Don’t steam your vagina.
This may seem like pathetically simple advice, but the practice of steam-cleaning your vagina to “rebalance hormones” and freshen up your downstairs department has grown in popularity over the past couple of years. You shouldn’t stick jade eggs in there either. Once again, something you’d think most people would know, yet “beauty healers” now claim that these lumps of stone “harness the power of energy work, crystal healing, and a Kegel-like physical practice.” I don’t care how desperately in need of a rebalanced chi your vagina is, don’t stick jade eggs up there. Your vagina is not MacGyver.
Goop, the somewhat infamous lifestyle site by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, has a lot to say about vaginas. On top of the egg trend, you can find an array of downstairs entertainment, endorsed by a bona fide Oscar winner: There’s a DIY reflexology guide with instructions on which part of the foot to press to help with genital issues; There’s a plug for a new-age emoji pack that includes a special heart vagina patch alongside evil eyes and rainbow unicorns; There’s a helpful guide to yeast infections and how to deal with them the Goop way (cut out yeasty foods and replenish your good bacteria); And that doesn’t even cover the posts dedicated to pelvic floor muscles, orgasmic meditation, the potential toxicity of tampons, medical marijuana for PMS, and, to shake things up a big, good old fashioned anal sex. After asking my Twitter followers what they first thought of when they saw Paltrow, even I was taken aback by how many just said “vaginas”. In the world of celebrity commodities, no branding is bad branding, and Goop has pioneered a new way of business for countless Hollywood stars (as long as they’re wealthy, pretty, and white).
This year, 9 years after initially launching as a weekly newsletter, Goop announced that Paltrow would be the company’s CEO, following a boom year where the brand raised $15-20m in venture capital, launched a quarterly magazine to be published by Condé Nast, and announced plans to enter the multi-billion dollar a year industry of vitamins. Not too shabby for what many had written off as a White Ladies Problems vanity project. Goop casts a wide shadow over the industry, as many actresses, struggling to get good roles past the “over the hill in Hollywood” age of 35, seek new ways to retain relevance while branching out to pastures of profit. Gwyneth has Goop, Reese Witherspoon has Draper James, Jessica Alba has The Honest Company, and once upon a time, Blake Lively had Preserve. Nowadays it feels like every vaguely famous actress with long gaps in their schedules has a blog where they post Instagram-friendly images of chai porridge and yoga poses (the potential future British royal Meghan Markle dabbled in lifestyle blogging with The Tig until recently), yet few have succeeded in the way that a handful of women have. Anyone can set up a Wordpress site and brag about the benefits of kale, but few can command the commitment of audiences like Gwyneth and company.
To read Goop is to fall into a polished world where money is plentiful and self-awareness is questionable. It’s a pristinely organised site chock full of franchised zen, obsessive gloss, and pleasure in its most abstract form. You get the feeling that Paltrow walks without her feet ever touching the ground. The blog posts are all written in an approachable manner, as if between girlfriends over a fizzy business lunch, which almost tricks you into believing their ethos is of our world. A piece on the power of detox baths is so warm in its casual enthusiasm that spending $34 on a bunch of salts begins to seem like a good idea. Goop breezily switches from hippie health tips to cosmopolitan city break ideas without so much as a glance backwards. Their aim is to “make every choice count” as we’re all “resource strapped”, which can’t help but feel contradictory coming from a woman who drinks a daily smoothie containing $50 fungus and $60 of something called “sex dust”.
It’s all so ridiculous that parody seems impossible, which may be why it’s lasted as long as it has. Paltrow’s image is of old money and the associated untouchable qualities. She’s a second generation Hollywood star with a top education and Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck for ex-boyfriends. Nobody looks to Gwyneth for anything remotely relatable. Even in her film work, she is surrounded by the aura of the elite (which works to sublime effect in performances like The Royal Tenenbaums). When Paltrow tries to be warm and appealing in the way general audiences seem to crave, it falls flat, and sometimes she can’t help but be hilariously haughty. This is the kind of out-there Hollywood glamour we seldom see, but would feel right at place in the golden age, where stars were making obscene amounts of money and having a gold-plated bathtub was practically the norm. One of the stars Paltrow most resembles in this capacity is Gloria Swanson. The silent film megastar, best known to film fans for her iconic work as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, was one of the earliest advocates for the macrobiotic diet, and later in life she toured the country to promote her husband’s health book on the dangers of sugar. Nowadays, celebrities shilling for the hot new diet of the week is common practice, but when Paltrow became the de-facto face of the macrobiotic diet in the late 90s, akin to Swanson, there was a sense that she was leading the way for a new generation. These days, Goop seems all the more relevant to a culture that fetishizes vague notions of “wellness” and has turned loopy limiting diets into a mainstream fad. Elizabeth Taylor releasing a cookbook was a last-ditch attempt; Gwyneth doing it is just good business.
