Four days before she was robbed at gunpoint in a Paris apartment, Kim Kardashian published a photo of her hand showing off the multimillion-dollar diamond ring that is believed to have disappeared in the theft. Looking at that picture on Twitter and Instagram this week, I couldn't help wondering if the diamond was real. I mean, how do we know it's not just some hunk of glass?
No, I don't seriously think Kardashian is scamming fans with her boastful shots of the new ring that was a gift from rapper husband Kanye West, who had already given her an equally showy engagement ring in 2013. Nor am I a conspiracy theorist peddling the idea she's involved in some insurance scam or publicity stunt.
(Media estimates on the value of both rings vary widely and it's not clear which one was stolen; French police only said a ring worth the equivalent of $6-million Canadian as well as other jewellery worth $7-million are missing.)
The details surrounding the theft may raise suspicions of an inside job – where were the bodyguards and the security cameras? – but for Kardashian, the experience of being bound and gagged by masked intruders must have been terrifying. You have to be shocked by the description of the robbery and pity anybody who undergoes such a thing, but you also have to recognize that it's harder for people to feel for Kardashian because it's harder to believe she's actually real.
Despite her putative profession as a "reality" TV star, she floats about as a media construct, important simply because TMZ and People.com say so. As the lead player in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the reality show devoted to her extended family, she seems less likely to have a genuine private life than Angelina Jolie, who is, after all, a real actress donning fictional roles, or the Duchess of Cambridge, a professional wife, mother and ribbon-cutter. Kardashian personifies the definition of a celebrity as someone "famous for being famous."
Supposedly, she was visiting Paris to see Fashion Week, but in truth she was there to be seen. She was photographed repeatedly wearing a series of outlandish outfits including thigh-high boots and a loosely belted trench coat with no shirt underneath as well as a clinging mesh dress that showed more flesh than it covered. Her attention-seeking ploys included a tweet saying she was considering attending one show without makeup and then posting pictures of herself doing just that. The ring she displayed now has 1.3 million "likes" on Instagram. Is the rock for real? Is Kardashian for real?
Certainly, the Internet trolls who questioned her story about the theft and mocked her pain don't believe it. They can't consider that she thinks or feels the way their sister or their neighbour does, and so are willing to throw any insult her way. With her public parade of wealth and privilege, she seems to have forgone the possibility of their empathy. Friends and fans rushed to her defence, pointing out she has suffered a horrible invasion, but for all the manufactured intimacy of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, it's hard for many of us to believe that Kim has feelings, too. You might as well tell the peasants that Marie Antoinette eats as they do and defecates as they do.
So, if Kardashian is the victim of the thieves, she is not the victim of Internet trolls. Their comments are the price she pays for achieving fame without accomplishment and stoking it through personal display on social media. If you decide to earn your millions by making a spectacle of yourself, you have to accept that alongside the followers there will also be the haters. Celebrities, you can love them or you can troll them – just don't ignore them.
After the revolution that beheaded Marie Antoinette, France repeatedly restored kings and emperors and never disbanded its aristocracy. But in America, a population that still hungers for these demigods has elevated celebrities instead, chopping off famous heads whenever the need arises. Take that, Mel Gibson; goodbye, Tom Cruise. Fans can always replace the departed with another favourite, creating a whole class of self-fulfilling prophecies whose very fame is judged to be the reason for their importance – no matter how thick their brains or trivial their actions.
That public adoration in turn encourages the celebrities to confuse their fame with correctness or goodness, as though they ruled the tabloids and the talk shows by some version of divine right. Take Donald Trump as one very large example.
The cult of celebrity is anti-democratic, and yet contemporary America seems almost willing to exchange it for their hard-won republic. To win in November, Trump needs his angry base to vote, but he also needs a smaller group of more ambivalent people to confuse fame with merit once again and push him over the top, casting ballots they will justify with some bloated version of "Hey, I've heard of him."
Somewhere inside the mighty media machine that is Kim Kardashian, there is one small human being, a person no better nor worse than you or me, one citizen no more or less important than any other. That creature must be traumatized. I feel sorry for her, whoever she may be.