It promises to be the celebrity separation of the year, unfolding in a dizzying hybrid of IRL (In Real Life) and virtual spheres.
The epic split between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, with its generous cast of plus-ones, parenting responsibilities, brand fortunes, a family TV franchise, political and racial trolling, is a perfect divorce for the Instagram age.
The couple’s split appeared to be progressing smoothly enough, with West stepping in to dress Kardashian for TV and social balls. But with the introduction of new love interests, battle lines have been drawn. As ever, the couple’s children find themselves in a no man’s land in a parental trench war grinding back and forth.
It began, after months of trailing previews, in February last year when Kardashian, 41, central star of the reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, underwear and beauty entrepreneur, and a certified criminal justice lawyer, filed to end a nearly seven-year marriage to West, 44, the rapper, record producer and Yeezy fashion designer, who recently changed his name to Ye.
The couple have four children: North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm.
At the time, Ye was at their Cody, Wyoming, compound; Kardashian at her spread, en famille, in the Hidden Hills of the San Fernando Valley, California. “He goes and moves to a different state every year,” she fretted. “I have to be, like together, so I can raise the kids.” Both parents have fortunes estimated at $1.8bn, though Kardashian’s Skims – initially fronted by Kate Moss – was recently valued at $3.2bn.
“For so long, I did what made other people happy,” she told Vogue this week. “And I think in the last two years I decided I’m going to make myself happy. And that feels really good.” This week, she told Vogue her 40s were about “being Team Me”.
But this is no easy split.
Ye said he’s owed an apology from his in-laws for failing to give him the address to his daughter Chicago’s birthday party that included an allegation of kidnapping. The post has since been deleted. Then he asked his followers what recourse he had when their eight-year-old daughter North was “put on TikTok against my will”.
“This is the kind of thing that really has affected my health for the longest and I’m just not playing,” he said. “I’m taking control of my narrative this year. I’m being the best father – the Ye version of a father – and I’m not finna let this happen.”
Inevitably, whereas previous divorces of the century unfolded in society columns and gossip magazines, the Kardashian/Ye tussle hit social media. West was unfollowed on Instagram by Kourtney, Khloé and Rob Kardashian, by model Kendall Jenner and makeup billionaire Kylie Jenner, before Kim addressed the TikTok dispute directly.
“Divorce is difficult enough on our children, and Ye’s obsession with trying to control and manipulate our situation so negatively and publicly is only causing further pain for all,” she said. She also made an appeal for privacy.
The TikTok dispute has even worked its way into the political realm. Candace Owens, the conservative commentator, said Kardashian was “wrong on this one”.
“The psychological effects of social media on young girls is real and documented. It’s actually Kanye that is trying to protect his daughter in this regard and Kim is spinning this as ‘obsession’ and ‘control’. There are other creative outlets for kids,” Owens tweeted.
That, in turn, prompted Azealia Banks to come out punching for Team Kim. “Kanye is an abusive psychopath, it’s beyond mental illness,” she said. “Stop trying to help him and start trying to help the poor child that he keeps on trying to embarrass and abuse publicly to garner sympathy for his ashy ass.”
To mere mortals, it can be baffling and confusing: a hall of online smoke, mirrors, likes and unfollows.
“We’re talking about just two larger-than-life entities, who seemed like a perfect match who both love, cultivate and curate attention,” says Maiysha Kai, culture editor at the Grio. “They’re four children in and one marriage down and it’s unfortunate or unrealistic to think that given the platform the Kardashians built, their children would never be part of that.”
To Kai, Ye’s positioning has a clear subtext – one familiar, perhaps, to many successful women seeking freedom from a husband.
“I build you up, I make you into this thing that I want you to be, and then when you step outside of that I am angry and I will potentially lash out at you. It looks like he’s trying to reclaim some power in a situation that is largely out of his control.”
“Out of control” is a description often applied to Ye in recent years. He has variously presented himself as a Trump supporter, and seemed to suggest in an interview that slavery was “a choice”. (He later apologized.) He made an unlikely and short-lived bid for president as a Christian revivalist. Ye said he and his wife considered terminating their first pregnancy – but didn’t after he had a “vision from God”. He’s also spoken of a bipolar disorder diagnosis.
“Some in the Black community feel he’s racializing the situation and situated himself as a disempowered Black father in relation to a powerful white family,” says Kai. “He said slavery was a choice, right? So maybe he can’t have it both ways.”
The Kardashian-Ye battle, then, is for personal and narrative control. Ye, an emotionally erratic musical, styling and branding visionary, played a large part in shaping her brand. He helped channel her LA style toward minimalism and advised her to simplify.
“He expressed that there were too many branding situations,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “He’s always super simple. I really wanted to condense my beauty brands. I wanted one place, one website, where everything can live.”
But there’s a branding and personal chasm now where Kardashian, with 302 million Instagram followers, meets West, with 11 million. It wasn’t always that way.
As recently as last October, during a Saturday Night Live hosting gig, Kardashian was upbeat about the split and in praise of her soon-to-be ex. “I married the best rapper of all time. Not only that, he’s the richest Black man in America, a talented, legit genius, who gave me four incredible kids,” she said.
Kardashian joked about her “movie” – a 2007 sex tape Kim Kardashian, Superstar, with her then-boyfriend Ray J: “I didn’t know it was even premiering.” But she could not resists a dig. Her divorce, she added, came down to one thing: “His personality.”
But now both sides are also playing the field: in ways that only celebrities can. They flaunt high-profile dalliances with fellow bold-face names, insuring more coverage, more clicks, more shares, more branding.
Kardashian stepped out with Pete Davidson, the comedian and Saturday Night Live regular. The pair have been spotted on dates and he calls her his girlfriend; her reciprocation is unknown.
Well-timed promotional gloss is, of course, part of the Kardashian conglomerate’s branding genius, accompanied by reality or something designed to look like it, with the endgame of brand building in the most lucrative sectors of the luxury economy.
There have been recent stumbles, though.
Kardashian had her knuckles rapped for initially naming her underwear line brand Kimono, and for promoting a minor cryptocurrency, EthereumMax. Kardashian and boxer Floyd Mayweather have been named in a US lawsuit alleging they encouraged followers to join “the EthereumMax Community” and that the token itself was a “pump and dump” scheme that deceived investors.
Charles Randell, head of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, said in a speech to an economic crime symposium that he couldn’t say if the particular token was a “scam … but social media influencers are routinely paid by scammers to help them pump and dump new tokens on the back of pure speculation”.
EthereumMax disputes the allegations. “The deceptive narrative associated with the recent allegations is riddled with misinformation,” a company spokesman said.
Ye and Fox met in Miami, and on their second date he gave her a room full of clothes and gifted her close friends baby Birkin bags. The couple have been documenting their romance in Interview magazine.
Last week, Fox gave an interview to the Call Her Daddy podcast saying that being a (former) dominatrix allowed her to explore her sexuality. Fox, through friends, says she and Ye were “evolved beings” in an open relationship.
“It’s a beautiful portal we all get to see into,” says New York curator KO Nnamdie. “Kanye turned his life into full art and they push each other into art. People like to think he’s doing a Kim-ification or Disney-fication on Julia, but he loves Walt Disney, and sees himself as Disney, as one of the greats. Which he kind of is.”
Then Fox announced she was taking her posts down. “Suddenly Instagram was not a fun place any more,” she said to her 1.1 million followers. “I read the comments and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, you clearly only posted photos you looked good in.’”
Being near a messy divorce, it seems, does come with a cost no matter who you are. Which may in its own fashion be the truest statement of the whole unfolding drama.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m watching, or if I want to be watching,” said Nnamdie. “Yes, they’re celebrities. Yes, they’re insulated. Yes, their money affords lots of things. At the same time, the real dynamics of divorce are playing out in living rooms across America.”