Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photo courtesy of Variety and Ryan Emberley and Frazer Harris
Last week, I almost spit out my coffee as I read the subject of MasterClass’s newest email: “Meet your new instructor: Kris Jenner.”
I subscribed to the educational streaming platform over a year ago to soak in the wisdom of creatives I admire, like Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, and Elaine Welteroth. I never thought Kris Jenner’s name would be in the same conversation. But here she was, sharing her secrets on “The Power of Branding” and how she became the ultimate momager, turning companies like SKIMS, Good American, and Kylie Cosmetics into household names.
There was a part of me that thought Jenner’s class was a joke. It’s not that she isn’t qualified to teach a course on branding—it’s just that her glitzy brand of being real seems so far away from the truth. “My personal branding philosophy is to simply be your authentic self,” Jenner says in the intro video. Authentic is not exactly how I would describe a group of white women who ignore their proximity to Black culture, all while cosplaying Black beauty trends. But there was another part of me—the self-deprecating writer—that was genuinely curious. Maybe she could help me, someone whose personal brand needed a little (read: a lot) of work. After a little cajoling from my editors, I joined her course, armed with not one bit of the privilege or assets the Kardashian-Jenners possess.
Jenner’s course was broken up into 11 bite-sized videos, alongside assignments including making a vision board, doing market research, and posting an Instagram Story. I decided to complete the tasks to see what would happen. I would treat my media job—writing articles about things as serious as the KKK’s presence on Instagram or as meaningless as Drake’s new-ish ear piercings—like it was my entrepreneurial path. How far could Kris Jenner take me—also a Kris—with what she considered to be universal truths of brand identity?
You might not be surprised that the mother of the woman who told us to “get [our] fucking ass up and work” would suggest that we… get our fucking asses up and work. For nearly two hours, Jenner doubled down on “hard work,” mentioning that she often wakes up at 4 a.m. and works out before 7 a.m., which is a little different when your days are managed by a team. But I already wake up around 5 a.m. and head to a 6:30 a.m. Pilates class once a week, and I can assure you that hasn’t gotten me any closer to an impactful personal brand. Generic “early bird gets the worm” vibes aside, I was hoping the assignments on a MasterClass, which costs $150 annually, were more insightful than generic advice you could find on any old (free) business blog.
The first three assignments were pretty standard, not at all what I imagine actually happens in the Kardashians’ Calabasas headquarters. To start, Jenner suggested that her students create a vision board to streamline their “brand story.” As a writer who covers the intersection of pop culture and race, I thought about the women I admire in creative spaces. I wanted my personal brand to embody the diction of Toni Morrison, the congeniality of Issa Rae, the genius of Shonda Rhimes, and the work ethic of Beyoncé. But of all of the images I chose, a still of SZA pole dancing while reading a book (in a library, no less) has always resonated with me: It’s subversive and risqué, and it elevates an art that the mainstream considers “trashy.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my writing. So far, so good.
Once we had done a bit of soul-searching by patching together a bunch of celebrity photos, Jenner asked that we find hashtags that were relevant to our interests—that’s where her one-size-fits-all method started to unravel. The drawback about being a writer and only being active on a visual app like Instagram, as I am, is that none of the hashtags that seemed the most obvious aligned with the work I do daily: #WritersofInstagram, #BlackWritersofInstagram, #WritersofColor, #WritersLife, and #BlackCulture are oversaturated with empty memes and haikus.
It is not to say that writing as an art form is too good for Instagram, but even when it is done to Jenner’s standards can seem futile. When I look at writers I admire in music journalism, like Clover Hope and Danyel Smith, both adhere to hashtags and reshares, but their posts about work are not always their best-performing. Something I’ve noticed on my own feed is that you can drop a “felt cute, might delete” selfie, and it can do more numbers than a piece that took you weeks to report. Jenner’s strategy works best if you’re selling a product or a service, but I prefer my brand to be based on the ethos of creating good work rather than good posts. If anything, her advice made me realize the irony of taking notes from a family who built an empire on being famous for nothing.
