Dhaka, Monday, 19 August 2019

The Awakening of Kim Kardashian West

2019-05-29
The Awakening of Kim Kardashian West

WHEN I ENTER Kim Kardashian West’s sprawling family home in Hidden Hills, California, on a warm afternoon in January, the first things I notice are boxes of Huggies sitting just inside the door. They are reminders, if I need one, that the Kardashian family tree is growing ever more baroque: Kim and Kanye West’s fourth child is due via surrogate in early May. Earlier I had to pass through layers of Pentagon-level security and hesitated at their forbidding front door, which looks like it might be lowered over a moat, before deciding to walk around the side and enter through the garage like a normal person. Parked out back is a fleet of matte silver Range Rovers that look like they could sprout wings and fly. Inside the garage, there’s a security pod, manned 24 hours a day, a wall of shelves with boxes of Adidas Yeezy Boost sneakers stacked to the ceiling, another with fifteen identical oversize black suitcases. I count at least ten strollers and even more car seats.

The house itself is a cathedral of warm, Belgian minimalism, designed by Axel Vervoordt. Enormous is the coin of the realm here, everything designed on the scale of more. There is a staff kitchen—where the family inevitably winds up spending most of their time together—and a show kitchen, with an island as big as a dance floor and a breakfast nook that comfortably seats 20. It is an astonishment of clean, clear surfaces, nary a pot nor pan in sight. Just outside a wall of glass sits what must be the longest picnic table in America. There is a grand center hall, and because the floors, walls, and ceilings are finished in the same color and texture (a kind of bone plaster), it messes with your perspective, like you might just have to walk all the way to infinity. When I finally reach the other end, I bump into Kim, who is wearing a white terry-cloth bathrobe and slippers, moisturized and glistening to a fare-thee-well. After spending time with her over the next few days, I will come to think of Kim Kardashian West as a human spa because she remains calm and amenable even as chaos and disagreement swirl around her. Plus, she smells like your favorite $80 candle and speaks with a voice that is so soothing it’s like listening to water burbling over river rocks. You just feel safe around her, like everything is going to be OK.

There is a Vogue crew here, at the tail end of a two-day shoot, though you’d never know it, as most of the operation is camped out in Kim’s wardrobe multiplex—a series of dressing rooms and closets, including one just for her shoes and handbags that looks like a Prada store. At one point, Kim is holding court in a sitting area just outside her bedroom. Someone from the crew mentions that the very handsome young John Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg, son of Caroline, reportedly has a crush on her half-sister Kendall, and Kim’s eyes twinkle at the prospect of colluding over some dynastic matchmaking. This prompts a story about her trip to the Oval Office last year to discuss prison reform with Donald Trump: “I bought Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s watch at auction,” she says. “I wore it when I went to the White House. It gave me some power: Let’s get in there and get this done!”

Her bedroom is the size of an airplane hangar. The adjoining bathroom offers a shower big enough for a basketball team and a wall of glass that looks out into a kind of junglescape—you half expect an orca to swim up to the glass. Not surprisingly, the human spa sleeps like an angel. “My husband sleeps crazy, sheets all over the place. I sleep perfectly. It’s my favorite thing to do: get in bed.” In a house that is nearly devoid of stuff, at long last we come upon something that sparks . . . not joy exactly: a pile of big, fat books—on tort law. Just when you think you’ve kinda sorta maybe figured out who this unusual creature is, think again: Kim Kardashian West is studying to become a lawyer.

THE NEXT NIGHT—after a long day of juggling kids and filming Keeping Up with the Kardashians—Kim meets me at 9:00 p.m. for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. Casa Vega is a Kardashian favorite that opened in the 1950s, with red Naugahyde booths and bullfighter paintings: the kind of place where ersatz meets authentic and counts as historical in L.A. Kim is wearing head-to-toe black leather, including a trench that nearly sweeps the floor—“old Tom Ford Gucci,” she says—looking like the hot lady boss from the dystopian future (or a Matrix sequel that someone hasn’t dreamed up yet).

