After a few months out of the spotlight following a robbery and attack in Paris, Kim Kardashian has returned to the social media spotlight, but there have been a few changes. Gone is the focus on selfies (a trademark of hers she even compiled into a coffee table book) and in its place are low-key family-focused photos, more discussion of charity and politics, and a newly announced book club. Kardashian will join forces with her friends, model Chrissy Teigen and hairdresser Jen Atkin, to discuss one of her favourite books, Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie.
This spiritual account of the author’s near death experience and her argument for the existence of life after death has been raved about on Kardashian’s Twitter for a while now, with her sister Kourtney noting that she’s been a fan of it for 15 years now. While the usual crowds will roll their eyes, this new development reveals much about Kardashian’s changing celebrity status, and the ways in which the celebrity endorsed book club can foster crucial relationships with their fans.
Kardashian joins a long line of celebrities creating book clubs to share their favourite reads with the fans that hold onto their every word. Oprah’s Book Club changed the way everyday Americans read, and was credited with millions of extra book sales. Recently, Emma Watson started a feminist book club on Goodreads called Our Shared Shelf, while YouTube celebrity Zoe “Zoella” Sugg’s WH Smith partnered book club has driven some sales to new heights.
Each of these clubs acts as an extension of that star’s cemented public image: Oprah as community leader and agony aunt; Watson as mainstream feminist activist; Zoella as teen idol. Where Kardashian differs is in how her book choice seems so at odds with the image she has spent over a decade crafting and making millions from. The Kardashian image is part perfection, part tell-all gossip. The social media façade is of engineered flawlessness, but the reality TV show claims to show the drama and scandal behind it. Never mind that the latter is partly-scripted and produced for the optimum level of viewer excitement; the illusion is still there. The family have written books – or at least put their names to them – in various genres, which sold respectably, but those all relied on an attachment to the family and the image of glitz and glamour.
That seems to be changing with Kardashian now. Her shared photographs are grimier, muddled through filters that evoke Polaroids or vintage photography; she’s discussing her times with various charities and RT-ing GoFundMe pages for those in need; the glamour is still there but the presentation is muted. It’s not quite “playing poor” as some have accused her of – you can’t really do that with photos on dune-buggies in Dubai – but there is a concerted effort to downplay her previously on-display wealth, which is understandable given what happened to her in Paris. It’s not about Kim – it’s about those around her.
This is where the book club becomes so fascinating. The expected choice for a Kardashian book club probably would have been something in the vein of her glamorous life: A beauty book, or Jackie Collins style beach read, or celebrity autobiography (her mother discussed reading Tippi Hedren’s memoirs on Instagram). Instead, she has chosen a book about faith and God, the kind of stuff seen in Christian bookshops or adapted into Kirk Cameron movies. To say it is unexpected wouldn’t be entirely true (the family have talked about their faith extensively and Kardashian and Kanye West had their daughter baptized in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem), but it is a step in a new direction for Kardashian’s public image.
Focusing on faith may put Kardashian in a new light for many who viewed her and her family as the embodiment of liberal elitism and West Coast privilege. After a social media hiatus and the subsequent image change, it’s clear that her intended focus is now more publicly cerebral than before. This, the book club says, is a woman of thought and substance, not just the sex symbol and reality TV star. She’s open to her fans, with limitations, and wants to introduce them to something that has evidently had a big effect on her life. These books aren’t critical darlings but they’re huge best-sellers, thus adding an element of relatability to a star whose image previously thrived on being untouchable.
The author Betty Eadie has been happy to spread the word of this “new” Kim, proclaiming, “There is more to Kim Kardashian West then meets the eye. I found during our talk that she is tender, intelligent, appreciative and more.” It’s an old narrative – the glowing starlet who re-evaluates her life to focus on spirituality and making a difference – but given Kardashian’s previous openness about her political leanings and charity work, it’s a more natural extension of her image than many realise.
It will be intriguing to see if Kardashian’s endorsement has an impact on sales of Embraced by the Light, and if her subsequent book club choices follow this new path of public image she’s carving out for herself. She kicks off proceedings on Monday on her app. Whatever the case, if you thought Taylor Swift was good at controlling her branding, Kardashian continues to leave everyone else in the dust.