News that Forbes has named Kylie Cosmetics founder Kylie Jenner the youngest ever billionaire at 21 has provoked fury and merriment, in sadly unequal measure. I’m not going to get into the usual turbocapitalist caveats today – this is, let’s face it, a showbiz column. But as an avowed Team Merriment member, I am all in favour of any business plan that just DARES anyone over the age of 30 to get it.
This is easily the most brilliant Kylie Jenner story since this time last year, when the littlest Kardashians star wiped $1.3bn off Snapchat stock with a single tweet suggesting she wasn’t really feeling the app’s new redesign. If you missed these deathless 18 words, they ran: “Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me…. ugh this is so sad.” To repeat, ONE POINT THREE BILLION DOLLARS.
But back to this week’s news, and the attendant reminder that there will always be middle-aged haters. If your response to learning that someone built a billion-dollar business, in four years, out of a matte lip product is to gnash your teeth, then it’s too late for you. You hate the playas, not the game. You have become old in the absolute dreariest of ways. There’s no way back now. You’re not going to end up one of those senior citizens people describe as “young at heart”, or who have younger friends who find them fascinating and amusing and open-minded and long to be in their company. You are going to be “that guy”. And yes, I instinctively feel you are a guy.
Watching the backlash, Forbes felt moved to clarifyits assessment criteria with a statement on Wednesday. “To be clear,” this went, “Forbes defines ‘self-made’ as someone who built a company or established a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all it.” The publication has deemed this necessary as a key objection seems to be the description of Jenner as a “self-made billionaire”, on the basis that she derived some kind of familial benefit from the Kardashian brand (est 2003). Well, of course.
But I’m not sure why, for a certain type, this is abhorrent in Kylie Jenner, but admirable and almost confusingly arousing in the case of Rupert Murdoch, say, or Donald Trump. Both of these gentlemen inherited a huge amount from their fathers, who were already well established in the businesses into which the sons would follow. Why should they be idolised for what they did with familial advantage, but Jenner regarded as just a little madam who’s no better than she should be? I can’t think. But I expect to put my finger on it in due course.
In the meantime, we must always remember those analyses that suggest Trump would be as rich or richer than he is now if he had simply put the money he inherited from his daddy in an index-linked fund. Ought we really, then, refer to Trump as a “self-made billionaire”? In the circumstances, “self-curtailed billionaire” might be more accurate. In some ways, Trump reminds me of the supposed mogul in The Big Lebowski, of whom his infinitely brighter daughter eventually remarks: “No, no, the wealth is all mother’s. We let him run one of the companies very briefly, but he didn’t do very well at it.”
Perhaps the moral superiority of Trump and Murdoch is that they did such lovely things with their money, while Jenner’s lipliner that seriously won’t bleed all day is judged ultimately too historically toxic and culturocidal to celebrate. In the manner you would revere, say, Fox News or the Trump presidency.
Much of the Kardashian output is not to my tastes, but tastes are beside the point. The Kardashians represent plenty of the troubling currents of the age – but they certainly didn’t create them. This entire era for the family started with Kim being exploited by a man who sold her sex tape – and has ended with the ladies of the family bestriding … bestroding?… bestraddling an entire entertainment and retail empire. I don’t know if they have purchased a family motto yet, but I would go with whatever is the Latin for: “If you sexually humiliate us, we will do this with it.”
The Kardashian plotlines never do a lot for me, but the characters are magnificent in their way. I recoil-marvel at Kardashian materfamilias Kris Jenner, the world’s hardest woman, and the most assiduous Mother Ten Per Cent to all her girls.
I often try to imagine the atomic female energy levels in the notional Kardashian mansion, into which wandering traveller Kanye West has somehow stumbled. (A bit like William Holden at the start of Sunset Boulevard – but a lot more out of his depth.) The readouts must be off the scale. With the level of it Kanye is exposed to on a daily basis, is it any wonder West’s public outpourings have mutated from standard creative twattery to such things as calling for the amendment abolishing slavery to be repealed? Sleeping in a Kardashian house is like sleeping next to the Infinity Stones. You don’t know what the radiation is going to do, but I think it’s completely reasonable to expect that at the very least it would literally alter your DNA.
The other criticism of Kylie Jenner’s story so far is that she is the very antithesis of the supposedly wholesome Horatio Alger myth that sustained American readers back in the good old days. If you don’t know Horatio Alger, he was a late 19th–century author who penned many novels in which teenage heroes rose from poverty to “respectability” by hard work and clean living. (Alger himself was financially imprudent and almost certainly a paedophile, but that’s one for another day.) He updated his template over time to suit the changing tastes and desires of the public to whom he was trying to appeal – as did authors who came after him. The Alger hero became a literary type, who by the mid-20th century was no longer making the journey from rags-to-respectability, but from rags-to-riches. Meteoric rises were in.
Adjusted for inflation, then, I think it perfectly – perfectly! – conceivable that were Alger still somehow writing today, his protagonist might be a young, hypersexualised, athleisure-wearing woman, who took her company from nought to a billion dollars by sheer force of like, will? – and a refusal to be afraid to rethink the medium stippling brush. Alger was, after all, trying to appeal to a market.
In fact, Alger’s novel Tattered Tom has a female protagonist, of whose susceptibility to the superficial the author seems decidedly in favour. “Good clothes exert more influence upon the wearer than we might at first suppose,” he explains at one point. “And so it was with Tom.” And so, perhaps, with Jenner, whose understanding of just what a 12-shade bronzing palette can do for a wearer is arguably not so abhorrently different.