This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At 8 o'clock on a cloudy June morning in Hidden Hills, Calif., Kris Jenner's 10,000-square-foot mansion is -- shockingly -- silent.
Husband Bruce is off playing golf or helicoptering (no one seems quite sure). Daughter Kim Kardashian is 23 miles away in her Beverly Hills manse, preparing to move back in with Mom before her baby girl arrives in a few weeks (a high chair is stashed in a corner here, alongside boxes crammed with Kim's belongings). Khloe and Kourtney are in their nearby houses, while younger sisters Kylie and Kendall are being home-schooled (the teenagers got their way after a protracted battle). And Rob, the black-sheep son who seems the butt of everyone's jokes, is doing a photo shoot for his new line of socks (each of the Kardashians appears to have at least one clothing line). All this means that -- amazingly -- the Kardashian matriarch is alone.
Many other women would be out flat on their bed if they had one second to themselves. But not Jenner, 57, who burst onto the national scene six years ago as the architect of a reality empire and is used to living with a 20-plus-member film crew that follows her and her family 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for five months out of every year.
Now she's about to extend her stint in the limelight with her own talk show, Kris, which begins a six-week trial run July 15 on five or more Fox stations. On the show, she'll look at fashion, fitness and beauty, speak with celebrities -- and try to capture a slice of the multibillion-dollar daytime TV market that has failed to develop any truly big stars since Ellen DeGeneres. Whatever her strengths or weaknesses, Jenner at least is prepared to talk -- about anything, including every last headline out there about her family.
Is O.J. Simpson really Khloe's father?
"That's 130 million percent untrue," she says. "People make up stories about two-headed aliens. That's ridiculous."
Does Kanye West think Kim has gained too much weight?
"It's an absolute fabrication. All you have to do is look at Kim. She's absolutely gorgeous."
Did Kim have plastic surgery while pregnant?
"No! The reports that she's had anything done while she's pregnant -- it's so stupid. I just wish people would use their head."
Were Kris and Khloe kicked out of Kim's house, drunk?
"Khloe and I went to Kim's house and were absolutely not kicked out. I was tired and wanted to go to bed, so I left after an hour. I mean, are you supposed to go to your daughter's house and spend the night? No."
Did Kris spend $250,000 on plastic surgery?
Never, though "I had my neck done, and it was a great experience."
Is Bruce undergoing an operation to be a woman?
She laughs, unfazed by this as by everything else. "That's been around since the '70s," she says. "Some of these weekly magazines go to such a place, it's a creative-writing assignment."
This creative-writing assignment has become a national pastime as America can't keep its eyes off the family -- even while tearing its hair out from feelings that range from disgust to bewilderment to envy. The collective fascination (shared by more than 150 other countries) translates to whopping ratings: The June 2 season-eight premiere of Keeping Up With the Kardashians drew a record 3 million viewers, up 6 percent from last summer's opener.
"Kris fits the mold of the whole Kardashian family: She has created a love-hate relationship with viewers," says Henry Schafer, executive vp at The Q Scores Co., which measures how widely known and liked celebrities are. "The average host of a show, including talk shows and so on, is a 13 positive, and [Jenner] is at a 6. The average negative for a TV host is a 22, and she is a 57." (DeGeneres, for example, has a 25 positive and a 19 negative.) But Schafer says those scores might not matter because the Kardashians make "an emotional connection, which is what they want."
Certainly Robert Lifton, executive producer on Kris, is hoping that spills over on his show, which "is designed to reach our target audience, women ages 25 to 45," he says. "It's going to be an amalgamation of other shows, and it will all be very 'lite.' It's not about reinventing the wheel; it's about the cult of personality."
With Kris, Jenner is entering a crowded field thathas been struggling to find a hot new voice in the aftermath of Oprah Winfrey's departure. Anderson Cooper and Jeff Probst have come and gone, and among current daytime talk-show hosts, even Katie Couric is struggling. Only Steve Harvey has emerged a winner.
