Wellness websites are a way in which celebrities can use the media to build business empires, but are they responsible ventures?
Goop and the Rise of the Celebrity Lifestyle Brand
The first website to spark the growing trend of celebrity wellness and lifestyle sites was Gwyneth Paltrow’s startup Goop, set up in 2008. Aiming to advise readers on where to ‘shop, eat, and stay from a trusted friend’ and with a focus on wellness, it began as a weekly newsletter. Worth an estimated $250 million dollars in 2018, the company recently launched a podcast and wellness summit. It promotes an aspirational lifestyle, turning the ‘celebrities: they’re just like us!’ adage on its head, instead suggesting that we, the masses, can be just like ‘GP’, with the right advice. This, along with extensive media coverage, helped make goop a success.
Similar celebrity lifestyle and fashion companies using the same marketing strategies soon developed; Elizabeth Banks’ elizabethbanks.com launched in 2011 and Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James began in 2015. The latest competitor is Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh which launched in April this year.
Controversies Around Celebrity Brands
Whilst businesses like Goop and Draper James, which has opened four bricks and mortar stores since its online launch, continue to succeed financially, the ethics they promote are, in some cases, questionable. Celebrities can capitalise on their fame and influence to tout an expensive and unattainable lifestyle, promote strategies that medical experts have warned against and convey dangerous messages to a wide audience.
Not only this, but celebrities can benefit from controversy generated by their brands. Gwyneth Paltrow has stated that she can ‘monetise’ visits to Goop from people outraged or intrigued following dramatic media reports on her strategies. This means celebrity wellness brands are unlikely to stop anytime soon, despite potentially damaging advice.
Though access to these websites are free, most of the products recommended and treatments suggested come at a high price. Poosh has a ‘Pick of the week’ article dedicated to a $330 top which, it explains, ‘Kourt’ wore while ‘running errands in Los Angeles’ and recommends a $225 anti-aging neck cream to prevent wrinkles. In a similar vein, Goop suggests an ‘essential kitchen knife set’ of three knives for £418 and a coat worth almost £3000.
Whilst this is likely an accurate reflection of how famous reality stars and renowned actresses live, it is not affordable for the average person. It is clever marketing, as the unattainable becomes more and more desirable for a potential customer wishing to emulate their favourite celebrity. Admittedly cheaper items are also suggested by the sites – Poosh does offer a $19.99 neck wrinkle-reducing cream, whilst a Chelsea Dinner Plate is just £17 on Goop. However, a large proportion of items sold are costly; the next cheapest neck cream on Poosh is $44.00, a considerable leap.
The suggestion that to live a perfect, healthy life one must have unlimited funds might be considered irresponsible. Though certainly not unique to celebrity wellness brands, and essentially at the core of all luxury products, the multiple lifestyle aspects covered by these sites coupled with the image of a particular celebrity contributes to a more potent message that one’s life as a whole is simply sub-par compared to a specific person.
Responsibilities of Celebrity Brands
An issue for which celebrity wellness brands may bear more direct responsibility is the publicising of products and treatments that go against the advice of medical professionals. Goop has been particularly notorious for this. In 2012 Gwyneth Paltrow posted that ‘bee-venom therapy’, which involves being stung by live bees helped her heal an ‘old injury’ on the site, further promoting it in a 2016 New York Times interview. This can in fact be deadly; in 2018 a woman died of anaphylaxis after having the treatment, and a 2015 study published in peer-reviewed journal PLOS one concluded that ‘adverse events related to bee venom therapy are frequent.’
Though this particular post on Goop is now inaccessible, it perhaps illustrates the lack of responsibility celebrity wellness businesses can demonstrate. Most celebrities are not medical professionals and can publish whatever treatments they want on their websites. This can easily impact people desperate for a cure or treatment, with potentially fatal consequences.
Celebrity wellness and lifestyle brands can also, perhaps unintentionally, promote unhelpful messages. Draper James, which clearly targets women (it does not offer men’s clothing or accessories) features a quotation that reads ‘Be charming if you can; witty if you must. But always have grace’ on its ‘Welcome’ page. This suggests somewhat outdated ideals of womanhood, seemingly implying that elegance and sweetness take precedence over intelligence.
Themed around the American South, the site cites Witherspoon’s grandparents, who taught her all about ‘gracious Southern living’. This includes how to ‘dress and act like a lady, to take pride in my home, to reach out to help a neighbour, and to always invite everyone round for a visit’. As a powerful woman with a well-paid job and vocal about feminism, even commissioning the designer of the Time’s Up pin, this solely domestic message seems incredibly contradictory with Witherspoon herself.
A Vogue article from earlier this year notes her Southern Belle persona and yet outspokenness, quoting her as saying ‘Things are not binary’. This statement is true – and yet there is little suggestion of it on the Draper James welcome page. It is not the only lifestyle brand with perhaps questionable messages. Articles on Poosh entitled ‘Exercises to minimise cellulite’ advise on how to get rid of ‘everyone’s worst enemy’ and ‘Moves to slim your waist’ might be seen as placing an undue emphasis on exercise with a purely aesthetic goal in mind, whilst also suggesting to women that thinner is better.
Are Celebrity Lifestyle Brands Unethical?
Despite these criticisms of celebrity wellness brands, it would be untrue, and unfair to generalise them all as completely irresponsible. elizabethbanks.com is more like a website version of an Instagram account than a lifestyle haven like Goop or Poosh. It features ‘Work Stuff’ and ‘Geeky Stuff’ as well as ‘Pretty Stuff’ and does not include an online shop selling expensive products or publicise inadvisable treatments.
Even brands guilty of some of these faults are not necessarily lacking in principle. Many do philanthropic work. Goop features a guide to volunteering (though it opens by explaining how it makes you ‘happier’, ‘healthier’ and ‘more attractive’), which includes information about charitable organisations and the volunteer application process. Half the proceeds from the Poosh water bottle go towards ocean conservation organisation Oceana.
Draper James has partnered with girls inc., a charity that ‘empowers girls to be strong, smart and bold’ with some proceeds going to the nonprofit organisation, and a summer internship offered to members (a very different message than that of the ‘Welcome’ page, leading, perhaps, to some confusion). Whether these good works can counteract the negative aspects of some celebrity wellness brands, is another question. Some have even suggested that such partnerships are part of a marketing strategy to encourage respect for a brand, and sales of its products.
Overall, it seems that some celebrity wellness brands have work to do when it comes to the ethics of their businesses and the messages they are promoting. Whether intentional or not, some of these brands suggest that the key to happiness is spending extreme amounts of money, give publicity to ‘wellness’ methods that can go beyond the unconventional and into the dangerous, and convey outdated messages about women and their worth. Perhaps the future will see improvements in these brands, and possibly more ethical and considerate versions springing up.