NEW YORK — As Kim Kardashian West put it to her 60 million-plus followers on Twitter, the call she made to Alice Marie Johnson “will forever be one of my best memories.”
It was the reality star and makeup mogul who brought the 63-year-old Johnson first word of her freedom after more than two decades in federal prison on 1996 drug convictions related to a Memphis-based cocaine trafficking operation.
Johnson wasn’t eligible for parole, but the TV star met with the former reality TV boss, President Donald Trump, in the Oval Office after learning of Johnson’s plight online. Soon after, Trump commuted her sentence — and the tears flowed.
“Telling her for the first time and hearing her screams while crying together is a moment I will never forget,” offered Kardashian West, long a social media influencer with a legion of dedicated supporters.
Kardashian West has expanded her reach in ways some might have thought unlikely. Johnson’s release Wednesday came two days after Kardashian West accepted an influencer award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America before a star-studded crowd, joking she considered the honor ironic “since I’m naked most of the time.”
With the help of her attorney, Shawn Holley, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kardashian West has been hailed as a hero for pushing hard in Johnson’s case. There seems to be no downside, for herself or the president, observers said. Kardashian West, they said, could have easily done nothing.
“I think that it’s great she’s using her influence in this way,” said Ashley Edwards, senior news and politics editor at the millennial-focused lifestyle site Refinery29. “I’m not sure if there’s anything she can’t do with the amount of clout she has.”
In a way, Edwards noted, the 37-year-old’s move to action in Johnson’s case could be seen as a natural follow up to troubles in her own life.
“She said after her robbery (in a Paris hotel) she realized that material things don’t mean as much to her as they used to. She can go to the store and spend $40,000 on a necklace or a shirt and it doesn’t really fulfill her in the same way that it used to. And I think now that she’s the mother of three, she’s older now and realizes there’s more to life than material things and she is using her celebrity for a bigger purpose.”
For Kardashian West and Trump, was the alliance a risk?
“She’s looking at the bigger picture. She had to work with the administration even if she doesn’t agree with everything he stands for,” Edwards said. “It is a risk for her on one level since a lot of her fans are liberal, a lot of people do not like Donald Trump, but I think a lot of those people now realize we can’t just say that on issues like this.”
Holley has known Kardashian West since she was a child; the star’s late father, Robert Kardashian, was a lawyer who was on O.J. Simpson’s successful defense team in his double murder case, as was Holley.
Holley said the Johnson release is just the beginning for her famous client, who paid to retain lawyers in the effort. The two spent about 20 minutes with Trump last week before he took action to free Johnson, but they had put wheels in motion months ago, back in October.
“There were stops and starts,” Holley said of the lead up to her and Kardashian West’s sit down with the president. “There were times we didn’t want to get too pushy but didn’t want to go off the radar. I have no illusions about the fact that we would not have been there without her star power. She has always been interested in criminal justice. She and I have talked many times over the years about her interest in criminal justice as a whole.”
Kardashian West “definitely” will continue to work on criminal justice issues, Holley said.
People magazine’s deputy editor, DJ Heyman, said Kardashian West’s success marked a shining “singular achievement” and the best use of her influence in the face of massive prison reform challenges in the United States, but she’s certainly not the first celebrity to lend their name, money and clout.
“Look, I think it is amazing and laudable that she was able to achieve this in this case and I think it says a lot about power of celebrity at this moment in time that she, a reality star, an influencer, obviously appeals to a reality star president who obviously felt great about meeting with her and acted, it would seem to be, in a very positive way,” he said.
“I applaud her efforts,” Heyman said. “(But) there are other celebrities like John Legend, who are really intensely, on an almost cellular level, working on criminal justice reform and prosecutorial reform in this country and who take it very seriously. Since they’re friendly, I hope that she works with him and others to really address what I think is a much bigger issue.”
Heyman acknowledged that every influencer has limitations, even the force that is Kim Kardashian West.
“I don’t necessarily think that if she were to come to the president next week with another case that she would necessarily get the same hearing. Maybe she would. And also, good for all those people who are less famous working on these issues.”
Among the less famous: Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction relief for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted.
“It was so great to hear, but it shouldn’t have to take Kim Kardashian getting involved to get justice in this country,” she said. “The fact that it took the involvement of Kim Kardashian to obtain (Johnson’s) release demonstrates the extent of the problem and how, especially after one is convicted it takes Herculean efforts to obtain justice.”
If Kardashian West continues this work, “it could only be a benefit,” Potkin said. “We have the largest prison population in the world. It comes at a time when criminal justice reform is so pivotal in this country. Something has definitely gone awry, so the more voices that can bring attention to this issue the better.”