As with most things to do with the Kardashians, you’ve doubtlessly absorbed the news (whether you wanted to or not) that Kim played a role in the release last summer of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who’d been in an Alabama prison on a nonviolent drug charge since 1996, and whose case Kim had learned about through social media. After President Trump met with her, the CNN commentator and activist Van Jones, and several lawyers, he granted Johnson clemency and then invited her to his State of the Union Address in February. What you probably don’t know is that Kim has been working with Jones and the attorney Jessica Jackson, cofounders of #cut50, a national bipartisan advocacy group on criminal-justice reform, for months, visiting prisons, petitioning governors, and attending meetings at the White House. And last summer, she made the unlikely decision—one she knew would be met with an eye roll for the ages—to begin a four-year law apprenticeship, with the goal of taking the bar in 2022.

“I had to think long and hard about this,” she says, gleefully devouring chile con queso with chips now that her Vogue shoot is over. What inspired her to embark on something so overwhelmingly difficult and time-consuming—even as she also runs a multimillion-dollar beauty enterprise—was the combination of “seeing a really good result” with Alice Marie Johnson and feeling out of her depth. “The White House called me to advise to help change the system of clemency,” she says, “and I’m sitting in the Roosevelt Room with, like, a judge who had sentenced criminals and a lot of really powerful people and I just sat there, like, Oh, shit. I need to know more. I would say what I had to say, about the human side and why this is so unfair. But I had attorneys with me who could back that up with all the facts of the case. It’s never one person who gets things done; it’s always a collective of people, and I’ve always known my role, but I just felt like I wanted to be able to fight for people who have paid their dues to society. I just felt like the system could be so different, and I wanted to fight to fix it, and if I knew more, I could do more.”

Jones had been collaborating with Jackson on building bipartisan unity around the need to “shrink the incarceration industry,” and with folks on the other end of the political spectrum, like Newt Gingrich and the American Conservative Union. And it was working. Then, says Jones, Trump “runs and wins on this law-and-order, Blue Lives Matter platform, and he gives an inauguration speech with his American-carnage line, making it seem like he’s going to unleash police and prisons everywhere.”

And then the unexpected happened. “Kim Kardashian,” says Jones, “wound up playing this indispensable role, and a lot of people have gotten furious with me, saying I’m stealing the credit from African American activists who have been working on this issue for decades. And first of all, I’m one of them. But I was in the Oval Office with Kim and Ivanka and Jared and the president, and I watched with my own eyes Trump confess to having tremendous fears of letting somebody out of prison and that person going and doing something terrible, and the impact that that would have on his political prospects. He was visibly nervous about it. And I watched Kim Kardashian unleash the most effective, emotionally intelligent intervention that I’ve ever seen in American politics.”

This may sound like hyperbole, but consider the target. Perhaps an “emotionally intelligent” intervention could have been staged only by a bigger reality star than the man in the Oval Office. “Kim understood that he needs to be seen as taking on the system, and she helped him to see that there are people who the system was against and that his job was to go and help them,” says Jones. “And it was remarkable. So for people who have fallen for this media caricature of the party girl from ten years ago who hangs out with Paris Hilton? This is the daughter of an accomplished attorney and the mother of three black kids who is using her full power to make a difference on a tough issue and is shockingly good at it.”

He brings up the Elle Woods character from Legally Blonde as perhaps the only archetype we have in the culture through which to understand such an unlikely turn of events. “But she’s so much deeper than that,” says Jones, “because the gravity of the issues she’s taking on is so tragic and all-pervasive. I think she’s going to be a singular person in American life.”

In many demonstrable ways—for better or worse—she already is. But if she were to pass the bar, it would be the most surprising rebranding since Barbie got woke, a case to be studied at Harvard Business School for years to come. (Indeed, she has been invited to speak at Harvard later this year “on branding and media.”) At Casa Vega, I bring up the fact that the Kardashian name has come to stand for something negative to a lot of people: shallow, acquisitive, all that is wrong with our culture. “I don’t pay attention to that anymore,” she says, sipping a frozen strawberry margarita. “I love to be put in a situation where I can have a conversation with someone who might not be inclined to think much of me, because I can guarantee they will have a different opinion and understand what’s important to me after they’ve met me.”

