Kylie Jenner is a lot of things: a makeup mogul, a reality TV star, a possible chemtrail truther, a mom. As of this week, she’s also the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire, per Forbes’s annual billionaires list. This isn’t the first time Forbes implied that the youngest Jenner got to where she is on her own: In July 2018, the magazine published a story on “America’s women billionaires” featuring Kylie, whom it claimed was “set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire.”
Whether Kylie Jenner, whose family has been the subject of the wildly popular reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians — not to mention several spinoffs, including her very own miniseries, Life of Kylie — is truly “self-made” has become a topic of contention. Critics say her financial success never would have been possible had she not been born into a life of fame and fortune. Despite the moniker, it’s not a stretch to say Kylie’s 10-figure net worth has a little something to do with her famous (and already quite wealthy) family.
There’s Kim, the most contoured and arguably the most famous Kardashian, whose leaked sex tape turned the family into a household name in the aughts, and who, in less than a decade, went from being Paris Hilton’s assistant to gracing the cover of Vogue. There’s Kourtney, whose brand can best be summed up as glam mommy blogger (she’s launching a new lifestyle brand, named Poosh after her nickname for her daughter, Penelope); and Khloe, the one who’s into fitness (she has a show called Revenge Body, which is basically about getting fit to get even). Kendall, the model, has become a fashion week mainstay. (And then there’s Rob, who is best known for his failed relationship with Blac Chyna and his uh, novelty sock line; the Kardashians don’t really talk about him a lot.)
To someone who has followed the Kardashian-Jenners closely, Kylie’s meteoric rise is both unlikely — she was, for a time, the most normal and low-key member of her family — and completely expected.
Kylie’s billionaire status raises a more interesting question than whether she really did it all on her own. How did the youngest (and at one point, the least famous) of the Kardashian-Jenner clan out-earn all her siblings? In other words, how did Kylie become a billionaire before Kim?
The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder
Kylie’s financial success, as well as that of her siblings, is largely the result of one woman’s hard work: Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian-Jenner family, who also happens to manage all her children’s careers. If there’s one thing Kris knows how to do, it’s put her kids to work — especially in ways that, more often than not, don’t look like real work at all.
Kris was the one who pitched Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which premiered in 2007, to Ryan Seacrest. (Kim’s sex tape with Ray J, which leaked a year earlier, was both an “aha” moment for Kris and a plot point on the show’s first season. “When I first heard about Kim’s tape, as her mother, I wanted to kill her,” Kris said in a confessional. “But as her manager, I knew that I had a job to do.”) Perhaps without meaning to — though, to be clear, everything Kris Jenner does is intentional — she secured her family’s place in the zeitgeist and laid the foundation for Kylie’s eventual fortune.
Kylie wasn’t really relevant in the show’s earliest seasons; she and Kendall were mostly there for comic relief and the occasional feel-good plot line about volunteering.
But as Kendall and Kylie entered their late teens, Kris began securing sponsorship and licensing deals for her two youngest children. The two Jenner sisters launched lines at PacSun, Steve Madden, Topshop, and Sugar Factory, a candy company. Kylie later launched a solo hair extensions line with Bellami Hair. The real money, though, came later.
Kendall leveraged the family name into a modeling career and instantly began walking in high-profile shows like Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, and Chanel, which, as Fashionista pointed out in 2014, are the kind of gigs most models get after years in the industry. And Kylie? In 2014, at the age of 17, the youngest of Kris’s children reportedly used $250,000 of her earnings from her various brand sponsorships and modeling jobs to create the first of her eponymous lip kits.
The fact that all the money was her own is an important part of the story: Kylie is the sole owner of Kylie Cosmetics, as well as its CEO and chief marketing officer. Her mother is its chief financial officer and continues to manage Kylie’s career. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, Kylie didn’t have to seek outside funding for her business venture because her mother had been booking branded content gigs and sponsorship deals for her for years. (In the Kardashian-Jenner world, becoming old enough to shill #spon is a sort of coming of age, like a bat mitzvah or a quinceañera.) Had Kylie needed an investor, she wouldn’t own 100 percent of Kylie Cosmetics today — if that were the case, it’s possible she wouldn’t be a billionaire.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Kylie founded a company with her own money — money she made thanks to her branding genius of a mother, yes, but still her own, which is why Forbes sees it appropriate to deem her a “self-made” billionaire — and, as Forbes put it, now reaps her company’s “outsize profits.”
