Gwyneth Paltrow, Human After All

“What is Gwyneth Paltrow doing right now?” is a question you probably find yourself asking a hundred times a day, while you wish that goop published daily (hourly, even!). Just reading a few goop installments, it’s impossible not to start thinking in a goop voice. What is a goop voice? It’s like listening to your narcissistic friend talk about where she summered, what she ate while she did (quinoa and sliced pears), and what she’ll be wearing this fall. Spoiler alert: leather! Worn with only the most perfectly plush, soft, white slouchy sweater woven from the hair of Alashan Zuoqi cashmere goats (and such a great investment, at only $1,500 for the ensemble!).

Paltrow just announced she is working on a fashion range with her friend Stella McCartney. Promoting Gwyneth Paltrow the brand has become Gwyneth Paltrow’s full-time job, more so than being an actress. As a lifestyle brand, she must always be espousing her brand through her actual lifestyle. I’m not saying the press isn’t clamoring to interview her. She’s famous and gorgeous and married to a huge rock star. But if establishing her A-list-ness was easy, maintaining it is somewhat difficult. No actress is safe from being passed over for younger, prettier talent. Maybe Gwyneth doesn’t want to play the Hollywood game anymore, because it’s too embarrassing to lose. Somehow, fashion is safer.

What makes Gwyneth so fun to make fun of? Perhaps it’s her attempts to seem down-to-earth that always just reinforce how much better (richer) than us she is and always has been. But there’s something so charming about the way she signs off her back-to-school issue with “Shana Tova my people” in complete seriousness. Gwyneth is like a girl you wanted to hate in high school but couldn’t, because she was actually really nice to you and probably pretty harmless in general. It’s not her fault she was born pretty, blonde, and swaddled in privilege!

People who are born with unfair advantages can still do the favor of using them for a decent cause, and if Gwyneth rankled when she first came on the scene, it was because she always seemed so oblivious to her own self-involvement. She couldn’t be bothered to coat things in a sheen of faux-self-deprecation. As far as Gwyn was concerned, she was only cast in good things because she was the best actress for the job, not because her godfather was Steven Spielberg.

And maybe she was the best actress for the job! Certainly I trust David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast her in Se7en and Hard Eight, respectively, before she had even made Emma. My eye-rolling resentment of Gwyn possibly had a lot to do with how she became such a fashion darling, the establishment model for a skinny blonde woman, the fashion industry’s not-so-subconscious ideal. I read my fair share of the scads of ’90s articles about how to dress like Gwyneth: black cigarette pants, a faux-fur leopard-print coat, a black T-shirt, a sheath dress.

I thought it was boring, all those neutral colors and preppy basics. But I also knew it was a look that would never seem “natural” on me. My hair could never be so straight or so blonde; I was too short to be “willowy.” There was nothing about her that read as relatable. Paltrow was all of the beauty industry’s unreachable ideals incarnate. So thin, so blonde, so effortlessly glamorous, never caught making an ugly face or wearing a tacky outfit. She appeared utterly confident, probably because there was a huge safety net that prevented her from risking any actual fall.

She seemed … rich. That’s what Gwyneth was really wearing in every pictorial and red-carpet appearance: implied wealth. She looked like she had it all: beauty, money, an Oscar, the hottest boyfriends, extravagant vacations, a backstage pass to the whole world. She attempted to make light of her luck with humor, but her jokes have always gone over like lead balloons. And she and then-BFF Madonna decided to take their fetishization of England to the extreme by marrying British guys, Paltrow wedding Chris Martin from Coldplay, in what seemed like the perfect fairy-tale ending to a perfect life.

Gwyneth publicly decided to retire from acting for a while, while she had two kids. Although she never actually stopped making films, she did step back from the endless cycle of production and promotion to raise Apple and Moses in London with Martin. During this time, she became the professional Pinterest board we know her as today, formulating the goop empire in an attempt to become a digital Martha Stewart. Magazine pictorials depicted her dreamlike life; the enormous beautiful kitchen in her huge but homey house. The expensive, sharp knives she used to cut the organic tomatoes. “She’s just like you!” was the subtext of every newsletter. Only better than you, naturally.

But like a popular girl in high school, the invincibility faded. What once seemed innate began to reveal itself as a fragile construct. Suddenly Gwyneth, previously so detached and protectively private, started opening up. Like, a lot. And she sounded CRAZY. Not unhinged, just different from how you remembered her. She seemed desperate for the attention that she herself had put on hold. Maybe it was a consequence of aging into the notorious Hollywood dead zone for actresses, although with her clout and cash Paltrow could have been developing her own passion projects to star in. Maybe motherhood wasn’t the fantastical lovefest she’d imagined it would be. Maybe the rumors of problems in her marriage really were true.

Whatever it was, Gwyneth somehow turned human, and with that became much more easy to like. She’s still easy to mock. She can make the simplest task sound unbearably pretentious. But that is her form of charm. Now that she wanted to share all her knowledge with us, the recommendations for restaurants in countries we’d probably never visit and stores we could never afford just reminded us what a bubble she came from. If her materialism once seemed aspirational, now it seemed merely pitiable. Could recommending consumer goods and experiences really be all that satisfying? What if instead of hunting down the world’s best leather jacket, she had turned her perfectionism toward directing? (She made one short in 2005, called Dealbreaker.)

It’s not all that surprising to find out that the newly transparent exercise-phile and worryingly food-conscious health nut Gwyneth can always find something new to obsess over. After telling Tatler magazine that she wouldn’t change a thing about herself and thinks she is beautiful, she immediately joshes that she wouldn’t mind a larger rack, but then seriously says, “I tend to see only things I don’t like. My eyes are quite small. And I’m paranoid my nose is growing.” The lifelong pursuit of physical perfection breeds a special kind of horrible insecurity, and all the aerial yoga in the world can’t stop the inevitable gravity of aging. Maybe in her forties she’ll be able to let go of the self-hate that permeates her nonstop efforts toward self-improvement. Money can’t buy the kind of self-acceptance that Gwyneth needs. It’s free.

Filed Under: Gwyneth Paltrow

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert