‘The meeting that changed the world’: Inside the first days of the Kardashian empire
When a marginally famous family made its reality TV debut in October 2007, Hollywood writers were on the brink of the longest work stoppage since 1988 and our long lost friend, the BlackBerry, was still riding high as the smartphone of choice. Instagram? Hadn’t been invented yet.
Modeled after MTV’s popular reality series “The Osbournes,” which followed the antics of rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his family in the early aughts, E!'s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” featuring Kris Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Khloé Kardashian, Rob Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Kylie Jenner, may have started out as a copycat. But it became an unexpected billion-dollar empire that turned the clan at its center into industry titans who’ve left an indelible imprint on contemporary pop culture and reshaped the celebrity economy. The series has since spawned more than a dozen spinoffs, ancillary business ventures and countless gossip-site clicks, fueled by romantic drama, public missteps and now a controversial run for California governor by Caitlyn Jenner.
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Whether you consider this polarizing crew purveyors of a new kind of pop culture savvy or the poster family for the perils of fast fame in the 21st century, there’s no denying that the Kardashians exemplify the ascent of reality TV in American life. And now, after nearly 14 years and 20 seasons, the Kardashian-Jenners are turning off the cameras at E! Not that they’d ever totally ditch the cameras: Shortly after announcing the end of their flagship program, members of the Kardashian-Jenner family signed a multi-year deal with Disney to star in and executive produce a new reality series for Hulu.
Ahead of the June 10 series finale of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” The Times spoke with Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner, matriarch and business mastermind, as well as series producers and E!'s former president about how the network’s longest-running reality series came to be.
Hot off the success of “American Idol,” Ryan Seacrest signed a deal with E! in 2006 to host the channel’s red-carpet awards coverage and produce series through his Ryan Seacrest Productions shingle.
Seacrest (executive producer): It was something that my mentor, Merv Griffin, said to me. “Hey, if you’re ever in a position to trade your services with a production component, you should really think about that.” So, using his blueprint, that’s what we did. And around the time, the only family docuseries that was on the air was “The Osbournes” and I was truly obsessed. I really thought that that was such new and different and groundbreaking television. It’s something that I hadn’t seen before. And at the same time, it felt like E! would be the right place to find some great family docuseries. We wanted it to be very funny. We wanted it to be chaotic, but also at the same time comforting. It would have heart and it would have humor. But what is that? And who is that?
Lisa Berger (then executive vice president of original programming and series development at E!): I think we were doing like a limited with Lindsay [Lohan] at the time. And so we were prepping for that and then that fell through and we had an open slot we were trying to fill.
Farnaz Farjam (executive producer, Bunim Murray Productions): There was a programming hole [at E!]. There was supposed to be a series with Lindsay Lohan during a time slot, and then Lindsay got a DUI [the actress was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and drug possession in July 2007 and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine use and driving under the influence the following month] and pulled out last minute. So they had to fill this hole within, like, I think it was like eight weeks from the day I came on.
Deena Katz (casting director and family friend of the Kardashian-Jenners): My husband and I were really good family friends with Kris and [Caitlyn]. We have a daughter who is kind of between Kendall and Kylie’s ages. I put [Caitlyn] on a show years ago called “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!” down in Australia. And that’s how we all became really close. We used to go to their home for dinner a lot. And we were there once on a Sunday night and I remember saying to them — well, and Kris had been batting around the idea of a show. I do remember saying to them, “You really should. There should be a show.” I kept saying it should be a “Sunday Night at the Jenners” kind of thing. You never knew who was gonna show up. Was it going to be some rapper or Kathie Lee Gifford; they had the most eclectic group of friends. And as crazy as you thought they were even back then, at the core of it, they are a family who loves each other. And I was doing some consulting or something back in the day with Ryan Seacrest. And I told them they needed to talk with Ryan.
Kris Jenner (star, executive producer): So many people have said to me for years and years: “You should really have your own reality show, because your life is so crazy. My girlfriend Kathie Lee Gifford used to always tell me, “You’re really our reality show. People don’t even know what’s happening here.” And that was when the big kids were babies. It’s always been something that people were throwing around. And then when Deena came over, I think a light bulb just went off for both of us.
Kim Kardashian (star, executive producer): Kourtney had already done a show called “Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive” and our stepdad did “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!” And then they were going to do a show called “I’m a Rich Kid... Get Me Out of Here,” and it was gonna be like celebrities’ kids doing the jungle thing. And I was going to do that, but then the show got canceled. And so my mom knew that I really wanted to do a reality show. Since “The Real World” came out, I was always really into reality TV. We’d had this conversation. And so even though I had a job, and I was working at my dad’s office, she knew that was something I was into. So it was more like me and her kind of into it. And then, once it was a family show, that was what made sense. And that’s what seemed to get our attention.
