“I Am Cait,” the television series about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition to life as a woman, premieres on Sunday, July 26 on the E! network. It comes at a time when Caitlyn Jenner’s popularity is soaring, and it seems likely that the premiere will attract huge numbers of viewers.
Jenner currently has 2.7 million followers on Twitter, and Beth Kseniak, executive director of public relations for Vanity Fair, confirmed that the Caitlyn issue was their best seller since January 2011. The episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” in which Jenner came out as transgender drew 4.24 million viewers. The show hadn’t attracted an audience of that size in three years, and it also exceeded the number of viewers watching the series finale of “Mad Men.”
But the true test of the Caitlyn brand is whether or not anyone wants to put money behind it. So how is that measuring up? The premiere episode of “I Am Cait” sold out all of its ad time, so enough advertisers are cognizant of its likely popularity to pony up. Oddly, E! wouldn’t disclose the show’s sponsors to Fortune.
Despite signing with CAA Speakers in June, Jenner has yet to book a single speaking engagement.
“That is the client’s choice at the moment,” Alan Nierob, Jenner’s publicist, told Fortune.
No company has enlisted her to endorse a product, either.
At first glance, this seems odd. Public acceptance of transgender has never been greater. Last week, TLC premiered “I Am Jazz,” a reality show about a transgender girl, and in June the ABC Family network premiered “Becoming Us,” a Ryan Seacrest production whose sponsors include Applebee’s and Aveeno.
Jenner has even been a marketable commodity before, as the Olympic gold medalist who once graced Wheaties cereal boxes, an event so culturally significant that “Saturday Night Live” made fun of it.
So what gives?
“This is new territory,” Jeetendr Sehdev, professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, told Reuters. “We don’t know whether Caitlyn Jenner is going to influence people to purchase or whether she is going to alienate people.”
Dan Schawbel, branding expert and author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success,” told Fortune that everything likely hinges on how the “I Am Cait” premiere fares in the ratings.
“It’s still early,” he said. “The true test is, how successful will her reality TV show be? If it’s successful, you’ll see a lot of momentum. There will be endorsement deals, book deals… I think money follows attention, so the ratings for the first show will be an indicator of how successful the show will be over a long period of time. Companies will be more likely to bet after they see the numbers.”
If the show does well enough for companies to want in, he speculated that such transgender-inclusive companies as Aetna, Nike, KPMG and Met Life might potentially want her endorsement. However, he conceded that clothing companies were a likelier bet.
“Caitlyn Jenner wears really nice things,” he said. “When she goes to awards shows, they’ll say, ‘This dress is by so-and-so,’ and that will help.”
Last week, the market research firm E-Score, which tracks the popularity of approximately 8,000 celebrities, said that Jenner is liked by 23 percent of survey respondents and disliked by 34 percent. So what if “I Am Cait” draws a collective yawn from television audiences?
In 2014, People magazine said that Caitlyn Jenner’s net worth was an estimated $100 million, so money’s not a problem. But the voracious appetite for all things Caitlyn that’s been omnipresent in the media since April could certainly evaporate, and Schawbel said that the transgender community is too small to rely on for her to maintain current levels of popularity.
“The thing with TV is if the show doesn’t get the ratings, things could blow up,” he said. “If you can’t get ratings, the network can’t get the advertising. Everyone loses. She’s not going to go into the poor house, but a lot of opportunities won’t be there.”
Despite the possibility of one of these dire predictions coming true, “I Am Cait” is still positioned to become a hit. Positive advance reviews from such outlets as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter suggest fortuitous tidings, and if the show does as well as it’s expected to, then the endorsements and speaking engagements should materialize quickly.
“I think brands would be very smart to align themselves with her because she is such a brave spokesperson,” Megan Hartman, strategy director at Red Peak Youth branding agency in New York, said to Reuters. “I think we are going to see a lot of brands across all categories – beauty fashion, sports, entertainment – looking to get a piece of her.”
Finally, what will the success or failure of “I Am Cait” mean for the transgender community as a whole? Schawbel said that there has already been more acceptance of transgender people after both the April “20/20”interview and Jenner’s acceptance speech at the ESPYs. If the show does well, he said, it will raise awareness, in the same way that the Ice Bucket Challenge raised awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“You might have heard of ALS, but now everybody knows about ALS,” he said. “The after-product of that show being successful is going to be greater acceptance.”
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.