Kim Kardashian West is more than cosmetics and naked selfies, whether you like it or not Advertisement

Kim Kardashian West is more than cosmetics and naked selfies, whether you like it or not

West now folds in activism to her narrative

By R.Eric Thomas  June 11th, 2018

Last Wednesday, the White House announced that President Trump will grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who has served 21 years of a life sentence for a non-violent drug offence. Though Johnson’s case first gained national attention when she petitioned President Obama for a pardon in 2016, it appears that the event that most dramatically affected her fate was a meeting between President Trump, Kim Kardashian West, and Jared Kushner in the Oval Office a week ago. The pardon was out of character for Trump, who has previously pardoned men like Dinesh D’Souza, Scooter Libby, and the former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court, has been repeatedly accused of racist abuse of prisoners, and is believed to have started the nation’s first female chain gang. While the White House has not elaborated on what, specifically, convinced the president to grant Johnson’s pardon, it’s clear that this event marks a dramatic shift in the very public life of Kim Kardashian West.

It’s all happened very quickly. West came across Johnson’s story in October through a video filmed by Mic and was compelled to put her influence behind the case.


According to West, she has been paying Johnson’s legal fees, hired her personal lawyer, Shawn Chapman, to oversee the case, and lobbied Kushner and the White House for an in-person meeting for months. Updates on Johnson’s request dot West’s social media timeline, interspersed with information about her KKW Beauty product line and a very public spat with Rhymefest, who runs the non-profit formerly named after Kanye West’s mother, Donda.



It’s too facile to say that Kim Kardashian West doesn’t quite fit the mold of someone who would have influence on a president. Celebrities of all stripes have leveraged their fame and reach to deliver messages to the White House for years; President Obama was known to maintain relationships with many famous people, including Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney. West, however, stands out as someone who hasn’t shifted her image in service of her social justice work. Her campaign for Alice Marie Johnson sits alongside her make-up line; they’re given equivalent weight.

West, who rose to fame through notoriety and expanded her reach on her family’s long-running reality show, now folds in activism to her narrative, not as a re-brand but as a new chapter. It’s a heartening development in an age that has seen the polar opposite of that journey in the rise of Donald Trump. So, perhaps their meeting was both inevitable and the only possible way that Johnson could have gotten through to him.

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No matter what one thinks of President Trump or Kim Kardashian West, this development is remarkable. It’s also undoubtedly strategic. There’s been speculation that Trump agreed to take the meeting because he believes the optics would increase his standing among Black voters. After meeting with West’s husband, Kanye, Trump boasted “Kanye West must have some power because you probably saw I doubled my African-American poll numbers.” He was referring to a Reuters poll that was interpreted by the Daily Caller as showing a shift in approval among African-American males from 11% to 22% in one week. The poll size was 200 people who voluntarily opted in, rather than a random sampling, so the conclusions drawn by the Daily Caller and the president aren’t as unequivocal as they might seem. Per Reuters, the president’s approval rating among all African-Americans currently sits at 13.4%, from a sample size of 340. The president seems to view an endorsement from a celebrity as more important than actually committing to any sort of prison reform, or even specifically looking at the plight of imprisoned women of colour beyond Johnson. It’s telling but it is not surprising. And it’s too early yet to determine whether this particular pardon by Trump will have any effect on his long-term standing at all.

But the person who stands to benefit the most from the pardoning of Alice Marie Johnson — beyond Johnson herself — is not the president, but the celebrity who, by all appearances, had little to gain at the outset. West frames her interest in Johnson as altruistic, random even. “To go and spend my money buying material things doesn’t satisfy me the way it used to,” she told Mic. “I thought, well, if I could put the money into a shopping spree… to save someone’s life and do it once a year, that would make my heart fuller.” But many in the media took her to task for everything from agreeing to meeting Trump in the first place to unjustly assuming the mantle of a social justice warrior. The New York Post even went so far as to headline the meeting with sexist digs.


The common denominator in all the backlash launched at West seems to be an ungenerous interpretation of her motives. What the backlash lacks, however, is evidence.

West met with Trump and Kushner in the wake of her husband Kanye’s disastrous show of public support for the president and his strange claims, on TMZ, that slavery was a choice. If her objective was some sort of crisis management or image rehabilitation, Trump would be the last person she’d want to be seen with, let alone photographed with. The president has a history of proving damaging to even far-right candidates for office, like Roy Moore, so for West, aligning herself with him, especially after Kanye’s antics, could have proved utterly ruinous.

Indeed, Kanye gives some small insight into the stakes the couple faced on the song “Wouldn’t Leave” from his most recent release Ye. “My wife callin’, screamin’, say we ’bout to lose it all,” he raps. “Had to calm her down ’cause she couldn’t breathe/ Told her she could leave me now, but she wouldn’t leave.” The lyric adds a dramatic color to the statement West released in April at the height of Kanye’s MAGA-related backlash.


As a celebrity who champions social justice and liberal causes, West’s laissez-faire approach to her husband’s most recent actions present a perplexing wrinkle. West defends Kanye’s right to express himself while refusing to explain or apologise for anything that he’s done. It’s not neutrality; she makes her stances and allegiances clear. Instead, it’s diplomatic.

We will probably never know whether this diplomatic skill was brought to bear on the president and Jared Kushner, an advisor who at one time was expected to have the kind of tempering influence over Trump that none but celebrities seem to. West told Mic that Trump “really understood” her concerns, but Bloomberg reported that Trump was preoccupied with his standing among African-American voters and that the request “didn’t get much immediate traction.

After Wednesday’s move by the White House, both those reports may still have truth in them, but the predominant narrative now belongs to Kim Kardashian West. It’s a powerful position in which to be during a time when the truth doesn’t matter so much as who has the most irresistible story. West has said that her story will continue to involve advocating for prison reform. After showing that she not only has the social media capital to incorporate activism into an already quite full brand, but that she has the political capital to make requests of the president, her next chapter may be her most complex, and compelling, yet. We’d be foolish to turn away.