Kim Kardashian Nude Paper

Paper magazine’s winter issue, with the cover shot of Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude, set out to #BreakTheInternet. Well, we didn’t literally “break it”, but we definitely broke through, setting off a flood of coverage and commentary.

Of course, we expected some controversy from the very beginning. Having Kim Kardashian in any form in Paper, let alone posing nude, was likely to generate interest. Print, radio and TV jumped on the photos and reported the story with breathless excitement, feigning shock and awe. Tweets, likes, shares, comments, Instas and memes came surging forth, a torrent of butt-inspired commentary both delighted and outraged.

But did we expect it to go global, to become a major story for two weeks running? Or for it to lead a Saturday Night Live segment and become an ongoing discussion on late-night talkshows? Or that, taking up our challenge to #BreakTheInternet, versions of Kim’s behind would turn up on a piñata, a Thanksgiving turkey or Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s Christmas card? Never.

The thing about popular culture – or “virality” – is that it cannot be fully predicted or manufactured. It’s more art than science, and there is no recipe.

We began with the idea of creating a conceptual art project for our art issue. Thanks to the creative team, led by Drew Elliott and Mickey Boardman, Kardashian and Goude came on board, game to take on the hyperbolic mandate “#BreakTheInternet”.

Many magazines have shot Kardashian over the years. W did a major shoot; Vogue ran exclusive photos of Kim and Kanye’s wedding; British GQ ran them bare-assed on their cover – none went viral like this. Jean-Paul Goude, a pop culture legend in his own right, with work in the Louvre and several iconic images under his belt, was able to make you stare at one of the world’s most photographed women as if for the first time. But this alone would not have been enough.

Behind the scenes, we were mobilising the troops, adding servers to handle the anticipated online surge and lining our ducks in a row for the social media campaign. Paper has been spotting new talent in fashion, entertainment and the arts for decades. With the arrival of the internet, we’ve had a harder time being heard above the noise.

And so, a cover with Kardashian, already one of the world’s most famous women, was meant as the first salvo of an assault on the world wide web. The plan was to publish online in conjunction with the magazine’s appearance on newsstands. But seeing the photos made us change our game plan. They were too outrageous. Somewhere along the chain, from the printer to the truckers to the distributors, we were afraid someone would leak the photos; the next thing you know, they would have been on TMZ and we would have lost our own story. So, we switched gears – we released the covers first.

The response was immediate and overwhelming, reaching a fever pitch when Kanye tweeted “the butt cover” with the hashtag “#ALLDAY”. Within a couple of hours, he had been retweeted about 70,000 times. The inside photos – including the full nude – were released the following night at 8.30pm. Everyone in the office spent the night glued to real-time analytics, watching the traffic on the site skyrocket. The numbers were staggering: on 13 November, one day after the full story appeared, our traffic measured nearly 1% of the entire web browsing activity in the US.

Appearing on the cover of a small-circulation magazine proved to be a brave and brilliant move for Kardashian. Those familiar with Paper as an indie magazine were shocked by the choice of this mainstream star. Those new to Paper were beguiled, wondering what the queen of reality TV, gossip talkshows and social media was doing on the cover of a publication they had never heard of. It caught people off-balance, made them look twice and led many to speculate that either she was paid or we were paid. According to one outrageous – and false – theory, Kanye paid us to push Taylor Swift out of the news cycle.

From there, the conversation moved on to more weighty matters, such as the future of print in the face of the digital revolution. “That Kim Kardashian can ‘break the internet’ with a print magazine cover (as opposed to, say, an Instagram) is perhaps the biggest coup of all,” wrote Time. “A magazine is relevant again because the internet is talking about it – how ironic is that?” wrote Lauren Tuck, on Yahoo Style.

Blue Telusma, writing for the Grio, took a more nuanced view: “Those of you saying that Kim Kardashian needs to put on some clothes simply because she is a mother also need to sip a big champagne glass of ‘Girl, Bye!’ Because this antiquated idea that mothers are not allowed to celebrate their sexuality is ridiculous and naive.” But she went on to question the racial undertones in the photograph’s history and the iconography of Jean-Paul Goude. Some have long taken issue with Goude’s obsession with black women, as documented in his uncomfortably titled 1979 book, Jungle Fever.

Telusma wrote: “When I looked at the spread, all I saw was … imagery that is steeped in centuries of racism, oppression and misogyny … In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black, it looks like Mrs West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin idea.”

Which brings us to the first rule of how to create a pop phenomenon: be polarising. Kim Kardashian is both loved and loathed. Detractors tend to play the talent card, as if America only rewards the talented actors and artists and musicians creating culture today. Perhaps what enrages people is that she doesn’t claim to be any of those things. She is a beautiful woman, with an amazing, unreal body and a knack for profiting off of those things. And she knows it. And that, for whatever reason, makes people incredibly angry. On Facebook, many of my “friends” hold Kardashian (and, by extension, Paper) complicit in the decline and fall of western civilisation.

If that’s what it takes to shake the world, so be it. Guilty as charged. We had an idea that worked for this specific issue. To claim that we can keep replicating this level of attention, or act as if there was real strategy or prophecy behind it wouldn’t be true. We’re enjoying our 15 minutes – but we’ve been here holding court for 30 years.