Kim Kardashian, Superstar was prescient. Released in March 2007 when Kardashian was known mostly for her proximity to infinitely more notorious stars, the title of the dubiously authorized sex tape predicted the status to which the socialite would ascend within about a year’s time. Whether the tape—shot in 2003 as Kardashian and then-boyfriend singer/eventual reality star Ray J vacationed in Cabo, Mexico—was directly responsible for Kardashian’s undeniable place in the annals of Americana or a fumble out of the gate that Kardashian swiftly and successfully corrected is a matter of debate. Even if Kardashian withdrew from public life after the release of the video, she would still have left a sizable mark on ’00s pop culture: In 2017, the New York Post reported that Kim Kardashian, Superstar had at that point been viewed 150 million times and grossed more than $50 million.
“That’s how I was introduced to the world,” she told Oprah Winfrey in 2012 and that’s about as much credit as she’s ever given Kim Kardashian, Superstar publicly.
It is perhaps worthy of a sideways respect from spectators for its sheer game-changing impact. As a result of it, Kardashian’s bildungsroman can be seen in part as a parable for persevering through shame and humiliation. Kardashian’s example in doing so perhaps helped normalize getting on with life after the world has seen you getting it on—the stigma of sexually explicit material (once seen as a career-ender or a certain banishment to the pornography industry with no chances of transcendence) has declined demonstrably in the past decade, with the proliferation of tube sites, amateur porn on Twitter, and direct-to-consumer sex work platforms like OnlyFans.
But more than anything, Kim Kardashian, Superstar’s larger narrative was an early, protracted exercise in what would come to be known in the Trump era as post-truth, a concept defined primarily by the erosion of objective standards for truth. Key objective facts regarding the tape’s release 14 years ago have failed to materialize and the narrative has largely been defined by the emotions the tape conjured on all sides. Unlike other sex tapes—like Pamela Anderson’s and Paris Hilton’s—the origins of Kim Kardashian, Superstar remain opaque. For something so widely viewed, so crucial to American culture that it has remained closely associated with Kardashian’s name even as she’s become a pop-culture icon in her own right, the tape’s story is incomplete. When it was released in the thick of the blogs-and-paps era of celebrity coverage, it seemed that the very notion of the secret was becoming outmoded. A pop culture consumer could reasonably be seduced into thinking that whether by choice or force, everything there was to know about stars was being laid bare. The obfuscation that continues to define the legacy of Kim Kardashian, Superstar is nothing short of a crowning feat of public relations savvy.
Before January 11, 2007—the day that Ben Widdicombe and Laura Schreffler’s New York Daily News Gatecrasher column confirmed the existence of a Kim Kardashian-Ray J sex tape—Kardashian was just a blip on most people’s radar. She’d appeared in a few episodes of her then-BFF Paris Hilton’s reality show The Simple Life. She’d been publicly linked to Ray J (his own early notoriety also achieved by proxy, as singer Brandy Norwood’s younger brother). She was spotted on a date with Nick Lachey soon after his breakup with Jessica Simpson.
Kardashian’s bubbling under began to simmer at the end of 2006, when rumors started circulating about the imminent leak of unauthorized footage of her and Ray J having sex. The earliest reference to this that I could find came via a post on Hollyscoop published December 28, 2006. The blog posted a short quote from Kardashian—“There is no tape. It is false.”—and signed off, “So there you have it, sorry to disappoint you fellas, but you won’t be seeing home made porn from this hottie.” Few blog posts even from an era so fast, loose, and un-fact-checked, have aged this poorly.
Later that month, Kardashian repeated her denial to TMZ. She said she had nothing to do with the supposed shopping of a sex tape (“There is no tape being shopped. Ray J and I remain friends, and there is nothing he would do to spite me”), and doubled down on doubting its very existence, saying of those who claimed to have viewed the tape, “I would love to see what they’ve seen.” TMZ also reported that, in a clunky attempt at exposition, Kardashian claimed the rumor’s origin could be traced to a message Ray J had left on her MySpace page: “Let’s show the world our sex tape.” Kardashian told the outlet that he called her immediately, asking her to delete his comment.
