Walking into Kris Jenner's office was as unnatural as it was intimate.
I had been in that room in her house perched in the Hidden Hills, California, gated community dozens of times before. Keeping Up With the Kardashians cameras had provided me entry, alongside millions of viewers in 160 countries. I was familiar with Kris's beloved monochromatic palette and her self-aware desk décor (like her daughter Khloe's framed 2007 DUI mugshot and her "I'm Kind of a Big Deal" nameplate). But it was a surreal experience to actually sit across from the world's most famous momager in a luxurious white Hermès chair surrounded by stacks of magazines — Vogue, Cosmopolitan — featuring her five daughters: the superstar Kim, the supermodel Kendall, the natural-eating mom-of-three Kourtney, the revenge-fit denim designer Khloe, and the millennial cosmetics mogul Kylie.
Staring at Kris's meticulously coiffed head and impeccably dusted face, I was interested in learning more about her story before the cameras had entered her home. I wanted to know how she learned business, marketing, and strategy without stepping foot in a B-school classroom and how her instincts, contacts, and passion to make her children's dreams come true led her to build an empire, an empire that most recently enabled Kim to make $14 million in mere hours with KKW Beauty.
Kris's coming-to-bawseness journey came to fruition when she met Caitlyn Jenner, an Olympic gold medalist and twice-divorced parent of four, in 1990, when she was in the middle of a then-contemptuous divorce from the high-profile lawyer Robert Kardashian. It was during her marriage to Jenner that she sunk her hardworking nails into making her spouse relevant and bankable again for the good of their growing family, which included daughters Kendall and Kylie. In the context of their early years together, Kris refers to her ex by her given name during our conversation.
Below is an edited excerpt from Kris's appearance on my podcast Never Before, on which we retrace her earliest business roots through three of her most intimate and formative relationships — with her first husband, her second spouse, and her second daughter, Kim Kardashian West. Oh, and in case you're curious: Yes, I wiped myself with the black toilet paper in the all-black guest bathroom. It was indulgent and everything my Kardashian-loving self has ever desired.
Janet Mock: What training did you have before managing the Kardashian-Jenner empire? Was it all instinctual from years living in Los Angeles?
Kris Jenner: I married Robert Kardashian when I was 22 years old. Everybody that I was surrounded by for two decades was at the top of their game in the entertainment business: the head of every studio, the best attorneys in the world, the people that were running the most incredible industries.
These people were our friends. We saw them every single weekend in the backyard, playing tennis and barbecuing, but also intimately going on vacations with a lot of these families when I had Kourtney, Kimberly, Khloe, and Robert, and they had their kids. Those relationships are the closest and best of my life. They taught me the most. I didn't even realize it at the time.
I was watching my husband be the biggest kick-ass attorney that I'd ever seen. I was so proud of him doing that. I learned a lot along the way. Then, when I met and married Bruce Jenner, I became his manager instantly because he didn't have a lot going on. I saw this incredible potential, and he wasn't doing anything. Nobody was booking him for speeches. Nobody was sending him out on the road. I thought, Wow. You should be this incredible public speaker. I just figured it out to that point.
JM: What does that figuring out look like? Are you creating press kits and pitching speaking agencies?
KJ: Exactly. I told my assistant, Lisa, "OK, listen. We have the greatest guy here. He really knows his craft. He is really good at what he does, but he doesn't have anybody doing anything for him. He doesn't have a lot going on. He has $200 in the bank. What are we going to do?" Because the kids have to eat. We have to get it together.
JM: Wait, first of all, Kris, how were you able to survive after your first divorce from Robert? I read about the credit cards being frozen and you not having much income because you spent your time raising and building a family.
JM: And you choose a partner who has $200 in the account.
KJ: That's right.
KJ: Well, it didn't look so good on paper.
JM: So was it love?
KJ: Yeah. I fell in love with him, 150 percent. I've always looked at things like, "We're just going to figure this out." I don't stop and think about, What's the plan here? I just went for it. I realized after we got married and I had a limited amount of money, and I said, "We're going to move into this house. We're going to work hard."
He didn't have a business card. He didn't have a bio. He didn't have press, nothing. There was no Internet that I used or knew about. I mean, I had a cell phone the size of a brick and a typewriter and an old-fashioned Rolodex thing on a spindle. I had two big huge ones. I remember thinking: "Lisa, this is what we're going to do. We're going to get every fabulous picture of Bruce Jenner. We're going to do a photo shoot." I had a friend take photos, and I had another woman I know make a sizzle reel that we could use as an intro to his speech.
JM: You were producing already.
KJ: Yes. I think I spent my last dime, I'm not even kidding, making these beautiful, glossy press-kit folders and took every great article that had ever been in Sports Illustrated and any really beautiful magazine and I started making copies. We put together 7,000 press kits, and we mailed them to every speakers' bureau in the United States. Then we sat back, and we waited for the phone to ring.
Little by little, we started booking these speeches for Visa; Coca-Cola started booking him. I remember sitting with Doug Ivester, the head of Coca-Cola, at the Olympics and thinking, Wow, we've really come a long way.
A strong woman doesn't just get there because she woke up one day and she was strong.
JM: Your illumination of how you were a team is powerful, because I feel like oftentimes when there's one person in front who's a star, we overlook the person behind them. My husband buys the groceries, walks the dog, counsels me, helps me run through and make decisions. He does all this work that no one sees. That's so much a part of the investment. When you're in a relationship, you're often not taking a percentage or a cut from that. The benefit is the pride and the joy, and hearing you speak about this for the first time, your relationship makes more sense.
KJ: A strong woman doesn't just get there because she woke up one day and she was strong. Being a strong woman is almost earned. You go through a series of events in your life that make you stronger each time. If you could keep getting up and dusting yourself off, it's very rewarding. I used to go to bed at night and lay down and put my head on the pillow and think, That day was so satisfying. I just got so much joy that I was able to feed my kids and send them to the school they had been going to and be able to get them what they wanted.
It was all about their dreams, but then in the meantime, I had to figure out a way to pay the mortgage and the car payments and all that kind of stuff. It was very scary at first because I realized that I was responsible for these kids. They had their dad Robert and everything, which was great, but they were living most of the time with me, and I had to figure it out, so I did. Thank God. By the grace of God, I did. I just never gave up.
JM: Obviously, you created your own business school just through the friends you had around you. Then there's Kim's emergence and her prominence in culture. What were the initial goals between you and Kim?
KJ: Well, Kim got so much attention in the very beginning for not the greatest reason.
JM: Doing what we all do?
KJ: Yeah, exactly. Just being a silly kid. She had so many things that she wanted to do with her life. We sat down, as we do every year and I do with all of my kids individually, and said, "What is your goal for the year? What are your dreams? How high do you want to set the bar?" Going through a series of questions and really trying to figure out what was realistic and what I could help them accomplish from my end, and then they can take it away and fly.
I think the first thing that Kim wanted to do was do a fragrance. I didn't know that much about social media and the emergence of all of that. She embraced it and sort of handled it like no other. She really knew how to talk to her fans, which was so interesting to me.
JM: Like an immediate, intimate connection.
KJ: She really had a heart for what they thought, how they felt about her. She engaged and really wanted to be a part of that moment. I remember when she said, "I want to do a fragrance." We made that all happen.
My motto in life has always been if somebody says no, you're talking to the wrong person. We, together, figured out fragrance. When it came time for her to choose her bottle in the development stage, she knew the shape of the bottle, but she was stuck on the color. It was going to be a black bottle with a pink trim, and it was either dark pink or light pink. One day she just puts it up on Twitter and says, "Hey, guys. What do you think? This color or that color?"
JM: She's got her focus group right there.
KJ: I said, "You are a genius." She got such an overwhelming reaction in such a positive way. She chose the color that they wanted, and then she would have a contest and send fragrance bottles to their home because they helped her pick the color. I thought that was so remarkable.
That's really the moment that I learned boundaries about when to jump in with my kids and our businesses. Because we work together on all of the things we do, but there's a moment when Mom has to step back. Manager has to be there, but let my daughter/client, in some cases, do her thing and not be too overbearing.
JM: Did you know when you had children that you were going to be a good mom? Were you confident in that?
KJ: Yes. I was. I mean, I didn't know if I was going to be a good mom and I would change the best diaper, but I started off as that was my heart's desire when I was sixteen, was to have six kids. I don't even know where that came from. When I had kids, I took them to Mommy & Me, and I had classes at my house. I was the soccer coach, the Brownie leader, the room mother, and the carpool driver. I volunteered for everything, and I'd be in Brownies going, "What can we do for the craft this week?"
I enjoyed every second of being a mom. To watch my babies have babies has been the most joyful thing in the whole world. The most satisfying way to live life is watching your kids be successful at whatever that means for them. Success isn't always about money. It's about them finding out what they want to do in life and what their passion is and what makes them happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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Janet Mock is the author of Redefining Realness and the new memoir Surpassing Certainty.