Whether you love her or love to hate her, it’s impossible to ignore Kylie Jenner’s success. At just twenty years old, she became the youngest celebrity to feature on the Forbes 100 list earlier this year, with a staggering net worth of $41 million (£31 million.) To put that in context, I’m a year and 8 months older than Kylie and would probably place my own net worth at around minus £20,000, thanks to the Student Loans Company. That’s a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow!
But how did Kylie manage to go from being the baby of the Kardashian-Jenner Klan, to perhaps the most successful of all the sisters – including Kim? It would be easy to dismiss Kylie’s rise to the top as being the result of a perfect PR storm. We often imagine famous celebrities and their multi million pound endorsements being carefully manufactured behind closed doors by scheming PR managers with dollar signs in their eyes.
But when you really think about it, Kylie’s career would send any sane PR practitioner running screaming in terror. Forget the modern definitions of public relations that talk about ‘managing reputation’ and ‘creating mutually beneficial relationships’ – Kylie’s empire is built on publicity rather than PR, and her success is definitive proof that it’s still a relevant method today.
As the first of Grunig and Hunt’s Four Models of PR, publicity or ‘Press Agentry’ involves purely one-way communication from Press Agents to the public. The aim is to create publicity by any means, including by telling half truths or downright lies. One of the classic quotes which just about sums up press agentry is, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” which is probably the Kardashian family motto.
Let’s go back to the rumours that started it all. In 2014, when a few Insta selfies of Kylie’s lips looking plumper than usual began to make tabloid headlines, the question on everyone’s (normal sized) lips was: has she had fillers? Kylie denied any surgical enhancement, instead attributing her newly plump pout to using particular shades of MAC lipliners and lipsticks. Many of these shades sold out internationally almost immediately. I would know, because I was one of the many trying to buy them.
Even after Kylie eventually came to admit to having lip injections, it didn’t stop fans rushing out to buy whatever lip colour she recommended. It also led to lip augmentation topping the list of most popular non-surgical cosmetic treatments in the UK in 2016. Any product that Kylie Jenner’s lips touched seemed to turn to gold, and perhaps this is where she had her lightbulb moment – what if you could package up Kylie Jenner’s lips and sell them?
And so Kylie Cosmetics was born. The first batches of Kylie lip kits sold out in minutes, despite conspiracies surfacing online that her $29 lip kits contained a virtually identical formula to US makeup brand Colourpop’s $6 liquid lipsticks. Videos and pictures comparing eerily similar shades began sprouting up across the internet in a Kylie vs Colourpop showdown. You may think a PR nightmare like this would be enough to destroy the Kylie Cosmetics brand before it had even begun. But you would be wrong – in the 18 months since, it’s raked in roughly $420 million.
Just as before with her lip fillers, Kylie eventually addressed the accusations, promising her fans that while they shared the same manufacturers, her products used an “exclusive” formula that she “created herself”. Yeah, sure, I buy that completely…just like I bought her Holiday Collection and Vacation Collection Lipkits later that year. (Another classic quote of the press agentry era is, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” I am that sucker.)
So we’ve established that Kylie is clearly gifted at working bad publicity to her own advantage, but earlier this year when possibly the biggest rumour of her career hit the headlines, she showcased just how gifted. In case you’ve been living underneath a soundproof rock without Wi-Fi for the last few months, in September 2017 TMZ reported that Kylie Jenner is allegedly pregnant with rapper Travis Scott’s baby. When I first read this news on my Facebook timeline, I gasped so loudly that my sister ran into my room to check if I was okay.
At the time of writing this, almost two months on, Kylie has neither confirmed nor denied that she is with child – but she continues to benefit from daily tabloid coverage as journalists analyse her every prenatal (or not) move. Meanwhile, posts to her social media accounts appear as normal, promoting her Kylie Cosmetics Autumn collection and new Velvet Lipkit Shades. Despite hiding possibly one of the biggest events of her life from even her most loyal of fans, her products continue to be snapped up by her followers without hesitation.
Kylie’s career breaks every rule in the PR handbook, with reputation and Two Way Symmetric Models of the communication going out the window long ago. So how does she continue to be such a success? As an unashamed Kylie fan, I think that keeping somewhat of a smokescreen between her and her fans is what keeps the Kylie brand thriving. While many brands and celebrities become increasingly tangible and relatable as they open up every aspect of their lives to us through social media, Kylie Jenner remains an untouchable force in an A List celebrity world far, far away from our own, and by buying a little piece of her exclusive, sold out cosmetic line that she “created the formula for herself”, maybe we feel like we can buy into just a little bit of her untouchable world. Either way, I think Kylie will continue to build her booming career on half truths, downright lies and bad publicity.
And when she releases a Limited Edition Kylie Cosmetics Baby Shower Collection, I’ll still be snapping up all the shades.
Una McHugh is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University. She can be contacted on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/una-mchugh-a11956106/ and Twitter @unamickq