through,” says the momager as she wraps up a brief visit. ”Just making sure everyone is doing their job!”

Such is the business of being a Kardashian — and right now, business is very good. Keeping Up With the Kardashians has become the most-watched series in E! history, and launched its fifth season on Aug. 22 with nearly 4.7 million viewers. Credit the bump to the emergence of Khloé (The Drunk-Driving One Who Married the Basketball Star) and Kourtney (The One With the Baby and Badly Behaving Boyfriend) as legit stars — and tabloid darlings/entertainment-news fodder — in their own right next to Playboy Bunny middle sister Kim. Indeed, the Aug. 15 finale of their summertime spin-off, Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami, scored 3.7 million viewers, trumping Sunday-night basic-cable rivals Mad Men and Army Wives while also beating super-buzzy True Blood in women 18-34.

If you only know the Kardashians from the newsstands and TMZ, then you’re probably inclined to think the worst about them. Trashy celebutantes. Famous-for-being-famous party girls. A trio of down-market Paris Hiltons living large on a stimulus package of gossip-rag notoriety. But not all reality stars should be judged by the number of tabloid covers trumpeting their personal woes, or even by the size of their much-gabbed-about asses (Cynthia McFadden of Nightline — yes, Nightline! — asked Kim to address rumors of butt implants). The truly shocking thing about Keeping Up With the Kardashians? It’s essentially a conventional family sitcom (once you get past the booze, bleeped language, and bawdy sex talk), filled with one-to-grow-on life lessons that even Bill Cosby might endorse. ”It’s the modern-day Eight Is Enough,” says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! parent Comcast Entertainment Group. ”Just with more swearing and hitting.”

Yes, you’re rolling your eyes — but their legion of fans aren’t. Somehow, someway, the Kardashians have gone from a freak show to a multimillion-dollar brand that appeals to young women and teenage girls, who view the sisters as trendsetters and — gulp! — role models. The Kardashian name is currently attached to fragrances, face creams, and diet products. Coming soon: a book about their lives, a fashion line, and a Las Vegas superstore called — fittingly — Kardashian Khaos, which the family hopes will be the first of many around the world. (To top it all off, beginning this fall, you can buy all their licensed products using — cha-ching! — your new Kardashian debit card!) Love them, hate them, or love to hate them, the Kardashian sisters — working girls with wicked attitude — are writing the textbook for turning ”reality” into real-life fortune. ”When all of this started a couple years ago, my mom and I sat down and wrote a list of all the goals we hoped to accomplish with the show,” says Kim. ”And so far every single one of them has come true.”

Another day, yet another photo shoot — this one at an L.A. restaurant that’s been taken over by ShoeDazzle, one of several companies Kim Kardashian owns a stake in. It’s lunchtime, and Kim is regretting the appetizer. ”Why did I eat that cookie? Why?” she asks, pushing aside what remains of the chicken and veggies. ”There goes the diet. Why?”

In the flesh, Kim proves to be a very pretty young woman and a pretty smart cookie, at least when it comes to business. Before she became famous as a socialite, curvy calendar girl, and Dancing With the Stars washout, Kim had built a career as a closet organizer to the stars. In high school and college, she also made money by selling trendy clothes on eBay at a considerable markup. She credits her mother and late father, entrepreneur and O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian, for her work ethic. ”We grew up in a life of privilege in Beverly Hills, but my parents’ mentality was like, ‘Okay, at 18, you’re going to get cut off. If you want to maintain this lifestyle, you’ll have to work at it,”’ says Kim. ”I always felt like I was lazy if I wasn’t working.”

Of course, Kim got her big break thanks to some privately recorded leisure activity: In 2007, porn peddler Vivid Entertainment began selling a sex tape Kim made with a boyfriend, R&B singer Ray J. Kim sued Vivid, and the company agreed to both take the tape off the market and pay Kim a reported multimillion-dollar settlement. That wasn’t the only bonus: The video made Kim a suddenly hot media sensation. In the summer of 2007, Kris pitched Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Ryan Seacrest, who had a producing deal with E! Within weeks, they were filming. Harbert admits Kim’s naughty-time notoriety certainly gave the show a marketing advantage. Says Seacrest: ”Frankly, at first I wondered if it was going to be negative. I remember thinking it through — the upside, the downside — and I just felt like she was a great girl, she’s a very hard worker, and I loved the dynamic she had with the family, and I figured: water under the bridge.”