In February, Kardashian reportedly came clean on E!’s Daily 10 about having recorded herself having sex with Ray J: “Have there been tapes? Maybe, yes. But are they for sale? No. Not for sale. That’s our business.” Gatecrasher printed a statement from Kardashian regarding the rumor that she was responsible for shopping the tape, which could be traced back to Gatecrasher’s initial report on the footage:
I’m not poor; I’m not desperate. I would never attempt to sell a tape. It would humiliate me and ruin my family. I have two successful businesses, and I don’t need the money.
To the Post in 2017, Kardashian’s lawyer, Marty Singer, denied that she had ever lied about the existence of the tape—because the early word was that it contained depictions of water sports, “it’s reasonable to believe that she genuinely did not believe that she was the person in the tape.” However, per a Gatecrasher item in March 2007, Kardashian admitted to Complex that she had initially lied, reasoning, “I really didn’t think [it] was coming out. I apologize for not publicly being honest... but I felt like at the time that’s all that I could have said.” In a December 2012 interview with Howard Stern, Nick Cannon claimed that he had been dating Kardashian at the time the sex-tape news broke and her dishonest denial was what lead to their breakup. “And I still think she might have even had a part to play with [its release],” added Cannon.
Porn company Vivid Entertainment played an unambiguous role in the release of Kim Kardashian, Superstar. On February 7, 2007, the company announced it had paid $1 million to acquire the footage, which would be available in stores come February 28. In the media blast, Vivid co-chairman Steven Hirsch promised “steamy scenes featuring two young and glamorous high profile celebrities that fans of erotica will find very appealing.” The press release continued: “He added that if either Kim or Ray J would like to discuss the video with Vivid ‘we would be happy to do so.’” Kardashian appeared on Extra that day to say that she hoped the footage would remain private. By February 8, 2007, TMZ had posted a 40-second excerpt featuring Kardashian and Ray J in bed, with him attempting to perfect their lighting.
On February 9, 2007, UPI reported that Kardashian announced, “We’re just going to get to the bottom of this and do whatever we have to do to stop it.” On February 13, The Chicago Tribune printed that Kardashian had told Us Weekly that the impending release of the footage was “really hurtful to me and my family, and, contrary to rumors, it’s all happening against my will… I’m sure any woman can understand what it feels like to be betrayed like this. I’m exploring all my legal options.”
She executed said options on February 23 via a Los Angeles Superior Court in a lawsuit filed against Vivid that alleged violation of privacy. According to the Post, the suit claimed that selling the home footage of her and Ray J was “despicable” and “malicious.” Kardashian sought unspecified general and punitive damages, and to block Vivid from using her name and likeness “in any manner for any purpose.” On February 26, Vivid announced that it was postponing its distribution of Kim Kardashian, Superstar in the hopes of Hirsch being able to arrange a meeting with Kardashian.
If this was a scheme that Kardashian had devised or in which she was willingly participating, it was an elaborate one—a symphony of denial, admittance, and litigation on Kardashian’s part and a false-flag laden release strategy on Vivid’s. The frivolous lawsuit would have made it a costly pageant, as well. Indeed, the Post’s Page Six leaned heavily on this innuendo in a March 3, 2007, item which labeled those marketing the tape as “geniuses” and saying the legal kerfuffle had, in fact, increased demand for the release. The column quoted Vivid sales manager Howard Levine: “Everyone wants it.” (Note: I found no evidence that Ray J also attempted to sue Vivid or participated in Kardashian’s suit.)
Conspiracy theories aside, Kardashian’s own telling of her sex-tape nightmare contains a how-sized hole. In an apparent as-told-to piece for Glamour published June 30, 2007, Kardashian kept vague the mechanics of the leak she claimed. “I moved in with my mom and [Ray J] moved in with his sister, and all of the stuff from our house went into storage. The tape was in a camera bag; I forgot about it,” she said. And then: “I don’t know how, but clearly the tape fell into the wrong hands.”
