O.J. Simpson Trial Inspired the Kardashian Reality TV Empire

Lifestyle

When the O.J. Simpson murder trial aired on televisions across the United States in 1995, no one could foresee the lasting impact it would have on the entertainment industry. 

For nearly a year, the world watched as the former NFL star, who died on Wednesday after a battle with cancer, defended himself against accusations of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson was represented by a group of lawyers notoriously referred to as The “Dream Team” — including Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, and Robert Kardashian. 

The trial was appointment viewing, taking over national conversations and even replacing popular soap opera timeslots, and it wasn’t just Simpson who was thrust into the limelight; everyone who the court case touched, especially those who regularly appeared on television, became household names. 

This is when viewers at large were first introduced to the Kardashian name. Kardashian and Simpson became friends in the 1970s after they both graduated from the University of Southern California. They were so close that Simpson was even the best man in Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Houghton, who we now know as Kris Jenner. Their bond went beyond just the two of them; after spending so much time together, Kris and Nicole Brown, Simpson’s second wife, also became best friends. The Kardashian children referred to the couple as “Uncle O.J.” and “Aunt Nicole.” 

All of this personal history would eventually become compelling to the American public, but at the time it was mostly relevant to the Kardashian family who was divided over the murder trial. Both couples were divorced at the time of Nicole’s murder and while Robert supported his friend O.J. by legally defending him against the state of California, Kris sat on Nicole’s side of the courtroom.

In one of the most anticipated and controversial rulings in American history, Simpson was acquitted of the double murder charges, famously prompting a stunned look on Kardashian’s face when the judge announced the verdict

Kardashian and Simpson’s closeness didn’t extend much past the verdict. After the trial, the two had a falling out. Kardashian was a source in a book written by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense. In 1996, Kardashian also sat down for an interview with Barbara Walters and went as far to say that he questioned Simpson’s innocence. 

“I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m so conflicted because of that blood evidence,” he told Walters. “I have doubts.”

Kardashian died of esophageal cancer in 2003 and just a few years later in 2007, a little more than a decade after the televised O.J. Simpson murder trial captivated the masses, another pop culture juggernaut was just launching into the world: Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The family had flirted with fame for years: their last name was affiliated with the infamous trial, Kris married Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Caitlyn Jenner following her divorce from Robert, and Kim Kardashian entered the spotlight via her friendship with Paris Hilton, and Kim’s sex tape with her then-boyfriend Ray J was a major topic of conversation. The tape was allegedly leaked and Vivid Entertainment released the footage, titled Kim Kardashian Superstar, in March 2007. Shortly after, Kim settled a lawsuit with the entertainment company. Ray J has since claimed Kim and Kris were more involved than they’ve admitted, but the family has denied his comments and allegations. Being fame-adjacent wasn’t a foreign concept to the Kardashian/Jenners, but their experiences were nothing compared to the successes that would eventually come as a result of their new reality series. 

In 14 years and 20 seasons, the Kardashian family cemented their status as American TV royalty. With Kris at the helm as the the ultimate matriarch and mom-ager of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, viewers have watched along as Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Rob, Kendall, and Kylie launched businesses, got married, had babies, endured divorces and break-ups, got married again, covered Vogue, traveled the world, and went through endless phases of life. Then in 2022, the family took their talents to Hulu with their docuseries aptly titled The Kardashians which has streamed for four seasons. With a more elevated look and a consistent breaking of the fourth wall, the Hulu series focuses on the family’s businesses and an authentic behind-the-scenes perspective of their daily lives. A fifth season is set to premiere in May.

The family is now collectively worth billions of dollars and has touched all corners of the pop culture zeitgeist — from fashion and beauty to the NBA and the music industry. Their fame and popularity has transcended television, redefining what it means to be a celebrity and TV star. Even though the family has moved far past the 1990s courtroom drama, the public’s fascination with the Kardashian affiliation with O.J. Simpson is ongoing.

Robert Kardashian looms large over Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The family members don’t shy away from talking about their late father and ex-husband, regularly talking about memories they have of him, speculating on what he would think about certain situations they get involved in, and showcasing home videos from when the kids were younger in which Robert’s voice is either heard in the background or he appears on screen. There was even a storyline in Season 12, which aired in 2016, when Kris contemplated changing her last name back to Kardashian for branding purposes and the star power the last name has amassed. In 2023, celebrity medium Tyler Henry also said he connected Kris Jenner to Robert on an episode of Hollywood Medium

But Simpson and the murder trial specifically only came up on occasion. There were sparing moments over the years when the Kardashian daughters talked about it, but in Season 17, which aired in 2019, Kris opened up on camera about her relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson in light of the 25th anniversary of her murder. 

“There were so many wonderful traditions that we got to share around the holidays and traveling together, vacations, but what I loved most about her was she was such a beautiful soul and had so much love to give to her family, her kids, her friends,” Jenner said on the show. “It’s sad that this is what she’s remembered for.”

In the same episode, Jenner also denied the rumors that she cheated on Kardashian with Simpson, saying, “That fucking piece of shit. It’s just lie after lie after lie after lie and there’s only so much a human being can take.”

After the Kardashian’s rise in popularity was already established, Ryan Murphy’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story aired on FX. Premiering in February 2016, the critically acclaimed anthology series features an all-star ensemble cast including David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Selma Blair as Kris Jenner, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, and Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark. The scripted series is reflective of a real-life time period that went on to have a massive influence on the Kardashian/Jenner family, on both personal and professional levels.

Blair, a longtime viewer of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, told Vanity Fair in 2016 that she was nervous to meet with Jenner once the matriarch found out she was going to portray her in American Crime Story. But after a two-hour phone call in which Jenner opened up about how the trial impacted her family and fractured her relationship with her ex-husband, Blair’s nerves tempered and the two were able to form a special connection.

“I just think of Kris and think she is larger than life, from watching her on TV,” Blair said.

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Jenner was apparently generous in what she shared with Blair, allowing the actor insight into her relationship with Kardashian and how they navigated this tumultuous time.

“Kris said [the murders] divided them and it was very hard…. I said, ‘Did you ever say to him, This is crazy? She’s like, ‘Yeah…. I’d be whispering to him, ‘How can you do this?’” Blair said. “She was very aware of how large this was and how he was enmeshed in something that was very complicated and possibly quite wrong.”

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