When asked if the reality show was partly a way to try to take control of the cultural conversation about Kim and the family, Kris replies, ”Well, of course! That’s exactly it!” She insists that those who think she leveraged her daughter’s infamy to score a TV show are looking at it the wrong way. ”I knew that Kim was going to get a lot of attention for this, but I could only imagine it would be in a very bad way. You don’t think, ‘This is fabulous!’ You think, ‘How do we rectify this situation?’ And out of it came a lot of lemonade, for sure.” Adds Kim: ”If something’s going to happen [in our lives], it’s probably so twisted by the time the media gets hold of it. If anything, having a show is the best way to tell our story through our eyes.”

Kris (who divorced Robert and married Olympian Bruce Jenner in 1991) says there was an additional reason for putting cameras on the tight-knit clan, which includes brother Rob and half sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner. ”We were still reeling, believe it or not, from the death of my ex-husband [Robert died of cancer in 2003], and this opportunity was something for us to do together,” says Kris, who, like her daughters, often uses words like healing and therapeutic when talking about the show. ”It’s a very safe feeling. Very safe.”

While Keeping Up certainly focuses on the more dramatic moments in their lives, the family insists that nothing is scripted or staged. We don’t expect you to believe that — especially if you saw the you-gotta-be-kidding-me season 4 episode in which Kris spiked Bruce’s coffee with male-enhancement pills — and we suspect the family doesn’t either. ”We take everything with a grain of salt,” says Kris. ”We would hope our fans would watch the show with that same attitude.” Still, by portraying themselves as full of flaws and foibles for our enjoyment and judgment (and we do enjoy judging them, don’t we?), the Kardashians make for frequently funny and sporadically poignant TV. ”The one thing reality viewers smell in an instant is if you’re trying to hide or manipulate your image,” says Harbert. ”When we put on the Denise Richards show — and this is not to pick on Denise, she’s a wonderful person — but she didn’t want to show the warts and all. We did the Pamela Anderson show. We thought, ‘We’re going to have stories forever! She has all sorts of messes going on!’ [She] didn’t want to show it. The Kardashians decided early on: ‘Hey, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to put it out there.”’

The key, though, is in how those missteps are packaged. Nearly every episode of Keeping Up and Kourtney & Khloé adheres to a well-worn sitcom formula whereby Lapses in Judgment or Boneheaded Mistakes lead to Nutty Consequences and Hurt Feelings that get resolved with Confession, Discussion, Apology, and Hugging. ”When we originally talked about doing this, I told them that yes, we have drama, but the bottom line is that we all love each other,” says Bruce. ”We’re sticking together, no matter what happens. That has to be shown on the show. It has to be more than about a bunch of girls running around. It’s about a family.”

Now the family hopes fans will keep up with them both on TV and at the mall. According to Tracy Keyser of TLK Fusion, the marketing firm handling the Kardashian Khaos retail project, the family name began morphing into a brand about this time last year, as Keeping Up surged in popularity. Bruno Schiavi, whose Jupi Corp. will be marketing the sisters’ fashion line, believes the appeal lies in their work ethic and family togetherness. ”I think women see a bit of themselves in the Kardashian sisters,” says Schiavi, who would sum up the Kardashian fashion brand like this: ”sexy, fun, flirty, with a touch of sophistication and uniqueness.”

The emergence of Kardashian: The Brand has coincided with a gradual shift in the girls’ image. Bye-bye, Girls Gone Wild; hello, Girls Gone (Kinda) Relatable. Kim grieved over the demise of her relationship with pro football star Reggie Bush (she’s since dated Dallas Cowboy Miles Austin, but now claims to be single) and threw herself into her eponymous fragrance line. Khloé wrestled with body-image issues and got married to Los Angeles Laker Lamar Odom. Kourtney’s volatile relationship with boyfriend Scott Disick became exponentially more high-stakes complex as they faced parenthood; their son, Mason, was born last December. ”We are growing up and getting older. I’m 31 now and have a baby. I live my life differently. Things are evolving for us,” says Kourtney, who admits that playing out her turmoil with Scott on television has been ”an awkward and strange but not unhelpful way to live life. The show forces all of us to work through issues.”

To their fans, the Kardashians, so richly insufferable, are a frothy, recession-era distraction — and to their superfans, the sisters’ sassy, scrappy approach to life is certifiably inspirational. To the family, though, the bottom line is the bottom line. The sisters have no illusions — they know the white-hot spotlight will eventually dim if not fade completely. Which is why Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé see the show as a means to an end — building a fan base, which they’ll nurture with both social media (Kim is a mad tweeter with 4.5 million followers) and their retail and fashion businesses. ”We do know this is a reality show. We’re not winning any Oscars over here,” says Khloé. ”I’ll keep doing the show as long as people want to watch it, but what’s really strong about us is that we don’t let these shows [define] us. We still have our businesses and our stores, and we’re still growing with them.” In other words: The Kardashians aren’t done with you yet. Whether you like it or not.

