Almost immediately after posting a fun-filled Instagram announcement revealing her new tequila brand, 818, Kendall Jenner started taking some heat.
While many friends, fans, and family members praised the model and reality star’s new business venture, which she kept a secret for nearly four years, many critics on social media say Jenner has no right to get into the tequila-making industry because she is not Mexican.
The critical comments range from people asking Jenner to give credit to the distillery in Jalisco where her tequila was made and to the workers involved in making the drink to accusations of cultural appropriation.
The question of whether any non-Mexican person making tequila should be considered cultural appropriation is not for us, or any one person, to decide.
But seeking some further insight on the issue, we spoke to Marie Sarita Gaytán, the associate professor of sociology and gender studies and author of “¡Tequila!: Distilling the Spirit of Mexico,” who shared her thoughts on the criticism – and in particular, why the outrage over Jenner’s venture is so prominent when she’s just the latest in a long line of non-Mexican celebrities to make their own tequila.
In what was by far the most prominent and financially successful celebrity tequila venture to date, George Clooney and Rande Gerber made their brand Casamigos a household name in 2013, eventually selling it to Diageo for $1 billion in 2017. Many other celebrity-backed tequila launches followed.
Michael Jordan and a team of four others set out to create a tequila that fit their palates in 2019. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Nick Jonas, Rita Ora, rapper E-40, Adam Levine and Sammy Hagar, AC/DC, Justin Timberlake, and Sean “Diddy” Combs are also among the celebs who have put their names and faces behind the Mexican-made spirit.
While it’s clear the supermodel and reality TV star did not start the tequila-making trend among her famous peers, it’s also obvious that she’s being criticized more – or at least more visibly – than the rest of them have.
Gaytán, a tequila expert, says that the issue isn’t straightforward, and the debate doesn’t have one clear answer.
“As my colleague Paisley Rekdal, the author of ‘Appropriate: A Provocation,’ reminds us, these debates are too often framed in terms of right or wrong, good or bad,” the professor and author told Insider via email. “There is always more to them. These issues are thorny.”
Gaytán also agreed that, in her recollection, tequila brands launched by other non-Mexican celebrities prior to Jenner’s did not elicit the same response. “When people express outrage over Kendall Jenner’s tequila, I wonder why there hasn’t been the same reaction to the launch of brands by Justin Timberlake, Nick Jonas, or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson?” she said.
Gaytán suggested that some critics will use the idea of Jenner being “in it for the money” as grounds for attacking her business. But she says that reasoning “just doesn’t cut it [because] they are all in it for the money.”
She also pointed out that “there was hardly any mention of cultural appropriation” surrounding Clooney and Gerber’s massive Casamigos sale, and suggests that Jenner’s gender may have something to do with the backlash.
Jenner joins Rita Ora (who is a partner to a Mexican distiller rather than a brand-owner) and Bethenny Frankel (who started her SkinnyGirl cocktail brand with a margarita) as one of few women in the celebrity-tequila space. Of the three women and their ventures, Jenner and her prominent leadership position in 818 are arguably the most visible.
“When women step ‘out of bounds,’ whether it’s in politics, business, or in this case, culture and entrepreneurship, it touches a nerve,” Gaytán said. “That, for me, is a far more interesting story.”
Timing is also a factor, with many possibly seeing Jenner’s tequila launch as the last straw in repeated instances of cultural appropriation – both by Jenner and her family specifically, and by wealthy and powerful individuals generally.
“In the case of tequila (and similar national-origin products), accusations of cultural appropriation seem to happen when a celebrity from a different cultural background (i.e., not Mexican) acquires or founds their own brand,” Gaytán said.
“To some degree, everyone engages in cultural appropriation,” she added. “. This does not mean that the effects of everyone’s appropriation of a cultural product is the same – power, access, representation, all of these dimensions are at play.”
She told Insider that one root of the issue causing the outrage is that Mexican goods and culture (like tequila) seem to hold more value in the US than Mexican people do.
“For Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States, it certainly stings to see yet another non-Mexican capitalizing on their culture,” Gaytán said. “Why might it sting? Well, for one, even as I write, real Mexicans – mothers, fathers, children – are in cages, put there by the US government. That could not happen in a country that respected Mexicans as humans.”
While timing and gender may be factors here, I would argue that audience is another that could be just as powerful.
Consider how different Clooney and Gerber’s audience is from Jenner’s. When the two men came out with Casamigos in 2013, their celebrity friends could be seen touting the drink. The price point made it perfect for any adult with disposable income to purchase a tequila that connected them with the suave coolness of Clooney without breaking the bank.
Eighteen- to 35-year-olds, who may be more attuned to issues of cultural appropriation, weren’t (and still aren’t) exactly that brand’s target market.
But Jenner’s entire brand as a millennial herself is built on that demographic. Her audience is largely (though not exclusively) made up of millennials and Gen Zers who are deeply involved with and active on social media and who care deeply about issues involving racial equity – and who aren’t shy about calling out instances of cultural appropriation when they see them.
Kendall isn’t the first in her blended, extremely famous family to be criticized for a business decision or face accusations of cultural appropriation.
Kim Kardashian West’s Skims shapewear was originally called Kimono until she was called out for appropriating the name of the traditional Japanese garment and changed it.
Kylie Jenner took heat for performing in Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” music video, with many critics calling the cameo “unnecessary” in a video that otherwise celebrated “Black female excellence.”
And multiple members of the family, including Kylie, Khloe, and Kendall herself, have been called out for appropriating traditionally Black hairstyles. Kim was even accused of blackface on her Paper magazine cover, which critics said drew inspiration from racist imagery.
In the end, Jenner launching a tequila brand may be problematic, but it’s no more so than Casamigos or any of the other celebrity tequila launches that came before it. And it’s important to consider why people are only calling this out as cultural appropriation now.
Representatives for Jenner declined to comment when reached by Insider.