America’s first family of reality TV will end ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ in 2021. But the subgenre known as ‘celebreality’ has been waning for years.
Kris, Caitlyn, Kourtney, Kim and Khloé met with production and network executives over summer 2007.
Farjam: It was minus Rob, because Rob was in college at the time, so we weren’t fully sure how involved he would be.
Eliot Goldberg (senior vice president of production and development at Ryan Seacrest Productions): It’s the meeting that changed the world. I don’t mean that to make it more important. At the time, it wasn’t. Now, I do believe in my heart, I’m not sure the world would be the same if we hadn’t had that meeting. Kris, Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and [Caitlyn] came in for a meeting in our conference room. My expectations were fairly in check, because I just didn’t have any idea that they were going to be marketable, or what this was. And we got a lot of pitches. We had a lot of people wanting to do reality. So the meeting is the five of them in our conference room and they proceed to basically play out the show in the meeting, what the show would become. Normally, you would think, “They’re putting this on, this is an act,” but you could see they were just being themselves, talking like they do to each other, giving their mom grief, [Caitlyn] in the corner, kind of rolling [her] eyes and looking at me and talking about sports. I’m not thinking, at this point, that we even have a show or whatever get on the air. I’m just thinking, “Let’s develop something with them, put them on tape. Let’s shoot them.” So we had to go to E! and get them to fund what became the sizzle reel presentation.
Seacrest: We threw this tape together for, I think we asked E! for $12,000. It was nothing to make this tape.
Goldberg: One of the most prophetic words that have ever been uttered to me in my life were said to me by Kris. We were wrapping up the meeting, she pulls me aside and she says, “Eliot, it was so great to meet you and I’m so excited to do this show with you and Ryan, and it’ll be fantastic. And let me just tell you something: I want you to know that if you do this show with us, s— happens to us. S— always happens to us. And if we do this show, I promise you s— will happen.”
Jenner: Kourtney was a little hesitant. She was like, “Wait, what are we doing? Let me let me just wrap my head around it.” But everybody else was so enthusiastic. I went into that meeting with a lot of confidence and anticipation that it was really going to happen. And I just really felt like that was the move for us as a family.
I thought, this will be so great for the stores [Smooch, a children’s boutique that Kourtney and Kris opened in 2003, and Dash, a clothing boutique the Kardashian sisters opened in 2006], because we would shine a light on the stores. Kim and I would set these goals every year. And that year, we set a goal to develop her first fragrance, which was Kim Kardashian. That was the start of what we saw the potential could be down the road.
Berger: A lot of people did not know them as a whole, so that was definitely a question mark: Are they “big enough” to carry a show? And frankly, as an executive, you sort of look for the archetypes. “Girls Next Door” was a little “Three’s Company,” and I thought this family, when we were sitting there, were that modern take on “The Brady Bunch.”
Kardashian: I just remember it happening so fast. And we really didn’t know what was going on. But it was fun. Once the show got picked up, we kind of as a family made a pact that we were always going to just be ourselves. We had a really good relationship with Bunim Murray from the start and they said, “Listen, we’ll let you guys see the episodes ahead of time. And if there’s anything you really didn’t want in there, you can edit it out.” And we always felt that trust, even though that wasn’t a real part of our contract with E! We always trusted that they would honor that. And they did. I think that allowed us to open up even more and to be more comfortable.
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Because the show was a last-minute addition to fill a programming slot, once it got the green light cameras began rolling almost immediately. The first episode revolves around Kris and Caitlyn’s 16th anniversary, which they celebrate with a gathering at their home. But of course there are some antics along the way — Kris and Kourtney turn a wine tasting into a a tequila shot fete that causes them to be late (and buzzed) for the shindig. Elsewhere, Kris suspects that Kourtney’s then-boyfriend, Scott Disick, is cheating, adding a dose of tension to the mix.
Goldberg: We got a call the weekend after we handed in the tape, which is fast for me. That’s why we had to go to Bunim Murray because we didn’t have anything — we had no equipment, we had no producers. We scrambled to get this thing shot. And luckily, [Bunim Murray] could start the next week because “The Simple Life” had just been canceled. And all the staff and all the equipment were ready to go as turnkey.
Farjam: The first day on set, Kris Jenner made me like the best guacamole spread and some bean dip. It was so good. We had two cameras, one audio and a lighting person. I’m a story person, tracking the scenes because we had to turn it around. So we basically, once the show was in edit, it was on the air six weeks from filming. Everything was super fast in the beginning.
