What would Gwyneth do? - Macleans.ca

What would Gwyneth do?

The once aloof actor has reinvented herself as a more karmically evolved Martha Stewart

by

What would Gwyneth do?

Gwyneth Paltrow is on a crusade to enrich your sad, spiritually and materially malnourished life. The first sign of the Oscar winner’s humanitarianism appeared last September with the launch of Goop.com, a website and free weekly newsletter sent to subscribers offering advice on topics as diverse as her bowel-cleansing “detox,” how to copy her daily “uniform,” and her favourite places to stay and eat. Other celebrities, among them Paltrow’s ex-fiancé Brad Pitt, tour refugee camps. Providing a portal into her privileged life is Paltrow’s way of giving back. As she told USA Today: “I just thought if I could affect one woman’s life positively who was trying to do all the things I was doing, and I had one solution that worked for me that might work for her, it was worth it to try and share it.”

It’s the rare woman, of course, who has Paltrow’s hectic schedule—commuting by private plane between houses in London and the U.S. with her husband, Coldplay front man Chris Martin, and their two young children, balancing an acting career with endorsements for Estée Lauder, Tod’s and South Korean fashion line Bean Pole International, and squeezing in yoga classes and workouts with the trainer she shares with Madonna. Still, Paltrow’s noblesse oblige is such that she finds time to convene her “sages,” among them Deepak Chopra, to discuss surviving family tensions during the holidays, to post a video of butt-reshaping exercises starring her trainer, Tracy Anderson, and to compile a holiday gift guide that includes a US$500 Dean & DeLuca “Small Ultimate Gift Set” with truffled goose foie gras. Just last week, she provided a new twist on the tired book-club trend, with picks from her “most literary-minded” girlfriends, among them Madonna and the model Christy Turlington.

If it appears Paltrow’s treading, if ever so lightly, on turf long occupied by Oprah and Martha, well, that’s the plan. An unnamed “source” close to the actress recently revealed to the British magazine Now: “Gwyneth wants to be the new Martha Stewart. She wants to launch her own homeware range, a fashion line, a food range and self-help books.” She just signed a deal to write a cookbook that focuses on the importance of family dining, to be published next year. It’s also rumoured she’s backing Anderson’s New York City gym.

Paltrow arrives in the crowded women’s life-coaching arena without precedent. Oprah Winfrey’s ascendancy dovetailed with the appetite for personal confession and spiritual self-help, Martha Stewart’s with the desire for home cooking to look catered. Paltrow enters on their coattails, as a hipper, more karmically evolved Martha and a fitter, more domestically plugged-in Oprah. Her Goop persona is that of the worldly girlfriend who vacillates between the you-are-responsible-for-your-failures rhetoric of the blockbuster The Secret (“My life is good because I’m not passive about it”) and gushy confessional (“I need to lose a few pounds of holiday excess. Anyone else?”). Her inspirational hectoring can occasionally read like Zen for Dummies: “Pause before reacting,” she writes. “Learn something new. Don’t be lazy. Work out and stick with it . . .”

“Sticktoitiveness” is a Paltrow mantra. Certainly it describes the actress’s stealthy campaign to establish her life-coach bona fides with the masses. First, she had to shed her image as an aloof, macrobiotic vegan who spends her days sharing post-colonic kale-and-carrot juice with Stella McCartney. So she provided a friendly peek into her fabulous $5.4-million Hamptons house with a separate workout studio in the November 2007 House & Garden. Last June’s promotional tour for Iron Man, in which she played “Pepper” Potts, was deployed to flaunt her newly toned legs in micro-minis and vertiginous heels. (Retailers dubbed the stampede to imitate her footwear the “Gwyneth effect.”) She erased her vegan rep—and ramped up her culinary cred—by joining the carnivorous chef Mario Batali on his PBS TV series, Spain . . . On The Road Again, which spawned a book. Then, with impeccable timing, Paltrow appeared on Oprah the week before Goop’s launch to talk about how she shed 20 lb. of baby weight and to champion Anderson, whose DVD she produced and directed, as “the exercise genius of all time.”

Why the notoriously private 36-year-old is trying to reinvent herself as a 21st-century Mrs. Beeton is a mystery. For all of its breezy openness, Goop is shrouded in secrecy. The number of subscribers is unknown. When a reporter from the New York Observer went to the address listed on the website, there was no Goop office and a security guard couldn’t find any record of it on the computer. Paltrow’s spokesman, Stephen Huvane, didn’t respond to Maclean’s phone calls or emails.

The most logical explanation for Goop is that Paltrow figured she could make some serious money by capitalizing on her celebrity—and style-setting image. On the TV program Popular, which aired nearly a decade ago, high school girls talked about wanting to be “like Gwyneth.” Maybe, she figured, the same demographic, now mothers, still do.

“To her credit she’s always had lovely style,” says Dany Levy, who attended the private Spence School in New York City with Paltrow. “She’s almost the person you want to hate growing up with in high school.” Levy, the founder and editorial director of DailyCandy.com, another emailed newsletter offering style tips, asked the actress to write about her favourite spots in her New York neighbourhood shortly after the site began in 2000. Paltrow’s picks didn’t make a big impression, says Levy: “The response was surprisingly muted.”

