"I think that the situation that we're in is really the perfect storm," says Kris Jenner, the matriarch of American reality TV, as we sit down in her Hidden Hills mansion, where much of Keeping Up With the Kardashians is filmed, and begin dissecting the phenomenal success of the E! series, its spinoffs and everyone associated with them on The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 61-year-old not only appears on KUWTK alongside the six children that she had with her two ex-husbands — Kourtney Kardashian, Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, Rob Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Kylie Jenner — but also manages their careers (hence the moniker "Momager") and serves as an executive producer of the show (and its spinoffs), so she's as qualified to offer an assessment as anyone.
"There's so many of us in so many different age groups and demographics that there's something for everybody," Jenner says of the personalities featured on the show, while sitting in her wood-paneled office surrounded by stacks of magazines featuring one or more of her children on the cover and looking out at a pool on which floats a blow-up of Kim's famous buttocks. "Because there's so many of us and because people have been watching for over a decade — you know, we're shooting season 14 right now — I think that people got emotionally invested early on and they realized that this is a family that has its ups and downs, but truly is obsessed with each other and loves each other very much. And I think that that journey is something that resonates with everyone."
On top of which, Jenner emphasizes, the show can be very entertaining, whether people want to admit it or not: "We couldn't make this shit up, you know?"
Jenner's journey to fame and fortune would have been unimaginable even just a decade ago. She was born in 1955 into a working-class family from San Diego. Her engineer father was killed in a car accident when she was just 17, and her mother, who later remarried, paid the bills by running a candle store. Jenner graduated from high school, but never attended college. "Anything I ever wanted, I had to work really hard for," she says. "I learned the value of saving my money, trying to make something happen and being entrepreneurial, even as a really young girl." But, more than anything else, she says, "I wanted to be a mom. That's all I thought about. When I was 16, I decided I wanted six kids — I'm not sure why."
She met attorney Robert Kardashian in 1973, when she was just 17 (he was 11 years older), married him at 22 (after a stint seeing the world as an American Airlines stewardess) and had four children with him by age 30. "My idea of a really good time would be cleaning one of my kids' rooms and organizing their closets and cleaning their drawers and going through their toys," she recalls with a laugh. "I mean, this was like a weekly ritual." By 34, though, she was divorced, having admitted to an affair with a younger man, and split custody of her kids with Kardashian. In 1991, after just three weeks of being single, Jenner went on a blind date and fell in love with Bruce Jenner, who had been an Olympic hero decades earlier, and they married before the end of the year. "When I met Bruce," she says, "Bruce had $200 in the bank, so it wasn't like, 'I just hit the husband jackpot of all time and this is gonna make my life easy street.'"
For Kris Jenner, that marked the beginning of a formative period. "When you're backed up against a wall and you have bills to pay and kids to feed, you have to figure it out really fast," she says. "He didn't have a lot of things going on for him at the time, and I had to look at, 'Well, what have we got to work with?'" She set about revamping his career, "compiling press kits by hand," sending 7,000 of them "to every speaker's bureau in the world" and pitching him for not only motivational speeches, but also product endorsements. "We were able to get some traction," she says proudly, recalling that he soon began traveling frequently to deliver paid speeches and began endorsing products ranging from sunglasses to fitness equipment (e.g., "SuperFit With Bruce and Kris Jenner"). He was enjoying a new flush of glory, but it was because his wife had become a hell of a manager.
The first time most people in the general public heard the name Kardashian, though, was not because of anything that Jenner did, but because of a tragedy that befell one of her dearest friends. On June 17, 1994, five days after Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered, Jenner's ex-husband Robert, O.J. Simpson's best friend, went on national TV and read what sounded like a suicide note from O.J., who had fled from authorities in the back of a white Bronco and was holding a gun to his head. O.J. had been a part of Jenner's life for as long as she had known Robert. He visited her in the hospital after she gave birth to their first child. Her kids grew up calling the Simpsons "Auntie Nicole and Uncle O.J." She was with Nicole on a trip to New York when Nicole ventured into Bloomingdale's and purchased a pair of leather gloves for O.J. that later may have been used by her murderer. And Nicole confided in her that "she feared for her life" because of O.J.'s jealous and explosive tendencies. Jenner had plans to meet with Nicole the day after Nicole's body was found.
"After that initial shock of, 'What's going on,' I just felt like I knew, probably, what had happened," Jenner says, apparently alluding to her belief that O.J. had killed Nicole. Robert, meanwhile, maintained his belief in O.J.'s innocence, renewing his law license in order to join "The Dream Team" defending O.J.; Jenner says that Robert left a handwritten note for her and their kids the night before the trial began, asking for their understanding and patience. (O.J., for his part, reached out to her from jail.) Throughout the ensuing months, Jenner, despite being "very pregnant" with Kendall (who eventually was given the middle-name Nicole), attended "the trial of the century" almost daily, witnessing up-close an unprecedented media circus that reflected America's growing obsession with celebrity, the newfound power of cable TV and the Internet and what came to feel like a reality TV series gone wrong. For Jenner, there were, on more levels than one, "lessons learned" from the ordeal.
The next time the name Kardashian was widely discussed was in 2006, when a sex tape made by Kim and her then-boyfriend Ray J wound up on the Internet, spreading like wildfire. Jenner calls that time "devastating" and "one of the most horrific things that we, as a family, went through," and says she finds "offensive" any suggestion that she and/or Kim conspired to make the video public as part of an effort to attract publicity. "Of course it's nonsense," she says. "You know, haters are gonna hate. People are gonna come up with the most ridiculous things." At that time, Jenner was managing Bruce's career and operating, with Kourtney, the children's clothing store Smooch; Kourtney, Kim and Khloe were running the clothing store Dash next door; and Kim also was working in fashion and as a stylist/closet organizer. (Among her clients was childhood friend Paris Hilton, who had starred in a sex tape and reality series of her own; Kim even made cameos in the latter.)
