"You are doing amazing, sweetie": How a reality TV star is working for prison reform

Kim Kardashian West can now add legal advocate and political activist to her many pop culture credentials.


Anna Steinmeier is an #FESFellow 2020 who is interested in political communication and digital culture. She hosts the podcast "Politainment for Change". A series of blog posts based on her podcast will appear here on the FES DC blog.

This is the third blog, based on the first episode of the podcast. 

Fit Tea Ads, Facetune Filters or Fights on TV: When it comes to the Kardashian family, people have a lot of opinions. Everything from marriages and break-ups to the birth of their kids has been documented on their reality show and social media. Whether they are considered reality TV trash or America’s royal family, the Kardashians have created an impact on pop culture – and politics. One member of the family in particular has pushed hard in recent years to reform the U.S. prison system and give former inmates a second chance. Kim Kardashian West can now add legal advocate and political activist to her many pop culture credentials.

In order to understand Kim Kardashian West’s cultural impact and transition into political matters, it is important to understand the history of her cultural success and the success of her family. The Kardashian-Jenner family -  the offspring of Kris Jenner, the mom-manager and mastermind behind the family’s success, as well as former and actual spouses and children – comes to more than 30 people. Their network of social connections and romantic relations are a topic for another conversation - the main focus of this episode will be on the political action of the second oldest daughter.

Kimberly Noel Kardashian West - who recently turned 40 years old – has made a name for herself in the last decade in tabloids, on reality TV, and sharing nude photos of herself on social media. While keeping her 190 Million followers on Instagram updated of all her businesses and products – including a shapewear line, fragrance line, make-up line and a game for mobile devices – filming the last two seasons in the 10-year run of the family reality TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, being married to rapper Kanye West and raising four children, Kim Kardashian West has become active in the last 5 years in reforming the American justice system.


A Brief Kardashian political introduction

Many believe Kim Kardashian West became famous with the start of her family’s reality show in 2008, and from hanging out with Paris Hilton, the “it-girl” of the moment and heiress of the Hilton hotel chain. But long before any of this, the name Kardashian made national headlines in 1994.

Robert Kardashian Senior, a former lawyer turned businessman and father of then 14 year-old Kim, reactivated his legal license to help defend his friend in a criminal case that was turning out to be a legal and media sensation: The People of the State of California versus O J Simpson. The political and pop cultural impact of this court case – combining murder, racial politics, celebrity, and a media extravaganza – could also be a separate discussion, so we’ll keep the focus here on more current events instead of history. The court case is worth mentioning in order to understand the possible motives behind Kim Kardashian West’s recent interest in criminal law.

While today some of the family members are outspoken supporters of either the Democratic Party or Republican Party, many also remain completely silent on any political matters. Politics have until recently only been a tiny matter in Kim Kardashian West’s public persona. With Armenian roots from her father’s side of the family, she tried to raise awareness in 2016 about the Armenian Genocide in an advertisement placed in the Wall Street Journal . In 2019, she met with the Armenian President and stated her support for Armenia in the current conflict with Azerbaijan. 

Regarding American politics, she supported Barack Obama’s second run for office by attending the White House Correspondents Dinner and the Democratic National Convention – even missing a big part of the 2012 Paris Fashion week  to be there. In 2016, she and her husband Kanye West took selfies with Hilary Clinton and voiced their support for the Democratic candidate online.

In 2020, however, her political alliances were not entirely clear. While her husband Kanye West ran for president himself, many members of her family declared their support for him despite his non-existent chances of winning by wearing his merchandise. Kim herself has been silent on the matter.

But it is not unusual for a public figure to speak their political mind outside of Presidential election years. Even the topic of prison reform has been a bipartisan topic pushed by many celebrities. As she had nothing to gain professionally by becoming a political activist, what changed Kim Kardashian West’s mind from promoting weight loss teas online to wanting to become a lawyer and changing the prison system?


The incident that changed her life

During Fashion Week 2016 in Paris, Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint. After the incident she stayed off social media for several months and claims that she completely reevaluated her life and what matters to her.

