How O.J. Simpson Gave Us the Kardashians

Yes, the Kardashians may not be the marquee names they are today were it not for a certain infamous football legend who could be let out on parole today.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The Kardashian universe is a dense web of near-incestuous couplings and odd entanglements. Charting the major and minor celebrities that have been pulled into the Kardashian vortex is, if not a life’s work, at least an afternoon’s. There’s Paris Hilton, the blonde heiress who ruled over early aughts pop culture and graciously took a young Kim Kardashian under her wing. Then there’s Ray J, the rapper who’s far more famous for co-starring in Kim’s sex tape. From there, the Kardashians’ gravitational pull grows stronger, attracting NBA players, C-list rappers, social media supermodels and even Kanye West.

With all of this fame-hungry fraternizing, it’s easy to forget that the Kardashians’ first brush with celebrity was O.J. Simpson. The fact that one of our most infamous celebrity trials, a media circus that captivated TV audiences across the country, launched America’s first family—famous for their ability to create content and keep our collective attention—is almost poetic. Of course, when Robert Kardashian—father of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and Rob—came to his friend O.J. Simpson’s legal defense in 1995, the world had no idea that the Kardashian name would quickly become inescapable.

Now that the Kardashian sisters have pivoted their brands towards clothing, makeup, matrimony, motherhood, revenge bodies and the occasional political tweet, it’s become even more fascinating that this family-friendly empire was built on two separate, lurid scandals: a sex tape and a murder trial. After all, if Robert Kardashian wasn’t such a staple of the O.J. Simpson trial, it’s difficult to imagine his daughters transitioning so successfully into the tabloid world that they now rule over.

The Kardashians’ attempts to steer clear of the tragic death that triggered their celebrity ascent, while understandable, is also a missed opportunity to discuss one of the most interesting things about them. Of course our country’s preeminent celebrities would be the spawn of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney. There’s something so deeply American—crass, opportunistic, and obvious—about it all; not just the fact that such a scandalous trial sparked a new celebrity dynasty, but that the Kardashians somehow managed to both profit off of their unsavory origin story and reinvent themselves entirely.

Robert Kardashian was more than just a lawyer; in 1995, at the height of O.J. Simpson’s infamy, he became something of a household name. On June 13, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered, and O.J. Simpson proceeded to take shelter at Kardashian’s. When Simpson failed to turn himself in to the police on June 17, it was Robert Kardashian who addressed the media, reading a letter that Simpson wrote to hundreds of reporters. Kardashian was a constant presence at the criminal trial, aiding attorneys Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran. At the time of the trial, Kardashian’s ex-wife Kris Jenner—herself a close friend of Nicole Brown Simpson’s—was pregnant with Kendall. Sheila Weller, who interviewed a number of Brown’s confidantes, described Jenner thusly: “Her supposed ambition was to have her own television show.”

While Kris Jenner’s ambition and ability to literally produce celebrities accounts for a good deal of the Kardashians’ success, there’s an argument to be made that they couldn’t have done it without O.J. Robert Kardashian immediately understood that the Simpson case had turned him into an unwitting celebrity. In a Los Angeles Times piece that ran after the trial, Kardashian explained that, “I was totally unprepared for the avalanche of reporters, cameras and gawking members of the public that besieged my home and invaded my life. Overnight, I was the subject of hate letters and phone calls at all hours of the day and night. I was threatened; my children were threatened.” He asked, “Why should reporters and photographers camp outside our homes? Why should the personal life of a private citizen be torn apart just to provide one more meaningless detail to feed the mass hysteria?”

The irony, of course, is that this engine of content creation—not to mention the very notion of mining “reality” for entertainment—eventually became the Kardashians’ bread and butter. While Kardashian condemned the advent of this new level of scrutiny, his ex-wife and daughters saw it as an opportunity, eventually becoming the biggest celebrities in a TV genre that takes its cues directly from the sensationalist coverage of the “Trial of the Century.”

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story writer Larry Karaszewski defended the (arguably distracting) decision to feature the entire Kardashian family in the miniseries. “In terms of the Kardashian empire, we also see one of the themes being the birth of 24-hour media and reality television. Certainly someone like Kato Kaelin or Faye Resnick—these are sort of the seeds of what reality television contains. People who became famous for no particular reason,” he told Time. “To be a young child in the middle of this media circus, of turning on the TV and having your father's initial appearance to the American public be during the Bronco chase where 90 million people were watching. Seeing the effect that had on their lives and their household, you can't help but feel that maybe the germ of the Kardashian empire was planted at that moment. That growing up in this circus allowed them to navigate the circus that is currently happening in their TV show now.”