Our booth feels almost too public, and I am surprised that no one makes a fuss—until toward the end, when two blonde identical twins approach, cell phones at the ready, prattling on about using her lipstick and OMG we love you SO MUCH; Kim, as mellow as ever, leans in for a couple of selfies but does not overindulge the twins, partly because she seems a little self-conscious by the attention they have now drawn—as we sit talking about prison reform. She’s telling me about discovering Alice Marie Johnson through a video her friend posted on Twitter. “Alice found me,” she says. “It was meant to happen.” Like many people in California, Kim can slip into the jargon of a vague spirituality that wants to provide easy answers for the unexplainable twists and turns of life. But she is also a Christian—her mother often starts the daily family group text with a verse from the Bible—who seems to hold a deeply felt sense of injustice. “Here’s a grandmother who took part in her first-time nonviolent offense and received the same sentence as Charles Manson. I just thought, This is so wrong and so bizarre, and how could that be? I sent it to my attorney and said, ‘What can we do? Does she need better lawyers?’ ”

Before long, she was in touch with the group from #cut50. “I made a decision to go to the White House when everyone was telling me, ‘Don’t go, your career will be over; you can’t step foot in there.’ And I was like, ‘It’s my reputation over someone’s life?’ Weigh that out. People talk shit about me all day long. It will just be another story about me versus someone getting their life back.” Once Johnson was released and after a major bipartisan piece of criminal justice–reform legislation, the FIRST STEP Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump in December, Kim was able to glimpse a new future for herself. “I never in a million years thought we would get to the point of getting laws passed. That was really a turning point for me.”

When I ask Kris Jenner if she was surprised by this sudden shift in her daughter’s life, she laughs and says, “I did not see this one coming. What didn’t surprise me was the way she embraced Miss Alice and how she was so hopeful for that outcome. When you find something that you’re that passionate about, it’s not difficult; you don’t have to think about it—it just happens.”

To Kim’s sisters, it all makes a certain kind of sense. Both Kourtney and Khloé point out that when Kim was young, she was obsessed with court TV shows, as well as true-crime programming. Kim was also close to her father, Robert Kardashian, who died in 2003 and who famously was a member of O. J. Simpson’s defense team. “On the weekends they used our home as an office, with Johnnie Cochran and Bob Shapiro,” Kim says. “My dad had a library, and when you pushed on this wall there was this whole hidden closet room, with all of his O.J. evidence books. On weekends I would always snoop and look through. I was really nosy about the forensics.”

Kourtney thinks her sister is constitutionally lawyerly. “It’s because she seems to have all the answers or something,” she says. “Like she just kind of knows.” And there’s Kim’s special relationship to Kris, a woman who still manages her children’s careers and whose inner shark is legendary. “Khloé and I can be a little argumentative with my mom,” says Kourtney, “but Kim knows what she needs to say so that my mother can hear it and she can get her point across.” Which sounds like a good lawyer. Or someone trying to manipulate Donald Trump into changing his mind.

THE NEXT DAY, I meet Kim at her office in downtown Calabasas, a few miles from her house. In typical Kardashian style, the family bought four adjoining condos here: one for Kris’s 85-year-old mother, Mary Jo, and one for Robert Kardashian’s cousin Cici, who is Kris’s best friend. Kris decided to buy one for herself and told Kim to do the same. Kim handed the keys over to Kanye, and as a birthday present to his wife, he hired Vincent Van Duysen, another Belgian minimalist design star, who stripped away all the faux Mediterranean details and transformed it into a marvel of impeccable taste and rich patina.

It’s fitting that this spot has turned into a multigenerational hive of women, as there’s a strain of a kind of maternal, entrepreneurial feminism that runs through this family—sisters doing it for themselves. Kim’s growing fragrance-and-beauty start-up is here, with its small team of women, three of whom, along with Kim’s makeup artist, Mario Dedivanovic, are looking over packaging options; they also talk about her new shapewear line, Kimono, and a sunglasses collaboration with Carolina Lemke. At one point, Kim and Mario go into another room and shoot an Instagram video of Mario painstakingly giving Kim “a red lip”—with a KKW lipstick that they will be launching later that day. As the meeting winds down, a woman named Kim Schraub shows up with inspiration boards for some upcoming photo shoots. Schraub works for Kanye, who seems to have a say in everything, including drawing prototypes of, for example, fragrance bottles in the shape of his wife’s body.

