“Question,” Khloé Kardashian says to her older sister Kim Kardashian West while the two are alone (excluding the filming crew and millions of Keeping Up With the Kardashians viewers watching at home) in Khloé’s giant kitchen.
“Don’t we think it’s kind of a miracle that Rob — who doesn’t even show up to Christmas for the past three years, literally, he wouldn’t leave his room — the fact that he has now created a Snapchat, the fact that he now wants to be so public, blows my mind,” she says through pursed lips.
Kim walks over to the kitchen table and takes a seat next to her sister. “She gave him confidence, more power to her,” she says, while notably dancing around Blac Chyna’s name like it’s Voldemort.
“Some pussy’s getting him to remove his braces and shave his beard and work out,” Khloé continues without flinching.
“My thing is do what you want, do what makes you happy, whatever,” Kim muses. “But he should have said to us, ‘Hey guys, this is how I feel, I can’t help who I love, I fell in love with her, but Kylie should know this.’ He has no loyalty.” Khloé nods before repeating her sister’s words for the viewers in the cheap seats: “He has no loyalty.”
For many people, arguably Kris Jenner among them, it may seem as if Blac Chyna came out of nowhere: the PR equivalent of Venus rising fully formed from the foaming sea with an engagement ring in one hand and a pregnancy announcement in the other. But look closer and you’ll start to notice Chyna everywhere: dancing in rap videos, sitting courtside at NBA games, making appearances on your favorite reality show, in the pews at the biggest celebrity wedding of the decade. While no one and everyone was watching, Chyna was making calculated moves to close in on her own empire with a precision and finesse that not even the Kardashians saw coming. This wasn't a PR breakthrough. It was a coup.
And so the Kardashians, a family often accused of stealing black men, black features, and black culture, got beat at their own game by a black woman. And not just any black woman, but a video vixen who was never supposed to see the inside of the country clubs the Kardashians frequented growing up.
Before becoming the fiancé of the only Kardashian son, Blac Chyna was best known for her past as a stripper. A stark contrast to the Kardashians’ high-society lifestyle full of winters skiing in Vail and summers swimming at any given mansion in California, Chyna grew up the daughter of a single, working-class mother in Washington, D.C. Though the Kardashians are now considered poster children for New Money in the social media epoch, they have always had the benefit of upper-middle-class trappings. Robert Kardashian Sr., the late father of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and Rob, served as a defense lawyer during O.J. Simpson’s landmark 1995 trial. And by the early 2000s, the family was a fixture among Hollywood’s rising classes.
By the time Kris Jenner, Robert Kardashian’s ex-wife, took the reins of the family’s brand following the leak of Kim’s sex tape in 2007, their ascent to new-era stardom seemed unstoppable. With the benefit of Kris’s marketing savvy, the family bounced back from the scandal with their brand — and bank accounts — intact. Through the melodrama of the E! reality TV show they began filming that same year, the Kardashians have been showing off their wealthy lifestyle for nearly a decade — just as long as Chyna has been striving to make a name for herself. Their timelines run parallel, separated by class, race, and an insider’s knowledge of the business.
As the New York Times put it, Kris Jenner has changed the nature of celebrity: She and her family have turned “famous for being famous” into a new industry. No one does this better than the Kardashian/Jenners, the Lannisters of Calabasas. They keep us glued to their Twitter beefs and hooked on their Instagram selfies. Hell, they’ve even convinced us to pay to watch them on their apps as they do things like get their makeup applied. And that doesn’t even include the things they’ve convinced followers to buy (waist trainers?! A tea laxative?! A cream that allegedly grows your boobs?!) all while earning hundreds of thousands in sponsorship revenue. It’s what puts them at the top of every social media metric and on Forbes lists; it’s what gets them into the Met Gala and on the covers of Vogue; it’s what makes them the rulers of Westeros.
From left: Caitlyn Jenner, Kris Jenner, Lamar Odom, Khloé Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian West, Kendall Jenner, and Kourtney Kardashian attend Kanye West's Yeezy Season 3 on Feb. 11 in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images
The Kardashians have long acquired their spots at these tables by “borrowing” from black culture. Whether it’s Kylie’s magically enhanced lips, Khloe’s (newly) “enviable” backside, or Kim’s “boxer braids,” the sisters latch onto elements of the black aesthetic they find trendy, and then mainstream outlets report as if it were the Kardashians who started the trends. It is a phenomenon people of color, especially black people, have seen occur again and again throughout the years: When white people discover black cultural markers, the same look that had been popular within an ethnic culture for decades (or even hundreds of years) is suddenly “a new trend.”