How to build a celebrity empire
Welcome to the Fame Game! Play along with Kourtney, Khloé, and Kim Kardashian (from left) as they use an alluring mix of celebrity and scandal to become not just TV stars, but budding entrepreneurs and fashion moguls as well. Ten steps is all it takes!

Start here
1 Famous dad
Robert Kardashian was O.J. Simpson’s friend, and one of his attorneys during the Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman murder trial. Kardashian died of cancer in 2003.

2 An even more famous stepdad
In 1991, mom Kris divorces Robert and later marries Olympic legend Bruce Jenner, Keeping Up‘s beleaguered and often clueless paterfamilias.

3 The sex tape
In 2007, Kim sues porn peddler Vivid in order to stop them from selling some recorded randiness she made with R&B singer Ray J that is mysteriously ”leaked.”

4 Celebrity boyfriends
Kim’s road to tabloid domination is paved with an army of very significant others, including:
Damon Thomas In 2000, Kim marries music producer Thomas; their relationship ends in divorce in 2004.
Nick Cannon
Ray J
Nick Lachey
Reggie Bush Kim celebrates a Super Bowl victory with the New Orleans Saints running back in February. A month later, the couple splits. Kim’s post-breakup blues are documented on Keeping Up With the Kardashians
Miles Austin After Reggie, Kim dates Miles Austin of the Dallas Cowboys.

5 Reality show
Famous Name × Tabloid Infamy + A Family Full of Equally Outrageous Characters = A Ryan Seacrest-Produced Reality Show on E! that premieres in 2007 and continues to set ratings records for the network.

6 Ubiquity
Kim pops up everywhere: Dancing With the Stars (2008), America’s Next Top Model, How I Met Your Mother, and CSI: NY (2009). That same year, Trump does Khloé the honor of firing her on The Celebrity Apprentice.

7 Spin-off!
The sisters are doing it for themselves! In 2009, Khloé and Kourtney extend the franchise — and begin distinguishing themselves from Kim — with Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami.

8 Settling down
After so much shocking reality-show boorishness (like the time 9-year-old half sister Kylie showed off her moves on the family stripper pole), the entire Kardashian clan slowly begins to get (somewhat) real. Bruce struggles through a midlife crisis. Kris makes peace with her ex-husband’s passing. Kim mourns the end of her relationship with Reggie. Meanwhile…
· In 2009, Khloé marries Los Angeles Lakers star Lamar Odom after just one month of dating. The new season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians will see Lamar become tight with Khloé’s brother, Rob, causing some drama for the newlyweds.
· Scott Disick is Kourtney’s controversial beau, and also father to her son, Mason. (By the way, does anyone else think Scott is trying to look exactly like PATRICK BATEMAN from American Psycho?)

9 Cover girls
Kim graced Playboy in 2007, and stories about all of the sisters currently dominate newsstands. The gossip is ”good for business,” says Bruce.

10 Kardashian, Inc.
It’s all about expanding the brand. The sisters (and mom) have always had fashion-biz ambitions. In 2003, Kourtney and Kris opened Smooch, a children’s boutique (now closed), and in 2006 the sisters opened DASH, a women’s boutique with stores now in Los Angeles and Miami. Scheduled to open in November: Kardashian Khaos at the Mirage Hotel & Casino. And then there’s…
· A Kardashian book (Yes, a book!) Hitting Nov. 23, Kardashian Konfidential is part autobiography, part fashion guide, and part self-help for young women.
· Plenty of products Branded items include Kim’s fitness videos and fragrance, and Kourtney’s Belly Bandit (to flatten post-pregnancy pooches). Kourtney says the sisters nixed a line of sex toys: ”That’s a no-go for the brand.”
· Going behind the camera ”I don’t think I’ll be doing reality TV forever,” says Kim, who’d like to do more acting (she appeared in the 2008 spoof Disaster Movie) and producing. First up on the producing front: The Spin Crowd, a reality show about celebrity publicists now airing on E!

Congrats! You made it! Now just be sure your first name starts with the letter K and you’ll have fame and fortune at your fingertips! — JJ

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

  • TV Show
  • 17
  • E!