Goop came to Canada on the last weekend of October, bringing a stream of upscale athleisure-wearing women to Vancouver’s Stanley Park on a glorious Saturday morning. We were greeted with platters of goopglow orange drinks (“drink your way to glowing skin”) and waivers that stipulated we not interpret a psychic medium’s readings as serious life advice. At the coffee bar, scoops of collagen were offered with our lattes and Americanos. As we breakfasted on flax-almond-crust galettes, there was a palpable sense of anticipation. But there was something else in the chit-chatty air – a weird sense of self-consciousness, even shame.
“She’s so polarizing. We bought the tickets, and I was like, don’t tell anyone we’re going,” said Alison Gardner, 48, sitting on a white couch, along with her friend Stephanie Vogler. “Legit, we didn’t want anyone to know,” Vogler, 44, added. “But now we’re psyched.”
“She,” of course, is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose initials bracket the name of her brand, Goop. The Oscar-winning actor launched Goop in 2008 – initially a newsletter recommending some stuff she liked. Her curated fashion and wellness advice has grown into a business reportedly worth US$250-million. It employs more than 200 people – mostly women. Revenue has tripled year-over-year for the past two years; 2018 revenue is projected to double over 2017, according to the company.
There is a Goop clothing line, beauty and wellness products, a publishing arm and a podcast launched this year with an interview between Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey and has since featured chats with fellow A-listers such as Chrissy Teigen and Sarah Jessica Parker. Listening in gives you the feeling that they’re just like us – busy women chatting with their girlfriends about work and kids and their love lives.
Last year, Paltrow launched an events component. Vancouver’s In Goop Health – featuring expert talks, wellness workshops, food and drink aplenty, a “pop-in” shop and take-home swag – was the company’s first foray outside the United States. At $400, tickets sold out in three days. A second, free day was added with classes and access to the shop. At the end of the weekend, Goop announced a second Canadian event – a conversation with one of the brand’s “most prominent thought leaders” in Toronto in November.
Paltrow herself was not scheduled to attend the Vancouver summit. Instead, recordings of her voice rang out to welcome and end the sessions, and during breaks to let us know how much time we had left to down our kombucha or coconut water. “We hope you enjoyed the conversation. It’s time for another break!”
The rooms were radiant in shades of white – white chairs, tabletops, walls, signage. Staff and volunteers wore white or off-white shirts and sweaters.
Outside, a performance artist hawked “hot dog water” in cheeky protest of the high-priced event and to parody Goop’s pseudoscience-y wellness brand.
Paltrow has attracted the ire of eye-rolling skeptics for some time, including when she “consciously uncoupled” from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. But Goop has drawn particular wrath. The brand has come under scrutiny with charges of quackery and elitism, deepening Paltrow’s role in celebrity culture as the superstar we love to hate – or at least ridicule.
Almost without exception, when I told people about this work assignment, I found myself on the receiving end of a wisecrack about vaginal eggs or vaginal steaming. The latter – the Mugworth V-Steam, offered by a Santa Monica spa – was once recommended in a Goop write-up.
The former has been a more serious issue. In September, the company paid US$145,000 in a settlement over medicinal claims related to the Jade and Rose Quartz Yoni Eggs it sells.
During Goop’s Vancouver weekend, London’s Sunday Times reported that British regulators were asked to investigate more than 113 alleged breaches of advertising law involving “misleading and dangerous claims.” The products in question this time include The Mother Load, a vitamin for pregnant women, and The Goop Medicine Bag. The medicine bag, offered for sale at the Vancouver summit, was described as a “beautiful set of chakra-healing crystals … energetically cleansed with sage, tuned with sound waves, activated with mantras and blessed with reiki.”
In Paltrow’s absence, the event was hosted by Elise Loehnen, Goop’s candid and charismatic chief content officer, who has become a sort of celebrity herself through the podcasts. “Can you change your life in a day?” she asked during the opening session, dressed in a red sweater, long red pleated skirt and white sneakers.
We were separated into three streams – moonstone, onyx and quartz – and rotated between sessions that included a glowy-skin master class where we gave ourselves facials, a medium reading and a Lululemon-presented yoga class.
Indulgent? Sure, as many of the attendees I spoke with readily acknowledged. But they were there to learn – some, such asVogler, are businesspeople who admire Paltrow’s savvy and success – and for a break from their often busy lives. Many were working mothers with full-time jobs and crazy schedules. Many seemed blissed-out, buoyed by the sense of community and the female focus.