And that was that, no further theorizing. Unlike the blockbuster sex tapes that preceded it, there was no one to blame for this last entry in pop culture’s trinity of culture-shaping revenge porn. Anderson’s tape had been swiped and sold by a handyman, and Hilton’s was (at least in part) the dirty work of her ex Rick Salomon, who appeared with her in the footage. (Coincidentally, or not at all, a trove of footage of Hilton, including numerous examples of her saying the n-word, leaked publicly in 2007 as a result of being obtained from a storage locker whose payment had lapsed. And, like Hilton who said she was “out of it,” in her tape, Kardashian would later claim that she had been on ecstasy during the filming of hers.)
Hirsch denied that “the people” he had purchased the tape from had any connection to Kardashian. “It wasn’t that they were representing the people in the video. It definitely wasn’t. Because Kim was not involved in it. It was that these people had the footage and were looking to sell it,” he told Page Six in 2017. In the same piece, a lawyer who represented people in the porn industry (but had no official connection to Kardashian’s tape) pointed out that Vivid could not have sold the tape without the express permission of its participants via releases and proof of age. This strategically placed information from a disinterested party suggested that either Kardashian and Ray J were involved in the marketing of this tape way earlier than they admitted or that Vivid’s initial press release was one giant bluff that Kardashian and Ray J fell for.
One persistent rumor fingered Kardashian’s self-described “momager,” Kris Jenner, as the doula of this career-birthing scandal. Kardashian’s temporary husband Kris Humphries suggested as much years after the fact, but this theory was most clearly laid out in Ian Halperin’s 2016 book Kardashian Dynasty: The Controversial Rise of America’s Royal Family. Halperin quoted a Vivid contact who said that both parties would need to sign off on a sex tape and deduced that, “It is clear that Vivid would not have announced plans to distribute Kim’s tape without a clear indication from the family that they would give the go-ahead once they had come to terms on a price.” An anonymous source quoted in Halperin’s book claimed that “it was Kris who engineered the deal behind the scenes and was responsible for the tape seeing the light of day.” Kardashian’s rep denied the claims to Page Six and in a (curiously!) now-deleted Gossip Cop post, the family’s rep called a similar Radar item “absurd and not true.” In 2017, Hirsch called the Kris theory “such nonsense” and said he had no contact with the matriarch.
At some point around the tape’s release (at least by 2008, per this YouTube upload but it could have been earlier), Ray J claimed that he didn’t know who approached Vivid and, in line with Kardashian’s story, said the tape was not in his possession. “I shot the tape and she kept the tape,” he told Entertainment Tonight. “She says the tape got lost, I guess, when she was moving or whatever she said. I don’t know.” It seems reasonable to expect a person to have a better handle on the events that led up to a life-altering scandal. Ray J claimed that he didn’t want the world to see the tape in the interview, but he seemed extremely uninterested in getting to the bottom of what led to his nonconsensual exposure. In 2007, WENN Entertainment News Wire Service quoted him as saying, “I don’t know how it got leaked. But it was great for her career. Will someone explain that to her?”
The extremely public lead up to the tape’s release took an absurd turn when Hirsch announced on March 8, 2007, that despite the lawsuit and despite an unproductive conversation with Kardashian, the tape’s release was imminent. “I met with Kim yesterday and unfortunately, we didn’t even come close to reaching an agreement,” he told TMZ. “We will now immediately move forward with the release.” Though the tape was released that month, on April 30 Vivid announced via press release that Kardashian had dropped her lawsuit against the porn company. “We’ve always known we had the legal right to distribute this video which became an instant best-seller and we’ve always wanted to work something out with Kim so she could share in the profits,” said Hirsch.
