Well, it’s official. On March 5, Forbes declared makeup mogul and Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Kylie Jenner the youngest self-made billionaire ever. The publication estimates that Jenner, 21, is sitting on a billion-dollar fortune following three successful years with her business, Kylie Cosmetics, including a lucrative deal with the beauty store Ulta that pushed her fortune to new heights.
Of the deal’s success, Jenner told Forbes: “I popped up at a few stores, I did my usual social media—I did what I usually do, and it just worked.”
But … is Kylie Jenner’s success really self-made?
As we pointed out on Twitter, self-made means “having succeeded in life unaided.” But, Jenner doesn’t fit that bill, exactly.
Haven't we gone over this?
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) March 5, 2019
The term self-made was first recorded in English in the early 1600s. Literally, self-made is “made by oneself,” but the term is typically used for people achieving financial success when they are not born wealthy, powerful, or influential, such as in the phrase self-made man. Evidenced by the 1830s, a self-made man is “one who started at the bottom of the ladder and made it to the top through their own hard work and sacrifice, without anyone else giving them a lift.” From the past tense of make, made itself has been a verbal adjective meaning “assured of success or fortune” since the late 1500s.
We call Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey self-made. They are both women who came from humble beginnings and built their own cultural empires—and fortunes—by dint of their talent, strength, intelligence, and business sense. Kylie Jenner also has a lot of talent, strength, intelligence, and business sense. As Forbes points out, she is the sole owner of Kylie Cosmetics, and she has made her brand’s signature lip kits into a coveted item through her savvy use of social media in creating hype around her products.
Unlike Oprah Winfrey, however, Jenner had a head start in life. She began with a great deal of money and fame. Jenner’s family has been in the public eye for decades. Her family’s hit show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, has been on the air since 2007. When Jenner launched Kylie Cosmetics in 2015, she already had the money to start a brand and the following to make it profitable. In its first six weeks in Ulta stores, Kylie Cosmetics sold $54.5 million worth of products, according to Forbes. Jenner credits social media, where she boasts a following of over 175 million people. “I had such a strong reach before I was able to start anything,” she told Forbes.
And that’s precisely the point. If Jenner was like any other first-time business owner and didn’t have millions of followers and a famous family, would her business still be as successful? It’s possible, but not nearly as likely. As a Twitter user succinctly put it, she scored a home run but was born on third base.
Born on 3rd base, scores on a wild pitch, celebrated as if she hit a walk-off home run… America in 2019…
— Sandon Jacobs (@SandonLeeJacobs) March 5, 2019
Can anyone really be self-made?
Our tweets about Kylie Jenner and the concept of being self-made sparked mixed reactions. Plenty of people agree with the stated definition of self-made and think that Jenner isn’t the best example of it. But, others wondered, if being self-made means “succeeding in life unaided” … is anyone really self-made?
And no one meets the definition of self-made, because EVERYONE that got to that status had some kind of help.
— Mike Stovall (@MikeStovall16) March 6, 2019
Many people in life have parents who care for them and instill values that contribute to their success. They have teachers or mentors who guide them. They network and develop relationships. We all get help along the way.
Our dissection of self-made certainly isn’t intended to take away from Kylie Jenner’s success. To be a 21-year-old woman who owns her own business and earned a billion dollars is definitely an accomplishment. She’s entrepreneurial. She’s motivated. She’s ambitious. But, Forbes‘s decision to call Jenner self-made still deserves criticism because it ignores one big issue: privilege.
How does privilege affect self-made‘s meaning?
Privilege exists in many forms, and it can be based on such things as skin color, gender identity, sexual preference, education level, body type, even where you live. White people are more likely to be hired for new jobs than black or Latin people. Men are more likely to get raises and promotions than women. This is the result of white, male privilege: unearned rights or benefits white men get based on the sheer fact that they are white men.
People are afforded different opportunities depending on where they come from and who they are, and Kylie Jenner hit the privilege lottery. To call Kylie Jenner a self-made billionaire assumes that anyone, even a no-name 21-year-old from Middle America, can do exactly what she did. But, Jenner is a wealthy, beautiful celebrity from a notable family with an established platform and exceptional access to opportunities, not to mention starting out with a few, cool million in the bank.
That’s a perfect recipe for success that not many can replicate on their own.