Chyna decided to not only get a slice but come for the entire Kardashian pie.
The pattern of “Columbusing” isn’t unique to the Kardashians, but the extent to which the family has profited from it is remarkable. This element of cultural appropriation in the Kardashians’ style has left many feeling like they created an empire using things that don’t belong to them. To quote actor Amandla Stenberg, they “cash cropped” our cornrows. So when Chyna, an actual black woman, decided to not only get a slice but come for the entire Kardashian pie, those watching couldn’t help but cheer as she swooped in.
But to really understand Chyna’s rise, let’s look at where she started.
In the hierarchy of strip clubs, Miami’s King of Diamonds is at the top. The club has become a familiar stepping-stone for dancers trying to gain some level of fame. VH1’s most popular reality show, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, has a few former KOD dancers in its cast, including one of the franchise’s biggest stars, Joseline Hernandez. The fact that Chyna chose to avoid that particular route speaks to her foresight: She could have easily been on a number of We TV and/or VH1 reality shows if she wanted to, but she had her eyes set on a different prize.
Born Angela Renée White on May 11, 1988, Chyna was raised in Maryland before moving to Miami to attend Johnson & Wales University. But eventually, she left school and started modeling for men's magazines and stripping full-time at clubs like D.C.’s Stadium Club, Detroit’s 007, and Miami’s King of Diamonds. She performed under the aliases Dora Renée and Cream before ultimately settling on Blac Chyna, a name she’s rumored to have stolen from a client. Early videos on YouTube show her participating in low-budget swimsuit competitions and pageants in noisy bars and cramped theaters for Enyce Models in 2007 before finally working her way up to King of Diamonds by 2010. Even then, Chyna stood out; it was obvious to the men around her that she was, as one of them put it, “on her way.” Interviews from those who knew her at the time attest to her marketing mindset.
Love & Hip Hop Atlanta cast member Jessica Dime lived with Chyna while they were strippers at KOD, and in a 2011 interview with DJ Smallz, she spoke about how the two used to be “bossed up” (read: professional and focused on making money for an intended goal) in a way that she believed set them apart from strippers today. “Chyna and me used to save every single day. Bands [of money] in our suitcases; we would go on a 10-day grind and save all our money.” Stripping was never the end goal; they were thinking ahead, saving to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true. That also meant exclusivity was essential: “If you wanted to see me strip, you had to come to where we were to see it.”
This shrewd attention to the duo’s branding also explains why Chyna was so upset when WorldStarHipHop put a video on its website of her stripping at a DJ Khaled party at KOD back in 2011. “We [Chyna and her manager] have told them in the past that I don’t want anything to do with being a World Star Hip-Hop honey. It’s not the look I’m trying to go for,” she said in a 2010 interview with the Miami lifestyle website 305Honeys.com after she’d appeared in her first music video. Even back then, Chyna knew she wanted to protect her public image and branch out beyond the so-called “urban” circuit.
By the time Chyna was 22, her skills and signature look (pierced dimples, long blonde wig with the blunt bang, huge derriere) had left an impression on the hip-hop community. In fact, this twisted web of Lip Kits, step-cousin-half-siblings, and deceit may never have come to pass if Drake (yes, Drake) hadn’t dropped Blac Chyna into pop culture without her permission when he rapped “Call up King of Diamonds and tell Chyna it’d be worth the flight” on his 2010 debut album Thank Me Later. In addition to the infamous Drake shout-out — which she claimed to be shocked about when her manager emailed her the song — she appeared in her soon-to-be brother-in-law Kanye West’s “Monster” video as Nicki Minaj’s stunt double in a scene where Nicki ties herself to a chair. But it was a chance meeting with Drake and Nicki’s Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records labelmate Tyga that would permanently thrust her into the spotlight later that year.
