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How Kim Kardashian Reinvented The Socialite

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 12/03/2017 Morgan Baila

Refinery29 © Illustrated by Mallory Heyer. Refinery29

Here's a trick question for you: What is the one thing, above all else, that makes Kim Kardashian West so famous?

Is it her family, a contemporary, more bronzed version of the Brady Brunch? Perhaps it's her body, which she displays proudly and without hesitation? Or maybe her scandals?

The answer is all of the above. But while all of the aforementioned elements have contributed to her remarkable (and in the many ways, surprising) rise to international fame, there's another component that could explain the public's fascination with a girl like Kim. The real reason that Kim Kardashian has risen to superstardom is because she's actually just the latest reinvention of an archetype our culture has long been obsessed with: the wealthy socialite.


Over the last decade, the 36-year-old has gone from reality show punchline to glitzy debutante to fixture of an elite social scene. To some people’s dismay (if that’s you then, it's time to just get over it), Kim is synonymous with wealth, status, privilege, and influence. With each passing year — it's already been nine since we first were welcomed into that Calabasas home on October 14, 2007 — she has only become more famous. In 2016, the Kardashian clan is more recognizable, more prominent, and more talked-about than any of America's OG monied families, including the Vanderbilts, the Gettys, and even the Hiltons.

But to fully understand how the socialite of yesteryear evolved to its current Kardashian incarnation, you have to understand where the tradition — and the word — comes from.

Refinery29 © Illustrated by Mallory Heyer. Refinery29

To really get perspective, we have to go back in time to Mona von Bismarck, a prominent figure from the 1920s. Mona began her life in Kentucky, the daughter of a horse breeder. But from those humble roots, she rose ever upward, ultimately becoming the first woman to ever be titled, “The Best Dressed Woman In the World” (yes — this was an actual award) by an international panel of renowned designers. She traversed her way through the ranks of society through marriage — as if rock climbing to the top of a mountain made of a cash, where a socialite's crown waited for her at its peak.

Once she got her crown, she reigned. The new society queen commissioned a painting of herself from none other than Salvador Dali. The portrait was aptly titled “The Kentucky Countess,” a nod to her Southern roots and social status.

Not long after Mona's rise, socialite Barbara Hutton — the “Poor Little Rich Girl” who held an elaborate debutante ball during the height of the depression — came onto the scene. A member of the Woolworth family, Hutton is rumored to have spent nearly all of her billion-dollar inheritance over the course of her lifetime, dying with only a meager amount in the bank. If you've got it, spend it, right?

Refinery29 © Illustrated by Mallory Heyer. Refinery29

A little later down the line, Gloria Vanderbilt made her debut, following a tumultuous childhood abroad. She built her life around the legacy of her famous surname, as the descendant of railroad tycoon Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, and became a fashion icon in the '70s. You might be familiar with her personalized line of blue jeans. By the time people were wearing Gloria's jeans, socialites had morphed into a new iteration: Suddenly, they were "It Girls."

Enter: Edie Sedgwick, the lithe heiress who played muse to Andy Warhol while poking fun at her own all-consuming privilege. Her carefree way of life was a product of her massive wealth and indulgent lifestyle — which also led to her downfall. Proof that money can't fix everything: Sedgwick died of an overdose, at just 28.

By the late-'90s and early-2000s, the socialite scene was once again in full bloom. Paris Hilton ruled the unruly nightlife scene. Tinsley Mortimer suddenly appeared at every charity event in Manhattan. Olivia Palermo briefly entered the reality television sphere as a spoiled mean girl. And then there was Kim. At first she seemed like an unlikely candidate to usher in the next era of socialites, but she started rising through the ranks right under our noses.

Refinery29 © Illustrated by Mallory Heyer. Refinery29

Kim famously got her stiletto heel in the door of high society by being Paris Hilton's assistant and friend. From there, she primped, prodded, and prepared herself for her own reign as a star socialite. Along the way, she passed career and life milestones that incidentally run parallel with socialites past: Like the women before her, she has self-promoted (publishing her book Selfish was no different than Mona commissioning Dali to paint her portrait), publicly loved and lost (Kim's three marriages pale in comparison to Barbara's seven), and made her family name omnipresent across America (the Vanderbilt legacy is simply inescapable). She's even a modern-day muse, much in the same way as Sedgwick — but the artist endlessly fascinated by Kim also happens to be her own husband.

Ye is far from the only person obsessed with documenting Kim; plenty of famous photographers, editors, and designers have taken up that task, too. But there's a case to be made that the person for whom Kim plays muse most is actually herself: She seems to be in constant states of reflection and evolution, unafraid to continue mastering how she wants to be perceived by her followers, fans, and even haters. With Kim, the concept of being a socialite means something different than it did during the 20th century. Now, it's an echelon you can enter via reinvention — not just by family name.

Kim has expanded what it means to be a socialite today by changing the way that our culture thinks about fame and privilege. She may not have had a coming out at a cotillion ball. But she has definitely made her debut.

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