Meanwhile, reality TV "was just starting to become really popular," Jenner says. "I remember watching The Osbournes thinking, 'How funny!' It was just fascinating to watch somebody at home living life in their own house.'" For years, she says, her best friend Kathie Lee Gifford had told her that her family should star in a reality series of their own, but nothing came of the idea until another close friend, Deena Katz, came over for dinner, said the same thing and urged Jenner to meet with Ryan Seacrest, who was developing reality projects. "I thought this would be such a great thing to do with my kids," Jenner says. "The one thing we did discuss at the time was, 'If we're gonna do this, let's just do it really organically — let's let it all hang out and let's show who we are." Jenner met with Seacrest, "hit it off" and "less than 30 days later, we were filming." When the show first hit the air and proved a phenomenon, Jenner says, "It was a life-changing moment because it became a full-time job."
Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which currently is in its 13th season and recently aired its 195th episode, puts out 44 minutes of new material each week, attracting roughly 1.5 million viewers in the U.S. (at its height, it drew 4.67 million) and reaching 167 countries around the world. It has made Jenner and her kids the most famous and highest-paid subjects of a reality TV show in history, quite apart from the millions that they now earn from endorsements and other work. (Kendall, for instance, is now, by some measures, the top model in the world.) Today, they all are household names and faces, not least because Kris imagined this was possible and made it so.
The show's cameras "have full access to all of our homes," Jenner says — "The only restriction is the shower and the toilets" — and they are rolling almost all the time. "I wake up, I get glam and then I get mic'd," she explains. "There's cameras here all the time, and then there's handheld cams." She adds, "I always forget they're there." The resulting footage is then turned over to Bunim/Murray Productions, which weaves it into coherent plotlines, screens a rough cut to Jenner and awaits notes. "And you know, it's interesting," Jenner asserts. "We've never taken anything out."
From the outset, the show took flack for putting on a pedestal people who are famous for being famous, rather than famous for any discernable skill or accomplishment, and for setting back the feminist cause. But Jenner rejects the notion that it sets some sort of a bad example. "I think it's definitely a positive," she says. "I think we show a family that loves each other desperately and that will do anything for one another and do anything for the people that we love. We do a lot for our community and for complete strangers and for people around the world. And I think that should be an inspiration, encouraging other people to get up and get to work." She adds, "I see myself as someone who is definitely shouting from the rooftops that women can go out and be and do anything they want, and I think that's exciting."
Not everyone can be won over, though, and in the age of social media, which was just getting off the ground when KUWTK first went on the air, naysayers can make their voices heard much more easily than in the past. "There's definitely a lot of bullies out there," says Jenner, who has 8.67 million Twitter followers and 17.7 million Instagram followers. "The Internet is a crazy place. There's a lot of really miserable, unhappy, terrified, angry, bitter, nasty people out there that don't have jobs or are hopeless or depressed and sad, and they can be a big, fat, important bully by going online and typing a really ugly statement to someone else that they've never even met before, that has feelings and a heart. And I thought, 'Wow, what happened to just you know, 'give peace a chance'? What happened to the '60s?!'" She notes, with a chuckle, "I'm from a different generation — I'm, like, vintage."
Jenner says that she has learned to develop a thicker skin and not respond to people who say disagreeable things — but that doesn't mean she isn't hurt by them. "I'm a lot softer than you would imagine," she volunteers, elaborating: "It stings sometimes when somebody says, 'You're so fat,' or 'You're too old to be on social media,' or 'You look awful in that outfit' — like, such silly, stupid things. You're going, 'Really?' I'll call up Kim and go, 'Do I look that bad in that picture? Do I look fat?' But I think the most hurtful thing is when people will say, 'Oh, you're just managing your kids — you're getting money from your children' or your family or whatever. I'm thinking, 'Well, hell yeah! I mean, I'm trying to create a business here, and nobody has their best interest like I do. We all love working together and we love our situation. Why don't you go worry about your own situation and go get a job yourself?'"
Jenner and her kids signed up for a life in the public eye, but her six grandchildren did not. "My grandchildren are gonna have a tough time," she says glumly. "I worry about them because there's a lot of hate and disruption on the Internet." In the meantime, all she can do is show them love and offer them as much protection as possible. "We have a lot of personal security," she emphasizes, particularly after the "horrible" experience in May of a stalker managing to get past the security gate that guards the entrance to Hidden Hills, walk into her home and approach her in her office. (The man, a former security guard in the community, was arrested for felony stalking.)
Mostly, though, life is good, problems are few and undesirable topics can be avoided. Jenner knows President Donald Trump ("I've met him a few times, yes"), but she won't discuss politics (apart from saying that her friend has installed apps on her phone that make her aware of breaking news "so I'm not living in a rabbit hole over here"). O.J. Simpson has a parole hearing in July that could lead to his release, but she declines to say how she would respond if he is freed and reaches out to her about reviving their friendship ("We have some very dear friends in common, so we'll just see how it goes"). She divorced Bruce Jenner in 2014, but now that Bruce has transitioned, becoming Caitlyn, she refuses to talk about her since Caitlyn has said things that Kris reportedly found cruel and hurtful. But she does confirm that Robert Kardashian, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003, was the love of her life, and she says that if he could see what had happened to his family since his death, "He would be really proud of his kids."