How much Kardashian received is another secret, albeit one with a loose-fitting lid. The most common figure quoted is $5 million—Hirsch refused to confirm this to Page Six in 2017, but he also declined to dispute it (“I don’t comment on that other than to say we haven’t disputed it”). Kardashian’s lawyer told the rag that the $5 million figure was “greatly inflated.” For Kardashian’s part, she told Glamour that the settlement was “large,” adding, “My main goal was to stop production of the tape, and I succeeded—they can’t make any more copies. Would I erase the tape if I could? Of course.”
What she’s referring to is another empty chapter of the sex-tape theater whose several acts spread across months. In May 2007, Vivid announced it would stop shipping Kim Kardashian, Superstar DVDs. The press release contained a quote from Hirsch: “After several conversations with Ms. Kardashian we have decided to stop selling the DVD after May 31. We have always believed we have the right to sell the tape, but I’ve made a personal decision to suspend sales.” Additionally, “It’s not legal, it’s personal,” said Hirsch.
In retrospect, it seems that this was just lip service for a formality. If Vivid suspended the distribution of physical copies, it seems to have done nothing to halt the digital release, which is how a lot of people were getting their porn at that point anyway. Even today, a link to the Kim Kardashian, Superstar footage remains near the top of the Vivid homepage (site NSFW) and Vivid has regularly promoted the footage in the years since its release, often via an item on TMZ that claims a recent piece of Kardashian news (like her pregnancy announcement, wedding, and internet-breaking Paper spread) has led to a resurgence of interest in the footage.
Kardashian’s messaging has remained consistent—the tape was an embarrassment. Around the time of the settlement, she reportedly told In Touch that she would be living with the fear “that one day my grandkids are going to see it.” Nonetheless, she told the gossip weekly, “I’m just so relieved that this chapter of my life is over now. I have so much going on in my life. I never wanted anyone to think of me as Kim Kardashian, sex tape star.” Weeks later, the rumor engine kicked into high gear regarding a reality show featuring her family, and on August 9, 2007, The Hollywood Reporter announced that E!, had greenlighted Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Kardashian did, in fact, remain defined in part by her sex tape, and arguably does to this day. Regardless of the persistent discussion about whether the tape was responsible for her meteoric rise to the celebrity pantheon, Kardashian has rarely mentioned it in public unprompted. A rare exception was her revelation that she was on ecstasy during the filming of it. She also briefly discussed it with her family during the KUWTK premiere. When her sister Kourtney, while pretending to be Tyra Banks to prep Kim for an upcoming interview, asked, “Why did you make a sex tape?,” Kim replied, “Because I was horny and I felt like it.” The shame was not from the having or recording of the sex, but as a result of the public release of it that she only grudgingly consented to.
Kardashian’s public expression of her sexuality has continued to elicit suspicion that she had orchestrated the tape’s release. Referencing Kardashian’s Playboy shoot that was published in the months between her tape’s debut and her reality show’s premiere, Ray J’s mother, Sonja Norwood, told Wendy Williams, “With all of the hoopla about it being Ray J and people trying to blame him, did you see him on the cover of Playgirl?”
You didn’t, but you did hear him mentioning it a lot. For all of the talk about how Kardashian profited from the tape, her co-star has been infinitely more proactive about keeping Kim Kardashian, Superstar in public consciousness in the years since its release. He has referenced it in numerous songs, including, apparently, his hit “Sexy Can I?,” which dropped at the end of 2007: “It’s a Kodak moment, let me go and get my camera,” he sang. Then there was 2013’s “I Hit It First,” whose video featured a Kardashian lookalike cavorting alongside Ray J and prowling around while an onscreen display read “RECORD,” as though she were captured via an amateur’s camera. In 2014, Ray J released “Never Shoulda Did That,” whose video also featured an apparent Kardashian doppelganger and whose lyrics proclaimed, “Fucking bitches on camera, shouldn’ta did that shit.” In 2016, Ray J collaborated with Chris Brown on “Famous,” in which he sang, “She fucked me for fame, look in her eyes/She was the first one to sign on the line/She was the real one to plan it all out/Look at the family, they walk around proud, all because she had my dick in her mouth.” The song was in part an answer record to the video for the Kanye West song of the same name, in which Ray J was depicted lying in bed next to Kardashian. “Wanna have me in bed while you fucking your spouse/Shows that you still a rat and your man Mickey Mouse,” sang Ray J in apparent reference.
