Mar­sha Le­d­er­man steps into Gwyneth’s world at Canada’s first Goop con­fer­ence

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - PURSUITS -

Mar­sha Le­d­er­man dived head­first into Gwyneth’s world at Canada’s first Goop con­fer­ence. The re­sult: an un­com­fort­able am­biva­lence about that world and a new pair of shoes

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-overyear 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, which 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 of­fwhite 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 man- tras 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 in which 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 as Vogler, 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 on­site, 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 for­profit com­pany, at­tracted some flak by ad­ver­tis­ing for vol­un­teers. Loehnen said Goop was sim­ply of- fer­ing 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 Alist 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.

ERNESTO DISTEFANO

Mo­ti­va­tional speaker Barry Michels leads a ses­sion at In Goop Health last month, the first event from Goop, Gwyneth Pal­trow’s life­style brand, held in Canada.

ERNESTO DISTEFANO

The week­end-long sum­mit had a mar­ket­place at­tached, with prod­ucts rang­ing from food to books to B12 shots.

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