From lip injection rumors to a $900 million business
The first Kylie Lip Kits dropped in late November 2015. They came in just three colors — Candy K, a light pink; Dolce K, a darker nude; and TrueBrown K — and sold out in seconds. Kylie had more than 56 million combined followers on Instagram and Twitter at the time, and now attributes her success to her social media following. “I had such a strong reach before I was able to start anything,” she recently told Forbes.
But neither Kylie’s massive social media following nor the fact that she had more capital at 17 than many people acquire in a lifetime fully explains why her lip kits took off. It also doesn’t explain why Kylie launched her makeup empire with lip kits and not, say, a contouring kit.
In 2014, a year before the first lip kits dropped, rumors began swirling about whether Kylie had gotten cosmetic surgery — another Kardashian hallmark. Most people focused on her lips, which had seemingly ballooned in size in just a few months. (BuzzFeed, for example, compiled a list of 17 selfies that show “how much Kylie Jenner’s lips changed this year.”) Kylie claimed she found the rumors “insulting.” “Just in case anyone forgot..I’m 16,” she tweeted in April 2014.
By October, she was “bored” by the rumors. “How long are we gonna talk about this lip thing lmao. Let’s get our lives together guys and talk about some important shit. Just talk about something new at least,” she tweeted. (Those tweets have since been deleted.) She attributed any changes in her facial features to a combination of puberty, contouring, and lipliner.
But in May 2015, Kylie came clean — on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, of course. “I have temporary lip fillers. It’s just an insecurity of mine and it’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I want to admit to the lips, but people are so quick to judge me on everything, so I might have tiptoed around the truth, but I didn’t lie.”
As Kayleen Schaefer wrote for Vanity Fair in 2016, Kylie’s lips quickly became “something akin to the Gen Z equivalent of Tina Turner’s legs or Jennifer Lopez’s backside.”
Lip kits, then, were the perfect product for Kylie’s fledgling cosmetics company. Kendall and Kylie’s collabs with Topshop and PacSun were a way of convincing teenagers they, too could get the sisters’ look on the cheap; Kylie’s hair extensions line with Bellami was her way of giving fans the ability to get hair like hers; the lip kits conveyed the idea that anyone who shelled out $29.99 for a liquid lipstick and some liner could get Kylie’s look, no Juvéderm needed.
Her look isn’t without its baggage. Most of the Kardashian-Jenners, Kylie included, have been accused of altering their bodies to look more like women of color. Lip injections are part of it, but so is their penchant for dark self-tanner. Kylie and Khloe have both been accused of ripping off indie designers and makeup artists, many of whom are women of color.
Kylie Cosmetics has come a long way since launching its first lip kits in 2015. The brand now sells lip kits in dozens of colors and finishes, as well as lip glosses, standalone lipsticks, eyeshadow palettes, eyeliner, blushes, bronzers, highlighters, concealers, and makeup brushes. In late 2018, the brand signed an exclusive distribution deal with the beauty retailer Ulta, putting Kylie’s products in stores across America for the first time ever.
According to Forbes, Kylie Cosmetics sold $54.5 million worth of products in Ulta in the first six weeks after the rollout; the brand’s revenue climbed 9 percent last year to an estimated $360 million, which, according to Forbes, means Kylie Cosmetics is worth an estimated $900 million. Add Kylie’s ongoing endorsement deals and her income from the family’s reality show to that and you’ve got the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire.
But is Kylie really self-made? Forbes later clarified that it uses the term to describe those billionaires who didn’t inherit their fortunes, but instead built them. “But the term is very broad, and does not adequately reflect how far some people have come and, relatively speaking, how much easier others have had it.”
Would Kylie Jenner be a billionaire without Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or without Kris’s branding prowess? It’s unlikely. Self-made or not, Kylie Jenner is a billionaire — she’s also living proof that wealth begets even greater wealth.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the value of Kylie Cosmetics. It’s estimated at $900 million.