Of course, one can’t simply replicate the Goop way to success. Everything about Paltrow’s business is tailor-made to suit her specific image. Paltrow does not cater to a public that finds her out-of-touch and a little loopy, but Reese Witherspoon, with her brand Draper James, is happy to remain America’s sweetheart for the right price. In contrast to fellow Best Actress Oscar winner Paltrow, who hasn’t been in a film since Mortdecai (remember that?), Witherspoon is experiencing a new artistic boom as an actress, thanks to savvy producer choices like HBO’s Big Little Lies, a book she optioned with Nicole Kidman. She’s not necessarily someone who needs to find a new avenue of earnings, nor does she require a boost in popularity. Draper James, a clothing, accessories and home-ware line, is more about adding a new layer to Witherspoon’s durable image as the apple pie good girl. As her acting choices get edgier and less warm, Draper James reminds her fans that she’s still that Southern girl next door your grandmother would love.
In explaining the Draper James lifestyle, Witherspoon is selling a heightened take on Southern heritage that glosses over some abrasive realities with a pinch of weaponised class. She talks of her grandmother who “only drove white Cadillacs—always while wearing proper driving gloves”, and how her grandfather “taught me that good manners and great style go hand in hand”, which blend together to create “contemporary, yet timeless Southern style” at a reasonably affordable price. Witherspoon herself models many of the clothes, which are simple and chic but with enough cutesy personality to stand out from the crowd. The home accents section includes “trinket trays” ($18) with vague platitudes in gold leaf font that say “Think Happy Thoughts” and “You Are My Sunshine”. For $58, you can own a series of cocktail napkins with “What Would Dolly Do?” embroidered on the front.
The “Love, Reese” blog part of the site is frothy and inviting like her best performances, packed with country music playlists, advice for Summer entertaining and prolific use of the phrase “y’all”. It’s so cute, it’s almost suspicious. After all, this is a view of refined Southern comfort that can only be experienced by a small portion of its residents, and bar a few women modelling the pricey clothes, this is a South for the white. This is the south of fairytales, the kind for girls who think plantation weddings are the ultimate dream. It’s a retro brand of femininity, full of lacy collars and gleaming pearl sets and straight-talkers who use the phrase “bless your heart” for all manner of emotional responses. Draper James provides a fantasy, which would be fine if the historical whitewash weren’t so stark. This is not to say that Witherspoon is a malicious tool of a mass cultural smudging, but she is a savvy enough businesswoman to know what sells and how to sell it. That’s why she’s the main model, both on and off-line, for her clothes. The Southern charm of Witherspoon’s brand is that of mint juleps and tea dresses. It sells better than the truth, but who wants to buy that? A large portion of Draper James pieces sold out on the site’s opening day, and now they’re teaming up for a collection with Net-a-Porter.
Not all lifestyle brands are created equal. Both Goop and Draper James are minutely managed passion projects that hammer home particular qualities about their owners, ones that the paying audiences are keen to support. You know exactly what you’re getting with Goop, as bonkers as it may seem. This is where the vaulting ambition of Blake Lively failed her. Preserve started with a bang, as Lively, still best known to the public for starring in Gossip Girl and marrying Ryan Reynolds, landed the cover of Vogue as part of her promotional tour. To this day, I’m still not sure what Preserve actually was. Its aims were so muddled and its focus scattered: Was it an artisan products promotional vehicle? Or a lifestyle guide to Southern living? Or a misguided philanthropic endeavour? Nobody seemed to know, much less Lively herself, and reviews for Preserve were scathing. One writer at the Guardian declared, “what Preserve really made me want to eat was the rich.”