The next phase of Jenner’s class is partly why I have no personal brand to begin with: self-promotion. I tend to shy away from it because, after writing for days at a time, it feels a little egotistical to me to cram what I did down people’s throats. But Jenner asked for a “selfie video” promoting your product, so I had to try. I prolonged this part of the assignment for as many days as I possibly could without completely compromising my deadline, and although the video I made was the bare minimum, it was a lot harder than I expected. Trying to cram an entire article into a minute was difficult, and it was hard to balance being personable with outright shilling.
While the exercise was a good lesson in being able to market yourself in a short amount of time, I couldn’t help but think that Jenner’s Instagram rule of posting three stories a day was a bit outdated. This week, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, confirmed the app will prioritize video content like Reels. “I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become videos over time,” Mosseri said. “We see this even if we change nothing.” With Instagram testing a Reel-heavy algorithm, would Jenner’s traditional Instagram criteria actually work? My anxiety around learning how to make a Reel (and ultimately sharing one) would surely have doubled, but at least it would have felt like Jenner’s MasterClass was an accurate rendering of what it takes to make it in a digital space in 2022.
Jenner’s advice is riddled with contradictions. The 66-year-old said she considers legacy to be the driving force behind the Kardashian-Jenner empire, and she implores us to assess our own. To her, the Kardashian legacy is about authenticity. “Once we started doing the show, the show was the focus,” she said. “We didn’t think about who we wanted to portray. We were just ourselves.” But on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, they weren’t just themselves, they were the literal representation of what it means to always be striving for the perfection brought on by influencer culture.
According to Jenner, another pivotal part of a brand strategy is discovering a “white space,” an actual business term about finding the unmet needs of customers—but the irony of the phrase is a little on-the-nose here. Finding your white space as a writer is no different than finding your niche, in that you are catering to the specific needs of a particular audience. But the elephant in the room is how often her daughters’ brands infringe on smaller Black-owned businesses. In 2017, Khloe and Kylie were accused of lifting designs from Black designers for each of their clothing lines. Earlier this month, Kim was sued for trademark infringement for her skincare line SKKN+ by a Black woman who owns SKNN+, a salon with a similar name (Lori Harvey’s skincare line, which launched last October, is also named SKN).
The most baffling part of Jenner’s advice, however, was to ignore the “haters” on social media. With modules titled “Don’t Create Drama” and “How to Handle the Haters,” Jenner denounced making drama a part of her brand. “I think that I have built-in drama just because I’m part of a big, crazy family and we have our own internal drama,” she said. Except, outside drama is a part of the Kardashian brand, as seen in the family’s very public feuds with Amber Rose, Blac Chyna, and Jordyn Woods—three (mostly Black) women who exposed and challenged the double standards that are acceptable (and profitable) when the Kardashians do it.
There are some writers who have adopted Jenner’s school of thought. “Influencer journalists,” like the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz, have spent just as much time online crafting their internet personas—and the controversies that follow—as they have their work. “When you think about the future of media, it’s much more distributed and about personalities,” Lorenz, then at the New York Times, told Business Insider in March. “Younger people recognize the power of having their own brand and audience, and the longer you stay at a job that restricts you from outside opportunities, the less relevant your brand becomes.” And, despite my thoughts on how cringey it feels to promote my work, after I posted my selfie promo, my audience actually wanted to hear me talk through my stories more. A few even asked me to start podcasting. It felt gratifying that my audience wants to hear more from me… until I realized that a podcast would be yet another piece of content to promote.
Altogether, though, Jenner’s MasterClass is pretty tone deaf and slightly outdated. The silent burden of “The Power of Personal Branding” is that the women in this family were born into a level of privilege. Kris Jenner married multi-millionaires: Robert Kardashian, a high-powered lawyer and Bruce Jenner, a former Olympian. These advantages not only granted them a great deal of access and capital, but social clout. But, please, Kris—continue to tell working-class people how posting three stories a day, on top of a 40-hour work week, will build the empire of our dreams.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.