Before she was sent a single script for the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black, Danielle Brooks received an intriguing warning from the show’s creator: “Get ready. You have a lot to do.” Jenji Kohan offered those two vague sentences to Brooks following a performance of Broadway’s The Color Purple, for which she earned a Tony nomination. But even if the notoriously tight-lipped Kohan had elaborated, nothing could have prepared Brooks for what happened next.
Season 5 picks up right where the action left off, with Daya (Dascha Polanco) holding the malevolent Officer Humphrey (Michael Torpey) at gunpoint and the inmates on the precipice of a riot. In Season 4, quality of life had rapidly deteriorated since Litchfield became a privatized prison. There were not enough bunks or supplies for all the prisoners, and the officers were on a terrifying power trip: The inmates were subjected to inappropriate searches, Maritza (Diane Guerrero) was made to eat a mouse, and Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) almost killed Maureen (Emily Althaus) after a guard forced them to physically fight. Those fractured inmate-officer tensions culminated in the most tragic moment of Season 4: when Officer Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) killed Poussey (Samira Wiley).
In Season 5, the immense weight of righting all of Litchfield’s wrongs falls to Taystee (Brooks) after she stops famous lifestyle guru Judy King (Blair Brown) from speaking to the press on behalf of the inmates. In doing so, Taystee unwittingly becomes the face of the riot inside the prison and to the world at large. “She is not going to be making a statement,” Taystee tells a throng of rapt reporters who have been covering the melee. “She will not be speaking for us because Judy King can’t speak for the inmates of this prison. She was kept separate from us, held in a private room with better treatment and a seltzer maker. And moments after our friend Poussey Washington was murdered by a guard for doing nothing wrong, Judy King was packing her bags to go home on early release. Because she’s rich. And white. And powerful. Now, our fight is not with Judy King. Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor, brown people.”
“As an actor, that’s what I’ve always longed for: to tell stories that go beyond a story.”
It’s one of many speeches Taystee gives during Season 5 that has real-world implications — which is one reason why Brooks was so easily able to access her emotions when it came to performing these pivotal monologues. “A lot of these moments are much bigger than the show,” Brooks told BuzzFeed News. “To me, that moment was so parallel to what was going on with Diamond Reynolds.” In 2016, Reynolds was thrust into the media spotlight after a police officer shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile, during a traffic stop and she livestreamed the entire incident. “I remember watching so many clips of her speak after Philando Castile was murdered, and she never let her lawyer speak for her. She never needed somebody privileged, somebody white, [to] speak for her. She always did it — and she did it so eloquently. So for me that was such a real moment, because … I have a brother who is 22 years old and I have a father in his fifties and there’s times I am scared for their lives.”
The speech also highlights a brilliant acting choice Brooks made all season long: Whenever Taystee is speaking to someone in a position of power — be it the media, the governor’s liaison, or Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), the former executive assistant to the warden, who is negotiating to end the riot — she repeats and stresses the pronunciation of “Poussey Washington” as if trying to verbally cement her dead best friend’s name into their brain. For Brooks, it’s another element of Season 5 with deep roots in the real world.
“I want us as a country to really get [that] we have to start caring for people [when] we don’t know anything about [them] but their names,” she said, echoing Taystee’s passion. “We have to understand there’s a person behind those hashtags whose life really mattered, and to me I just really want us to get that, and I know we don’t.” Brooks experienced the disconnect firsthand in 2016, after Wiley’s character was killed off the show. “When Poussey died, a lot of people were connected to her character, and I’d post one picture of her and there would be hundreds of thousands of likes,” she said. “But then I would say something about Mike Brown or Philando Castile or Trayvon Martin or whoever…I mean, fill in the blank at this point, which is just devastating to even say. But there would be one-fifth of the response. That’s why I think there’s such power in art. There’s such power in storytelling. As an actor, that’s what I’ve always longed for: to tell stories that go beyond a story. Tell a story that matters and will be effective to the world that we live in and change lives. That’s the ultimate goal. I think a lot of people feel acting is a selfish business, but we’re actually here to serve.”
While many of the inmates begin to lose sight of the bigger picture as the riot carries on — they stage talent shows, open up craft shops, and begin selling coffee — Taystee stands as the odd woman out, driven by something greater than a desire for freedom. She never sways from her commitment to obtaining justice for Poussey; long after her compatriots have gone to sleep, she is standing strong at the negotiating table and keeping Figueroa on her toes. Taystee’s season-long advocacy offers her an opportunity that winning Litchfield’s job fair and working alongside Caputo (Nick Sandow), the prison’s exasperated but sympathetic warden, never could: a sense of purpose. “I’m good at this,” Taystee says, almost surprised, after taking charge of negotiations. And while Taystee’s success caught her off guard, Brooks was never surprised by her character’s ability to thrive.
“I’ve always felt like Taystee was a natural-born leader … but this is a moment in her life where she is taking it further because she has a cause and something to fight for that goes beyond herself,” Brooks said. “It’s so complicated to me, because people look at Taystee, especially in the first four seasons, and they’re like, ‘She’s super upbeat and always the light of the prison and always making a joke.’ But so many people make jokes to hide their pain. This is somebody who was abandoned by her biological mother, manipulated by someone she thought loved her deeply, and lost her best friend right in front of her face; she’s been through a lot, but she’s always covered it up with laughter or lived in denial. Now I think it’s all come to a head, to a boiling point, where she can’t do that anymore. She witnessed the only person who has ever shown her what love looks like — true love without wanting anything in return — and that person is taken away from her right in front of her face. It was her breakthrough moment.”
After a thoroughly exhausting negotiation process, Taystee actually gets the governor to reverse course and agree to expand the state’s budget so all of their demands can be granted — except for one: He’s unable to promise that Bayley will be prosecuted for Poussey’s murder because it’s outside his jurisdiction. But Taystee is relentless in her pursuit of justice — perhaps to a fault — and after an unexpected betrayal by Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), who releases all of the hostages in hopes of shortening her sentence, Taystee loses all her hard-fought gains.
Following several episodes of watching Taystee flourish in her role as prison advocate, this perceived failure might sting, but OITNB writer Lauren Morelli explained that there was no other option. “I think it’s always been very important to us to accurately reflect the reality of our prison system, and having the prisoners win these negotiations on any level felt to us very unrealistic,” she told BuzzFeed News. “So we started to think about how Taystee has an individual, emotional win.”
Cue the harrowing capture of Officer Piscatella (Brad William Henke), a figure who was, in many ways, to blame for all the ills that befell Litchfield’s inmates in Season 4: He ruled with an iron fist and fostered the toxic energy that unequivocally led to Poussey’s death. So, although it looked like Season 5 was culminating in a giant negotiation win, bringing Taystee face-to-face with Piscatella was actually what the writers were building toward all season long. And with a gun pressed to Piscatella’s head and no one to stop her, Taystee makes the choice to spare his life. She refuses to become the monster he perceives all criminals to be, and that, more than any institutional triumph, is the greatest victory she could experience.
“It breaks my heart that she didn’t win in that way, and to be honest, I don’t know if Taystee will ever realize this, but I think she did win,” Brooks said. “I really don’t think she lost, because in that last scene when she’s holding the gun at Piscatella and she chooses not to shoot him, that’s when she realizes what justice really means. It’s about your character. Are you going to treat somebody the way in which they horribly treated you, or are you going to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that’? I feel like that’s her win. Saying, ‘You’re not even worth me changing my character and me leaving without my dignity. You’re not worth it.’ I do feel like she won.”
“Halfway through the season, she starts to feel like she’s fighting this battle by herself. But that’s the moment where she realizes, I’m not alone in this. And that’s how we should feel as a society, too. We have to support each other.”
While Taystee may have won, the rioters lost, and the final scene of the season shows Taystee linking arms with her Litchfield family as they wait for the CERT team to break in and reclaim their authority. But even in that dire moment, Brooks sees a beautifully uplifting end to Taystee’s Season 5 journey. “It’s a reminder that she’s not alone,” she said of Taystee standing united with her fellow inmates. “Halfway through the season, she starts to feel like she’s fighting this battle by herself. But that’s the moment where she realizes, I’m not alone in this. And that’s how we should feel as a society, too. We have to support each other.”
After a season of onscreen events that had immediate connections to offscreen life, it’s fitting that her final moment — like much of Taystee’s journey this year — was directly informed by real-world events. “When we filmed that scene, a few of us had just been to DC for the Women’s March,” Brooks said. “To be in DC at that march with what felt like millions of women and feeling supported with whatever cause that brought us all together was an overwhelming feeling. I think that’s how Taystee feels in that scene. It does feel overwhelming, but it also feels doable. Yes, we can fight if we fight this fight together.”
Tom has even written a long message to fans explaining his reasons for doing so – calling those responsible “shameful” and admitting how affected he’s been since learning of the “harrowing” tragedy.
Thanks for taking the time to visit my JustGiving page.
As a Londoner and as a human being, it is impossible to be unaffected by the harrowing, unnecessary loss of life, injury, sorrow and the continuing desperate and disturbing situation facing those that were residents of Grenfell Tower, Latimer Road West London. It is impossible not to feel deep, profound shock and just stand by and not make the effort to help those who are innocent victims of a seemingly gross negligence. It is impossible not to commend the local community for their response of coming together to support those immediately affected by this tragedy at this time, and I am asking you to please help me raise funds to assist those who are suffering and their families.
For me, culpability and accountability falls entirely on those responsible for providing secure, safe housing for those who live in public housing and the citizens/residents of the UK who are vulnerable. It is shameful. There must be a dramatic change. Tonight, all of the people who lived in Grenfell Tower and survived have lost their homes and are displaced with uncertainty and suffering. Many traumatised are still in hospitals throughout the capital recovering from this tragedy. Many are in a critical condition. And many men, women, and children have lost their lives as a direct result of this gross negligence. This disaster feels like it could have been undoubtedly avoided. It is unacceptable in this day and age that men, women, and children are not safe in their homes – homes that are provided by public/social housing – because those homes were not adequately maintained to a correct and appropriate standard. It is shameful.
My heart goes out to those who have lost their lives and their loved ones. My thoughts are with the innocent families who are suffering – those who have lost their homes and possessions, their friends, families, relatives, children and their lives in a disaster which could have been avoided. People who now have literally nothing within a matter of hours due to what appears to be a man-made mistake and a gross act of negligence, which demands a full public enquiry. Those found guilty to be held responsible and to account for gross and criminal negligence.
In the meantime, there are families and children in crisis that desperately need our help and support tonight, both now and ongoing. Please will you help them in any way you can.
Every little helps.
Thankyou in advance.
I searched for appropriate charities where the funds raised would go directly to victims and families.
This is some info I have gathered on the charity fund above:
— This is the fund that both the Kensington & Chelsea Council and Mayor of London have asked people to donate to, as well as the London Emergency Trust Fund and London Funders. — 100% of all donations go directly to victims/families (their core costs are covered separately), so can have confidence in how money used. — Their team is very knowledgeable about the area and the community, as well as how families can be helped (for instance, they were the only one that informed me that since the Grenfell Tower is social housing – it’s up to the Council to oversee finding new housing – which the Foundation is also talking directly to.) — Other local charities have been coming to them for advice on how best to administer funds to meet immediate needs, and they will also be assembling a meeting with the various local charities in the area so they can efficiently work together to coordinate efforts. — Planning to make first round of cash donations in the next 48-72 hours.
Thankyou for your time. And your support.
A representative for Tom Hardy has confirmed to BuzzFeed the JustGiving page is authentic and that the actor set it up on Thursday evening.
Dylan’s 2001 album “Love and Theft,” for instance, takes its name from Eric Lott’s nonfiction history of minstrelsy and includes lines from the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga. His 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, apparently lifted passages from Jack London, among others. And, after all, he began his career covering blues songs — some of which he later copyrighted.
“He’s crazy-making on the intellectual property front,” Dettmar said.
You may not leave as on cloud nine as you would after, say, a Beyoncé concert, but you won’t feel as dead to the world as you do after Barney On Ice. No, offense, Barney…those shows are great for toddlers…but, yeah.
Most importantly, your own little pop stars will have the time of their life, and that is the whole point of going, isn’t it?
There’s a picture of Kim Kardashian in a color-blocked black-and-white dress from February 21, 2013 — about five months into her first pregnancy. Her “bump,” as pregnant bellies have come to be called in the mainstream media, is visible, as are her white pumps, red lipstick, black wrist cuff, and perfectly made‑up face. It’s a look that E! News called “absolutely stunning.” But there was another photo from that same appearance — taken from the side as Kardashian turns her head back, presumably at the beckoning of one of the paparazzi who, at that point, were tracking her every pregnant move.
This image is cropped closer, ending before the hem of her dress; her legs aren’t visible, nor is the overall silhouette of the look — just black-and-white fabric hugging the growing curves that helped establish Kardashian’s famous, and incredibly lucrative, celebrity brand. That image was paired with a picture of a killer whale, whose black-and-white color scheme echoed the color-blocking of Kardashian’s dress, and the caption “Who Wore It Best?” The photo circulated swiftly across the Internet, but it didn’t stop there: Star magazine put it on its cover, along with the headlines “65‑lb Weight Gain!” “Binges on Pasta, Cake and Ice Cream!” and “Kim’s Pregnant Nightmare!”
The photo wasn’t the first image of the pregnant Kardashian, but it became the indelible one, encapsulating all that was “wrong” with her pregnancy: her weight gain (not cute) and her strategy for clothing it (not appropriate). From that point forward, the already Kardashian-frenzied paparazzi went into over‑drive. The ultimate prize wasn’t just a picture of Kim, but one of Kim eating, Kim looking fat, Kim looking miserable, Kim looking uncomfortable, Kim looking, in other words, not like Kim: a betrayal of the image of celebrity maternity that, over the last ten years, has become the norm.
Yet in transgressing the boundaries of the “cute celebrity pregnancy,” Kardashian effectively called attention to the constrictive, regressive norms of how women, celebrity or not, are now expected to “perform” pregnancy in public. When she writes on her blog that “for me pregnancy is the worst experience of my life,” she’s not just “keeping it real,” as she proclaims at the beginning of the paragraph; she’s working to mainstream the truly unruly idea that pregnancy — and, by extension, even motherhood — is not the pinnacle, or even defining purpose, of every woman’s life.
Kardashian wanted the cute little basketball bump. She wanted a “normal” pregnancy. But when her body refused to give her one, she became the unlikely means by which the cracks in the ideology of “good” maternity became visible.
If you were born after 1991, you’ve never known a time when pregnancy wasn’t performed in public: 1991 was the watershed year in which Demi Moore appeared naked, seven months pregnant with her second daughter, Scout, on the cover of Vanity Fair. The cover became instantly iconic, mocked and replicated and spoofed in the manner of meme culture decades before online memes existed. In some quarters, it was considered obscene: many supermarkets displayed it with the sort of paper wrap reserved for Playboy; others, like Safeway and Giant, refused to sell it entirely. “It’s tacky,” one twenty-three-year-old woman told the Los Angeles Times. She couldn’t imagine “why anyone would want to display her swollen stomach like that — and why people would want to look at it.”
The titillation was purposeful: Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who would go on to serve as editor in chief of The New Yorker, made the decision to put the image on the cover, knowing how it would drive sales. The issue ended up selling more than a million copies — 250,000 more than normal circulation. “The Demi Moore cover is a radical statement of New Hollywood values,” Brown declared. “It breaks the mold of every stereotype of celebrity glamour. For too long, women have felt that pregnancy is something they have to conceal and disguise. It takes the courage of a woman as modern and innovative as Demi Moore to cast aside the conventions of traditional beauty and declare that there is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child.”
Moore, who was promoting her new movie, The Butcher’s Wife, obviously agreed. “I have no regrets,” she said. “Attitudes are changing. I feel beautiful when I’m pregnant . . . I was just on vacation in Mexico, in my bikini with my big belly hanging out and my low-cut top.” Even before the shoot, Moore’s attitude had been catching on: swimsuit designer John Koerner reported that his maternity bikini, released three years before, was now his number one seller. “Women’s whole attitude toward pregnancy is changing fast,” he explained. “It’s what we call a paradigm shift — none of the old rules apply.”
It’s taken twenty-five years to see just how right Koerner’s statement would be. Today, pregnancy and motherhood are one of the primary ways in which a female celebrity maintains attention. The baby bump has become, as Molly Jong-Fast declared in The New York Times, the new Birkin bag: it’s “cute” and “adorable” and “feminine,” something to dress up, to rub in photos, to have photographed as your partner leans down and kisses it. Celebrities model these behaviors on the red carpet, in selfies, and in paparazzi photos, and as a result, women across America have adopted them en masse.
It’s difficult to emphasize just how radical this attitude would seem to women experiencing pregnancy even thirty years ago. To be pregnant in public was in poor taste — unsophisticated, trashy, unbecoming, obscene. That sense of the pregnant body as abject goes back millennia, as the pregnant body is a woman’s body at its most fecund, but also in its most grotesque figuration: the body swells, expands, and oozes, the boundary between inside and outside permeable. New motherhood is often depicted as something darling: sweetly sleeping babies on all crisp white sheets and gurgling babies in the bath. But childbirth is a messy, primal process: consider the afterbirth, the leakage of breast milk, the caked gunk scraped from the newborn’s body, the blood and screaming, and the fact that for so long, so many otherwise healthy women died in the process of giving birth.
The pregnant body was also profoundly contradictory: as scholar Jane Ussher explains, pregnancy is, at its most essential, the most vivid proof of women’s sexuality — which is precisely why representations of mothers took on the opposite characteristics. The most significant mother of Christianity, for example, is the Virgin Mary: asexual, idealized, immaculate. Mary is rarely represented while actually pregnant, only afterwards, when the child is safely born, both mother and child clean and content. This beatific mother is contained, pure — the antidote to the abjectly pregnant mother.
Historically, the easiest way to contain that abjection was to keep the pregnancy out of sight. Women of a certain class often receded entirely from public view until after the baby was born and the visible signs of pregnancy had diminished. When the birth occurred, it happened in the domestic space and was managed by midwives. Like all things hidden for fear of abjection (women’s sexuality, menstrual periods, feces), it became societally unacceptable to even speak openly of pregnancy: according to historian Carol Brooks Gardner, in nineteenth-century America “talk of pregnancy was forbidden even between mother and daughter, if either hoped to claim breeding and gentility.” Colloquialisms were developed to refer tactfully to the obscenity of a woman’s condition: she was “with child” or “in a family way,” never “pregnant.”
Up until the 1950s, the word “pregnancy” was not even allowed on‑screen. In 1953, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to approve the script for The Moon Is Blue because it included the word “pregnant”; the MPAA’s list of “13 Don’ts and 31 Be Carefuls,” which determined what could and could not make its way on‑screen from the 1920s to the 1960s, included a ban on any depiction of childbirth, even “in silhouette.” In silent film–era Hollywood, most stars avoided motherhood in one way or another so as to sustain their marketability; those who did become pregnant removed themselves from public view, even as the studios offered access to all other parts of the stars’ homes and family life. As late as the 1950s, stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were seldom photographed while pregnant — just during the blissful, bonding aftermath.
The attempt to erase pregnant bodies from the public sphere took place alongside women’s increased freedom to control when they became pregnant. In 1965, the Supreme Court upheld the right to privacy when it came to birth control; in 1973, it protected the right to access abortion services in Roe v. Wade; a year later, the court denied a Cleveland school the right to ban a pregnant teacher from continuing to work when the administration “worried that her pregnant body would alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.” As legal scholar Renée Ann Cramer points out, these decisions “set the stage for openness to the bump, and pregnancy, that we have today.” The idea that women shouldn’t work while pregnant, after all, is predicated on the fact that women would have some other source of income while absent from the workforce. In many ways, the decision of the court underlined that this was no longer, or could no longer be expected to be, the case.
Even after the Supreme Court ruling, pregnant women were largely exempted from having to perform the same sort of femininity and body surveillance that accompanied their non-pregnant existences — in part because they were not yet considered a lucrative market. Put differently, industries weren’t yet selling the idea of the “cute” pregnancy — or the products to maintain it.
There was no maternity yoga; no maternity Spanx. Maternity clothes were largely hideous and/or homemade, making “pregnancy style” an oxymoron: even Princess Diana, whose early 1980s pregnancies were arguably the most visible in history, still dressed in what might best be described as polka-dotted baby doll dresses. But the popularization of spandex and Lycra in the 1980s and ’90s changed all that: a fabric that could stretch was one that could be crafted into something (relatively) cute for the growing pregnant body.
The taboo of the pregnant body turned into a spectacle that could be stylized, exploited, scrutinized, and interpreted as emblematic of a woman’s overarching success or failure.
Before Moore, the paparazzi generally respected the boundaries of the pregnant female celebrity (even Madonna, who’d so willingly embraced public documentation of her body throughout her career, remained largely unphotographed during her first pregnancy). All that changed within the decade — when the combination of digital photography and Us Weekly not only created a market for pregnancy photos, but helped turn “bump watch,” and the cultivation of the “cute pregnancy,” into one of the female celebrity’s primary modes of publicity. Suddenly, the taboo of the pregnant body turned into a spectacle that could be stylized, exploited, scrutinized, and interpreted as emblematic of a woman’s overarching success or failure.
Janice Min dates the shift to around 2003, when she had just taken over the reins of Us Weekly from Bonnie Fuller, who’d turned the long-flailing magazine around. “Not only were an unprecedented number of top actresses suddenly pregnant ([Courteney] Cox, [Brooke] Shields, [Gwyneth] Paltrow, [Debra] Messing, [Denise] Richards, to name a few),” Min explains, “but they were — for the first time in history — well, flaunting it.” Min lists all the products that had become associated with pregnancy — the Bugaboo stroller, designer cribs, the Bikram yoga post-pregnancy workout routine — before declaring “the once frumpy bump industry was suddenly big business.” And with the availability of the means to create a “cute” pregnancy came the compulsion for all women, celebrity or not, to do so.
Min points to the ways other companies were making money off the “bump industry,” but it was huge business for her own magazine — in part because it fit its ethos of “Just Like Us.” Us Weekly had become a genuine competitor to People through its reliance on paparazzi photos — of stars doing mundane things like grocery shopping and pumping gas — that cost very little. In the process, it effectively created a market for photos of celebrities in all aspects of their lives outside of the home. Even more valuable, though, were shots of female celebrities performing these tasks while pregnant. The pregnant celebrity body is the perfect consolidation of “Just Like Us” and “Nothing Like Us,” the mundane and the spectacular: it doesn’t matter what the celebrity and her body are doing, because her body’s growing. And like the aging process or weight gain, that process, and how a celebrity chooses to embrace or conceal it, is one of the most perversely engrossing images to observe.
All of this — Us Weekly, Demi Moore, fashionable baby clothes, surveillance of celebrities that translates into their own hyper‑vigilant surveillance of self — funnels toward Kim Kardashian, the most important and influential celebrity of the twenty-first century. Paris Hilton understood that power (initially, through her sex tape; afterwards, through The Simple Life) at the beginning of the 2000s, but Kardashian — who established herself as part of Hilton’s circle by volunteering to organize her closet for her — was observing her closely. Then she beat Hilton at her own game: with the help of her “momager,” Kris, and her extensive, blended family, Kardashian transformed the banalities of “everyday” life, and the surveillance thereof, into a narrative far more gripping than most reality television.
Part of that watchability stems from the Pride and Prejudice–style plotting, in which a controlling mother attempts, in some ways more overt than others, to pair off her gaggle of daughters or otherwise ensure their success. There’s also an addictive quality to how rich people live so beautifully, with so little legitimate friction: their days are spent getting ready, talking on the phone, half paying attention to one another, deciding on clothes, eating salads out of plastic containers, and taking care of family drama, the vast majority of which gets solved by the end of each episode. But Keeping Up with the Kardashians is also a glimpse into what it’s like to live under surveillance. Kris and the sisters appear almost exclusively in full hair and makeup; their conversations, phone calls, and questions gradually become the sort that don’t even need editing to feel like the setup and resolution of a classic sitcom.
As the show and the Kardashian family grew in popularity, so, too, did their surveillance outside the bounds of the television show — whether at the hands of the paparazzi, who tracked their mundane activity (which functioned as a sort of “supplementary” narrative to the show itself), or, increasingly, by themselves, via social media. Boyfriends, children, fiancés, marriages, shopping trips, weight gains and losses, brands consumed, diet tricks endorsed, clothing lines launched — all of it was catalogued. And when you spend so much time acting for an audience, your entire life becomes a performance. The Kardashians became the apotheosis of what it means to be a celebrity today: instead of deflecting surveillance of the body and the personal, they embraced and exploited it.
In 2013, Keeping Up with the Kardashians was entering its eighth season. The family had never been more popular: Kourtney had given birth to two children, the gestations of whom were incorporated into the show; Khloé was in her fourth year of marriage to basketball player Lamar Odom; Rob had launched a successful sock line; Kendall and Kylie Jenner had their own clothing line for Pacific Sunwear; Kendall was embarking on the beginning of her career as a model. And Kim — who had married and separated from basketball player Kris Humphries and started dating Kanye West, all within the span of two years — had never been more surveilled or valuable.
When Kanye announced Kim’s pregnancy on December 30, 2012, it felt sudden — largely because Kim’s divorce from Humphries had yet to be finalized. Yet in addition to whatever personal feelings Kim might have had at the prospect of becoming a mother, she also understood the pregnancy in terms of marketability. When your body and personal life are the source of not just your fame, but your income, that’s not callous so much as the new corporeal due diligence.
But Kardashian’s pregnancy refused to make itself marketable — at least not in the way she envisioned it. If, before, women had to hide from public view, today, the bump is imagined as “a new freedom” — not an “embarrassing or abject physical state,” as Imogen Tyler explains, “but an opportunity to have a different fashionable and sexy body shape.” But the actual liberating power of what Tyler calls “pregnant beauty” is dubious, in part because there’s really only one acceptable way for it to manifest. Min describes that model, demonstrated en masse by celebrities, as “one day you’d look as though you swallowed a basketball. The next day it would be gone.” There’s no swelling, no barfing, no hemorrhoids, nothing abject about this pregnancy experience: you feel great, and you talk about feeling great, and everyone knows you feel great. Kim herself admits to buying into this understanding: as she says, on camera, late in her third trimester, “I always envisioned [that] only my belly would get big.”
Yet Kardashian’s pregnancy failed to fulfill that vision of pregnant beauty on both a physical and an emotional level. In the first episode of season eight of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, when Kris accompanies Kim to a sonogram appointment, she exclaims, “I’m more excited than she is,” a point driven home when Kim doesn’t even want to see a picture of the sonogram. Kim avers that “once I start showing I’ll get excited.” Once the bump appears, or, in other words, once she’s able to style it and make it available for public consumption — that’s when she’ll start enjoying pregnancy.
Kardashian’s anxiety over the “in‑between” time — from when a woman knows she’s pregnant to when her body strongly signifies as such — is widely held. Few things in American society, after all, are considered as terrifying as getting fat, and with good reason: for most people, fatness means a harder time getting a job, garnering respect, or navigating the physical world; for celebrities, it means all of those things, plus incessant public ridicule. And as the cult of the baby bump developed, so, too, did the idealized post-baby body — one that, just months after giving birth, looks exactly as it did before pregnancy.
Which is part of the reason that Kim, who was thirty-two when she became pregnant, was anxious: “Our parents had us in their twenties and their bodies bounced back,” she tells one of her sisters. “My mom had Kendall and Kylie in her forties and she still can’t lose the weight.” She was not only nervous that her body would, in its early pregnant state, signify as fat, but that whatever weight she gained would haunt her in the future. It makes sense that women’s inclination toward disordered eating spikes so sharply during and after pregnancy: that’s how strongly weight gain of any kind, even related to pregnancy, is stigmatized.
But as Kardashian’s pregnancy became unequivocal, the rest of her body refused to conform to the cute ideal she’d internalized. Her feet, like the rest of her body, began to swell — early indicators of what would later be diagnosed as preeclampsia. She yearned for the body that hid beneath her pregnant one: when brother‑in‑law Scott Disick walked in on her in pregnancy Spanx, he exclaimed, “Your voluptuous pregnant body shouldn’t be in bike shorts around people,” to which Kardashian responded, “It’s less attractive than my skinny toned body . . . Can we just reminisce for a second?” Over the course of that one scene, Disick tells her: “You’re gonna get back there”; “Your boobs are getting a little big for you to do that”; “How big is that baby”; “You look like the Nutty Professor.” It’s the sort of contradictory messaging a pregnant woman receives: you’re hot, but on the border of obscene; you’re perfect, but you’re huge; don’t feel bad about yourself, but your thin body is better.
So many women have internalized a single understanding of how pregnancy should be, look, and feel, which is part of why Kim’s persistent dislike is so powerfully unruly.
Early in her pregnancy, Kardashian also began experiencing sharp pains — so severe that her doctor initially believed it was appendicitis. Her body was making it impossible for her to revel in pregnancy — a thought that thoroughly distressed Kris. “It was the most wonderful time of my life,” she tearfully tells Kim, “and I want you to have the same experience”; “the fact that she can’t enjoy being pregnant breaks my heart,” she says in her one‑on‑one “confessional” interview. In episode three, as Kim writhes in pain, it’s again juxtaposed with Kris’s commentary: “I want her to relish in this pregnancy; I feel like it’s the most amazing experience, and she’s just not having that.”
Like so many other women, Kris has internalized a single understanding of how pregnancy should be, look, and feel, which is part of why Kim’s persistent dislike is so powerfully unruly. “I hate this so much,” she moans, in a clip shown multiple times throughout the episode. “I’ll never do this again.” Later in the episode, she admits that “the anxiety that I have is so ridiculous” — in part out of fear for the baby, and fear of the pain, but also because of an overarching fear that the experience of pregnancy was not what she had been led to believe. “This is definitely not the picture she painted for herself,” Khloé explains.
There was another part of the pregnancy picture that Kim hadn’t anticipated: ridicule at the hands of the press. The comparison to a killer whale soon joined pictures of her feet, swelling painfully out of her high heels. At the beginning of episode five, Rob greets Kim with “What’s up, fat feet?” clearly alluding to her coverage in the press. It’s one of dozens of moments, interspersed throughout the season, that highlight the ways in which coverage of their celebrity outside of the show disrupts the illusion of the hermetically sealed Kardashian world. It’s also one of the unspoken allures of the show: viewers are essentially watching celebrities react, respond, and oftentimes alter their behavior based on how they’re covered in the press.
It’s a window, in other words, into the highly reactive, yet usually invisible, production of celebrity. What’s fascinating about Kardashian’s pregnancy, then, is how she refused to allow her changing body to be policed by it — especially when it came to fashion. Maternity wear has become a $2.4 billion business, with thousands of options for every pregnant body, yet there’s still an unspoken demarcation of “appropriate” maternity fashion. It can be feminine and flirty, but shouldn’t be slutty or sexual; you can show your bare belly at the pool, but not in any other circumstance. And when you begin to show, you should wear clothes designed specifically for maternity wear.
Kardashian ignored each of those rules. She’d always worn clingy dresses, so she kept wearing them. She’d always shown skin, so she kept showing it — outfits with see-through mesh strips, short dresses that showed off her legs, low-plunging necklines that revealed her substantial cleavage, high-waisted pencil skirts that broadened, rather than hid, her girth. She kept wearing heels, and full makeup, and “body-con” dresses, performing femininity and sexuality the same way she had her entire celebrity career. Those decisions were met with disgust: “Would someone please tell Kim she’s pregnant!” the cover of the New York Post screamed, along with a picture of Kardashian in a high-waisted, flared dress. Us Weekly called her style “controversial”; People explained that the “tough and edgy” style of one outfit was “usually reserved for non-pregnancy moments.” “We give you a woman at the tail end of her pregnancy who refuses to ditch the Rich Bitch bodycon dresses, hose, and sky-high heels,” VH1 declared. “What is she trying to prove? And to whom is she trying to prove it? We’d love her more if she rolled out in yoga pants, toe socks, and pigtails. She’s eighteen months pregnant.”
What was Kardashian trying to prove? That there are myriad ways to clothe a pregnant body. That the way you feel sexy in your own body doesn’t have to change when you get pregnant. That even at “eighteen months pregnant,” she’d actually be shamed, in some capacity, for “rolling out” in yoga pants and pigtails. If she tried to keep the baby healthy, she was too fat. If she put on a dress that made her feel attractive, she was too sexy.
Take, for example, the skintight floral dress she wore to the Met Ball — which purportedly prompted Anna Wintour to cut her out of Vogue’s coverage of the event. Wintour’s move made sense, in a messed‑up way: Vogue is a fashion magazine, but it’s also a policer of class, and Kardashian’s pregnancy troubled the magazine’s trenchant distinctions between high and low. Not just in her body’s inability to hew to the ideal of the basketball bump, but also in Kardashian’s conception of how to dress it. Just look at the language used, across the press, to describe her style: “Kim isn’t shy about showing off her cleavage,” “never one to keep things simple,” “overly-opulent,” and “disastrous”; “illusion netting, feathers, leather leggings — any one of these items would be over the top,” OK! magazine declared, “but of course Kim feels no fashion fear.”
She spilled out of her dresses; she purportedly broke zippers: her flesh was too ample, too much. She tried too hard. Coded language, all of it, for a disrespect of the boundaries that separate class from trash — a distinction that has afflicted Kardashian from the beginning of her career, first because of her association with a sex tape (tawdry) and then for her affiliation with reality television (lowbrow). That’s why Wintour famously would only allow her on the cover of Vogue with Kanye. It doesn’t matter that Kardashian grew up rich, or that she currently pulls in more than $100 million a year: she’ll always be perceived as new money, and her fame will always be centered on her body and, as such, easily dismissed and delegitimized.
It was easy to code Kardashian’s pregnancy in the same manner as her career — especially when it played out in near-synchronization with that of the Duchess of Cambridge, popularly known as Kate Middleton. As novelist and cultural critic Hilary Mantel explains, “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” She was, plainly put, incredibly, wonderfully, perfectly palatable. Fashion scholar Maureen Brewster points out that Middleton’s style “relied heavily upon knee-length dresses cut in A‑line with Empire waistlines” that “also displayed her as very clearly slim despite her growing bump, further establishing her pregnancy as a fit and fashionable performance.”
No matter that her slimness was due to her hyperemesis gravidarum, also known as acute morning sickness, for which she was hospitalized early in her pregnancy — Middleton’s classy, contained bump incited approving commentary from People’s “Style Watch” Facebook page: “Very classy & pretty”; “Simple and elegant!”; “Pregnancy suits her very well! She looks beautiful.” The opposite, in other words, of Kardashian. If Middleton’s body was impossible to interpret as fat, Kim’s always threatened to be read as such; if Middleton’s style was feminine and classy, Kardashian’s was whorish and trashy. The contrast was made explicit in photo spreads throughout the pair’s pregnancies: “often, the slimmer star was portrayed as the most able to police her desires to eat and grow large,” Cramer explains, as “the press valorizes the women most able to exhibit self-control while pregnant.”
It didn’t matter that Kardashian was carefully monitoring her diet: the tabloids claimed not only that she “couldn’t stop eating,” but that she was doing it on purpose so as to then strike a deal with a weight-loss company after the birth of her daughter. One magazine said she’d gained “65 pounds” through “binges”; another put her at more than two hundred pounds through “waffle cones and fries.” Keeping Up with the Kardashians features a handful of scenes in which Kim “indulges”: in one, she eats mozzarella sticks; in another, she eats fries with her brother. But the vast majority of the time she’s filmed eating the same boxed green salads and chef-prepared meals as the rest of her family. “All I eat is carrots, and celery and ranch, and like, protein bars, gluten-free stuff, sugar-free stuff,” she told Maria Menounos in an interview on Extra. “I am waiting for the moments when someone’s like, go to McDonald’s and Taco Bell [but] that’s not happening for me.”
If she were to go to those places, the paparazzi would be waiting for her. After the “whale photo” went viral, unflattering images — any shot of Kim eating, looking fat, or in situations that could be construed as overindulging or disgusted at her own body — were at a premium. When she arrives at a frozen yogurt shop to meet with her stepbrother Brandon and his wife, Leah, in a midseason episode, the paparazzi swarms the windows, forcing Kim to hide behind Brandon as she attempts to get a taste of yogurt. “I’ll get like a sample and they’ll be like, ‘she’s five hundred pounds, she’s trying like a million yogurts!’” she explained. When, later in the scene, Kim calls the actions of the paparazzi “bullying,” she is referring to their physical presence in her life, but it applies equally to their purpose: making it as difficult as possible for her to appear in public in a way that won’t be construed as a pregnant body out of control.
Most of the paparazzi policing was published in “unsanctioned” gossip outlets — the tabloids and gossip blogs that don’t rely on cooperation from the celebrities they cover. But there was an opportunity for a counternarrative, and Us Weekly took it, publishing photos of Kardashian on vacation in Greece with her family, with the caption “You Call This Fat?” next to her clearly pregnant stomach. Kim looks relaxed and unpretentious, her hair in a loose braid; her makeup replaced by a bronzed glow. Instead of “stuffing” herself into inappropriate maternity wear, she’s wearing a bikini that frees her body. It was easy to frame the photos as an embrace, on Kim’s part, of her pregnant form: “She’s loving the seventh month,” a source told Us. “And she thinks pregnancy is so cute.”
It wasn’t until months after the issue hit newsstands and the footage of the family in Greece aired on E! that the discordance of that claim became clear. In her seventh month, Kardashian found pregnancy distinctly miserable. “I feel like I’ve turned into a different person,” she said, just before putting on the bikini captured on the cover of Us. “I just feel like a huge roly-poly . . . It’s like an alien inside of you.” In the next episode, the rest of the family discusses Kim’s inability to enjoy herself at the breakfast table: “She’s so not happy,” Kris says. “I mean pregnancy isn’t for everyone,” Khloé responds. “It doesn’t seem like she’s enjoying hers.”
Kim’s family at once bemoans her inability to enjoy the pregnancy and reinforces the very anxieties that’ve made it difficult: the obscenity of her body, and her fear of it. When Kim comes down to breakfast, for example, she’s the most disheveled she’s been all season — no makeup, her hair tied up in a truly messy, not performatively messy, bun. “I just don’t care right now,” she says. Kris starts commenting on the size of her breasts: “I don’t know how she goes day to day with those boobs,” she says, to no one in particular. “Shit, you’ve got some big fucking boobs. I’ve never seen anything like them; it’s two watermelons.” “There’s not even milk in them yet,” Kim replies. “Which is the scary part.”
The three episodes in Greece offer a portrait of a pregnant body so thoroughly surveilled that it begins to discipline itself: while her siblings are goofing around and jumping off the yacht, Kim stays out of sight, typing on her phone and lying in bed. She wears long dresses in the hot sun; she acts as family photographer. She tries not to scratch her stretch marks, for fear that the scratching will make them permanent. She holds up her feet at dinner and pushes into the flesh to demonstrate just how swollen they’ve become. She says, “I’ve been really scrutinized my whole pregnancy, about what I wear, my weight, which is ridiculous, and it’s so frustrating that the paparazzi are here,” and “I just want to fulfill a craving without a picture of me stuffing my face.” In other words, Kardashian wants to defy the expectations of pregnant beauty, but she’s been so steeped in its rhetoric that she can’t help but feel shame, and anger, at her inability to do so.
Kim’s family urges her to engage further in the public spectacle of her pregnancy — even when, as Kim admits, “to say that all the scrutiny doesn’t get to me, I would be lying.” When they return stateside, Kim tells her sisters she doesn’t even want a baby shower, because of all the “negative attention” she’s already garnered. But Khloé and Kourtney keep planning one behind her back, and Kris insists Kim watch footage from when she was pregnant with Rob to see just how meaningful a shower was to her. Kim’s family ultimately wins the argument, in part because a baby shower — and the inclusion of one’s friends and family in the anticipation of a child — is now compulsory: to refuse a baby shower is much more unruly than to have a lavish one filmed by a host of cameras.
The takeaway from Kardashian’s very public pregnancy, however, was that “just fine” just isn’t enough when it comes to the contemporary pregnant body.
And while Kim eventually comes around to the idea of the shower — and the shower itself comes off as loving, inclusive, and emotional — it only solidifies her anxiety over how the rest of her pregnancy will be documented. “I just want to make sure I’m doing it all right,” she says while discussing her birth plan. “I just wanna be perfect.” That perfection includes being in “full glam” for the birth — her face made up, her hair done, her nails done in a shade that will look good, as Kim explains, when her daughter Instagrams the photo in twenty years.
She also starts planning what she’ll do the instant she reinhabits her old body: “The first thing I want to do is some nude shoot,” she tells her sisters. “I just want to walk down the street fully naked,” but only “when I’m skinny again.” Everyone thinks Kim’s being ridiculous, but her behavior is simply the next level of the ideology that’s been policing her all along: if her body can’t “be perfect,” she wants everything else — the look on her face when she gives birth, the composition of the Instagram her daughter will someday post, the body that she’ll return to — to be as close to ideal as possible.
With an official diagnosis of preeclampsia, Kardashian ended up giving birth nearly six weeks early. After the delivery, she suffered from a condition called placenta accreta, which meant the doctor had to reach his hand inside her and physically scrape the placenta from the uterus. Her delivery, like the rest of her pregnancy, was not “perfect.” But that’s only if you believe there’s such a thing as perfect: ultimately, both Kardashian and her baby, North Kardashian West, survived the labor in good health. North was treated overnight for jaundice, but everything was just fine.
The takeaway from Kardashian’s very public pregnancy, however, was that “just fine” just isn’t enough when it comes to the contemporary pregnant body. Even if the concept of “perfect” is wobbly and contradictory, it remains the pregnant woman’s goal. A perfect pregnancy style, a perfect weight gain, a perfect attitude toward pregnancy. When a woman is unable to achieve that perfection, or refuses its pursuit altogether, she’s shamed: if not by her immediate circle of friends and family, whose shaming is often cloaked in the language of “advice,” then by the representations of “ideal pregnancy” that, over the course of the last thirty years, have become regular fixtures of our media diet.
Kardashian’s unruly pregnancy punctured that ideology. By speaking about her discomfort, by airing its minutiae on television, even by continuing to wear clothing that compelled the press to shame her, again and again, it sent a message: if one of the most beautiful and valuable women in the world can’t have a perfect pregnancy, then maybe we can rethink what “perfect,” and its connotations of docility, femininity, containment, and good taste, might mean. Granted, Kardashian was rebelling not by choice, but out of necessity: her body forced her to. If she had the choice, she would’ve loved to reinforce the norm — a posture borne out by her second pregnancy, in which she was more circumspect in how she dressed and dealt with far less press scrutiny, in large part because her body wasn’t dealing with preeclampsia and, as such, didn’t provide the same spectacle.
But an accidental activist is an activist nonetheless. In August 2015, Kardashian Instagrammed a selfie of her naked pregnant body, ostensibly as a means of silencing speculation that she’d hired a surrogate to carry her second child. “First they said I’m too skinny so I have to be faking it,” she wrote. “Now they say I’m too big so I have to be faking it . . . Some days I’m photographed before I eat & look smaller, some days I’ve just eaten & I look bigger. It’s all part of the process. I think you all know me well enough to know I would document the process if I got a surrogate. Everyone’s body is different; every pregnancy is very different! I’ve learned to love my body at every stage! I’m going to get even bigger & that’s beautiful too!” The more representations of the ways in which “everybody’s body is different” and “every pregnancy is different,” the less pregnancies like Kardashian’s — or Jessica Simpson’s, or that of any woman who doesn’t have a Kate Middleton–style pregnancy — will feel unruly, or deserving of censorship, or ashamed.
The pregnant woman has more “freedom” in the public sphere than ever before — and yet women are experiencing the largest war against their reproductive freedoms in more than fifty years. It’s contradictory, of course, but that’s the guiding structure of any ideology: no matter how emancipatory it might seem for the pregnant body to be visible, that visibility means subjugation to regimes of respectability and regulation under patriarchy. As Cramer points out, it was no coincidence that as audiences watched Kardashian’s preparations for labor, Wendy Davis was filibustering against anti-choice laws in the Texas state legislature. When the body becomes public property, as the pregnant body has indubitably become, it not only liberates the populace at large to comment and cast judgment on it, but the (male-dominated) legislature to institute legal controls over it.
