the problem with kylie jenner’s almost billion dollar brand
“America loves black culture and not black people.”
Images via Instagram
It has been a busy couple of weeks for Kylie Jenner and her PR team. First, she subtly announced via a comment on Instagram that she’d removed her signature lip fillers. People heralded the return of thin lips. We wrote a piece about how we should stop fetishising and commodifying body parts. And many, rightly, took issue with the fact she so easily try on and chuck off features that women of colour are born with and so often marginalised for.
Later, Forbes released their latest issue featuring Kylie on the cover. “At 21”, the headline read, “she’s set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire. Welcome to the era of extreme fame leverage.” Naturally, people reacted with frustration that someone who came from an incredibly wealthy family, who snagged a reality show when she was just ten, could be labelled ‘self-made’.
Not that we really needed to point it out when Forbes’ headline kind of did it for us -- paradoxically following the words ‘self-made’ with ‘extreme fame leverage’. She also got called out by the dictionary.
Kim has since defended Kylie, telling Refinery 29 that “we are all 'self-made.'" She adds, “What, because we came from a family that has had success? To me, that doesn’t really make sense... I know so many people like that [who] haven’t turned out to be as successful as Kylie. If anything, I've seen the complete opposite." Which slightly misses the mark -- no one was saying she isn’t successful. And congratulations to not splurging all the money they made off paid appearances and #sponsored Instagrams on expensive cars I guess. But heralding Kylie Cosmetics as some sort of entrepreneurial genius neglects to acknowledge the huge network of support, money and fame she started with. To quote one astute Twitter user, “Calling kylie jenner a ‘self-made billionaire’ is like claiming you made soup from scratch because you opened a can and reheated it.”
The criticisms haven’t stopped there. Many have called the make-up mogul out for appropriating and selling black features and culture to make her multi-million dollar fortune. “You can get on the cover of Forbes + be a young billionaire by selling the very features, style and swag that Black Women have always possessed but got called ghetto for it”, wrote activist and writer Brittany Packnett on Twitter.
A signature of the Kylie brand is the popular Lip Kit: usually a colour coordinated collection of lip liner, lip stick and lip gloss, made famous by her pout. Which is why people are saying her brand is culturally appropriative -- she’s essentially profiting from a feature traditionally associated with women of colour. “Black people have always had big lips. Stop treating people’s features like a trend”, one person tweeted when she had her fillers removed. Another added, “‘Kylie Jenner took out her injections’ ‘big lips are cancelled’ aigh can y’all admit that y’all use black features as trends now and go ?”
The frustration that many have voiced towards Kylie’s success is that, once they’ve cashed out or got their cred, they’re able to shed the qualities they’ve appropriated with ease. “And notice now that she’s made her fortune?” Brittany continued. “Those lip fillers came out. The fake tan disappeared. Just like Miley Cyrus before her, she’ll exploit black culture and black people for as long as its profitable-and then return to the comfort of whiteness.”
When Miley twerked at the VMAs, and donned gold grills and dreadlocks, it was an attempt to rebrand her butter-wouldn’t-melt Disney Channel image into something ‘edgy’ and ‘controversial’. Once she had used black culture to her advantage, she dropped it and moved on.
"It would be unfair, however, to say the Kardashians are the only ones capitalising on black culture. It’s rife."
As we wrote in our piece about why we shouldn't necessarily be celebrating Kylie laying low on the lip filler, “they’re essentially picking and choosing the elements of black culture they like, but aren’t subjected to the marginalisation that generally comes with it, nor prepared to actually support and provide for the needs of POC.”
It’s not the first time Kylie or the Kardashians have been called out for profiting off of cultural appropriation. Last year, the Daily Beast published a piece titled, ‘How Kylie Jenner and Khloe Kardashian Profit Off Black Creativity’. In it, they argued that Kylie ripped some camo-merch off a company owned by black people only to flog it on her online store. They even posted tweets from the company that proved Kylie had actually bought clothes off them first. Interestingly, those tweets have since been deleted. Similarly, designer Destiny Bleu alleged that Khloe had bought her clothes not long before some similar designs popped up in her own Good American line.
Then there’s Kim’s cornrows. The time Kendall and Kylie Jenner superimposed their faces over Tupac and Biggie (without consent from their estates), to sell for a whole 125 dollars. And, most spectacularly, Pepsi-gate.
It would be unfair, however, to say the Kardashians are the only ones capitalising on black culture. It’s rife. Clubs in the west end of London are soundtracked largely by music of black musicians, but reportedly are fairly racist when it comes to letting people of colour in. Love Island apparently cut out huge chunks of Samira’s relationship -- one of the few black people on the show -- which seemingly lead to lack of audience investment in her partner, which was probably the cause of his elimination, leading to Samira being so upset she left. Now the show is even whiter than before. Again:
And it goes way back: Elvis, the so-called ‘King of Rock and Roll’ was hugely influenced by rhythm and blues and gospel music born from black communities and musicians. Likewise The Rolling Stones, who enjoyed levels of success and fortune that few of their inspirations of colour could dream of at the time. We could go on, and on and on, and on and on and on, but basically, Kylie and the Kardashian krew’s capitalisation off black culture just underlines what Brittany meant when she tweeted, “America loves black culture and not black people.” Commodifying body parts is bad at the worst of times -- it’s even more insidious when they’re profiting off the very attributes that people of colour are marginalised or fetishised for.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.