When I ask about collaborating with Kanye, Kim surprises me. “When he was still fairly new to the relationship, he was like, ‘Can I give you a fashion makeover?’ I was open: Sure! Dress me up! He took me to a Lakers game and he put me in this black Givenchy leather dress and Tom Ford snakeskin shoes and a team of stylists came to my house, and when we came home, there were shoes piled up almost to the ceiling that they had taken out of my closet. I only had two pairs left! I almost started to cry. I spent years collecting those. And then there were racks and racks of clothes, designers I’d never heard of before, like Lanvin or Balmain or Margiela.”

You didn’t find this excessively controlling? “I wasn’t offended at all,” she says. “Because I saw what a response I got—he was right. He’s been my go-to stylist ever since. I’ve always admired how he’s marketed things or come up with ideas for his videos and his looks—he thinks ahead. I show him what we’re doing at night when we’re in bed.”

I had been told by Kim’s publicist that Kim was willing—eager, in fact—to address Kanye’s mental-health issues. There was Kanye’s bizarre meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office last October, with a gaggle of reporters recording every cringe-inducing moment. And back in 2016, Kanye had been hospitalized following “a psychiatric emergency” just hours after he canceled the remainder of his Saint Pablo tour. He was clearly suffering from something, and by last summer he shared a diagnosis of bipolar disorder with the world. But in the Oval Office in October he told the president that he was misdiagnosed and was actually suffering from sleep deprivation.

Kim says that there were conflicting assessments from doctors and that Kanye has once again accepted the bipolar diagnosis. “I think we’re in a pretty good place with it now,” she says and adds that Kanye has a newfound sense of purpose—to show that you can live a normal life with mental illness. “It is an emotional process, for sure. Right now everything is really calm. But we can definitely feel episodes coming, and we know how to handle them.

“For him, being on medication is not really an option, because it just changes who he is. Traveling a lot does set it off, so he doesn’t travel as much as he used to. But honestly, I never want to speak for him, because I am not in his mind. But I think some of the hurtful things that I read online . . . . What is she doing? She’s not stopping him. . . . Like it’s my fault if he does or says something that they don’t agree with? That’s my husband. I share every opinion that I have and let him know when I think something’s wrong. Or if it comes to him being in the middle of a bipolar episode, I’ll do everything to be supportive and help to calm the situation.”

Kim insists that Kanye doesn’t have a political party. “He doesn’t represent either side. But he doesn’t want to be told what he should be. It can be confusing. I get it. The one thing that I respect so much is that he is who he is, no matter what anyone tries to tell him to do. I can be sitting there crying: OH, MY GOD! TAKE OFF THE RED HAT! Because he really is the sweetest person with the biggest heart. I stopped caring, though. Because I used to care so much. I was making it such an issue in our relationship. And in my life. It gave me so much anxiety.”

Despite the fact that I could feel Kanye’s presence hovering over my time with Kim, I never met him. We did exchange emails, and his answers were . . . short and to the point.

Were you surprised by her decision to work on the issue of criminal-justice reform?

“She’s always had it in her.”

Do you think Kim is misunderstood? And if so, what don’t people get about her?

“What is there not to get about her? She’s Kim Kardashian West. She’s exactly who she is.”

What’s it like to be part of the Kardashian clan?

“It’s awesome.”

Tracy Romulus, Kim’s COO, pops her head into the office where we’re sitting with some good news: The red lipstick sold out in minutes. “I think it was the packaging and how we rolled it out just, like, perfection.”