Fox is betting that an intensive media campaign will help launch its new show, with Jenner making appearances on Today and Jimmy Kimmel Live! in addition to using her vast social media resources. In addition to the Kardashians' combined 52 million Twitter followers, she and her family have 31 million Facebook friends, 32 million followers on Instagram and nearly 8 million on Keek, a fast-growing new video-sharing service.
If her show is picked up for syndication in fall 2014, the rewards could be enormous. The Ellen DeGeneres Show was projected to bring in more than $100 million in ad revenue in 2012, according to Kantar Media, and Jenner's controversial family, combined with her surprising likability, would seem to promise a positive number -- helped by the host's tireless work ethic.
It's 3 p.m., seven hours after we first sat down and more than 11 since Jenner's day began. With only five weeks till the show debuts, she's locked in a windowless conference room in Culver City, staring at wallpaper.
Hefty binders are scattered over a long table in various shades of gray, patterned and plain. That's in addition to several different samples of glass, an array of fabrics and easels everywhere, covered with photos of desks, tables and chairs. Half a dozen executives and production staff crowd Jenner as she selects some of the elements that will decorate her set, a reproduction of her Hidden Hills foyer with its black-and-white diamond floor and sweeping staircases.
Quickly, she settles on a light pattern against a white background for the paper, then she's on to other choices -- lamps, theme music, an announcer and chairs. "That one!" she says. "Its sides hide my butt!"
With a youthful bob of brown hair and open manner, she radiates energy, laughing and bubbling with ideas as Stephen Brown, Twentieth Television's executive vp programming and development, hits "play" and two test segments unfurl on a big TV screen.
In one, Jenner and a guest host, Michael Catherwood, stand with Kym Douglas, a health and beauty expert who demonstrates a new product made of coconut oil and placenta, which she smears in Catherwood's hair. In the other, Jenner and Catherwood discuss such topics as the new trend of "swatting" (whereby pranksters call police to celebrities' homes) and the right amount for an allowance. "I give Bruce $20," deadpans Jenner. "Whether he needs it or not."
Fox committed to a six-week test knowing that would mean an outlay of $2 million to $4 million (compared with the $25 million to $30 million it takes to launch a nationally syndicated talk show). The same formula was used to test Bethenny Frankel's new talk show, an inventive new model in an age where everyone is trying to minimize risk. With Kris, there will be a different guest host every day (Mario Lopez, Tom Bergeron, Maria Menounos and NeNe Leakes are locked in), though there is no plan to make any of them permanent -- except Jenner.
Now, as she knows, everything will rest on her. "Just be yourself," her friend and colleague Ryan Seacrest told her. "You're gonna be great."
Today, Kris has been up since the ridiculous hour of 3:45. Her hair is coiffed, her makeup in place (not least the false eyelashes that give her an Elvira-Mistress-of-the-Dark look on TV), and she's immaculate in Chanel boots and a Balmain jacket, black like the den where she sits now.
A BlackBerry lies on a table next to her (she also has an iPhone with "Queen of F--ing Everything" on the case), and it keeps buzzing, like Jenner herself, whose energy is unstoppable.
Thanks to her management skills and genius for promotion, on any given day anywhere in America the Kardashians loom large in the national consciousness. From newsstands to red carpets to entertainment shows, she and her extended family are ubiquitous -- as are the punch lines. David Letterman has made so many jokes about them that Kim confronted him on air, and Craig Ferguson was one of many comics who couldn't resist quipping about her ill-fated 72-day marriage to Brooklyn Nets basketball player Kris Humphries: "If two celebrities who hardly know each other get married for a TV show [and] can't make it," he joked, "what hope is there for any of us?"
Anything the family does becomes fuel for a media frenzy -- as on May 6, when a less-than-flattering Givenchy dress Kim wore to the Met Ball in New York became Topic A on the Internet (Robin Williams tweeted about its resemblance to his Mrs. Doubtfire housecoat).