We knew that Kris and Caitlyn’s anniversary was coming up, so we thought that would be a great way to anchor it and introduce everybody, because it gives [an] organic reason for everybody to be in one space together and see the dynamic. In the process of trying to get to know them, I was always hanging out with them before we started filming for about two weeks. I could tell Kris liked her drink. So we were like: ‘Oh, yeah, perfect. Kourtney and Kris can go to a wine tasting so we could get a conversation to intercut.”
Kardashian: My dad, growing up, always had a video camera on. Always, from the moment we woke up. And looking back, that was probably setting us up, you know, to learn to be comfortable and to be ourselves in front of the camera. Obviously, I think that anyone, if you’re filming, you want to be your funniest, cutest or whatever. But when you’re filming that much, you really can’t worry about it. And now that we’ve gotten so comfortable, I mean, sometimes the camera guy will be like, “Kim,” and I’ll look at him, and he’ll be like, “You’re not gonna like this angle.” Like, I don’t care. I’m tired.
But the order for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” also came a few months after a sex tape made by Kim Kardashian and Ray J in 2002 was leaked. The first episode of the series addresses the scandal, with Kim gearing up for an appearance on “The Tyra Banks Show.” When Kourtney mock-interviews Kim as Tyra and asks why she made the tape, Kim playfully, if honestly, responds: “Because I was horny and I felt like it.”
Berger: I think everyone’s like, “The sex tape made the show happen.” It was so not about that at all.
Farjam: I remember Kim being conflicted about it, because she hated everything that was going on around that tape. We all talked about,"We just have to own all the controversy around this family” and jumped in with both feet in the first episode. Then, the audience can get to know them at a much deeper level than what’s been tabloid headlines.
Goldberg: They knew they had to deal with the sex tape. It was really brilliant that if they dealt with it right at the top, and put it to bed, the world, and them, could move on.
Kardashian: I do think that, obviously, as producers, I’m sure they loved it. And loved [us] wanting to talk about the elephant in the room. And I probably wouldn’t have, unless it was for the show. Sometimes I feel like, “OK, I know I should probably deal and get this over with. Someone’s gonna ask me, so I might as well just go ahead and do it.” In a way, filming has helped us deal with things, instead of sweeping them under the rug. At the end of the day, I was always open and honest and wanted to share whatever I was going through. I wasn’t gonna hold back.
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Finding a catchy name that would capture the spirit of the show came courtesy of Farjam, who was focused on getting to know the family in the early days of shooting. And the original title credits — more playful and silly than today, leaning into the sitcom style of the show’s early years — was another eleventh hour idea.
Farnaz: My God, the title. It was like “Kardashian Krazies,” with a K. Or “Krazy Kardashians.” I don’t even remember. There was something with like, “Hollywood Adjacent.” It was all terrible titles. We had this big meeting and everybody came to the table with a bunch of titles for the show. And I had immersed myself in their lives for two weeks just to get to know them, so I didn’t have time to sit and really think about titles. And so when it was my turn to offer some, I was like, “Guys. I’m sorry, I don’t have a list. I’ve been keeping up with the Kardashians.” And Lisa [Berger] was like, “That’s the title.”
We hired a company to help us come up with the opening [credits]. And everything they sent us kind of did not fit. At the time, our [director of photography] was a guy named Joe Guidry. And Joe said to me, “What if we just get a backdrop and I’ll put a fan and and we’ll see the back of their house, just simple and clean. So we kind of free-styled it to see. And everything that came out of [the family’s] mouth was truly ... like, we didn’t ask Kim to show up a little bit late, it all really just happened that way and we just rolled.
Kardashian: That was the one thing that bothered me, because I was always on time. And then it became a thing that I was always late. That was like the one thing that really frustrated me for a while.
But she dealt with it, and eventually came to enjoy it. As did millions of viewers.
Kardashian: Every week, we had a viewing party. The family got together every single week, and we were obsessed. If we’d have dinner together, we’d invite any of our friends that wanted to come over. We had so much fun. We watched it together every single episode.
Seacrest: Kim was probably, at that point, [the focus]. That’s probably the way the network was looking at it. But Kris is so brilliant, I’m sure she was thinking about many of the moving parts and thinking of the longevity and looking at the deals that they could make with everybody and the brands that they could build with already. She’s that savvy in the world of business and marketing. As we know, it turned out to be a vehicle for everybody.
Goldberg: And a lot of people say, “It’s not talent, what they do; they’re reality stars, they’re famous for nothing.” But they’re really good at what they do. From the minute I met them, they were really good at being a reality TV family.
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