2010 was also a turning point for the Kardashians. Keeping Up With the Kardashians was in the middle of its highest-rated season to date. Kris had just moved from the family’s ranch-style home to her current mansion with Caitlyn, Kendall, Kylie, and Rob. Khloé and Lamar Odom, then a member of the NBA Championship–winning Lakers team, were newlyweds. Kourtney had just given birth to the first Kardashian grandchild, Mason Disick. And Kim had just relocated from her two-bedroom condo into a $4.8 million Tuscan-style villa in Beverly Hills, marking a new level of wealth. It was the peak of the roller coaster before their drop from fairy tale to mania: Cue Kim’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, the revelation of Lamar’s cocaine addiction, Caitlyn and Kris’s divorce, Scott’s increasingly reckless alcoholism precipitated by his parents’ death, Rob’s depression and excessive weight gain, Kylie’s dramatic physical transformation, and all the other residual effects that came from living such public lives.
During a 2013 interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, Tyga said it took him two months to get a date after meeting Chyna at KOD during a party for Chris Brown’s F.A.M.E. tour near the end of 2011. “When I first met her, she was too busy for me,” he told them.
By every stereotype out there, a woman like her was just waiting for a musician or athlete to give her star power.
Listen to the interview and you can hear the surprise from Charlamagne, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee that Chyna didn’t jump at the chance to seduce and latch onto a rapper. By every stereotype out there, a woman like her was just waiting for a musician or athlete to give her star power. You don’t have to look much further than her future in-laws for proof: Khloé had just married Odom a month after meeting him; Kim had just ended things with NFL player Reggie Bush and was dating NFL player Miles Austin. Yet here was a stripper making a rapper wait two months (about as long as it took for Kim and Kris Humphries’ marriage to crumble) for a date.
When Chyna did finally give Tyga the time of day, she and the California native vibed in a way neither of them expected. “The first time I chilled with her we chilled for three weeks straight,” he said. The rest was history.
Tyga and Blac Chyna attend a basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on Nov. 14, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Noel Vasquez / Getty Images
A few months later, in January 2012, Chyna starred as Tyga’s girlfriend in the music video for his hit record “Rack City” and then became his girlfriend in real life. In October, Chyna gave birth to their son, King Cairo, and Tyga bought the family a $5.5 million mansion in Calabasas that same day. Two months later, the two were engaged.
By 2013, Tyga and Blac Chyna had all the makings of a budding “new industry” power couple. Tyga was working on another album, while Chyna, with her 1.2 million Instagram followers, was attending JLS Professional Makeup Artist School with the intention of opening her own business (à la Dash). So it came as no surprise when they started shadowing hip-hop king and reality TV queen Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West over the course of the next year in a master class in How to Make it in America 101, played out on Instagram. The couples were seen everywhere from double dates to Yeezus tour stops. Kim and Chyna worked out together and went to lunch, sometimes even while she was filming KUWTK — any opportunity for Chyna and Tyga to learn how to conduct themselves in front of the paparazzi, on television, and/or on social media.
Kimye also gave them opportunities to rub elbows with their extensive network at events like Kris Jenner’s infamous Christmas party (last year’s guests included Jennifer Lopez, Drake, Toni Braxton, Hailey Baldwin, Tyler the Creator, Kid Cudi, and more). It didn’t take long for gossip sites to take notice; many began to report that Kim had taken Chyna under her wing in order to help groom her for a reality show. “Kim Kardashian Is Helping Blac Chyna Transition Into Reality TV,” XONecole wrote. “So Who is Blac Chyna Besides the Lady With a Bigger Butt Than Kim Kardashian?” Bustle pondered. “Who Is Blac Chyna and Is She Kim Kardashian’s Next Fashion Project?” StyleBlazer wanted to know. And Perez Hilton informed us that “Kim Kardashian Gets Her Brows Did With Stripper Blac Chyna!”
But even then it seemed strange to the media that a person like Kim would genuinely hang out with a woman like Chyna, regardless of the fact that they were both women on a quest to turn their social media stardom into an actual empire. Two women who had also been mercilessly slut-shamed in tabloids and social media, Kim for having been in an infamous sex tape released without her consent and Chyna for having been a stripper. Though their early life experiences may not have run parallel by any means, these experiences could easily have pulled them together. The media’s constant dissection of Chyna’s presence around Kim — indeed, often suggesting she may be some kind of interloper — hinged largely on assumptions that someone of Chyna’s class did not belong around moneyed people like the Kardashians, however new their money might be.