There'll be even more attention if Kim gets married to Kanye, who's moving into Kris' house with her (though, says Kim, "We have a hotel that she doesn't know about yet"). There are no plans for a wedding, says Jenner, and if one takes place, it won't be of the Kim-Humphries sort: "This time it will be private and smaller, if she does get married again -- not 500 people."
That would be the latest in a series of press-worthy events. We've watched Kourtney use breast milk to treat Kim's skin, seen the family stage a DNA test to prove Robert Kardashian was Khloe's father, observed a drunken Scott Disick (Kourtney's partner and father of her two children) stuff a $100 bill into a horrified waiter's mouth and even watched Kris take a lie-detector test in which she admitted Kim was her favorite daughter and denied she'd cheated on Bruce.
Rather than be embarrassed by this, Jenner has used it with impressive acumen to build an empire of five TV shows, several clothing stores, makeup lines, hair removal products, prepaid debit cards and endorsements, including a controversial Skechers deal. She herself gets about 15 percent or more of everything, with annual revenue that The Hollywood Reporter confirmed topped $65 million in 2010 and has increased since.
Despite an army of fans, many view the Kardashians as emblems of a narcissistic society run amok. Everyone from Jon Hamm to Bryan Cranston has taken jabs at the family, and President Obama, at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, asked about Kim: "What is she famous for, anyway?"
Even Chelsea Handler has attacked Jenner on her show, which has caused the occasional problem at their home network, E! (The two made up in March.) But Jenner lambastes such critics.
"We've created businesses and a workplace," she insists. "It's so funny that somebody can criticize a show like ours, and yet we employ hundreds of people. And it's been such a great learning experience for all of my kids. It's the best education I could offer them."
The Jenner fans discover might be rather different from the one they have seen so far.
True, she hangs out with such celebrities as Kathie Lee Gifford, Steve and Candace Garvey, Terry and Jane Semel and Seacrest; she wears a 14-carat diamond ring given to her by her husband; she has an eye-popping 15 television sets in her house; she favors such restaurants as Nobu, Boa and Casa Vega; she drives an expensive Range Rover most Americans can't afford; and she buys clothes from designers including Valentino and Givenchy. But she also has a common touch and adores Costco and Target. "I love, love, love to shop at Costco!" she says.
Her many "layers," as she puts it, have been hidden in the editing of her reality show.
"You see her [on Kardashians] as this 'momager' type," says Kim. "It would be better if people saw just how nurturing she is. She wants to help people and get it all done -- it's not craziness all the time. This is a perfect platform to show a side of her that hasn't been shown before."
Born in San Diego in 1955, Kris Houghton never imagined she would run an empire; she just wanted to be an "air stewardess."
When she was 7, her parents split, leaving Kris in the care of her mother and an influential grandmother. (Her father was an engineer at Corsair; her mom owned a candle shop.) After high school, the self-described control freak did work for American Airlines, but her stint came to an end when she married a successful attorney, Robert Kardashian, nearly 12 years her senior, whom she had met at age 17.
Tears spring to her eyes as she describes his influence over the course of a 12-year marriage during which she gave birth to four children. It was Kardashian who led her to become a born-again Christian.
"I used to [read the Bible] every day," she says, noting she went to Bible class for 15 years and helped found the California Community Church in Agoura Hills. "Now I have a daily devotional, so I have a scripture that I read at the end of each day. I used to do it at the beginning of each day, but I get up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. and run to the gym."
Kardashian also influenced Jenner to give to charity -- without flaunting it. "You're just taught that, or at least I learned that you give quietly," she says, though she mentions the Dream Foundation, which makes dreams come true for terminally ill adults, as a favorite cause. Occasionally she gives to political groups, too, including Democratic causes. "I do like Obama," she says, though, "I'm not [one to] get on a soapbox and talk about politics, ever."
Her second husband, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, and she differ on that subject: "Bruce loves Fox News. We're politically opposites. He's very Republican, but I am more liberal."
Despite her religious views, she favors gay marriage. "Absolutely," she says. "I think it's about love. That's what I believe."