The more representations of the ways in which “everybody’s body is different” and “every pregnancy is different,” the less pregnancies like Kardashian’s will feel unruly, or deserving of censorship, or ashamed.
Kardashian may have felt bullied, saddened, and otherwise hurt by the reception of her pregnancy; she was certainly disappointed in her own failure to live up to the ideal. But when things didn’t go as planned, she planned differently: watching the season, you get the sense of a woman figuring out how to navigate, on her own terms, a world that’s told her not only that she’s “too pregnant,” but that she’s also been too fat, too superficial, too fake, too curvy, too sexual. The anxiety over Kardashian’s body is, of course, actually over her power: that a woman whose primary skill is the way she lives life could so effectively market that life. That even if she’s married to the best rapper in the world, she’s still the most influential person in the room.
It’s easy to mistake Kardashian for a falsely empowered woman, so thoroughly enmeshed in the ideology of self-surveillance and the performance of docility and submission it implies. Yet she has spent the last decade of her life, and her first pregnancy in particular, being labeled as too much of something. She may not own the label of feminist, averring that she’s not a “free the nipple” type girl — but that doesn’t mean that her work to make the labor of femininity visible or reduce the stigma around the “non-beautiful” pregnancy isn’t, at heart, a feminist project.
It will take years for the cultural influence of Kardashian’s particular brand of unruliness to become clear. But just as Demi Moore’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair has become a pivot in attitudes toward pregnancy in public, Kim’s pregnant body, likened to a whale, excised from Vogue, pursued specifically at its worst angles, might mark another era: in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional those same anti-choice laws that Wendy Davis filibustered against, in which the most famous woman on the planet declares that every body, every pregnancy is different — and in which the business of being a woman in public, even with an audience of millions, still remains that woman’s business alone. ●
Anne Helen Petersenreceived her PhD in media studies from the University of Texas, where she studied the industrial history of the gossip industry. Today, she writes about culture, celebrity, and feminism for BuzzFeed News. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, was featured in The Boston Globe, Time, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Bitch, the New York Post, and The Rumpus. She lives in Brooklyn.
To learn more about Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, click here.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
“I wanna start this shit off straight,” said Birdman, the Cash Money Records mogul most famous for signing Lil Wayne, in a now-infamous face-off with the hosts of The Breakfast Club, the Power 105.1 morning radio show, in April 2016. “I’m telling all three of y’all to stop playing with my name,” he continued as he and his crew stood like sentries in front of the soundproof panels that lined the studio’s right wall. The Breakfast Club’s three hosts — DJ Envy, Angela Yee, and Charlamagne Tha God watched in suppressed amusement. Then DJ Envy responded to the escalating situation the way any veteran reality TV show producer would: “Let’s go on air. Let’s go!” he said, talking more to his camera operator than to Birdman.
“Stop playin’ with my fuckin’ name. Period,” Birdman fumed.
“Let’s go,” Envy reiterated.
“Let’s do it on air,” his cohost Charlamagne Tha God chimed in.
“Stop playin’ with my fuckin’ name,” Birdman said again. “I ain’t gonna say it no mo’,” he finished, his voice wavering. Then he pulled out his chair to sit down.
After months of speculation fueled by frank talk on The Breakfast Club — that Birdman didn’t pay artists, that he made bad business deals with Lil Wayne, that there was more to the story of his infamous kiss with Wayne than a show of respect from Wayne, that he had a role in the shooting of Wayne’s tour bus — Birdman had had enough. He removed his chewing gum before saying into the mic, “I wanted to come look you in your face like a man and tell you how I feel.” He slipped off his glasses and looked at Charlamagne, who had previously talked on the show about Birdman’s controversies. Then he said the words that would birth a new meme and make him lingua franca among hip-hop heads and white suburban teens alike:
“When y’all sayin’ my name, put some respek on it.”
“But I’m the radio guy!” Charlamagne said. “Why pull up on the radio guy? Don’t act tough with the radio guy!”
“I hear you, my nigga. Y’all finished or is y’all done? I ain’t got no mo’ talking,” Birdman replied. Then he stood up and commanded his crew to leave the studio.
A day later, the video was up on The Breakfast Club’s official YouTube channel and several of its fan pages. Shorter clips of the interview made their way to Instagram and Twitter, and memes proliferated. Pusha T tweeted crying-laugh emojis and joked about Birdman’s wavering voice. Ten days later, the video had garnered more than 8.5 million views, and approximately one year later, it’s got more than 11.5 million plays, The Breakfast Club’s highest official tally to date for an individual clip.
At 2 minutes and 22 seconds, the interview is the shortest in the show’s seven-year history, but its popularity proved how moments on The Breakfast Club could go insanely viral. Shortly after the interview spread online, the mogul turned that instance into a song, “Respek.” By the end of the year, “Birdman” was one of the top 10 most googled memes of 2016.
The Breakfast Club does what few widely syndicated radio shows do today: It asserts the importance of letting black people of all types speak, at length, for themselves.
Since the show began in 2010, the trio’s interviews with various hip-hop artists, public intellectuals, and politicians have amassed millions of views and prompted the post-internet equivalent of watercooler conversations.
It was on The Breakfast Club that comedian Damon Wayans uttered the profane line about Bill Cosby’s accusers being “un-rape-able bitches” and saw his national stock go down. It was on The Breakfast Club, in February 2016, that pharmaceutical bro Martin Shkreli threatened to smack Ghostface Killah, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the group who’d made the album he’d recently purchased for $2 million. Kanye West acknowledged the show’s power in a February 2015 interview: “That’s why I respect this show, because this is a voice to society. This is the voice of, I’d say, of the barbershop. This is a voice of the streets.” Writer B Dot of hip-hop news hub Rap Radar called The Breakfast Club “America’s Radio Show.”
In its heterogeneous array of interview subjects, from the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan to Future, The Breakfast Club does what few widely syndicated shows do today: It asserts the importance of letting black people of all types speak, at length, for themselves. Nowhere else can you find interviews with black nationalist gurus like Umar Johnson alongside Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber. The Breakfast Club has become must-listen radio. It’s at the vanguard of black culture, and it crucially moves the needle. But how did the show get there? And now that Charlamagne, its runaway star, has made appearances on mainstream television shows like The Dr. Oz Show, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and The View, and has a regular perch on MTV, will the thing that makes The Breakfast Club special lose its luster under the mainstream, and white, spotlight?
“What do you get when you take Ciph’s old sidekick, Wendy Williams’ old sidekick, and mix in Miss Jones’ old sidekick?” asked Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg during a 2012 segment. I’ll tell you what you get — nothing,” he said. “Two jackoffs and a runt who mean nothing in this town.” Although he didn’t mention them by name, his question clearly alluded to his radio-industry competition Angela Yee, Charlamagne Tha God, and DJ Envy.
“You’re dealing with three people who all worked with somebody that was the main personality,” Envy told me in an interview in January 2016. “We kinda know how to play second fiddle. So we allow each other to get our emotions out or get our nuts off or say what we have to say in any interview or on any topic.”
The Breakfast Club started in December 2010, but had been in the works for months. Geespin, Power 105.1’s former program director, came up with the idea after deciding to replace The Ed Lover Show, which was hosted by the eponymous media personality.
Once he had decided on the show’s mission, he needed to find the right hosts. Coincidentally, the three hosts he found appeared to have stumbled into radio. The college-educated Raashaun Casey, aka DJ Envy, 39, grew up in Queens, the son of a police officer. The Brooklyn-born Angela Yee (she declined to give her age) graduated from Wesleyan and spent years working in marketing, then interned for the Wu-Tang Clan, and was a rap manager before she made her way into radio. And Charlamagne, born Lenard McKelvey, 36, grew up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and sold crack and spent time in prison before interning at a radio station to stay out of trouble.
Geespin met with Charlamagne first. “Cadillac [Jack], who was the program director at the time, and I had discussed bringing Charlamagne into the fold. I had introduced [Cadillac] to Angela and he loved how she sounded as well. So, we got those two on board first, and Envy was the last one to get on board, because he had done morning radio before over at Hot , and he was doing well in his afternoon slot at Power. He wasn’t overly enthralled at going back to morning drive. But he had had a good relationship with Charlamagne, and a good relationship with Angela, and that was kind of it.”
After cycling through names, like “Three the Hard Way“ and “The Big 3,” they settled on The Breakfast Club. Geespin thought it worked because of the “misfit nature of what the [John Hughes] movie was and how they were. … The Ally Sheedy character just kinda stuck out in my mind for Angela, almost like this genius misfit … and then I guess Charlamagne would’ve played like the crazy guy on there or something.” If you google The Breakfast Club, the radio show is now the first hit, topping the film’s IMDb listing.
