Kim Kardashian is my best friend.
We first met when I was working in a discount clothing store in downtown Los Angeles and she was shopping for a dress to wear to an event that night. After I found the perfect outfit for her we exchanged numbers, and we’ve been as close as sisters ever since. We go to parties together. We model swimwear together. We star in Bollywood film trilogies together. I went to her birthday party, and she was the first person to call me when I got engaged.
Okay, I should clarify: not in real life. Kim’s actual inner circle is reserved for Joyce Bonelli and Brittny Gastineau and of course, Kanye West. Kim and I are only besties on my phone: I’ve been playing her app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, for about five months now.
The premise of the game is pretty simple. You’re an unknown e-lister working the till in So Chic, a boutique in Los Angeles, when a chance meeting with Kim propels you towards stardom. After she sets you up with an agent you’re given modelling jobs, small acting roles, and promotional appearances to complete in your quest for fame. As far as games go, this one is pretty basic: the graphics are simple but attractive, and the gameplay addictive but limiting. It demands the same kind of mental engagement as Minesweeper or Solitaire; it’s Snake wrapped up in the glossy cover of People magazine. One of the main attractions of the game is being able to create your own avatar, a pixellated and eternally size-six version of you. Mine has pale skin, just like me, and blonde hair, just like me. I gave her black nailpolish and red lipstick to match mine, and then bought her a replica of the blue Lanvin gown that Kim herself wore to the 2014 Met Gala. The gown cost me 45 k-stars, the in-game currency of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. 50 k-stars cost $6.49, but the more you spend, the better the exchange rate: 220 k-stars are only $24.99. 725 k-stars are $74.99. And 1250 k-stars are $129.99. In the five months since first downloading the app, I’ve spent a little over $700 purchasing k-stars.
I explained all of this to a friend — a real-life friend, I promise — and instead of expressing abject horror at my frivolous spending he simply asked: “You spent seven hundred dollars on this game, and you don’t even get to be Kim? You’ve done all of this just so you can play the role of her best friend?”
Kimberly Noel Kardashian was destined for fame long before Keeping Up With The Kardashians was a glimmer in Ryan Seacrest’s eye. Her father was Robert Kardashian, a Hollywood lawyer famous for volunteering his time to defend close friend OJ Simpson from a double homicide charge. After Robert’s death in 2003, mother Kris remarried, this time to Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner. The Kardashian clan as we know it was born. Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Kendall, and Kylie are the sisters, the most glamorous and marketable siblings; and camera-shy Rob Kardashian Jnr. is the brother. Burt, Brandon, and Brody, Bruce’s sons from his first marriage, barely get a mention in current Kardashian canon.
Kim grew up in what was arguably the golden age of the Hollywood socialite. In the early 2000s, media wall luminaries like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were taking over the Los Angeles party scene and turning the word ‘personality’ in to a job description. The press followed their every move, and for a long time it was almost impossible to open a magazine without being bombarded with photos of the young Hollywood elite: Casey Johnson, Kimberly Stewart, Lindsay Lohan; each of them young and beautiful, clad in Louis Vuitton monogram and carrying tiny dogs wherever they went. Kim was there too, of course, but she was never a key player. She didn’t have Hilton’s willowy, model-esque frame, nor did she have Richie’s incisive mean-girl wit. An old party photo shows Kim determinedly guzzling from a comically large promotional bottle of Grey Goose with what can only be described as a grimace on her face: Kim doesn’t actually drink.
When Hilton and Richie were plucked out of Hollywood and bussed of to middle America to film their reality show, The Simple Life, Kim was working as a stylist and personal shopper. She was even on the Hilton payroll briefly, styling Paris’ outfits ahead of appearances and photoshoots before the two had a falling out. “We didn’t get anything [from our parents],” Kim said in an interview with the London Evening Standard. “We had to get a job…I was working in a clothing store, and I would save and save.” Much like my avatar’s humble beginnings in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Kim folded dresses and styled mannequins for a living as well. It’s the first of many sneaky in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek references to her life that pepper the game.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 23, 2015
As you progress through each level of celebrity, completing more and more appearances and photoshoots to get ever-closer to the A-list, you’re introduced to a myriad of personalities that closely mirror Kim’s real-life contemporaries and colleagues. There’s Brandon Marlo, an acting coach whose name might be a play on Marlon Brando but whose appearance and odd behaviour riffs on James Franco. There’s Tom Lord, whose vodka company you’re paid to promote, and who looks suspiciously like Kourtney Kardashian’s partner Scott Disick (the self-styled ‘Lord Disick’). Even Vogue editor Anna Wintour isn’t safe: Elizabeth Korkov, the game’s intimidating and humourless fashion editor, wears her trademark bob and sunglasses. Most amusing of all, though, is mean girl foil Willow Pape. When Willow isn’t scheming to get you kicked off an acting job or spreading rumours about you to the press, she’s stumbling out of clubs drunk and crashing her car while talking on the phone. It didn’t take fans long to figure out who she was based on: when Kim posted an old photo of herself and Paris Hilton to Instagram, fans commented, ‘GET AWAY FROM WILLOW PAPE!’.