Her own love was tested 10 years into her first marriage when she had an affair with soccer player Todd Waterman, which she still regrets -- even though she got together with him again last season. As to the affair, "You know what I felt like after a little bit? It was like I was married to this guy who was my best friend, and he was an amazing man, [but] I don't think I was mature enough to know that's how marriage evolves. I felt like I loved him madly but not passionately. I didn't know enough to think you can have a companion in life and grow old together and share all these things."
After the split with Kardashian in 1991, Kris truly came into her own, following her marriage to Jenner. Her brilliant business instincts shifted him from the B-list and made him a top motivational speaker, giving Kris a taste for "solving problems" -- including those of her children with Kardashian and later the daughters she would have with Jenner, Kylie and Kendall.
It was not until she approached age 50, however, that she began to think of producing a TV show that would star her family, thereby making Kardashian a household name -- ironically, only after Robert Kardashian's death in 2003.
Looking back on him, says Jenner, "The most delicious thing turned out to be that for the rest of his life we were best friends."
That friendship was tested when Kardashian's pal Simpson was put on trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman. Nicole had been exceptionally close to Kris, who was shattered when she learned about the murder. Unlike her former husband, who sided with Simpson and became one of his lawyers, she was convinced of his guilt.
Would she have Simpson as a guest on her new show?
"I don't know. I just don't know."
Does she still feel angry toward him?
"You know, it's very challenging because God asks us to forgive one another and to be kind to one another and to let Him do the judging. The Bible says don't judge anybody else. And I try to live by that. I try not to judge anybody. Am I devastated, am I confused, am I all the things that I felt since that morning when I found out that my girlfriend had been murdered? Yes. But it's taken me a long time to get to this place of where I need to let God judge him and not me."
Fox first approached Jenner nearly a year ago, when Twentieth'sBrown, Tracy Leadbetter (the division's director of programming and development) and Greg Meidel (its president) met with her on July 8, 2012, in WME agent Lance Klein's office. Jenner long had dreamed of hosting a talk show, but their approach made it real.
"We presented a deck of what the Kris Jenner show would be like," recalls Brown, noting he already had seen her guest-host The Talk. (She also was a contributor on ABC's Mike & Maty in the '90s.) "It was about incorporating elements of her family and her life, and then what the different segments would be and how we would also try to tie in social media."
Despite the fact that five new daily talk shows had just launched (featuring Couric, Probst, Ricki Lake, Trisha Goddard and Harvey), something about Jenner's warmth and improbable normalcy made the executives willing to take a risk. "You always have to look ahead," says Brown. "You are gaming the system, saying, 'I gotta have something in the back pocket.' "
The initial meeting soon led to a deal, and Jenner flew to New York for a second meeting, this time with Roger Ailes, president of Fox News Channel and chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group. "We really hit it off," she says. "I think he saw something in me that told him I would be a good candidate for a talk show."
Now she hopes the program can affect people's lives without the controversy of her reality show.
"So many women give up in life when they get a little bit older," she reflects. "I want to be a positive influence. I want to come from a really good place. Some people are just lost, and maybe I can be an inspiration."
Jenner's interests are the same as those of many potential viewers, her tastes ones they can relate to no matter how much money they have. She reads the same magazines (Elle, Vogue, Bon Appetit and Gourmet), watches the same TV shows (American Idol, The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars) and occasionally catches one of the same films (Doctor Zhivago, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are among her favorites).
But, like so many other talk show hosts, her life is staggeringly different -- not least because she has an empire to run. She is halfway through filming season eight of Kardashians; she supervises her kids' and her own clothing collections, along with a line of makeup; and negotiated contracts that pay the Kardashians a reported $25,000 a tweet. She also is writing a cookbook for Simon & Schuster.
Jenner admits on occasion the sheer scope of what she is doing daunts her. "I may put on a brave face from time to time," she says. "But inside, sometimes I'm very scared."
Alex Ben Block contributed to this story.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Kris Jenner
- Kim Kardashian