After Vogue’s images of its Kim Kardashian and Kanye West cover shoot went online on Friday, Elle’s official Twitter account tweeted tips from Cate Blanchett’s facialist on how to calm oneself down. Sarah Michelle Gellar announced that she’d be canceling her Vogue subscription, and all sorts of other people had all sorts of other things to say, the bulk of which can be summed up as “SHOCKED!” — as if the cover of Vogue was a much too rarefied and civilized a precinct to welcome a multiplatinum musician and his reality-star fiancée, who also happens to be one of the most famous women in the world.
This is a very strange status distinction — and I’m not being deliberately obtuse. Everything’s vulgar now. But it turns out that, for a lot of people, Kim Kardashian — with her butt selfies and all the rest of it — is where the line gets drawn. Or maybe it’s that Vogue is where the line gets drawn, since plenty of other magazines have featured Kardashian on the cover (including this one).
Parsing the values that are implicit here goes something like this: Kim Kardashian = too vulgar, but modeling for Victoria’s Secret = just vulgar enough. And then there’s all the wailing about the photos and Vogue.com’s behind-the-scenes video, in which the West family showcased their new baby. But which celebrity hasn’t done that at this point? Women in Vogue are endlessly photographed with their kids: Here is Gisele Bündchen yammering on about breastfeeding; here are a bunch of models larking around Brooklyn with their chubby and adorable children in tow.
The Vogue brand has historically been more about social class than about celebrity, and so it’s perfectly okay to show your children running about on the lawn of the family pile in Dark Harbor, or past the organic garden in Locust Valley, or wandering the halls of his grandparents’ Hotel Particulier in Neuilly-sur-Seine. But, sniffs the collective universe, what the Kardashian-Wests get up to is somehow deemed too craven and gross and base for the pages of Vogue. But clearly Vogue is making a pitch for modernity and relevance: Last month, it featured Rihanna, and before that, it was proto-millennial Lena Dunham.
Of course I understand why people object to Kardashian. The sex tape is certainly not fantastic by any calibration, and neither is her E! show. (Though I don’t disagree with Ginia Bellafante’s theory that the Kardashians are, somehow, a rare example of familial devotion on prime-time television.) Kim’s fashion sense is dubious. (What is with the endless crop-topping of her Dior?) And no: I wouldn’t be thrilled if my daughters named her as a role model, but then again, I also wouldn’t be thrilled if my daughters wanted to be models, or more like Rihanna, who famously reunited with an abusive boyfriend, or even really if they wanted to be like Kate Moss, who has been filmed taking lots of drugs, even if she does seem really funny and even though she does have really fantastic style. (Naomi Campbell was one of those making noise at Vogue’s descent — but she is now as famous for her pugilism as her fashion sense.) So it really feels like hypocrisy on a colossal scale to call Kardashian somehow too low, or to bemoan the end of some higher cultural values as represented by a fashion magazine that exalted the regime of the Al Assads.
But the thing that seems to arouse this streak of puritanical self-righteousness is the nakedness of the celebrity play. Whereas everyone else pretends that fame is a consequence of talent and style and beauty, Kardashian doesn’t pretend. She has mastered the thing we have all been complicit in creating — she has mastered popular culture.