Yee saw The Breakfast Club job in practical terms. “When I did this morning show, you know, Hot 97 offered me a job there, too. But when I went up there, Ebro [Darden, Hot 97 personality and program director] was like, ‘Well, am I gonna be on the show with Cipha and Peter, and it’s all three of us?’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘So, is my name on there?’ ‘No.’ And when he told me how much money I was making, I was like, I make more money than that at Sirius and I don’t even make enough there.” She’s deliberate in breaking down the gender parity that made her decide to do the show. “So I’m glad when this opportunity came up, I said to them, ‘Are we all three of us going to be equal?’ Because I also had another offer in Philly to do the mornings there that would have been my show and I could’ve hired whoever I wanted. But I felt like this would be a good combination, and I felt like as long as all three of us were equal I could do it. Because I think sometimes as a female, they have a tendency to decide, ‘Oh, you’re the sidekick. Oh, you’re just the girl who does the gossip, who does the traffic.’ And I didn’t want to do just that.”
On The Breakfast Club, which airs on weekdays from 6am to 10am, the dynamic is clear: Yee is the voice of reason and part-time gossip reporter, Charlamagne courts controversy through his often probing questions and problematic catchphrases (like using “vintage vagina” for women over 40 he deems attractive), and Envy is the behind-the-scenes guy, handling introductions and the transitions in and out of segments and doing DJ mixes. The show struggled initially to find an audience and figure out its content. “When we first started, the show almost didn’t last past the year,” Yee remembered. “At first, it wasn’t doing well. It wasn’t connecting. The ratings weren’t that great. A lot of that is just adjusting technical things for ratings. And then some of it [was] us just finding our groove together,” in terms of testing out which segments worked. The other part of it, Yee said, was that people traditionally did not listen to Power 105.1 in the mornings, opting instead for Hot 97. “It took a while for people to know that The Breakfast Club existed.”
Will the thing that makes The Breakfast Club special lose its luster under the mainstream, and white, spotlight?
Charlamagne remembered the early slump, too. “When we first started, and the ratings weren’t where they were supposed to be, I was like, ‘Everybody just be cool. It’s gon’ click in a minute. It’s gon’ click in a minute. Like, the cream will always rise to the top.’”
“The interviews have always been [a] hallmark for us,” Yee said. According to Yee, early interview highlights include talks with Webbie, Gucci Mane, Lil Boosie also known as Boosie Badazz, and Jay Z. “They just work in synergy,” Geespin said. “Look, if you want to use a sports metaphor, use Phil Jackson. They run the ‘triangle’ offense. All three of them touch the ball every single time.”
The watershed moment for the trio came with the show’s national syndication in August 2013. “We started off getting syndicated on the weekends first, so that was a big deal,” Yee said. “But the impact was being syndicated on the weekdays. That was the biggest deal for us. I did not even think that would happen when we first started doing the show.” Following national weekday syndication, Revolt TV began simulcasting the show in March 2014. In 2015, Power 105.1 beat Hot 97 in the ratings for the first time, helped in part by The Breakfast Club‘s ascendancy. (Nielsen declined to give me program level ratings, but based on data available to the press for the past three months, Power 105.1 continues to be the top urban radio station in New York City.)
One of the reasons why the show eventually clicked was because of the hosts’ social media strategy — namely, they decided to actually use social media. They would post their interviews on YouTube and tease their upcoming segments on their individual Twitter accounts. (Their official YouTube channel spawned dozens of fan pages that posted their videos simultaneously.) They also distributed their interviews to blogs like World Star Hip Hop, the YBF, and Bossip. “I remember when we first started The Breakfast Club, I did this whole thing with Belvedere that was like a toast to the bloggers, acknowledging them and thanking them,” said Yee. “And they came out and were like, ‘Thank you, guys, so much for our first year and for helping us become successful. We appreciate it.’”
Cipha Sounds, a comedian and former MTV host who knows The Breakfast Club well —Yee was a cohost of his satellite radio show The Cipha Sounds Effect, and he has cohosted various shows on Hot 97, including the morning show Yee turned down — has his own theory about The Breakfast Club‘s success. “This is my theory. Like, if you quote this, like make sure it says my theory not my fact,” he cautioned in an interview with me last year. “They just went at every angle possible. They spread the word out of New York that they were the hottest shit, so that when artists came to town, they would want to do that show.” Cipha continued, “And they also catered to a certain market. Like, [Hot 97 was] a little more general. The heavy black angle was missing, and they snatched it up.”
He explained that although Hot 97, which is owned by Emmis Communications, had KISS-FM, that station played old-school R&B, not rap or pop. “Hot  was like pop and hip-hop, so we had to cover both. There were a lot of street records that we didn’t play because they were too hood, which Power 105 snatched up because they were gearing towards hood. Once they did that, they started blowing up more, and people started fucking with them more.”
Envy, whose on-air admission of infidelity in January 2013 was one of the show’s earliest viral moments, also pointed out that their experience in and around the music business facilitates a more vigorous exchange among the hosts and the artists featured on the show. “We all have history in the industry,” he explained. “We can have a real conversation with somebody and be open. And if you say something we don’t agree [with], challenge it. You get a real interview. It’s not gonna be, ‘Hey, so what’s number three on your album?’ We’re gonna talk about politics, we’re gonna talk about what’s going on in your life, we’re gonna talk about what’s going on in the world, we’re gonna talk about what you’re feeling.”
“I think [The Breakfast Club] has made people listen to radio again,” Yee said. “You know, people love Steve Harvey, people love other shows, but I don’t think there’s been a syndicated morning show that’s young, that’s fun, that talks about real issues.”
InVoice Over: The Making of Black Radio, historian William Barlow calls radio “the most popular mass medium in the black community, as well as [its] most vital source of information and culture.” While the book was published before web 2.0 innovations like blogging and social media changed the way the world communicates (and bolstered The Breakfast Club’s reach), it’s not hard to see how a radio show with an internet following could maintain a stronghold in young black America. In former radio broadcaster Bernie Hayes’ 2005 book, The Death of Black Radio: The Story of America’s Black Radio Personalities, he gives another definition of “black radio”:
When you accept as true the concept of Black Radio, you imagine personality radio; public figures from your community, who love and understand the music you love. Local stars that care about you and try to satisfy your musical and cultural tastes.
The book spans the ’50s to the pre-internet era, and although it’s obsolete in certain ways, it anticipates what The Breakfast Club does well. “I think that all of us bring something different to the table. I think part of it is that we all are like regular people,” said Yee. “I still live in Brooklyn, so people see me all the time. I go out to eat at restaurants. I’m all over the place. Envy is in the club every single night. Charlamagne don’t really go out too much, but you can see him like on TV, on Uncommon Sense and everything else. And he’s so active on his Twitter, it’s ridiculous. I think people feel like they know us. They feel like they can talk to us.”
The hosts know how to garner those viral moments, like when Drake sent bottles of Dom Pérignon to Charlamagne and mentioned him on wax during his beef with Meek Mill in July 2015. But they also know how to carve out space for politically strident content, such as in their interviews with Farrakhan and political commentator Angela Rye, which mostly matter to black listeners.
“We all are like regular people,” said Yee. “I think people feel like they know us. They feel like they can talk to us.”
They also harnessed the power of longform, before podcasting became as prevalent as it is now. “They were having these 45-minute long conversations when nobody was really doing that,” Geespin said. “The podcast era hadn’t really taken hold yet. Now, you know, everybody’s doing it.” Take, for example, the now-defunct podcast The Champs, hosted by Chappelle’s Show alum Neal Brennan and comedian Moshe Kasher. The show, which ran from August 2011 to February 2016, was a novelty in that it both called attention to the lack of longform audio interviews with black comedians and fetishized their presence. Almost a year earlier, The Breakfast Club was doing that very same thing, without assigning the mix of white guilt and exoticism Brennan and Kasher turned into mostly riveting audio. Indeed, Charlamagne told me, “I realize that with all of these various platforms that I have, it does come with great responsibility. I’ve always said radio personalities are public servants. We’re here to serve the needs of the public.”
They’re not the first media personalities to do this, of course. Radio and video jockeys like Petey Greene, Donnie Simpson, Dee Barnes, Fab 5 Freddy and countless earlier personalities hosted black artists and community activists, largely within the auspices of corporate environments. Many local jocks are currently doing their hometown versions of this (if they’re not in one of the 60 markets iHeart syndicates; in which case The Breakfast Club likely takes that place). The show is not wholly unique given the scope of its platform, either. National blogs like The YBF, Bossip, and Instagram hit The Shade Room are all known for their mix of what Charlamagne calls “righteousness and ratchetness,” a formula he coined to describe what both he and the show do best. YouTube channels like VladTV (founded by the Russian music industry figure DJ Vlad), podcasts Tax Season and Rap Radar, and TV show Desus and Mero follow a similar format — whether derived independently or directly informed by The Breakfast Club.
To get a better understanding of why Charlamagne has become the breakout star of The Breakfast Club, consider his book, which came out in April. Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It is a hybrid coming-of-age narrative, self-help book, and black-empowerment pamphlet. The mix of forms enables Charlamagne to flex his role as the show’s in-house provocateur. On the page, his provocations are weightier, but also seem underdeveloped when not delivered on air, scorched-earth style and accompanied by donkey braying.
