Kourtney Kardashian has pulled down her pants and is showing me her underwear. Not her underwear exactly, but the underwear she is currently wearing, which normally houses the groin of her fiancé, Travis Barker. “They’re Balenciaga,” she says through an enormous smile, showing off the black cotton.
In the Beverly Hills pool house where we’re talking, I had asked Kardashian to help me identify the components of her outfit and been told — with the appropriately self-satisfied aura you’ve seen on the Mona Lisa and Kardashian’s sister Kim — that she was wearing head-to-toe Barker. Kardashian had been at his house this morning, and, when she needed to go home to get changed before her photo shoot, Barker begged her to stay. Fine, Kardashian said, delivering a cutie-brat challenge: “You need to dress me.” So Barker adorned her in his skater socks and sweatpants and a vintage T that says, “My mom’s going to kill me when she sees this tattoo.” Barker is 5-foot-9 and Kardashian is a teeny 5 feet, but the clothes don’t look too big; like Kardashian’s astonishingly large engagement ring and current level of public attention, they suit her.
Though I’ve seen the besotted couple making out across media platforms and international borders many times over the last few months, it’s jarring to experience Kardashian’s new, more open energy in person. This is not the dour-faced, monotoned Kardashian we’d seen flatly reject emotion over 20 seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, dismissing her sisters’ piques with a dry, “Kim, there’s people that are dying.” It’s not the woman we watched attempt to have a relationship with her former partner Scott Disick, then detach during his many self-destructions, and eventually settle for co-parenting, an arc that served as KUWTK’s dramatic core for many years, and, in Kardashian’s estimation, may have contributed to the end of the romantic partnership.
“Shooting our show, it became a really toxic environment at the end for me,” Kardashian says. “I would fight with my sisters. There was, like, just a lot going on. And even for me personally, I wasn’t in the happiest place.” Kardashian became mired in a familial role — the reluctant one — which was amplified by its necessity to the show’s dynamics and the editing that helped audiences understand them. “I felt like I was being almost a character,” she says. “‘This is Kourtney, and she’s in a bad mood, so even though she was laughing really at lunch, we’re going to cut out the laughing and let’s only use the annoying comment that she said.’”
This created a cycle: Kardashian’s real-life issues were being used as fodder on the reality show, which made her feel worse in actual reality. Eventually, she embarked on a Truman Show-esque journey: a television character trying to escape their show by evading cameras and co-stars in an attempt to have an undocumented place to hide. This, of course, became a plot on the series, in which Kardashian was accused by her sisters of not contributing to the Kardashian family business of televised revelation even though, in the words of Kim’s tweet, “She sure wanna live that Kardashian life.”
Kardashian would will herself to enjoy the job that had given her so much. “I would give myself a pep talk before walking in,” she says. “Like, say we were shooting at Khloé’s house. I’d be like, ‘It’s going to be a good day. Let’s have a good mood. Let’s put a smile on our face.’” If you are familiar with the many GIFs of Kardashian available on the Internet, you can probably guess this didn’t work.
Now, right before the April 14 debut of the new iteration of the Kardashians’ reality empire on Hulu, Kardashian says she doesn’t have to trick herself into self-exposure through false words of affirmation. She has an apparently wonderful relationship, three shockingly well-adjusted children, and a growing lifestyle brand, Poosh. She looks stunning, as smooth and dewy as if she were being Facetuned in real-time. She is getting along with her family as they shoot the new series; “There’s no one I’d rather spend time with than my sisters,” she says with evident sincerity. Kardashian just exudes good vibes, to the point where two highish-strung Dobermans who have been brought in for the shoot visibly relax as she calmly squats between them. She shows me her underwear not for the customary Kardashian reason of selling something, but as an impromptu expression of joy from a woman who is in a genuinely good place and wants to share it.
Kardashian is aware it’s going to take us a minute to adjust to her new positivity. “It’s so funny because there was a little tease for our new show,” she says. “And I saw people in the comments like, ‘Kourtney is already over the show. She looks miserable.’” Kardashian laughs. (Have I heard her laugh before, in the 15 years I’ve been watching her?) “I just find it funny,” she says. “Workwise, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
At 42, Kardashian is the eldest daughter of Kris Jenner and the late Robert Kardashian — and, since she became an adult while still a civilian, the second generation Kardashian-Jenner with the most experience not being famous. When Kardashian noticed that interviewers kept asking her what she eats, she concluded that her own lifestyle brand could better distribute and monetize that information, as well as fulfill a need for a project that existed without her sisters and mother. “It was really important to me when I started Poosh that it was something that I was doing for myself,” Kardashian says. “That it didn’t involve my mom.”
