The announcement was a classic Friday afternoon news dump. With the weekend within sight, TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian West had finally filed for a long-speculated divorce from her third husband, Kanye West. Released strategically, the news fits the Instagram-filtered approach to life we have come to expect from the Kardashian/Jenner clan. They only want us to look at what they want us to look at. Blemishes should be either sanded off or smoothed over.
The end of Kardashian West's almost seven-year marriage shouldn't be seen as a blemish, though. Ending a relationship is messy and sad and complicated, especially when millions of dollars and multiple kids are involved. But for the reality star, this might also be an opportunity. She will finally have a shot at being her own woman, publicly. Free from the limitations of those who have tried to control her for decades, who is Kim Kardashian minus the "West"? The answer is going to be fascinating — and likely quite inspiring.
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Famously, Kim Kardashian got her first real taste of celebrity as the girl who used to organize Paris Hilton's closet, and, much like Hilton, she built that attention with a reality show on the back of the release of a sex tape. In 2007, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" debuted on E! to instant success, but its star was destined for longer-lasting and higher-earning fame than her pal Paris ever achieved.
First there was her mother, Kris Jenner, the woman for whom the word "momager" was trademarked. Jenner may be an overbearing Svengali who oversees her family's careers with an iron fist. But when I think of her, I think of the famous "Kim you're doing amazing sweetie" GIF of Jenner recording video of her daughter while she does a racy photo shoot. Jenner's behind-the-scenes cheerleading was manipulative yet effective.
Another thing working in Kardashian West's favor? She was cresting right as the age of the tabloids was ending and the age of social media was beginning. Paris, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears were hounded by the paparazzi, leading to at least one breakdown. Kardashian West, on the other hand was calling the photographers to let them know when to take her picture. Soon after, however, she had taken away their power altogether by making her announcements via her unceasingly popular social media channels. This steady stream of pictures and videos cut out the tabloid middleman and brought in fistfuls of sponsored cash. (She has around 206 million followers on Instagram.)
But social media is barely more "real" than reality TV. There always was a filter, often bearing Kris Jenner's thumbprint. Everything had been arranged to fit a very specific media narrative that the family was trying to control. Yes, on "KUWTK" we saw Kardashian's hasty divorce from her second marriage, to Kris Humphries, after a much-hyped and much-leveraged ceremony. But Jenner is an executive producer on the show. No moment is seen without her letting it through the gate. With her as a guard, what does "unguarded" even mean?
When Kardashian started dating Kanye West in 2012, it seemed like she traded in a momager for an overzealous artistic director. It was thanks to Kanye that Kim finally got the access to the fashion firmament that she had always craved. The Met Gala used to have a firm "no reality stars allowed" policy, and West attended alone in 2012. The next year, Kim attended as West's plus one, but she later revealed on Twitter that she cried that night because she was sure no one wanted her there. The next year, Anna Wintour finally put her on the cover of American Vogue, long the holy grail for those in the fashion space. But even then she wasn't alone; Kanye, culture's celebrated creative genius, stood beside her.
All the details about the couple's lavish wedding in Florence and their wildly minimalistic house in Calabasas seem way more in Kanye's style than Kim's. In a 2019 interview, she said that her husband was the "ghost creative director" of her shapewear line, Skims, and that he held a two-hour meeting about the packaging of the product.
A 2018 episode of "KUWTK" reveals the level of control Kanye had over Kim's life — and not just the business aspects of it. Kim tells her sister Kourtney how her husband vehemently objected to a beach vacation snapshot she'd posted online. He told Kim he'd had a "vision" for what the vacation pictures should be, and the beach wasn't part of it. Kim deleted the beach shot and let Kanye realize his vision.
Then there was the more public fight over her 2019 Met Gala dress, which Kanye said was too sexy. Kim wore it anyway, but the fight symbolized to many the sense of entitlement Kanye seemed to have over his wife's identity. He was notoriously controlling about her outfits, throwing out clothes and shoes and sending her emails dictating the size of the sunglasses she wore.
Now things are going to be much different for the former Mrs. Kardashian West. Kanye will be out of the decision-making process and — so might Kris. The family finally pulled the plug on their E! show, and the 20th and final season starts airing March 18. It's not like the family has retreated from public life — they already signed a multiyear deal to produce content for Hulu — but what that is, exactly, and who has control over it are still up in the air.
Now, though, is Kim's chance. I hope she takes it.
Over the past few years, we've caught glimpses of a new Kim Kardashian emerging. And I think it's likely that she is even more intelligent and fascinating than most give her credit for. Part of the reason for the divorce seems to be that Kim's and Kanye's interests have diverged. While he was running his failed presidential campaign in 2020, she was working on a four-year apprenticeship to become a lawyer (like her father) so she could fight to fix the criminal justice system. Now that is a TV show I would pay for Hulu to watch: "Kim Kardashian, Esq." or maybe "Kim Kardashian, EsKuire" to keep with the family branding.
In fact, Kanye's bizarre politics and the way he went about his presidential campaign seem directly at odds with what Kim is trying to accomplish. (Kanye's mental health is clearly a factor here.) Kanye used a 2018 audience with President Donald Trump to rant in front of the media for nearly 20 minutes. Kim used a similar audience earlier that year to lobby for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense. Eventually, Trump did commute her sentence.
Today, Kim is no longer getting lost in Paris' closet. She is the mother of four running a media and commercial empire, and she has thoughts and interests of her own that go far deeper than selfies and lip kits. She has navigated the rocky and fickle waters of fame for more than a decade. I hope, as she approaches middle age, that she will seize this moment to break free from momagers and overbearing husbands. Without those limitations, we may find someone who can educate and inspire all on her own.