With chapter titles such as “It’s Not the Size of the Pond but the Hustle in the Fish,” “Put the Weed in the Bag!” and “Access Your Black Privilege,” the book reads like an irreverent mashup of the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan’s black economic prescriptions, the sermonic strains of Wu-Tang, and the tenets of the Nation of Gods and Earths, the religious sect that inspired him to add “Tha God” to his stage moniker.
Although he grounds his proclamations in personal experience, the last chapter, “Access Your Black Privilege,” alternates between inspiring and scolding pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric. Alongside pro-black maxims like “We can never lose sight of the fact that we are indeed gods, kings, and queens,” there are statements like this:
“I understand that … oppression can be depressing. Even deadly. But if you let it completely color your vision of the world, then you’re doing the white man’s dirty work for him. When all we can see is the privilege of others, then the biggest oppressor of African Americans becomes OURSELVES. It might not be a popular sentiment, but it needs to be said.”
Statements like Charlamagne’s Black Privilege “bootstrapism” also provide fodder for The Breakfast Club’s archenemies. Hot 97 personalities declined to be interviewed for this story, but they have publicly criticized their rivals for their politics. Ebro Darden, the lead host of Hot 97’s morning show and jockey for Apple’s Beats 1 radio platform, has condemned Charlamagne for what he calls “coonin’,” a term used to describe a kind of obsequious behavior performed by black people that’s meant to appeal to whites.
“Has The Breakfast Club been able to blow up because of the power of syndication? Well of course they have. But they were already well on their way.”
Aside from questioning Charlamagne’s politics, something other people have done on occasion when Charlamagne has made tone-deaf comments, Darden contends that The Breakfast Club‘s success is partly due to its inclusion on iHeartRadio.
“The iHeartRadio thing, I know what the politics are,” Darden said in an interview with The Source magazine in 2015. “They own 800 radio stations.”
The notion that iHeartRadio’s power fuels The Breakfast Club‘s success is important to consider. While it may come across as slightly undermining, it’s not entirely without merit. The show does benefit from the infrastructure provided by its corporate parent. It’s syndicated in more than 35 markets during the week and 60 on the weekend, which means that affiliate radio stations in those markets don’t have to produce morning shows of their own, an arrangement that affects the employment of local jocks. The “black radio” idea espoused by Bernie Hayes doesn’t seem to jibe with the corporatization of radio and the syndication market, which is more culturally homogenous and cheaper to produce.
Still, Geespin believes that the show’s reach was extensive, both in cultural and geographical terms, before syndication. “If you were in New York at the time before they got syndicated, I think it would be pretty clear the cultural importance that they were bringing to the table. Have The Breakfast Club been able to blow up because of the power of syndication? Well of course they have. But I think if you look at what they were doing to even get considered for syndication, they were already well on their way.”
Despite The Breakfast Club’s undeniable influence, it’s still something of a self-contained system. It undoubtedly has more mass media influence than, say, pioneering hip-hop radio shows like Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack and The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, but it continues to maintains a relative insularity in spite of the individual efforts of its hosts, who are split on whether the show has crossed over. When I spoke to those close to the show, including the hosts and producers, over the last year and a half, they didn’t seem to think they needed to break into the mainstream. There’s a chance they were affecting humility, or being cagey about their ambition, but nearly everyone I spoke to about the show thinks the show is just fine where it is, and they are not too concerned with it being more mainstream.
“I think we have crossed over … I think we are seeing a lot of mainstream success, whether it’s MTV or VH1, or whether it’s on TMZ, you know?” said Envy. “A lot of mainstream people are looking at The Breakfast Club. The fact that you have an artist like Ed Sheeran who listens to The Breakfast Club, or Justin Bieber. Or a lot of these athletes, or actors and actresses who are not in our demographics, and just genuinely enjoy The Breakfast Club. It’s amazing.”
In response to a question about why the show hadn’t reached mainstream popularity despite its virality, Yee said, “We are looked at as ‘Are we supposed to be in the stories or reporting on them?’ People don’t traditionally look at a lot of radio personalities … It’s not like we’re celebrities, you know what I’m saying? We’re supposed to be more behind the scenes. It just so happens with us being on Revolt TV and with so many things happening outside of what we do up here in the studio,” she said, tapping on the recording console, “it does make us more in the forefront of everything.”
Still, they’ve negotiated that balance between staying behind the scenes and maximizing the celebrity status they do have. This past April, Yee cohosted The Real, Fox’s daytime talk show for a few days and she appeared alone on one episode of Empire last fall. A few months later, in November, Empire aired an episode that featured all three hosts doing a quasi version of The Breakfast Club’s Revolt simulcast. Those appearances on a primetime, top-rated network TV show solidify the show’s place in both contemporary hip-hop culture and the media establishment.
Charlamagne is the kind of famous in which he gets mistaken for other black men.
But perhaps no other moment showcases the liminal line The Breakfast Club walks between cult hit and pop culture fixture than Charlamagne’s recent book signing in late April. Charlamagne is the kind of famous in which he gets mistaken for other black men. People who know him, know him. Those who don’t stare at his face and superimpose other people’s biographies onto it. Earlier that day, Charlamagne had appeared on Elvis Duran and the Morning Show and The View, and later, he’d go to MTV and then tape The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. But now he was a semi-famous black man in a bookstore. He had just finished a 90-minute signing at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Shoppers were doing that thing they sometimes do: Even if they didn’t know who he was, they wanted to catch a glimpse of him, so there was a lot of rubbernecking in front of journals and stationery.
A woman told me that she couldn’t believe it was him. “He’s a physician,” she said. She told me that she watched him in movies and saw him nightly on television. I wondered if she thought he was a reality TV doctor, or if she had seen him on Dr. Oz. “He’s a movie star,” she added. Scrums of customers stood around, waiting for Charlamagne to leave the store, and security had blocked off the area near the green room and bathrooms. “Chicago Cops,” she finally said, presumably referring to the NBC procedural Chicago P.D.
All of a sudden those in his circle — book publicist, manager, friend Wax — left the B&N greenroom and descended the escalator. An employee asked me and the woman to move to the side. I swear I didn’t see him pass by even though the entourage had moved to the ground floor. “See him?” the woman asked, and she pointed to a banner that listed his name and the title of the book. We followed the entourage. As we were walking, she said, “He doesn’t look like in the movies, though. [He’s] smaller, shorter.” At some point after, I googled the Chicago P.D. cast. The lady was right: The show’s only current black regular, LaRoyce Hawkins, is a lot taller than Charlamagne.
Outside the store, an hour and a half before the signing, there was a queue of mega-fans waiting anxiously to meet their idol. Desiree, a medical worker from Milwaukee, had extended her NYC trip by one day just so she could meet him and have her book signed. Nicholas, from Staten Island, arrived at the bookstore when it opened at 9 a.m. so that he could secure his place in line and get the book for his brother-in-law, a member of the military who’s currently stationed in Texas.
A man wearing a bow tie and carrying a DSLR camera on his shoulder said he was on break from his job in the sales department of a soda company nearby. When half-seriously asked if he was a member of the Nation of Islam, at first he joked that he was a part of their press team. Then he echoed the subtitle of Charlamagne’s book, even though he admitted he hadn’t read the book yet. “See, again: Opportunity comes to those who create it. You present yourself a certain way, they treat you a certain way,” he said. “I’m on the job. So me going to these office buildings walking in, presented a certain way, they’re going to treat you a certain way. The bow tie works.”
Wearing a Roc Nation fitted hat, burnt orange leather Timberlands, and a dark T-shirt bearing #BlackPrivilege, Charlamagne stopped to sign more autographs before he was ushered into a tinted black SUV.
Something tells me that although Charlamagne himself might become more popular, The Breakfast Club is too prickly for true mass consumption. Earlier, in the Barnes & Noble signing room, Charlamagne told me he planned to talk later that night to the president of OneUnited Bank, a black institution he banks with, about “what we can do to move the culture forward.” When talking about black economics, he shared a mantra that echoes not only the sentiments he expresses in his book, but of The Breakfast Club more generally: “Let’s embrace what we have as opposed to pointing the finger at what everybody else has …. Like, we can build our own ecosystem and our own communities and have that privilege amongst each other!”
Moments later, loitering around Times Square, I emailed Charlamagne’s manager Karen Kinney to ask if the talk at OneUnited Bank was still happening, thinking I could tag along and cover that meeting. Her reply: “He is at MTV now and then heading straight to Colbert. Then he has book party at night.” So, no sit-down with OneUnited Bank. It’s understandable that this talk would be shifted given the hubbub taking place on book release day. Still, with all of his solo appearances and individual ventures, I wonder how long the ecosystem Charlamagne described will stay in place. For now, it appears that this individual striving is a part of the show’s success.
“The three of us are so busy doing our own thing… I don’t think our focus now is ‘How can we make The Breakfast Club the biggest that it could be?’” Yee said. “I think right now, everybody’s like, ‘I’m gonna do this, he’s gonna do that, Angela’s gonna do this,’ and then we all come together. And that makes the show stronger.” ●