In the midst of the hoopla over People magazine’s selection of Gwyneth Paltrow as the most beautiful woman in the world, and the Star tabloid’s selection of her as one of the world’s most hated, BBC Radio 5 ran a revealing interview with Paltrow. Though she was promoting Iron Man 3, the actress made it clear to a rather stunned interviewer that she knew very little about the film. “I actually haven’t seen the movie yet,” she said. “I find it difficult to follow the sci-fi stuff.” A few seconds later: “I never understand what’s happening—I say, ‘Please tell me where to stand’ and I learn my lines.”
The interview was less illuminating about Paltrow than about her critics and fans. This was either the kind of Gwyneth candour that some find so refreshing, or else the thinly veiled superiority others find so off-putting. “The subtext is, ‘I’m so huge, I don’t need to pretend to have an interest in the film,’ ” says Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture and media at Staffordshire University, who was listening. “I’m not sure there would be many actors who would have the gall to say that.”
Paltrow has become a polarizing figure, a successful woman some audiences love to hate, and others just love. Recently, she’s been dishing out fodder for both sides. Her movie opens Friday, her new cookbook is No. 1 on bestseller lists, there was the most-beautiful-woman title, the most-hated title—not to mention the scandal over what she wore to her movie premiere: a dress with two sheer, full-length strips that precluded the wearing of undergarments. Go Fug Yourself said “it looked like someone slaughtered several pairs of L’Eggs.” Every time Gwyneth Paltrow says something or does something, there’s vitriol and praise all over the Internet.
All of this was inconceivable back when Paltrow stuck to inoffensive rom-coms like Sliding Doors. She was too bland to divide opinions. Then came her lifestyle website, Goop, through which she unleashes a wave of unrelenting elitist pep on everything from kale juice to eight must-have fashion trends this March (whose overall cost was revealed to be $458,000). “Make your life good,” goes another tip on Goop.
“You can be outspoken and candid,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “It can be likeable. It can also be seen as arrogance.” The new cookbook helped solidify the backlash—she restricts her children’s intake of pasta and other carbs and makes egg-white omelettes with duck eggs or uses gluten-free flour. “Healthy eating on just $300 a day,” quipped the New York Times.
Paltrow’s fans remain staunchly loyal. Elaine Lui, a reporter for CTV’s Etalk who also has the popular Lainey Gossip website, is one. “The Gwyneth I love is the one whose life is so unbelievably perfect that I want to know everything about it,” she says. “If you were to construct a perfect celebrity, she has every box checked off: white, tall, thin. She’s not from Ohio, she was raised in New York and bred in Los Angeles, her godfather is Steven Spielberg, she dated Brad Pitt when he was at his best. She’s married to Coldplay’s Chris Martin. She has an Oscar, is friends with Beyoncé—it does not stop with Gwyneth Paltrow.”
But for every person charmed by her admission that her husband is “used to seeing me in baggy shorts and frizzy hair,” there are people rolling their eyes at the two-hour workouts and pictures of her lounging in a mansion. After a lifetime in a rarefied world, “she hasn’t realized there is an inhuman quality about her that the rest of the world sees,” says Cashmore, author of Celebrity/Culture. Her fans say it’s well-intentioned. “She’s just that clueless,” Lui says. “Her existence is so privileged, she doesn’t know what she’s saying would be so objectionable.”
But the criticism isn’t hurting her brand. In fact, unlike Hatha-hate, the antipathy aimed at Anne Hathaway as she openly campaigned for an Oscar, Paltrow-loathing has turned the nice, boring blond into someone kind of interesting.
“Indifference is the most harmful enemy of celebs,” Cashmore says. “All this hatred is elevating Gwyneth to the celebrity pantheon. It shows that, even in her imperious blandness, she can excite passions in us—and so occupy our thoughts.”