Not to mention all the free (“free”) food and drinks (and vitamin B12 shots). The Vancouver juice company Nectar was on-site, offering samples of products including Schisandra Sparkling Rosé, at what they called the Elixir Bar. “The only side effect,” company owner Tori Holmes warned me, is that women tend to get “aggressively horny.” (In any case, it tasted good.)
A number of the usual Goop suspects spoke at various sessions, including athlete and author Gabrielle Reece and psychotherapist Barry Michels, who made repeated references to treating powerful Hollywood types. Loehnen name-dropped Julia Roberts. And of course, there were repeated references to Paltrow. We were one degree of Kevin Bacon from their rarefied world.
The organizers also brought in some Canadian content, including Vancouver-based meditation teacher Michele Kambolis and the woman behind Toronto’s MisfitStudio, Amber Joliat, who led a yoga/Pilates/dance fusion workout (or, as I affectionately refer to it, my near-death experience).
“I think I’m starting to drink the Kool-Aid,” I texted a friend, after buying a pair of Native shoes in the shop.
“Please tell me you’re not steaming your cooch as you text,” she responded.
On that note, when Chrissy Teigen posted a photo on Instagram of herself steaming her vagina, she attracted kudos and LMAOs. So why is it people gleefully scoff at Paltrow when her website offers a couple sentences about it?
I asked Loehnen about Goop being the consistent target of derision. “Interestingly, it’s usually things that surround women’s sexual organs or sexual health,” she said.
Loehnen said having a celebrity such as Paltrow lead the conversation “about vaginas and vibrators” is powerful. “I think she’s happy to sort of play that role in culture so we can strip some of the shame away from sexual pleasure, sexual trauma, equal opportunity to orgasm.”
Paltrow can be triggering, she added. “I think it’s this idea that she’s perfect. How can somebody be beautiful and smart and famous?” Loehnen said. “I think it should tell people more about themselves than it does about her.”
By the end of our conversation, I was ready to smash the patriarchy with a Yoni egg (offered for sale in the pop-in shop, minus the promises of health benefits).
The Vancouver event was not without controversy; Goop, a for-profit company, attracted some flak by advertising for volunteers. Loehnen said Goop was simply offering some docent positions to people who could then attend the summit and also walk away with some swag.
Derek Desierto, 32, was one of them. A children’s book illustrator – and one of the very few men at the event – Desierto wanted to buy a ticket, but the summit was sold out. So he jumped at the chance to volunteer for a brand he believes in.
“I love being with women. I feel very at home,” he said.
Sitting a few rows from the front during the Angst and Anxiety panel, I noted that, from the back, any number of the women in the audience could have been mistaken for Paltrow with their tiny frames, blonde hair and excellent posture.
Which brings me to something else I discussed with Desierto. It wasn’t just the decor that was almost exclusively white.
“I think for any brand, it speaks to a certain person. And so I think for people who see Gwyneth and see themselves in Gwyneth, perhaps she’s just an archetype of her people. So I don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s so white in here,’” said Desierto, who is Canadian-Filipino, adding that he would, of course, love to see more diversity.
The night before the summit, Goop hosted a swanky private kick-off event for panelists, VIPs and some media at the new Douglas Hotel. It was approximately 10 minutes after my final Veuve Clicquot top-up that I was down the street, flashing my Costco card and lining up for a sliver of a cooked-from-frozen Angus-beef slider. One moment I was receiving advice from Paltrow’s London facialist, the next I was downing Costco samples and buying 8,000 double-A batteries (the smallest package on offer).
Proximity to the rich and famous is one of the weird quirks (or, I suppose, perks) of being a journalist. Writing about the arts, you are offered the keys to the A-list kingdom every now and then, if only for the odd 20-minute interview or cocktail party. And so you might get whiplash moving from Champagne and oysters on the half-shell to a Friday-night Costco trip, followed by a ride home on public transit.
For people with the privilege of affluence, there are ways to buy that proximity – if not to the stars themselves, then to their lifestyle and the things they consume. In Goop Health is all about that, as is Goop itself. Anyone with access to the Internet – and some disposable income – can buy into it. Aspiration is its driving force, and for a couple of days, I was immersed in it.
Like too many pairs of shoes that I couldn’t afford but bought anyway over the years, the look was great, but the fit wasn’t quite right.