The most famous 19-year-old in the world is taking a picture of herself on TV; the screen splits to reveal the resultant Snapchat selfie.
During the next 20 or so minutes, this pattern will be repeated over and over again—selfies on airport tarmacs and abandoned beaches, in glam rooms and with a crew of yapping dogs. For Kylie Jenner, the youngest member of the extended Kardashian family, narcissism is a way of life. Whether she’s Snapchatting in a designer gown or working her impossible angles in an Instagram bikini shoot, Jenner’s whole existence takes place inside a hall of mirrors; competing, simultaneous images of herself captured by the E! network, the omnipresent paparazzi, and her own selfie cam. Like Kim Kardashian before her, Jenner’s social media solipsism is a point of fascination. Depending on who’s behind the laptop writing the think piece, Jenner’s fame can look like objectification or complete bodily autonomy. Either she’s a feminist with a talent for self-promotion, or the unfortunate product of unrealistic beauty standards. Either she’s doing it for herself (isn’t it old-fashioned to insist that Instagram can’t be a source of empowerment?), or she’s doing it for the attention. Alternatively, this is just how Kylie Jenner was raised, and she doesn’t know how to stop.
While the majority of Jenner’s fame comes from her social media influence, the 19-year-old is also a businesswoman. In a decidedly retro approach, Jenner doesn’t just show up at events and spend her life drifting from one free Airbnb to another—she actually creates goods, markets and sells them. Some of these products, like her Kylie Jenner lip kits, have been hugely successful. Others, like her and sister Kendall’s recent controversial line of “vintage tees,” have deeply offended huge swathes of people. Anyone else might have taken a small shame sabbatical from the spotlight after receiving a cease and desist from Biggie’s estate, but not Kylie Jenner. Much like a Kylie Jenner lip kit, which will stay glued to your mouth whether you like it or not, Jenner isn’t going anywhere. On Sunday night, Jenner premiered the first two episodes of her new show, Life of Kylie. Why does Kylie Jenner get a reality show? Because she’s hot, Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ ratings are lagging, and Kendall Jenner is too dull to carry a 30-second confessional, let alone a half-hour episode on her own.
Kylie, whose face seems to resemble her older sister’s more and more every day, is also Kim-like in her inexplicable charisma. She’s a beautiful enigma whose observations and vague aphorisms sizzle with vocal fry. Perhaps deliberately, Jenner doesn’t say too much of anything; but when she does talk in more than one sentence at a time, fans catch a glimpse of something actually resembling self-awareness (and a sense of humor). Sunday night’s Life of Kylie premiere hones in on its protagonist’s fragile mental state. Jenner, who often describes herself as anxious, feels like everyone is always watching her. How do you treat paranoia like that when it isn’t unfounded?
In an effort to differentiate Life of Kylie from their more mature reality TV offerings, E! has layered Snapchat filters and neon lettering over their footage. Revealing Instagrams of Kylie Jenner bounce around the screen, and windows multiply like unwanted pop-ups. E!’s apparent desire to induce at least one seizure every Sunday could also be commentary on Kylie’s frenetic celebrity; the type of fame where your phone is always going off with an Instagram “like,” and everyone wants a picture. Jenner’s life is simultaneously glamorous, fast-paced and frighteningly dull. During an onscreen “therapy session”—her first! —Jenner confesses, “It’s way easier for me to post on Snapchat and Instagram than it is for me to be out in public.” We start to understand why when Jenner and her best friend Jordyn surprise a fan and show up at his Sacramento prom (a classic KUWTK-style hijink). Despite the lack of advance notice, Jenner and her friends are immediately swarmed, and can’t safely stay on the dance floor.
Kylie Jenner is so famous that she can't be around other people. Jordyn is her only close friend and they do everything together, both terrified to let anyone new into their lives out of fear that they’re just chasing fame or followers. Half of Kylie’s soundbites on her namesake show are about things that she loves: makeup (“it’s really my only passion”), her dogs, and more makeup (“the only reason why I keep [my image] up a little bit is Kylie Cosmetics”). The other half are cries for help: “Sometimes I’m like this is it, I’m going insane”; “I felt like I started to depend on social media”; “I think I lost a lot of parts of myself”; “I still feel like the outcast...I can’t relate to a lot of people”; “It’s a lot of people at the airport…it scares me”; “Posting a selfie is hard because it’s a lot of pressure…it has to be perfect.”
Kylie Jenner’s life is—obviously, objectively—incredible. The work that she does to earn her fortune isn’t physically demanding or intellectually strenuous, and even if she retired tomorrow, she’d have more money than the average human being can even fathom. She’s so rich she can’t even invent a convincing obstacle to surmount on her reality TV show—when Jenner and her gang get devastating news that the private jet they’re supposed to take to Sacramento has broken down, they just call and ask for a different private jet. Still, with more than anybody needs, Jenner just wants to be “normal”: “I live the most extraordinary life, and I’m very grateful,” Jenner confides to the camera as the second episode of Life of Kylie comes to a close. “But the moments I feel completely normal and just like a 19-year-old girl—it’s the best.”
It’s hard to feel for a girl whose own social media machinations have made her so famous that she can’t go outside—it’s a niche problem, and not a particularly sympathetic one. But even if you can’t pity or empathize with Kylie Jenner, you can still be fascinated by her,and by this strange reality TV artifact of her fame. No one embodies the beauty and the terror of social media quite like Kylie Jenner, a teenager so omnipresent on her multiple timelines, who means so much to people who will never know her, that she feels her truest self disappearing the more outwardly visible she becomes. Life of Kylie begs the existential question of whether Kylie Jenner is ever allowed to stop being, as she wryly puts it, “Kylie fucking Jenner.”
Sunday night’s Life of Kylie double-header ends with Jordyn and Kylie finally getting to be “normal,” taking a midnight walk on the beach. In sweatpants with her full face of makeup, Jenner tells her best friend, “I just feel like this fame thing is gonna come to an end sooner than we think. I’m getting the bug again. I just wanna run away. I just don’t know who I’m doing it for. I see Kendall and Bella and Hailey, and they’re just out here every day…They’re made for this. Which isn’t a bad thing! They look so good every day…That’s not me. I don’t want my picture taken, I don’t want people to see what outfit I’m wearing.” The conversation goes on like this for a little while—they both pledge to focus on what really matters to them, to try and block everything else out and “just live.” Then Kylie takes out her camera to capture the moment.