The other event that convinced Kim Kardashian West appeared to live this shift in values when she became active in criminal justice by getting involved in October 2017 with a twitter campaign about Alice Johnson, an American woman who served a life sentence without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.

After contacting her lawyers, Kim Kardashian West also contacted someone else she knew from shared social circles: Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump’s oldest daughter and Advisor to the President. Ivanka connected Kim Kardashian West to Jared Kushner, her husband, and Senior Advisor to Ivanka’s father in the White House. 

Kardashian West and President Donald J. Trump first met in May, 2018. Alice Johnson was granted clemency in June 2018 after 21 years in prison. Johnson was not pardoned, but was able to leave the prison at age 64 instead of serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offence.

Her unusual gained a lot of attention even before Kardashian West became involved. Receiving clemency was highly unlikely, as less than 6 percent of petitions for commutations of sentences are granted. In addition, her request for clemency had been previously denied by the Obama administration. President Trump himself has granted clemency to 11 inmates since taking office.

Since 2018, Kardashian West has helped argue for the release of 17 inmates at the state and federal levels in less than 90 days in 2019; lobbied to get the “FIRST STEP Act” passed in December 2019; promoted the hiring of former inmates at a White House event; and is currently studying to become a lawyer herself – she plans to  take the Bar exam in 2022.

This work is narrativized in her self-produced documentary “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project” and her reality show. She keeps her followers on Instagram and Twitter in the loop about different criminal justice cases and her newest ventures like perfumes and shapewear. One of the models of her newest shapewear collection is – Alice Johnson. The woman Kim Kardashian West lobbied for in the White House.

Is this a political and pop cultural success story that can be expanded for greater effect in the United States, or are there other factors at play?


The celebrity factor

While success like the “FIRST STEP Act” – which helps former inmates find jobs – and Kardashian West’s lobbying efforts are undeniable, the justice system itself has been put under intense strain in recent years: the revenue of private prisons has skyrocketed since Trump took office, and their industry backed his reelection – politically and financially. Since president Trump took office, the federal death penalty has been reinstated for the first time in nearly twenty years. Between July and October 2020, 7 people have been executed by the federal death penalty. While Kardashian West can get justice for some, the overall system still remains deeply flawed.

Furthermore, while her celebrity status might bring attention the issue, the actual legal work is carried out by lawyers and NGOs like #CUT50. Most of the individual causes Kardashian West has been taking on since Alice Johnson include other famous causes including Cyntoia Brown, Meek Mill, and A$AP Rocky  - where she urged the President to take diplomatic actions to free the rapper, who was found guilty of assault in Sweden. Even though Kardashian West is currently undertaking an apprenticeship program that requires 18 hours of legal work each week to be able to become a lawyer without going to college, many people still doubt her talent or expertise for actually practicing law and several have criticized that her voice as a celebrity matters more to the president then the voices of former inmates and long-time advocates.

While this is not the only example that shows that the way political advocacy has been done for decades is changing, the 2016 election of Trump as well as his campaign leading up to it has shown how much entertainment has become political – and politics have become entertainment. The fact that Kardashian West could more or less walk into the Oval Office and demand a convicted prisoner to be granted clemency while documenting it all on her social media platforms should be a wake-up call for democracy. Even with her apparent desire to make peoples’ lives better, Kardashian West should not have more agency due to her celebrity status than any other citizen to decide who should be granted clemency. What happens to the people does not find worthy of her time, money, and team of lawyers? The political power of celebrity is disproportionate for a single person, and has been even questioned in the hands of the former reality TV star president who was duly elected by the people to take on the responsibility of the executive office. 

While many may not have the resources Kim Kardashian West currently has, there was a point in her life she also did not have them. She rose to fame through entertainment and now changes laws and lives. This shows two things: On one hand, you shouldn’t underestimate the political power of pop culture and 190 Million social media followers; on the other hand, that with the right cause, even a person just famous for being famous can create political change.

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