The Real Kylie

Image from E! Network


Hyper-sexualised, under-educated, literate only insofar as she can peddle her personal brand for financial gain, 20-year-old Kylie Jenner is the national princess that America does not need, but rightfully deserves. The youngest sister of the Kardashian family sister-quintet is the eighth most followed person on Instagram with 102 million followers, only bested in her family by her sister Kim (107 million). Her personal make-up empire, ‘Kylie Cosmetics’ is reportedly on track to a $1bn valuation. And on the first of February, the youngest Jenner sister gave birth to her first child, Stormi Webster. And so, the dynastic cycle wheels on.

In the grand Shakespearean dictum that some men – and women – are either born great; achieve greatness, or have greatness thrust upon them, Kylie Jenner is a rare entity that has satisfied all three. Despite being born to a prominent family, Kylie has nevertheless risen above her sisters to achieve a signature fame in her own right, carving out her own niche as a makeup aficionado and teenage Instagram star. As a cultural figure, moreover, Kylie’s rise has coincided with a broader cultural panic around the sexuality and character of young women.  In this debate, Kylie has accidentally risen as figurehead and object of intense public scrutiny and derision. Kylie’s numerous surgeries make her look comically middle-aged, one headline claims; her high profile-relationship with rapper Tyga (they met when she was 14; he, 22) smacks of predatory undertones, another observes. And in April of 2015, doctors around the world came out to warn teenagers of the ‘Kylie Jenner challenge’ – a viral challenge that saw teens suction-cup their lips in shot glasses to emulate Kylie’s surgically-plumped pout. ‘The new trend in trying to DIY lip plumping is quite concerning’, Manhattan dermatologist Dendy Engelman told Seventeen magazine.

But beneath all the media hype and scrutiny lies a vulnerable young girl, as claimed in her reality spin-off Life of Kylie, a short-lived E! series that premiered last August. The show’s trailer teased an insider’s glance into the glitzy life of the 20-year-old with a net worth of $41 million. ‘For so long I’ve been putting on this different persona to the world’, Kylie narrates in Life of Kylie’s first episode, as reels of paparazzi cameras, screaming fans, and high-powered fashion shoots pan across the screen. ‘There’s two sides of me’, she relates in her undulating Valley-girl twang: ‘there’s an image I feel constantly pressured to keep up with, and then there’s who I really am. That’s who I want you guys to get to know’.

The ‘real’ Kylie, if The Life of Kylie is to be believed, is just a teenager who really wants to be normal. She crashes a high school prom in Sacramento (‘I’ve never been to prom. I was home-schooled’) with an unpopular high school student named Albert.  She goes to therapy and talks about how hard it is to grow up on camera.  Upon deciding ‘my ideal life would be the farm life’, she tours a farm and takes home a few chickens to keep as pets. Flanked by her professional best friend Jordyn Woods (self-proclaimed model), executive assistant Victoria, and ‘glam squad’ buddies Tokio (hair) and Ariel (make-up), the cast of Kylie get up to various high jinks that seem to speak to the precociousness of the teenager who lives with a $450bn empire on her shoulders, but who nonetheless careens towards a down-to-earth normalcy in spite of it all.

And yet, the cracks on this façade of ‘normality’ inevitably emerge. Her presence at the prom turns the quiet Sacramento teen affair into absolute mayhem. ‘YOU’RE F*CKING SEXY!!’ someone screams at the star, while screaming high schoolers clamour around her, whipping out their smartphones in a bid for a rare selfie. Her assistant Victoria presents a footstool for Kylie to get in and out of her car before therapy sessions. Kylie has her bodyguard pick out loose bits of grass from her shoes when she visits the farm. And if Tokio and Ariel do not do their best to be on-hand hair and make-up support for Kylie – well, it’s time to remind that they – unlike Kylie – remain replaceable.

One is left wondering whether even Kylie knows who the ‘real Kylie’ is. A lifetime spent growing up on camera has created a young woman constantly vigilant and hyper-aware of her public image; naked emotionality becomes a self-serving performance unto itself. A story about how Albert, her lucky prom date, has been struggling with his confidence after being abandoned by his father elicits an ‘Awww, that’s sad!’ from Kylie.  ‘I love Albert’, she repeats incessantly – a strong sentiment about someone she’s never met. But don’t worry – She’ll fix it all by taking him to prom.

Herein lies the stunted emotional landscape of a young woman who has learnt all about the horrors of public scrutiny and Schadenfreude spectacle, but nothing of finding beauty in the frustratingly mundane. In Kylie’s universe, where her fame can be wielded as an opiate-like corrective to almost everything, there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a little sprinkle of that Kardashian magic and money (in her universe, the two are often the same).

The appeal of the Kardashians, after all, rests on their ability to masterfully tread the terrain between the grotesque – their shameless co-option of black culture to the point of parody – and the sublime – the Vogue covers; the Balmain campaigns; the sold-out Kylie lip kits! Kylie epitomises this form of love-to-hate celebrity. Her young ‘fans’ mix adoration with derision, often being the instigators of memes that mock the appearance of the star – such as the Kylie Jenner challenge, or the widespread claims that ‘she looks thirty’. Criticisms of her public image seem to point to the self-defeating traps in which all young women are too often caught: Kylie’s the ugly sister, they said before her numerous surgeries; now she looks like a ridiculous thirty-something Stepford housewife, they affirmed afterwards. She is both an under-educated vapid reality star and a hyper-competent but nefarious businesswoman. She’s at once too plain and too dolled-up; too stupid and too cunning.

Writer Jenny Zhang observed in an interview with Guardian that ‘the young girl has always been the most reviled and fetished creature. We love her and hate her.’  Kylie’s public image is caught between these two twin poles of revulsion and fetishisation, her celebrity resting on this Janus-faced compromise of both public adoration and hatred. This month, Kylie Jenner made the formative transition from girlhood to motherhood. The only trope that rivals the hysterical hypervisibility of ‘girlhood’ in the public is the deadening palatability of ‘motherhood’; the latent sexual and existential threat posed by young women is neutralised through motherhood’s intrinsic relationality to the patriarchal family unit. ‘She’s a mother!’ is a familiar rejoinder to any woman who dares express any signs of sexuality; mischief, or other spurts of boundary-pushing personality.

With the birth of her own child, Kylie Jenner sheds the chrysalis of girlhood and all the accompanying contradictions of character that made her famous. Her viral pregnancy video on Instagram has already elicited gooey, warm-hearted responses from the public – an almost unprecedented instance of Kylie receiving a roundly positive reception. ‘I feel like this fame thing is going to come to an end sooner than we think’, she observes in Life of Kylie; given the public’s short attention span when it comes to women with trappings of middle-aged inoffensiveness, Kylie’s prediction might just come true.

Rebecca Liu is an editor for the King's Review. She holds an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge and tweets at @becbecliuliu