The news of Kim Kardashian’s divorce from basketball player Kris Humphries didn’t surprise many fans of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The E! reality series had captured scenes of the couple bitterly squabbling in the weeks leading to their blockbuster two-part TV wedding spectacular, which attracted an average of 4 million viewers on both nights.
It was the timing of the split -- a measly 72 days after the nuptials -- that caused a ruckus. Fans felt duped, and the cynics felt vindicated.
Water cooler jokes and conspiracy theories swirled: Was the whole fairy-tale romance a publicity ploy? The divorce quickly became a running gag on Twitter with the trending topic #things longerthankimsmarriage (among those suggested: an iPhone’s battery life). “Saturday Night Live” wickedly lampooned the family last weekend. “I know a lot of people think Kim got married just to earn over $17 million from the wedding, but that’s not true,” said Kristen Wiig in the persona of Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner. “She also got married for attention.”
Could the dissolution of a 72-day marriage hasten the downfall of the Kardashian family’s empire? Strategically developed over the last four years under the leadership of Jenner, the Kardashian kingdom includes boutiques, fragrances, jewelry, self-tanner, candles, books and the recently launched Kardashian Kollection of apparel, shoes and accessories for Sears. That is in addition to the reality TV franchise, which began with “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and branched into “Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami” and “Khloe and Lamar.” It continues with “Kourtney and Kim Take New York,” the second season of which premieres Nov. 27 and will provide a glimpse of Kim’s unraveling marriage.
Analysts agree it’s too soon to tell whether the controversy will have any lasting effect on the Kardashian business. But some suggest that because the family’s brand feeds on drama, it’s likely to absorb the shock.
“It’s probably good publicity,” said Paul Swinand, an equities analyst with Morningstar who covers Sears. “Since Sears’ problem is that it’s a little dowdy and a little old, some news that’s a little outlandish is probably a good thing.”
Online traffic is another potential benefit of the controversy, he said. “The Kardashians drive a ton of Internet traffic, which is actually one of the bright spots in Sears’ operating results. It’s not too hard to imagine it driving Sears’ online traffic -- you go to do a search for ‘Kardashian’ and a banner ad for Sears can pop up.” (Sears declined to discuss possible repercussions on sales of the Kardashian Kollection, citing the customary quiet period in advance of earnings reports.)
And recent reports suggesting that the deal to include two Kardashian-inspired wedding gowns in the spring 2012 White by Vera Wang collection at David’s Bridal would be doomed as a result of the divorce are off base; they’ll roll out as planned, a press representative for Vera Wang said.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an assistant professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and author of “Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity,” said the gossip surrounding the failed marriage only strengthens the Kardashians’ pop culture standing.
“This divorce is just another thing that keeps people fascinated,” said Currid-Halkett. “People want to know how the divorce plays out. They want to know if Kim will meet someone new. This family has never failed to keep things interesting.”
That explains why a little reality show starring the daughters of late O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Kardashian has become a force for E! In its debut season, “Keeping Up” averaged 1 million viewers and has settled into a Sunday cable staple. The most recent season finale, which ended with the proposal, averaged 3.5 million viewers.
“I think there were definitely questions when the Kardashian family came on the scene whether they would be able to sustain the level of fame they earned so quickly,” said Jen Garcia, assistant editor at People. “You have to give a nod to Kris Jenner, who has built an incredible empire for these girls. She realized early on that these shows will not be around forever.”
Jenner openly addresses these grand ambitions in her memoir, “Kris Kardashian ... and All Things Kardashian,” which came out the week the divorce was announced, further feeding theories that the breakup was used to artificially build hype around another Kardashian venture. In the chapter, “Building the Brand: Check!” she chronicles the construction of the empire, marking things off along the way: “nutritional supplement: check! ... spin-off show: check! ... skin care line: check!”
The epic wedding special, “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding,” revealed the extent of E!'s investment in the clan. Since the special premiered, the network has aired Part 1 21 times and Part 2 25 times. (E! President Suzanne Kolb downplayed suggestions the network spent more than $15 million to televise it, calling the amount “stratospherically incorrect.”) And People’s issue with exclusive pictures from the wedding sold 1.2 million copies.
Kim said that even she got swept up by it all. In a message to fans on her website, she wrote: “I got caught up with the hoopla and the filming of the TV show that when I probably should have ended my relationship, I didn’t know how to and didn’t want to disappoint a lot of people.”
But not everyone is convinced bad publicity is good publicity. Jo Piazza, author of “Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money,” thinks fans feel betrayed -- and that’s how things start to crumble.
“The phrase I’ve been using is that we’ve seen the wizard,” Piazza said. “The curtains are parted, the fairy dust is wearing off and we know how the machine works now.”
She suggested the family “lay low” and wait for the news cycle to rotate. But that’s not the Kardashian way. It was business as usual for Kim, who headed to Australia two days after filing for divorce to promote her line of handbags, though she later canceled the second half of her commitments after the media onslaught became too great. Ironically, the reality starlet has begun filming on the Tyler Perry movie “Marriage Counselor.” And production is expected to start in the next few weeks on the seventh season of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
“There will definitely be the curiosity factor to see how this thing unfolds,” said media analyst Brad Adgate. “It’s a real-life soap opera, and E! is cashing in on this. They’ve created a rich monster.”
It’s a “rich monster” the network will happily support for as long as possible.
“I think they will continue to live their lives -- which are larger-than-life lives -- in a very open fashion,” Kolb said. “Because of that, I don’t know that I can predict every twist and turn that it’s going to take. I would never have predicted the twists and turns it’s taken thus far.”