Poosh is run in part by Kardashian’s high school friends, chief content officer Sarah Howard and VP of ad sales Samantha Hyatt, and delivers chatty, informative stories on health, wellness, sex, relationships, and the contents of various Kardashian fridges. There are dishy dispatches from Kardashian affiliates and a shop that sells sex toys and a very thorough Ayurvedic tongue scraper. While Kardashian admits her own life may seem “unreachable” for most, the target reader, she says, is someone newly “adulting;” someone who, like Kardashian after graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in costume design, isn’t quite sure what they would do with their life. Kardashian’s father, a music industry executive and attorney who was part of the defense team for O.J. Simpson’s double homicide trial, told Kardashian, “I’ll pay for you for four more years if you go to law school.” Kardashian says she thought, “Hmm, that sounds good. What else am I going to do?” She took the LSAT and applied but never wound up enrolling. Following the success of ur-“rich kids muck horse stalls and interact with plebes” series The Simple Life, Kardashian became the first sibling to star on a reality television show when she appeared on the 2005 reality show Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive.
Despite this literal trailblazing, Kris tells me, “When I made the deal with Ryan Seacrest and E! to do Keeping Up With the Kardashians [in 2007], she was probably the only one who had a bit of hesitation. Kourtney said, ‘Wait a second? Do I want to jump in?’” Kardashian says of her reluctance, “I actually feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. It just makes me nervous.”
Kardashian relented. But the uncertainty, coupled with the lack of any obvious alternative, were the first steps down the monochromatic pathway to the familial conflicts that would play out more than a decade later, when her workaholic family would accuse her of not pulling her weight and of lacking ambition and purpose. “At the end of the day, she wanted to be a team player, and she wanted to be supportive of everything that the whole family wanted to do, and she wanted to do it,” Kris says of Kardashian’s esprit de corps. “She had had a taste of reality television, and she knew what she was getting herself in, to some extent, and then thought, ‘Hey, it couldn’t be that bad if I’m going to do this show with my entire family.’”
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The phrase “to some extent” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. Even in Jenner’s most enterprising dreams, she couldn’t have anticipated how massive the show would get. Keeping Up With the Kardashians started out as something like a social experiment to see if a series about a family striving to become famous could yield true fame. It became a granular real-time post-mortem of the gossip (to us; to the Kardashians, “life”) millions of us had been reading about its celebrity stars in tabloids months before episodes aired. Kardashian seemed to find control in the chaos by saying no — to Disick’s marriage proposals, to the wrong private plane when they flew to the Dominican Republic during a family trip, to candy that Kardashian felt wasn’t healthy enough for a child’s birthday party. But Kardashian says she wasn’t rejecting choices; she was avoiding making them at all. “I just used to be really indecisive,” Kardashian says. “I felt like I had to poll a lot of people to help me decide things. ... I think it was in a time when I maybe felt more insecure or not in the greatest relationships.” In the meantime, she and Khloé could always “gang up” on Kim, she says, because, as the center square of the family, Kim could handle it. “I was used to always being a bitch and having no feelings,” she says.
But by the end of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kardashian had begun what she calls “a therapy journey.” She says, “It made me really sensitive. And normally I’d have a really good comeback [to insults], like, ‘Well, you’re covered in cellulite.’ But then I would be like, ‘I have nothing mean to say. I’m not a bitch anymore, and I just have feelings; like, an abundance of them.’” Kardashian was disarmed, left without her shield of disaffection or the unfortunate weapon of calling her sisters fat. “I would just start crying all the time,” she says.
At the same time, Kardashian was working to set boundaries. She wanted to set aside time to work out every day. Kim and Khloé accused her of refusing to show a nascent relationship onscreen. Filming everything, Kardashian says, “was affecting my happiness. So I was like, ‘What’s more important to everyone? Our happiness or sharing something that isn’t going to make me happy?’”
A détente was reached, but the show ended. For the first time in 14 years, the family got a rest from performing their relationships. They had an entire year to just be a family, without arguing over the terms of who would show what. Instead of the glossy closed circuit of rehashed resentments, the Kardashians were able to live their lives and bring back those experiences — and new cast members like Barker — to the upcoming Hulu show. “Having the break shifted the mindset with my sisters,” Kardashian says. “When you’re doing that [show] every single day, you don’t have the space to take a break and be like, ‘Wait, we actually love each other.’”