The response to Goop, on the other hand, has been vociferous. Already, the “Gwyneth effect” has been proven to extend beyond shoes. After Paltrow named Bridgewater chocolates “my absolute favorite chocolate in the entire world” in December, sales rose, says owner Erik Landegren. Paltrow has been a customer for years, he says, though her endorsement came as a surprise. “It was terrific for us.”

Not everyone welcomes Paltrow’s arrival as a taste arbiter. Ben Barna of BlackBookMag.com, which bills itself “the insiders’ guide to style and culture,” vented: “That’s what we do, Gwyneth! How would you like it if we started doing yoga?” Paltrow’s selections are criticized as already overly exposed. After she ran a list of her favourite New York restaurants, which included several of Batali’s, the New York Daily News shot back with a list of overlooked Brooklyn spots, sniping “News flash, Gwyn: New York doesn’t start at the Bowery and end at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side.” Her research has also been mocked: “Is Gwyneth Paltrow a Momofaker?” asked New York magazine’s food blog “Grub Street” after she wrote about how to secure a reservation at red-hot Momofuk restaurants, which don’t take them. Her recommendation of New York’s Greenwich Hotel, a new Robert DeNiro venture, was made without ever having stepped inside. “It looks good on the website anyway,” she wrote.

Among women, Goop has become a flashpoint: they love it or hate it, or, more commonly, love to hate it. Her recipes are healthy, easy and flavourful, but so are Jamie Oliver’s. Her “detox” diet has become a cause célèbre: those who didn’t slavishly follow it, ridiculed it: “She may call it ‘detox.’ I call it ‘starvation,’ ” wrote one commenter on the Washington Post’s website. This looks like something posted on an anorexia website.”

Female journalists have devoted miles of column inches to gleefully slagging the venture as a vanity project: “Why is it called Goop?” asked Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail just after it launched. “Perhaps ‘Any Old Load of Rubbish’ and ‘Learn From Me, Ungrateful Peasant’ were both taken.”

Paltrow has emerged as a Marie Antoinette-style figure, a relic from the old regime who’s tone-deaf to the new. (For a website whose motto is “nourish the inner aspect,” there’s a lot of focus on “outer stuff.”) Her attempts to bond with the lumpenproletariat can read like satire. She describes a US$1,850 Hermès watch: “The ultimate anti-credit crunch present,” adding wistfully, “. . . but a girl can dream.” Buying a Chanel minidress is justified as a future heirloom: “This is the dress you save up for and pass down to your daughter because it never goes out of style.” Some of her London hotel recommendations, such as Blakes, where rooms run $600 a night, “are on the pricey side,” she admits, but she’s working on it: “My Goop girls are doing some research into some more affordable places.”

Unlike Martha and Oprah, Paltrow lacks the common touch. Even more grievously, she underestimates her audience’s intelligence. Etalk host Elaine Lui responded to Paltrow’s lineup of safe classics on her reading list, among them Jane Eyre, The Sun Also Rises, and Anna Karenina, with contempt on her blog Laineygossip.com: “It looks like a copy of Mr. Walter’s recommended reading guide from 10th grade.”

Levy “unsubscribed” to Goop last week after scrolling through Paltrow’s book picks. “I didn’t find anything wrong with it,” she says diplomatically. “I’m trying to pare down my email inbox.” Still, she expresses concern for Goop’s viability. “To take on a brand that’s attached to one person is a little precarious at this point in time, especially if you’re a person who wants to have your privacy,” she says. She believes the appetite for celebrity picks has limits: “There’s no one celebrity that I can name that I would want to follow for everything,” she says. The massive success of DailyCandy.com, sold in 2003 for US$3 million, then flipped in 2008 for US$125 million to Comcast, she says, stemmed from its focus on what was being recommended, not who was doing the recommending. The Obama presidency has furthered this shift. “It’s not the ‘All about me show’ ” anymore, she says. “Bush was ‘All about me.’ ”

In response to her critics, Paltrow expresses sympathy: “People get a hit of energy when they are negative and it is very detrimental for them,” she told USA Today. “They do not understand why they do not have a happy life. That kind of stuff is just noise to me. I feel sorry for them.” As for everyone else, let them read Goop. M

UPDATE: Paltrow’s latest missive, issued January 29, ties nicely with her upcoming cookbook, My Father’s Daughter, which celebrates the importance of family dining. Her family dinner menu that’s “great for a Sunday” is (almost literally) stunning in its simplicity. With not a whit of apparent irony, Paltrow explains how placing butter, garlic and Parmesan cheese on a baguette and placing it in the oven will yield “garlic bread.” Culinary purists will be surprised that a foodie like Gwyneth endorses the use of a garlic press, though possibly she’s just trying to make life a little easier for the masses. Fortunately, she does regain some cred with her recommendation of Maldon salt atop frozen peas.