ELIZABETH CURRID-HALKETT, assistant professor of urban planning:
“Whatever you may think of the sudden marital rupture of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, there is no denying that the Kardashian brand is an industry. The tabloid and gossip business traffics in her daily goings-about. She has perfume, calendar and clothing lines. But even Kardashian’s participation in a single event – her wedding — can be a cash cow. While the erstwhile newlyweds reportedly profited handsomely from wedding-related revenue, the media that told their story made millions more. The Hollywood Reporter reported that E!, the network that broadcast the ceremony, could have taken in as much as $13 million in ad revenue during the event. All this at a time when the U.S. economy is slogging along.
A representative for E! did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kardashian tweeted yesterday: “There are also reports that I made millions of dollars off of the wedding. These reports are simply not true and it makes me so sad to have to even clarify this.”
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the Kardashians have turned generating publicity, and possibly profit from that attention, into an artform. What may be surprising is how much the marketing universe of the Kardashians has in common with the real art world.
Consider the case of the artist Damien Hirst. On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the global financial system froze up, and the world economy staggered. That same day in London, Hirst began auctioning off 218 pieces of his art over two days. “Beautiful Inside My Mind Forever” went on to raise nearly $200 million, a record for a single artist.
Jeff Koons, a contemporary of Hirst, also seemed to defy economic logic. In 2007, as the U.S. economy slipped into recession, gallery owner Larry Gagosian acquired Koons’s “Hanging Heart” sculpture for $23.5 million. The following year, with the recession picking up steam and the stock market heading south, his “Balloon Flower (Magenta/Gold)” sold for $25.7 million. Only Hirst’s “For the Love of God” fetched a higher price for a living artist.Economists say that art prices generally follow the stock market. What shielded the prices of Hirst’s and Koons’s art works from the economic downturn?
There is a subplot running through the careers of Hirst and Koons that can also be found in, say, the careers of people like Kardashian. Hirst and Koons are not simply artists, just as Kardashian is not simply a reality TV star. Hirst’s and Koons’s art openings attract highbrow Art Forum critics, of course. More important to their success, the exhibitions are attended by celebrities, their art is bought and collected by Hollywood stars, and even people who aren’t interested in art have heard their names. What Koons and Hirst seem to know, as does Kardashian, is that there is more money to be made if you can cultivate a public interest in yourself that equals or exceeds interest in your work. That public interest, in turn, can support thousands of jobs in the larger economy. Call it celebrity economics 101.
Andy Warhol, the original celebrity artist (who also painted celebrities) showed the way. His personality was so entangled with his art that Warhol became the equivalent of a brand that could attract prices seemingly beyond the art value of his works. Warhol’s droll persona and celebrity lifestyle still attracts our interest and makes a soup can, a Brillo box or a silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe infinitely more compelling than perhaps it ought to be. Similarly, Koons’s bad boy persona (hanging with Lou Reed in New York, marrying and then divorcing an Italian porn star) and Hirst’s wild-partying reputation help to make their art more desirable.
But it’s not just the celebrities who economically benefit. The tabloids, gossip TV shows and websites that track celebrities’ every move support thousands of jobs. The E! wedding extravaganza of Kim and Kris Humphries attracted more than 5 million viewers. Their divorce has been reported in thousands of different places – and the story broke less than 48 hours ago. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, People magazine sold 1.5 million copies of the Kardashian wedding issue, an estimated 31% more than their usual circulation. And of course, her divorce is now on the cover of People, Us and other magazines–and will no doubt drive more sales.
In Los Angeles and New York, two hubs of celebrity watching, thousands of people work in celebrity-related jobs, whether as agents, publicists, editors or photographers. The 2007 photo of Spears shaving her head generated some $300,000 for X17, the paparazzi agency that sold it.
The Kim-Kris separation comes just as Kim’s mother, Kris Jenner, embarks on a book tour and the autumn art-auction season in New York heats up. The U.S. and global economies, though sputtering along, would seem too weak to support nose-bleeding prices for paintings and sculptures, and record book sales. Yet don’t be surprised if a famous art name commands a record price for his work, or if Jenner’s book generates loads of media attention. The auction and publishing houses, as well as the gallery owners and book sellers, are counting on it.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and author of “Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity.”
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.