On Tuesday morning, Forbes magazine crowned Kylie Jenner the youngest-ever self-made billionaire — at 21, she is two years younger than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when he achieved that valuation.
The next day, Ms Jenner was back to work in Los Angeles, talking to her 128m Instagram followers. Wearing a spaghetti-strapped black dress, make-up clownishly streaked across her cheeks, she stood in a dark empty mansion as she made her announcement: “But I wanted to remind you guys that my powders launch on Thursday”. She proceeded to post 21 “stories”, 15-second videos, to Instagram, promoting her latest lip glosses, painting each shade on her own famous lips.
For Ms Jenner, these tedious minutes have spawned hundreds of millions in sales. In three years, she has built a billion-dollar company with nearly zero traditional marketing.
The youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner family has been on camera since aged nine as part of the hit reality television show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. But while her domineering siblings provided weekly drama, as the young Kylie grew she withdrew, appearing on the show sporadically.
Then social media took off. Never comfortable on television, Ms Jenner struck gold on Snapchat, where she found her audience: teenage girls. She became a “Generation Z” star, relentlessly posting stray thoughts and daily tribulations in short, unorchestrated videos. She became so closely associated with Snapchat that when she casually tweeted about her declining use of the app, the shares lost $1.3bn in value.
In the online world, Kylie has become the Kardashian clan’s chief moneymaker. As the reality show enters its 16th season, ratings have slid, but Ms Jenner’s clout and her make-up brand have grown. She is now worth three times her older sister Kim, Forbes said.
Using a celebrity’s face to tout a product is not new. But marketing experts say Kylie herself is the product. “She did this with cosmetics, but it could have been anything. It could have been cupcakes, or sneakers or hair-ties,” says Jeremy Paul, managing partner of RLP Advisers, a wealth manager that works with professional athletes and entertainers. Her platform gave her “unprecedented” opportunities to sell, he adds.
Kylie Cosmetics, which started selling a small range of lipsticks and lipliners in 2015, reportedly made sales worth $360m last year. Forbes values the company, for which Ms Jenner is chief executive officer, chief marketing officer and chief content officer, at $900m. Bankers say the multiple is fair compared to similar hyped brands.
Adding in the money Ms Jenner has made from endorsements and her cut from the television show, Forbes pronounced her a “self-made” billionaire. While few dispute her wealth, the label provoked debate; someone born into a rich and famous family is no bootstrapper, as critics were keen to point out. Others mocked Ms Jenner for being in the same category as Bill Gates.
Aware of the naysayers, she said last year: “People don’t take me seriously as a businesswoman because of my age and my reputation. But I feel like they’re starting to. I like to prove people wrong”.
By her account, the make-up empire was built on adolescent insecurity about her own looks. At 16-years-old, she invested cash she made from modelling in a cosmetics line, which sold out within minutes. Her enterprising mother Kris Jenner, who collects a 10 per cent fee to manage her children’s careers, spotted the opportunity to capitalise on Kylie’s stardom and arranged deals with suppliers and distributors.
“Kris Jenner is a marketing genius who is also really savvy when it comes to how to monetise her assets, which is essentially her family,” says Moj Mahdara, chief executive of the Beautycon convention.
Kylie Cosmetics runs a skeletal operation with only seven full-time employees. Ms Jenner works out of a second home she bought in Calabasas, close to her family in the LA suburbs. The nitty gritty of product manufacturing, logistics and sales are all outsourced, while her mother handles finances and publicity. The vast majority of marketing remains social media posts.
Ms Jenner, who declined to comment for this article, has said she wants to run Kylie Cosmetics “forever”.
But analysts caution that the risk of being your own brand is that it may compromise longevity. “The difference between this and a traditional brand is the image is the person,” says Simeon Siegel, senior analyst for Nomura. “What if consumers decide they don’t love that person any more?”
Last year, Ms Jenner took a rare break from the spotlight to have a baby. Despite her social media output, she still doesn’t give much away. In 2017 she launched her own reality show, Life of Kylie, billed as offering more personal glimpses.
She spends the 22-minute episodes, which a reviewer described as “mostly very, very sad”, detailing her disguises. It is easier for her to go on Instagram than to walk outside, she explains, and she hates being followed by paparazzi because “it reminds me that I’m Kylie f***ing Jenner”.
In one particularly dramatic scene, she went for a late night walk on the beach with her best friend. “This fame thing is gonna come to an end sooner than we think . . . the only reason why I keep it up a little bit is Kylie Cosmetics,” she said solemnly. Then she took out her phone to snap a selfie.
The writer is US media correspondent
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