Even the nonfamous choose how and how much we present ourselves to the world; the better life is going, the more eager we are to share it. Talking about her sudden tendency to divulge, Kardashian sounds less like a TV personality reacting to market research and more like your proud and glowing friend who just got a dog or a new apartment and can’t stop posting TikTok videos about it. “I feel like I have things to show,” Kardashian says proudly.
That might include her kids wearing matching pajamas or stopping to get pizza at Disneyland. That’s normal, just like it’s normal to want to eat dinner with your family and say your prayers every night and drink tea with your fiancé. When Kardashian got COVID in July, she watched Mare of Easttown, which was normal, and when she watched horny period drama Bridgerton, she felt like it was overhyped, which is normal, too. But when you’re a Kardashian, being normal is abnormal.
“We’re probably all just a little too hard on Kourtney, to be honest,” Kris says of her extraordinary family. “I think that we had to realize that not everyone is going to have that thing that kick-starts every morning at 5 a.m. and runs until you fall down at the end of the day. And that’s me, that’s Khloé, that’s Kim, that’s Kylie, that’s Kendall. And I think maybe we just expected to drag Kourtney right there along with us, whether she liked it or not, kicking and screaming. And she just had to say, ‘Look, I want to set some boundaries. I have one life and I’d like to live it the way I want to live it.’ I think that’s much healthier for her to have more of a normal lifestyle.” It’s not just healthier for Kardashian. Her basic domesticity, which seems so foreign next to her always grinding family, brings a different version of the hominess that got lost when the show moved from its original cozy mansion set, which featured sinks with wet sponges and upholstered furniture overflowing with Kardashians, to the outsize glass boxes where they picked at salads and each other.
“People are always using my quote where I say, ‘Working is not my top priority; it never will be,’” Kardashian says. “And it’s kind of true. Like, I want to work to the place where I’m happy. Right now, I’m actually working more than I have [on Poosh].” Which means there will be more Poosh scenes on the new Kardashians when it premieres, and more of the content from Kardashian’s life that inspires some Poosh posts. (One recent example: an Ayurvedic cleanse that included a sex fast. “Oh my God, it was crazy,” Kardashian says of briefly forgoing orgasms. “But it actually it made everything better. Like, if you can’t have caffeine, when you have your first matcha, it’s so good.”)
Poosh was meant to help people asking themselves, “What am I supposed to do? Who, like, am I?” Kardashian isn’t the target for all of Poosh’s wisdom — when I ask her about a post suggesting people save money on gas by taking stuff out of their car trunks, she laughs and says, “Oh, my God, I’ve never even heard of that.” But creating and overseeing Poosh seems to be an answer to Kardashian’s own existential question. As for Kardashian’s other existential question — “How much of my life do I want to make public?” — “I think probably everyone's kind of on the same page now and actually agrees with me,” Kardashian says.
“Everybody has their own boundaries,” says Kris of the negotiations about how the new series will be different from KUWTK. “And I think that the discussion was we just have to learn how to respect those boundaries. If Kourtney doesn’t want to share certain things, instead of everybody getting annoyed by that or upset by that, you know, it’s just really about accepting what works for everybody.” Kris says, “At some point you have to kind of make a decision about how you’re going to spend your time and how you’re going to balance. I think that Kourtney’s really found that balance that she has craved for so long. And she’s been happy. You can see it on her face and in the way she is and her laughter.”
Even Kim, the ultimate barer of soul and body, has come around to something like the work-life balance Kardashian proposed several years ago. In her recent Vogue cover story about how she’s recalibrating following a singularly difficult breakup, Kim said, “I’ve chosen myself. I think it’s OK to choose you. My 40s are about being Team Me. I’m going to eat well. I’m going to work out. I’m going to have more fun, spend more time with my kids and the people who make me happy.”
In Beverly Hills, the charter member of Team Me looks up through her thick lashes and laughs, opening her silver-nailed fingers heavenward. “I am a leader,” she says, giggling through her droll Calabasas drawl. “I lead the way.”
Top Image Credits: Markoo bra top, Talent’s own bra and necklace, On right hand: Faris rings, On left hand: Talent’s own ring
Photographer: Daniella Midenge
Stylist: Tiffany Reid with Dani Michelle
Hair: Peter Savic
Makeup: Rokael Lizama
Manicure: Kim Truong
Set Designer: Enoch Choi
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Sam Miron