“Oh, my God, a-mazing,” says Kim. She is in Rick Owens: a kind of rusty-brown slinky tube skirt and matching half tank top that is entirely see-through—with nothing underneath. We head down to the garage and climb into one of those sleek silver Range Rovers, Kim behind the wheel. Do you like to drive? “I do. I love it. I’m a good driver—a safe driver.” At the house, where Kim is trying out a new chef, we are served an elaborate three-course meal. Halfway through dessert, Kim’s two mentor lawyers, Jessica Jackson (with a half-asleep baby draped over her shoulder) and Erin Haney, show up. The three of them are scheduled to study for four hours this afternoon, in an office conference room not far from here—so that Kim does not have to travel every week to San Francisco, as she has been doing since July, to log her required eighteen hours of weekly supervised study.

You might be wondering: How does someone study law if they haven’t finished college? Turns out, four U.S. states, including California, offer another path to passing the bar—what is known as “reading the law,” or apprenticing with a practicing lawyer or judge. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a law degree was even a thing; everyone apprenticed with a lawyer or judge, and even after colleges began offering law courses, many still chose apprenticeship, including no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln. “If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself the thing is more than half done already,” he wrote in 1855. “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

“First year of law school,” Kim says, “you have to cover three subjects: criminal law, torts, and contracts. To me, torts is the most confusing, contracts the most boring, and crim law I can do in my sleep. Took my first test, I got a 100. Super easy for me. The reading is what really gets me. It’s so time-consuming. The concepts I grasp in two seconds.” Sometime this summer, Kim will take what is known as the “baby bar” administered by the state; if she passes, she will be given the OK to continue for three more years of study.

Jackson and Haney both evince a kind of tough-girl glamour and seem perfectly cast; seeing the three women huddled over a laptop and a stack of law books, you can’t help wondering if Kris Jenner is scheming a reality pitch with Ryan Seacrest. Haney is a death-row attorney whose father was a psychologist and prison reformer. She only recently joined #cut50 as the policy director. “When I came on board, Jessica was like, ‘OK, the other part of our job is we’re going to mentor Kim Kardashian,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, what?!’ But she’s incredible: just the kindest, smartest—I have been so impressed by everything she’s doing and how committed she is.”

It was Van Jones who recognized that Jackson and Kim shared a late-bloomer quality. Jackson, a high school dropout, turned her life around by going to law school. She was the one who first planted the thought in Kim’s head that she might be able to do more. “She was spending so much time on this,” says Jackson, “and she would call me at weird hours with questions, and finally I was like, ‘Gosh, you’re helping us with commutations; you’re legitimately helpful on motions and stuff; why don’t you just become a lawyer?’ ”

Jackson sees a perfect pairing of student and material. “With law you have to go through an entire analysis in a language that is so unnatural, and she was able to do that from the very beginning. She has a very calm, very logical way of thinking. She’ll probably go into criminal law. I don’t know if we’ll see her in courtrooms. . .” she says, and then laughs in a way that makes you think nothing would surprise her at this point.

We once again pile into the Range Rover, and Kim—who has modestly pulled a hoodie over her sheer Rick Owens top—drives us to an office in a nondescript building in the Valley. Kim is telling me that when she visits prisons there’s often a hubbub with inmates yelling, “She’s here to get us out!” Not long ago she privately offered to pay the rent of Matthew Charles, a former prisoner who received an early release thanks to the FIRST STEP law. And she now gets piles of letters every week from prisoners pleading their case. She has brought with her a shopping bag filled with the latest batch.

There’s one in particular that has caught her interest, from an inmate who isn’t up for parole until 2021. Kim wants to make a direct appeal to California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, with whom she has a meeting next week. “I really want to have something to bring him,” says Kim.

Jackson, who has been interested in the case herself, says “Do you want to help us write the commutation petition?”

“Sure,” says Kim, and you can see her wheels turning. “So the governor could just bypass the rest of the sentence?”

“Gavin could sign documents tomorrow.”

“Then that’s our goal,” says Kim, in that soothing voice that makes you think everything is going to be OK. “I’m not leaving his office until I convince him.”

“OK, torts!” says Jackson, signaling that it’s time for class to begin.

I should go, I say.

Kim bats her eyelashes. “Are you sure you don’t want to learn all about affirmative duties and malfeasance?”

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