Kim Kardashian’s ‘American Horror Story’ Performance Is Proof of Her Comeback

Kim Kardashian’s performance on the current season of “American Horror Story,” two episodes in, could be described as thrillingly competent. As Siobhan (sure!), a power publicist who is determined to get her actor client, played by Emma Roberts, everything she wants, Kardashian leverages her rapacious ambition. She directs it outward, determined to get for someone else all the fame that the real-life Kardashian has found for herself.

Siobhan’s steeliness and her capability for cutting wit come through in jagged-edge one-liners, to which Kardashian’s affect and her presence lend a bit of topspin. “You on a bad day,” she tells her client, a would-be star who is struggling to convey her personality despite a botched talk-show appearance, “is like Hilary Swank on a great one.” (Ouch.) The second episode featured a slightly brutal Jamie Lee Curtis read, rendered into Hollywoodese by Kardashian — a performer who could have fit right into Robert Altman’s “The Player,” were it updated for 2023. It’s in Kardashian’s sublime flatness, her ability to convey that this meanness comes naturally, that the humor lies. In the most recent episode, her gaze penetrated through even through Roberts’ character’s onstage breakdown at an awards ceremony, somehow both horrified and unsurprised at this latest collapse for her particular black swan.

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Is it reinventing the wheel, or matching the heights of women who once occupied Ryan Murphy’s repertory company? No one would confuse Kim Kardashian for Sarah Paulson. But she’s also asked to do somewhat less like transformation, and something more like playful persona manipulation. (It’s somewhat akin to how the show deployed Lady Gaga in her “Hotel” season, as a fame monster living a life as outsized as, well, Lady Gaga’s.) Early in this season, Kardashian has been asked to embody the concept of celebrity, in all its capriciousness and its casual cruelty — after all, the pursuit of fame is but one thing making Roberts’ character’s life a living hell. And Kardashian fits the bill. She’s believable as a woman saying barbarous things at brunch, or being justifiably mean-spirited in defense of her client. And for now, that can be enough.

Kardashian’s acting breakthrough — she’s popped up in films and scripted TV through the years, but never in a role this substantial — comes at a seeming moment of transition for the star. It was just last year that I wrote that Kardashian’s greatest role, as the central figure of her family’s reality show, had grown stale. Since moving to Hulu and rebranding their series as “The Kardashians,” the family, and especially Kim, seemed to wilt in the spotlight, holding back their emotions, and the facts of their lives, in favor of endless enumeration of how cool and special it felt to have the honor of promoting fashion houses. These women are businesspeople, yes, but all work and no play makes Kim a star without much left to show us.

Suddenly, in the show’s third season, earlier this year, the show came to life. (That Kim read my critique on-air, early in the season, suggests that it may have been taken to heart, even as she claimed in the moment, to an echo-chamber audience of her sister Khloé and her sister Kourtney’s co-parent Scott Disick, that it had no real merit. I’m glad that the piece found a readership, and that the show got more interesting!) After that moment of acknowledging and then dismissing the critique, Kim spent the rest of the third season trying to make good television. She battled elder sister Kourtney in a manner that seemed almost relatable. What was at stake, in this case, was the idea that Kim, in agreeing to take part in a “La Dolce Vita”-style campaign for Dolce & Gabbana, was co-opting Kourtney’s relationship with the luxury brand, and her fondness for Italy. But if one subtracted the fashion labels, it looked a bit like the kind of seemingly petty irritant that wears against all kinds of siblings over time.

Kim’s role as the most notorious figure within a family of stars has long provided a complicated backbeat for the Kardashians’ public lives. But it has rarely been broached so openly, or with as freewheeling commentary by Kim herself. Her performance on “The Kardashians” has been, since her feud with Kourtney burst into view, remarkable. Last season, she telegraphed utter contempt for the idea that she is “copying [Kourtney’s] ‘Dolce Vita lifestyle.’” The fight was, by season’s end, settled, with both sisters having had their say, and having said it to camera. In Season 4, which launched Sept. 28, Kim fights over the phone with an off-camera Kourtney. We’re told that their tension between the sisters had ratcheted down after both had their say, until, predictably enough, the point when they each watched what the other said to the whole world.

The result is open warfare over the camera’s gaze: Both sisters are making points they want to express to a family member, but both, too, are trying to win the narrative. Kourtney, who has since the early days been relatively diffident toward the “Kardashians” circus, tells her sister, over the phone, “you’re just a witch, and I hate you” before hanging up. It’s notable that this conversation happens over the phone, and that we see only Kim’s reactions; Kourtney wouldn’t or didn’t let cameras film her excoriating the sister who more confidently knows she wants fame. Kourtney seems, still, unused to living on camera, an art for which Kim was seemingly born.

And so it is that early footage of the sisters grudgingly showing up to a confessional together, shoehorned into the first episode of “The Kardashians,” bears all the crackle and tension that has been missing from this series. This look into a family dynamic colored by the pursuit of attention is meta and twisted and frankly discomfiting. It’s also the cost of doing business — if we’re going to have the Kardashians put in front of us either way, they’re now showing us sides of themselves that can actually hold our attention. If that sounds uncomfortable for the participants, well, “AHS” creator Ryan Murphy isn’t the first person to have observed that celebrity can be, at times, a horror story.

Say this much for Kardashian, across her two currently running TV series: For a while there, it seemed like this omnipresent cultural figure had run out of things to say, or new ways to say them. No longer! Perhaps Kardashian has taken her own advice, and gotten her ass up and worked. Or perhaps her time as a style muse (including, this past week, a startling and revelatory spread in the high-fashion magazine CR Fashion Book) has shown her that audiences won’t just follow you if you take risks — they’ll embrace them.

Whatever the case, Kardashian seems as comfortable as she’s ever been onscreen, all while stepping out on new endeavors or while delivering new levels of personal candor. It’s an interesting era for a star who, in defining the say-everything era in which she lives, has to hustle to keep coming up with new forms of content. For now, she’s winning.

On this week’s “American Horror Story,” Siobhan tells her fame-hungry client “You are not an actress anymore. You are an athlete.” In character, Kardashian is advising her client on the marathon run ahead on the road to Oscar. But the real Kim may have brought a little of herself to the moment. She seems, finally, to be releasing all the energy she had in reserve.

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