Preserve is no longer with us (it closed after one whole year), but proof of its existence can be found by those with the patience to seek it out. Lively introduced the site by admitting, “I’m no editor, no artisan, no expert.” She wasn’t much of a writer either. Every paragraph on Preserve was excruciating in its needlessly complicated language choices, evoking memories of the episode of Friends where Joey uses the online Thesaurus to change every word in an essay (“Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani”, anyone?) This, and I swear I’m not making this up, is a paragraph she wrote about cloaks:
“From fairytale princes, to The Phantom of the Opera, to golden age Hollywood icons, the lure of a cloak has continually maintained a mysterious and magical appeal. Dramatic, yet practical, these magnetic coatings date back to a time when the need for functionality outweighed stylistic expression. Used dually as a blanket and an outer garment in Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, these sumptuous creations were sensible in form and function. The enchantment of the cloak was revived as a fashion statement during the 20th century when women indulged in sensual and theatrical evening attire, revealing only the slightest amount of skin under luscious layers. These styles are still adored today. We continue to embody this mysterious allure with bold cloaks, daringly sheer accents, slinky knits, and sumptuous threads that embrace the magic of the midnight moon.”
That really says it all about Preserve: It just tried too damn hard. Even for hipsters, it felt strained and laughable, as Preserve tried to convince readers to buy wooden crates for $95 and “artisan salt” for $40. Lively tried to create an all-encompassing community with Preserve, declaring it to be “all of us, together, championing the goods, makers and legends that instill meaning inside the moments of our lives.” This simply makes her attempts at charity, where the site would help provide food and clothing to disadvantaged children, all the sadder. Don’t try to shill for $10 vegan hot fudge, then alleviate the guilt of privilege as if everyone should chip in to make you feel better.
None of this seemed to have anything to do with what we know of Blake Lively. She is most associated with big city glamour and high-fashion, not Small Town USA. No matter how hard Lively insisted to fans that she was a foodie and home-girl at heart, whose big day with Ryan Reynolds was featured in Martha Stewart’s Weddings magazine, it never felt authentic. Nobody bought the Southern charm routine from an LA native married to a Canadian, even if they did marry on a plantation. A Jessica Simpson style shoe line probably would have done roaring business. As it is, Preserve is gone, with Lively promising to bring it back, but for now she’s back under the Hollywood gaze and flourishing.
Most of these brands have been relatively small in scope, at least for a business, but bigger ventures are not uncommon in this field: Drew Barrymore has a surprisingly successful make-up line stocked exclusively at Walmart; The aforementioned shoe line from Jessica Simpson expanded into a billion-dollar enterprise; and Ellen Degeneres’s line offers a refreshingly gender-neutral approach in a field dominated by traditional notions of femininity. Yet the surprise queen of this field is Jessica Alba and The Honest Company, an ethical home and baby line of non-toxic products that’s now estimated to be worth a billion dollars. Where Paltrow and Witherspoon banked on their personal brands to expand into a new field, Alba bucked that trend and subverted those expectations. The actress best known for her mid-2000s sex symbol status became the ultimate earth mother, fighting for kids everywhere against the scourge of harmful products, and doing it so prettily. Everything at The Honest Company is beautifully packaged, with flowers and butterflies across bottles of bubble bath and prenatal vitamins. Image is key, and The Honest Company takes pride in that, particularly with its line of nappies, which are styled with adorable designs like this season’s fashion line.
While the company’s success can’t be exclusively linked to Alba - the line is too large and the audience beyond that of fans of Dark Angels - her work as the official face of the brand cannot be downplayed. She’s the one who got all that amazing press from non-combative sources, particularly the entertainment media, and that helped push The Honest Company into stratospheric levels of power. What that also means is that when something goes wrong, Alba falls under the harsh spotlight of scrutiny. Multiple customers complained of skin burns from the line’s sunblock, a liquid detergent was proven to contain a significant amount of a compound the company claimed it would never use in its products, and a lawsuit was mounted against them for misrepresentation of their infant formula. Alba came out swinging after that sunblock problem, issuing their statement to Pret-a-Reporter (part of The Hollywood Reporter) that focused on the frustrations that made her start the company in the first place, a lack of safe products for her and her then-unborn first daughter. The brand may be bigger than her now but it’s not so big that she can’t keep herself attached to it in the most personal ways. None of these issues have tainted the Alba brand, or that of The Honest Company, in a truly harmful way. The recently launched beauty line received massive amounts of fawning publicity, and the company will continue to do so unless things take a horrific turn for the worse. Goop can be mocked; The Honest Company’s stakes are too high for that.
This weekend, Goop will host its first wellness summit, In Goop Health, in Los Angeles. Highlights will include crystal therapy, aura photography, and IV drips, with speakers such as Cameron Diaz, Nicole Richie, and Jenni Konner of Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter. Tickets start from $500, but it’s already completely sold out. Whatever Gwyneth is selling, people are buying.
But seriously, don’t steam your vagina.