In the epic battle between the Anti-Gwynethites and the Pro-Gwynethites, a little flag has risen over the grandest celebrity castle in the land, Vanity Fair. Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief, has decided not to play.
In the March issue of the glossy magazine, on newsstands now, Carter writes that the much-anticipated story about Gwyneth Paltrow, the Academy Award-winning actress, cookbook author and lifestyle guru, will not be.
Last spring, after Paltrow was named the "Most Hated Celebrity" by Star magazine around the same time as People magazine named her the "World's Most Beautiful Woman," he had "innocently" commissioned a story about the star's polarizing personality, he explains, from writer Vanessa Grigoriadis. From there, rumours about what the story would reveal got out of hand, he continues. Paltrow, reportedly, sent out e-mails to Hollywood friends, warning them off the magazine that was going "tabloid." As Carter puts it, "Kim Jong-un couldn't have issued a more blanket demand." Paltrow's attempt to shut down the story only led to more gossip that she had much to hide. When the piece was turned in at the end of summer, it was reasoned and balanced, he goes on. But given that it was "a far cry from the almost mythical story that people were by now expecting … it was bound to be a disappointment." So he decided not to publish it.
Apart from the decision and Carter's letter, which reveals the delicate dance of celebrity coverage (more on that later), the War of the Gwynethites is rich with subtext about the nature of the sisterhood, what people admire in others, how they feel about beauty and, perhaps most tellingly, what they want female ambition to look like.
The hater culture is not solely a female phenomenon, of course. "There are just as many male haters as female," says Bonnie Fuller, president and editor-in-chief of Hollywoodlife.com, an online magazine about celebrity. "You see them talking about sports figures or male rock stars." Critical judgment about (or adoration of) celebrities is not new, she asserts. It's just that now the anonymity of social media allows people to express it openly and publicly.
And one of the things we know is that there are politics in prettiness. Years ago, the Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful slogan for Pantene cut right to the heart of it. Many studies have shown that pretty people are more likely to be promoted than the average-looking. Positive traits, such as sensitivity and poise, are attributed to them. And yet celebrities are beautiful to begin with. We don't expect to compete with them, of course. But because of the otherworldly beauty they possess, we hold them to specific behavioural standards, I think. It's as if we're saying, "I will love you for being talented and beautiful, but only if you're someone I could see as my friend." Which is a weird paradox. We're attracted to them for being beyond our lives, better, prettier, richer, luckier, for being secular gods, but we want them to be personalities we can relate to? Hmm.
Part of what makes them people mere mortals can relate to is their troubles. "Despite all they have, they still have problems in their love life. They fall off their diets. They make bad style choices. The fact that you're famous and wealthy doesn't mean you have the perfect life," Fuller says from New York.
And this, of course, is exactly where Gwynnie loses many women. She is perfection personified. To add insult to injury, there's Goop, her online blog, through which she has curated a collection of "all life's positives" since 2008 – and behaves like a celebrity even though she's trying to just be a girly-girl who wants to share what she likes with all her BFFs. I don't fault her for being ambitious or for being perfect. "Winning an Oscar so young [at 26 for Shakespeare in Love], you think, 'There are no rules for me now. I can do what I want,' the 41-year-old actress told me in an interview once. And she's right. She should do what she wants, even if that includes forgoing french fries. Good for her.
To me, what's irksome about her is her inability to understand her audience. Promoting expensive items, such as spring wardrobe essentials worth $45,000, as if everybody can easily afford them is not good marketing. Worse, she doesn't seem aware she's doing it. She's in a bubble of self-love. When she was asked why she puts herself out there on lifestyle issues that earn her so much criticism, she retorted, "Because I know what I'm doing. Which is sharing information. The site is totally accessible. It's not snooty. It's completely earthy." Then this: "If you want to twist it the way you want to twist it, it says more about you than about me," she huffed.
The nature of ambition is what fuels other haters in the celebrity universe. People dislike actress Anne Hathaway mostly, it seems to me, for her drive. And that's troublesome. Do we hate her for leaning in? Are we more open to the Jennifer Lawrences of the world, whose success appears more serendipitous, as though the spotlight has chased them rather than the other way around? If so, that points, to me, to our unresolved relationship with female ambition. Surely we have moved past the smallmindedness of thinking that a woman's unapologetic clarity about what she wants and deserves to get is somehow unattractive and bitchy.
In his editor's letter, Carter professed a kind of bewilderment about the "brouhaha" of the Paltrow affair. He couldn't quite fathom the antipathy. Paltrow called him in the fall, he reports, asking what she might do to get her haters onside. He suggested she put on weight. She said he should lose some. Such witty repartee! But this pals-y type of conversation is exactly what makes his job so tricky. The celebrity world can sometimes be more creepy than the deepest reaches of the ocean. There are many symbiotic parasite-host relationships that make the whole ecosystem thrive. Celebrities need Vanity Fair as much as Vanity Fair needs them – to pose on their covers, to agree to do stories. In the end, Carter likely didn't want to publish a gossipy story about an A-list Hollywood star without attributed quotes from people who knew her. (In an e-mail,Vanessa Grigoriadis turned down a request for comment.) And in a neat trick of media manners, he managed to look elitist about gossip, as though he and his magazine were beyond such rumours, the very thing that fuelled such interest in the story he now isn't publishing because it might disappoint.
It's a win-win decision for him and Paltrow, though. Vanity Fair looks classy. And Paltrow is neither taken down nor put on a pedestal. She retains her love/ hate energy. Which is what she should be thankful for. It's part of why people talk about her.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.