When Gwyneth Paltrow began sending out a weekly newsletter full of posh recommendations and dippy salutations, the fact that she was already referring to it as part of a “lifestyle brand” constituted its own little joke. Like a mother who thinks her mouth-breathing baby is a genius, Paltrow’s faith that recommendations on how to drop $100K in Barthelona could be the cornerstone of a wellness empire and not just a mockable vanity project—one that would, fine, sometimes provide a solid recipe for overnight oats and the motivation to actually, really, make it to yoga this week—seemed delusional. More than a decade later, Paltrow, who was probably laughing the whole time (GP doesn’t have to rhyme with poop) is having a good cackle: Goop has VC-funded itself into exactly the “modern lifestyle brand”—that’s its official tag line—she always said it was.
Goop has grown by leaps and bounds by successfully tapping into a lucrative and very of-the-now wellspring of conspicuous spirituality, consumerist woo-woo, and self-involved self-actualization, a gray area in which open-mindedness can be used as a cover for high-end malarkey. By appealing to a demographic for whom nothing—money, skepticism, derision, science, shoving a thousand-dollar jade egg up inside one’s yoni—will stand in the way of individual optimization carried out in touchy-feely lighting, Goop has expanded from a newsletter to a company that employs 200-plus people, runs a website, hosts events, and as of this week, has a Netflix show, The Goop Lab.
On the show, hale Goop staffers test-drive various New Age, New Age–adjacent, and even medically accepted practices, from psychics to guided drug tripping. The staffers experiences are supplemented by anecdotal interviews about these practices’ long-term psychic benefits and interviews with doctors and academics conducted by Paltrow and Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen. The takeaway from each episode is invariably that these variably credible practices are worth doing, so much so that The Goop Lab’s introductory disclaimer—“The following series is designed to entertain and inform, not provide medical advice”—reads like its own bit of showmanship.
At this point, though, I must issue my own disclaimer: At the end of each episode, all I wanted was to be rich enough to try these wackadoodle things. (Except for the psychic. Never the psychic.)
The Goop Lab is very skilled at exploiting the reality upon which Goop’s success hangs: Self-betterment is a big-ass tent. Anyone who has spent any time thinking about wellness—how to get more exercise; eat better; look at your screen less, talk to your friends more; be less anxious, more content—shares Goop’s concerns, even if they find many of Goop’s answers—links to extremely expensive and often-bogus affiliates strewn along an anti-science and quack doctor continuum that runs from vaginal steaming all the way to anti-vaxxing and forgoing cancer treatment—downright pernicious. As Paltrow herself says during the opening credits, starting in alienating neo-tech speak but bringing it home with plainspoken English, “To me it’s all laddering up to one thing: optimization of self. We’re here one time, one life. How can we really milk the shit out of this?” While watching Goop Lab a not entirely preposterous answer seemed to me to be: seeing the celebrity energy healer who looks like an accountant but apparently works like an exorcist. I am carrying a lot of stiffness between my shoulders.
Goop Lab’s six episodes generally skirt the most eyebrow-raising of Goop’s nonsense, while mixing up the far-out and the less so. The series begins with a guided mushroom trip, the sort of hallucinogenic experience that has been championed by Michael Pollan in the pages of the New Yorker and is the object of serious scientific study. (The first episode does embarrass itself in other ways, like by showcasing seven white appearing people as they trip their brains out in Jamaica. Future episodes all include Goop staffers of color.) Another episode concerns itself with diet and aging: Paltrow, Loehnen, and another senior employee go on various diets and try different anti-aging procedures, including one where strings are inserted underneath the skin, that stop just short of plastic surgery.
These less controversial practices give context and cover to some of the others, like those proposed by the wild Dutchman Wim Hof, who proselytizes for a combination of breathing technique and cold swimming that allows people to “control their autonomous nervous system.” The virtues of cold swimming were also the subject of a recent New Yorker piece, and Wim Hof has appeared on a Slate podcast, but this episodes gets the closest of any to eek-science. We see one Goop staffer overcome her anxiety by diving into frigid Lake Tahoe in a bikini. The episode also includes information about a study in which Hof and some of his students were purportedly able to suppress the effects of E. coli with only their training and will. Still, after listening to 40 minutes on the head-clearing effects of a cold shower, I did find myself wondering if I shouldn’t try it for myself—a curiosity that had faded completely by the following morning when the next opportunity presented itself. I let the bathroom get extra steamy in recompense.
I found myself even more suggestible to the episode about the aforementioned, square-looking energy healer, who seemed to have a profound effect on everyone, either making them break down in tears or move like a poltergeist, all without actually touching them. The testaments to his skills—from Paltrow, Julianne Hough, and most convincingly, previously skeptical Goop staffers—coupled with the fact that he’s not actually touching anyone did make me want to experience the whole thing for myself. Before sliding all the way down this slippery slope and checking his availability, it occurred to me that my impression he might be able to unlock my shoulders, was marginally less delusional than the possibility I could book an appointment with him. He, like all of the experts, are stars on the celebrity wellness circuit—there thanks to the influence, money, and favor-trading that thrums throughout the show.
The canniest episode of all is one about female orgasms and anatomy. It features the pioneering pro-sex feminist Betty Dodson, who at 90, doesn’t seem a day over 60, and authoritatively and brashly schools Paltrow on misusing the word vagina when she really means “vulva.” Dodson has been on a mission to teach women how to pleasure themselves for decades, and she will not be cowed by the strictures of reality television. She matter-of-factly speaks up for the female orgasm, her orgasm technique, and her desire to have women “run the fuck.” By the time the episode is—seemingly at Dodson’s behest—showing close-ups of a menagerie of vulvas, unlike anything I’ve seen on TV before, I was so far down the hall of mirrors I had to sit down and admit I was lost. Is Dodson being used to make Goop seem feminist and progressive? And even if she is, isn’t showing a lot of vulvas actually kind of feminist and progressive? Or is it giving cover to the other practices included, by establishing some sort of false equivalency to them? Or is it all of the above?
While all of this is going, there’s another show within the show: the celebrity-watching one. It becomes clear throughout the series that Paltrow has tried almost all of the techniques herself. Her son, a la Wim Hof, can sit in an ice bath for two minutes at a time. She’s a regular with the energy healer. She had a profound experience with the psychic. She makes mention numerous times of her french fry, coffee, and alcohol diet, but when Hof asks her to do some breathing and push-ups, she at first demurs: She just happens to be on a multiday fast—and it’s not the same multiday fast she goes on for another episode. Eventually, Hof prevails, and she whips off 40 push-ups like it’s nothing.
Paltrow seems to have a rare understanding and acceptance of both the benefits and limitations of fame. She knows fame can’t make everyone like you, but it can give you enough power and money that their dislike needn’t matter. For years, and particularly since the founding of Goop, Paltrow has embraced the fact that she’s not for everyone. She is, instead, an extremely rich, beautiful, and smart woman who wants to spend money and time on extravagant wellness practices that she hopes can further optimize her already-optimized life, and then share those experiences, no matter how bunky or blingy. She is nothing if not her own best customer and any and all critiques of her pursuits will roll right off her well-toned back.
If this frequently makes her seem not just out of touch but “nah nah nah I can’t hear you” dangerous—what with her gazillion-dollar gift guides; her jade eggs; the framing of Goop as some brave entity going where others are scared to tread—it has also accreted into an unusual flavor of authenticity. Paltrow’s not some everygirl, but Lord knows she’s not trying to be. Don’t let The Goop Lab’s other experts fool you. Paltrow is the most expert of all: Self-aware, self-actualized, self-improving, and beyond self-reproach, she’s what Goop is actually selling.