In ‘American Horror Story,’ Kim Kardashian skims the surface

In her debut last week, the media mogul seemed to treat the series with the same unblinking resolve she applies to any business venture

By Alexis Soloski

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Published: Mon 25 Sep 2023, 3:50 PM

Last updated: Mon 25 Sep 2023, 3:54 PM

Kim Kardashian is a reality star, a tabloid sensation, a prison-reform advocate, a beauty and shapewear mogul, and a former video vixen. As of last Wednesday night, she is also a member of the Ryan Murphy extended universe, with a series regular role in FX’s American Horror Story: Delicate. She plays Siobhan, a high-gloss publicist employed by Emma Roberts’ Anna Victoria Alcott, an actress attempting an Oscar campaign as she undergoes a third cycle of in vitro fertilization.

Siobhan first appears in an impossibly vast office in the New York City borough of Manhattan, silhouetted against a view that makes downtown high-rises look like so many Lego towers. Immaculately groomed and entirely self-possessed, Siobhan bestrides the world of public relations like an expertly contoured colossus. Her jacket is an unholy combination of blazer and bustier. Her earrings are deconstructed McDonald’s arches. Her ponytail scrapes the sky.

Her first line, a threat aimed at the directing duo the Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once), is gleefully profane and wholly unpublishable. She follows it with “It’s exhausting being better than everyone,” although she doesn’t sound exhausted at all.

Throughout the episode, Siobhan’s face remains smooth, untroubled, even when Anna receives cryptic threats, such as a doll in her likeness with a black X on its tummy, left for her in the green room of Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.

“Oh, my God, Andy’s so funny,” Siobhan says, barely looking up from her phone. If you could bottle her blase, it would sell for more than Crème de la Mer.

Kardashian’s entry into semi-prestige television was not exactly an auspicious one. American Horror Story: Delicate continued shooting even after the Writers Guild of America had authorised its strike. Most other shows had shut down — in solidarity, to avoid crossing picket lines — but Delicate persevered, despite vociferous protests outside Silvercup Studios in Queens, where the series was filmed.

Seemingly unaware of the conflict, Kardashian sent a tweet in mid-June: “Hi guys! I’m on set of AHS and we have some time between shots. What are you all up to????”

Actor and writer Joel Kim Booster had perhaps the driest response: “Picketing, Kim.”

Whether or not you consider Kardashian an actress probably depends on your opinion of the truth value of the unscripted show that made her famous, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which ran on E! from 2007-21. A related series, The Kardashians, premiered on Hulu last year. (It returns for a new season Thursday.)

In her other television and film appearances, she has mostly played herself. (An exception, in tones that have shifted over the years from sexy baby to elegant gravel: voice-overs for PAW Patrol: The Movie and American Dad!) But Murphy has a long history of diva-forward stunt casting. Previous American Horror Story participants include Naomi Campbell, Stevie Nicks, Lady Gaga, Patti LaBelle. Kardashian, in her fitted outfits, fits right in.

This is her first appearance in the horror genre, unless you count the home tour she offered to Vogue in 2019. (Remember that sink?) How her character contributes to the larger story, which seems to centre on Anna’s fertility and a black-clad beldam played by Julie White, remains unknown. So far, Siobhan seems designed to dismiss Anna’s fears and anxieties, an odd role for a woman who has fought to be taken seriously and has had horrific experiences mocked.

And yet, there is an exquisite symmetry in casting Kardashian as a publicist, a woman wholly concerned with surfaces. Kardashian is a master of self-presentation who has made her face and figure into several fortunes. One of the truest things her former husband Kanye West ever said was to GQ in 2014: “In order to win at life, you need some Kim K skills, period.” But that face has its limitations. In her scenes as Siobhan, her plump lips open and close. Her lashes occasionally flutter. Otherwise, those beautiful features do not move. Kardashian suggests the polished stillness of a mountain lake or new veneers: perfect, uncanny.

In a teaser for the show, posted Wednesday, Kardashian appears in a white-blond wig, with red lips, an undead pallor and the false eyelashes typically favoured by Liza Minnelli impersonators. “Anytime you try something, you just have to have the intention of growing and challenging yourself,” she tells the camera in a behind-the-scenes clip. “Then you just kind of release and have fun.”

She does not look as if she were having fun. She seems to treat the series with the same unblinking resolve she applies to any business venture — curated shoes, shapewear, an emoji app. Is this acting? Is it being? In a role that has so far involved pecking at a phone and murmuring about the Time 100 in a raspy drawl, does the difference even matter? This confusion of person and persona is also a Kim K skill. Does that scare you?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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