In the first five days since it was released in June 2014, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood made $1.6 million dollars. Forbes predicted that figure would be closer to $200 million by the end of 2014; and when app developer Glu Mobile releases its earnings report this month those numbers will have risen yet again. Kim’s game is the fifth-most downloaded on the iTunes store, with almost 23 million people having installed the game on their iPhones or Android devices. Why Kim, specifically? When Glu Mobile went to Hollywood to find a starlet to front the game, why did they choose a Kardashian? Surely Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, or even Willow Pape — uh, I mean Paris Hilton — would have been just as interesting to have in your pocket?
A huge part of the game’s appeal is, surely, the access it provides to Kim. When you go to visit her cartoon avatar in its Beverly Hills mansion, or run in to her at a fashion week luncheon in Paris, she greets you the same way you see her greet her sisters on their reality show — ‘Hey doll!’ — and delightfully, it’s her voice that pops out of your phone’s speakers. At various points in the game you can offer her a ‘hand hug’ (another Kardashian family trademark), cheer her up when she’s feeling down, and even pose alongside her for the exclusive Kardashian family Christmas card. The dialogue surrounding the Christmas card event is particularly cringe-worthy, as the photographer remarks that you, ‘may as well change your last name to Kardashian!’. To be Kim Kardashian is not only to represent a clothing brand, a beauty brand, a line of stores, and any number of other product endorsements; it is to be a branded personality as well. In a 2010 interview with W Magazine, journalist Lynn Hirschberg followed Kim to a promotional appearance for a lip-plumping gloss she was endorsing. Between autographs and selfies with fans, she was asked by a producer why she thought so many people had waited to see her that day. Her response was instant: “They have sisters or they don’t have sisters, and then they see me as a sister. They relate to me. And I’m honoured.”
There are approximately 26.2 million Instagram users who see Kim as a sister: she’s the third most-followed account on the site. A further 29.2 million people follow her on Twitter — that’s more than the population of Australia. Kim is correct: she is relatable. Not because we all have a wardrobe full of Balenciaga or Hermes like she does, but because we see ourselves in the dynamic she creates with those around her. Anyone who has seen an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians can attest that very little of the action happens because of Kim — while the cameras might follow her as she films a commercial or stars in a photoshoot, it’s Kourtney and Khloe’s backstage chatter that makes the final edit. Kim is remarkable enough to be the star but not extraordinary enough to carry the show; she’s reserved yet totally open; and in a strange twist it could be that the sole reason we are so fascinated by her life is that, like a teasing fan dancer, she offers progressively more and more of it to us. The entire time we have known Kim, she’s rarely been involved in scandal (except for one or two notable exceptions) and she’s proved herself over and over again to be — quite frankly — nice. Her reality show portrays her as quiet, a homebody, a hard worker with an occasional temper, and possessing an unexpectedly dry sense of humour. She’s palatable enough to be anyone’s best friend, which is exactly what the clever team behind Kim Kardashian: Hollywood have realised. We don’t play the game because we want to be Kim . We play the game because we want access to her world. She’s the perfect ticket.
As much as the game allows itself a cheeky wink at the fourth wall, it also firmly plants Kardashian on an unshakable pedestal. Admittance to Kim’s world relies upon the fact that you’re never given the option to be anything less than adoring towardsher. Dialogue options are limited to the point that you are often forced in to complimenting her, and quests involving Kim or her family are inescapable. As you try to advance through the ranks of celebrity to the number one spot, you never compete with Kim — she is not #50 or #1 on the list of stars. She is simply not there: no matter how famous you get, you can never become more famous. And while you yourself will have some rivals — Willow Pape, for example — they never speak ill of Kim. In fact, most characters talk about her with a dewy-eyed reverence. Your manager and publicist encourage you to look to Kim as an example of a celebrity who does a lot of charity work, and when you find yourself delivering a speech at a benefit, a huge Soviet-style portrait of Kim hangs unmentioned on the wall.
All of this goes a long way towards subliminally reinforcing Kim’s status as ‘accessible idol’. As a player, I see Kim complimented so much that it creates a Pavlovian response within me to think of my best friend whenever I hear the word ‘Kardashian’ mentioned. As a consumer, if I’m not buying a piece of clothing from the Kardashian Kollection I might be using one of their beauty products or taking a diet supplement they endorse. I could be watching their show or reading their book or paying $24.99 for some k-stars that I will inevitably spend on a dress for my next big appearance with Kim. None of this is unusual, of course, and it’s no better or worse than the marketing for any other brand. Do we not all have inbuilt responses when we hear Nike or McDonalds?
The only difference is that Kim is the human face of a corporate empire; and as fans we happily — and literally — play along.