Elsewhere, Ray J sent up the sex tape with Joan Rivers in a sketch and introduced himself to the U.K.’s Celebrity Big Brother audience in 2017 by saying, “You might know me for my music, TV shows and my dick!” When Kardashian married West in 2014, TMZ reported that Ray J had offered her a wedding gift of $47,000—the residuals he had made thus far that year from the tape. If Kardashian profited passively in the years after her tape’s release, Ray J attempted to do so actively. This quote his ex, Karrine “Superhead” Steffans, gave to Page Six may provide some perspective on Ray J’s behavior:
He thought it was going to bring him wealth, and more fame … Ray J was Brandy’s brother and everyone always called him Brandy’s brother and no matter what he did, he couldn’t come out from under that shadow … And he really, really, really, really believed — really in his heart of hearts believed — that this sex tape was going to finally make him white-girl famous.
In the intervening years, the tape has had a, uh, funny way of staying in the news. “My girl a superstar all from a home movie,” rapped West in his 2012 megahit “Clique.” In 2011, TMZ reported that an anonymous party approached Vivid to buy the rights to Kim Kardashian, Superstar for the purpose of scrubbing it from the internet. Hirsch eventually rejected the supposedly $20 million offer, telling TMZ: “Although the offer that we ultimately received was substantial, when I realized that it wasn’t Kim it became less appealing. Kim is a superstar and if it were to be sold, it should be to her.” In 2013, a fire at Vivid HQ reportedly threatened the Superstar master tape, but it survived the blaze unscathed.
For something as blatant as footage of two people fucking, Kim Kardashian, Superstar has maintained a mystique for nearly a decade and a half. What is this thing? A sexual violation whose harm has never been properly reckoned with in the public sphere? An astonishingly orchestrated stunt that worked exactly as it was intended, owing as much to savvy as fate (and perhaps psychic-level intuition)? The spinning of straw into gold? A hiccup in a career that would have bloomed into cultural dominance nonetheless?
Since its debut 14 years ago, the video has persisted, as has the question of whether or not it is directly responsible for the Kardashians’ empire. Kris Jenner circumvented that very question in a 2018 interview with TMZ mastermind Harvey Levin on his Fox News show OBJECTified. “Everybody talks about Kim’s sex tape and they say that made you famous. Does that bother you?” asked Levin. Shrewdly, Jenner dodged the real question and instead focused on its reference to perception: “You know I can’t control what other people say and obviously that was a hard thing to go through,” she said. “The thing I learned from that is that you can get through anything as a family. That was obviously a real hard time for any mom. It was devastating.”
Kim Kardashian, Superstar didn’t obstruct her ascent to fame as it might have in an earlier era. And if the tape, regardless of the intent behind its shopping, is what got Kardashian’s foot in the door of public perception, she certainly hasn’t spent the intervening time lying on her back. Early on, Gatecrasher mocked the claim of Kardashian’s lawsuit against Vivid that the company was taking advantage of Kardashian’s “notoriety and popularity” through the “egregious commercial exploitation and violation of Plaintiff’s most personal and intimate sexual relations with her former boyfriend of three years, Willy Ray Norwood, Jr.” In response, the paper scoffed: “Never mind that her entire ‘notoriety and popularity’ is because of the sex tape.”
In 2012, Oprah Winfrey asked Kardashian if she was grateful for the experience of the public release of such an intimate moment. “I’m definitely not grateful for that experience. I would say if I had one regret, that would be it,” she said. As to how it shaped her career, Kardashian framed it in a way that, for once, left very little to dispute: “I felt like I had to work 10 times harder to get people to see the real me.”