Of course, the Kardashians haven’t managed to completely sidestep the Simpson conversation, and have even dropped a few sensationalist tidbits about the trial in the decades since. In 2015, Kim recalled the formative experience in Rolling Stone: “It was surreal, with Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro and all these guys having meetings at my dad’s house,” Kardashian explained. “I definitely took my dad’s side [believing in O.J. Simpson’s innocence]. We just always thought my dad was the smartest person in the world, and he really believed in his friend.” She concluded, “It’s weird. I just try not to think about it.”

The popularity of American Crime Story naturally led to more interest in the O.J. trial, and the Kardashians’ role in particular. In an interview on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Khloé Kardashian, who’s battled outlandish rumors that Simpson is her biological father her entire life, took issue with one detail from the miniseries: the scene in which Simpson threatens to commit suicide in Kim Kardashian’s childhood room. Actually, Khloé informed Corden, it was her room. While Kardashian said that, “It’s a phenomenal miniseries,” and that, “I really appreciate the way they've portrayed my father," she added, “They’re kind of sensationalizing the Kardashian name in it, but I think to bring the younger audience in. I’m not upset about it, but there was some scene of the kids chanting ‘Kardashian’ when my dad was reading the potential suicide note. I even called Kim, because I was 10. I’m like, ‘Did that happen? I don’t remember any of this happening? She goes, ‘Absolutely not did that happen!’”

Kim also took issue with the show, but for more superficial reasons, complaining that, “I think our ages were off and our looks were off.”

One of the most interesting recent tidbits came courtesy of a 2016 Kim Kardashian interview. Conspiracy theorists and Simpson-obsessives often mention a Louis Vuitton bag that Robert Kardashian took from Simpson’s house on June 13, 1994—the day the victims’ bodies were discovered. The (conspiracy) theory is that that bag contained the murder weapon. So, naturally curious about her father’s rumored involvement in the high-profile case, Kardashian took it upon herself to investigate. “I know people said at the time that he [joined Simpson’s defense team] so he couldn’t be called as a witness, because he had that Louis Vuitton bag that supposedly had the [murder] weapon and stuff like that,” Kim told GQ. “But that bag was sitting at my dad’s house. I remember I went through it. The news was like, ‘Where is this Louis Vuitton bag?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s upstairs.’” So what was in the bag? “Just toiletries and clothes and golf clothes. Just random stuff. I’m pretty sure it’s, like, still in—probably in my dad’s storage.”

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While Kardashians like Khloé have gone out of their way not to discuss the Simpson verdict, Caitlyn Jenner dropped a bombshell of her own in her new memoir, where she recalls a conversation with Robert Kardashian. According to Jenner, Kardashian revealed around the time of Simpson’s 1998 civil trial that he may have thought his friend was a murderer. “Robert just said to me that ‘I would have been okay if they got him in the first trial.’ That’s the only thing he ever said and that’s about the closest he’ll ever come, never saying he actually did it,” Jenner wrote. She elaborated, “At that time, where the hard part was during the trial is mostly Kourtney and Kimberly because they were a little bit older and their dad, who they love and adore, which they should, is on one side and we’re on the other,” Jenner said. “And so it was more tough on them than it was on us. We pretty much knew. We were just obviously very disappointed with the verdict.”

During an Ellen appearance in 2016, Kris Jenner, the Kardashian family member closest to the trial, revealed that Simpson attempted to call her “right after” the murder. “He called me a few times. He wanted to talk, and explain how he felt…It was painful,” Jenner said. “You know, it was just every single day it was something different and it was really difficult because my ex-husband [Robert Kardashian] was on one side, I was kind of on the other and the kids were stuck in the middle. It was trying to explain this to children and then O.J. had called and everybody lost so much that night. It was you lost everything you knew and I can’t even imagine being her family, her sister, her parents—they were so devastated.”

Meanwhile O.J. Simpson, who reportedly predicted that Keeping Up With the Kardashians would only last “two weeks,”seems to have come around on the show. According to a former prison guard, Simpson “likes to keep up with all the gossip with [the Kardashians].”

The star even has his own TV, which he uses, as so many of us do, to “keep up with the Kardashians.”