The term “celebrity lifestyle brand” is redundant: All celebrities are lifestyle brands. A drunken boob-flash is branding, just as sure as macrobiotic diets and $85 linen cocktail napkins are. Brands are complex, ever-evolving organisms that speak to consumers on multiple, often subconscious levels. Belligerently shouting “Do you know my name?” at a cop and then launching a lifestyle brand premised on the sweetness and gentility of southern women is just the sort of internal contradiction branding masterminds have coveted since the first cartoon camel took its first puff of a cigarette.
Therein lies the fundamental misunderstanding behind Timothy Caulfield’s new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness. Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor of law and public health, argues that celebrity brands are a malignant force, duping us all into wasting money on irrelevant or actually harmful things via the magic of star power. Unfortunately, though, Caulfield seems to miss the point of celebrities and lifestyles and brands entirely. Such modern forces as “celebrity” are not simply “right” or “wrong.”
Let’s review the facts on the ground: Gwyneth Paltrow is a human being who once asserted that water had feelings. In the last scene of one of Paltrow’s movies, her severed head shows up in a cardboard box. Paltrow’s website, Goop, recently featured “Canine Couture” dog collars that cost $100. Paltrow recently told Howard Stern that Brad Pitt “was too good for me,” which we understood immediately to mean “He loved me like crazy, but he wasn’t good enough for me.” Paltrow is a twisted pile of good advice and misguided notions and solid recipes and condescending remarks and gorgeous clothes and cluelessness, and in order to remain in the public eye, all she needs to do is allow all of that natural sweetness and ignorance and real wisdom and buried rage to rise to the surface in various shapes and colors across several different monetized platforms. Declaring any one fragment “right” or “wrong” is so entirely immaterial as to seem willfully dense.
All of which might explain why reading Caulfield’s book can feel like watching the author don a white lab coat in order to officially analyze the chemical makeup of Paltrow’s snake oil. “Not only isn’t this magical,” Caulfield declares on page after page, “but it’s not even snake-based! This is common corn oil in a fancy dropper bottle!” Meanwhile, passersby are impressed that there’s any oil in the bottle whatsoever.
Americans watch celebrities, and celebrity lifestyle brands are merely an extension of that fascination, a way of zooming in closer. For celebrities, launching brands is a way of controlling the story and cutting out the middle man, be it InStyle or Us Magazine, and also a way of making money when your primary career heads south. Some Americans care about celebrities way too much, there’s no doubt about that, and some hardly care at all. But as non-celebrity lifestyle blogs and non-celebrity Instagram accounts reliably prove, we’re inquisitive about how other people live, period, celebrity or not. With celebrities, there’s a built-in layer of interest, even when we think they suck. We’re interested in what people with all the time, money, and adoration in the world do with those resources. Dipping a toe into their universe — through an extremely unpleasant Goop-branded “Clean Cleanse” or some ugly Draper James shorts bedecked with enormous white roses — can feel like taking a taste of that rarefied, imaginary world. Sampling, however, is not tantamount to drinking the Kool-Aid. By implying as much, Caulfield takes a rather condescending view of the average consumer, and assumes that they’re more credulous than they actually are.
Along the way to “separating the sense from the nonsense” of celebrity, as he puts it, Caulfield cries foul at every turn, calling bullshit on dietary cleanses, the idea that drinking a lot of water is healthy, and the pointlessness of most celebrity-endorsed beauty products, all with equal vim and vigor. His attitude toward the quasi-scientific detritus of celebrity living seems almost willfully alarmist. That said, he does make a small handful of legitimate points along the way: Smoking and tanning are both very unhealthy; celebrities continue to smoke and tan. Caulfield reminds us that Paltrow herself once rather stupidly said, “I think we should all get sun and fresh air … I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.” As Caulfield points out, “gravity pulling you toward the ground at terminal velocity” is 100 percent natural, too. And considering the fact that, by some estimates, one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lives, Paltrow’s statement is irresponsible at best.
The book’s second half is dedicated, somewhat unexpectedly, to unpacking why so many people care about fame, want to be famous themselves, and believe that becoming famous is a remote possibility. Kids think they can get famous through hard work alone, but luck is more important than talent, the author asserts. People tend to overestimate their own positive qualities, and tend to be overly optimistic about the future, he tells us. The statistical improbability of any given aspiring actor becoming famous is pretty dispiriting, he says. And without a doubt, the fact that many young children aim to be famous and value fame over other qualities is certainly lamentable, except when you notice that the studies Caulfield lists concern elementary-school-age children, most of whom still have sophisticated career goals like “I want to become an astronaut and fly to the moon” or “I want to be a scientist and build an undersea village.”
The larger issue, which Caulfield roundly ignores, is that we’ve become a nation of product pushers who treat ourselves and each other like brands instead of human beings. We polish and refine our own lifestyle brands on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook: “I am not hunched over a laptop all day,” we tell each other. “I am standing in the dappled sunlight, watering my organic garden with my photogenic children and pets.” But while we non-celebrities sometimes begrudge each other our amateurishly art-directed photo spreads, we can peer in on celebrity lives without lamenting our own inability to secure $1,700 Stella McCartney blazers and delightful mother-daughter trips to New York and Paris. We are free to observe — and partake, and project ourselves onto each scene — without self-judgment. We are free to sample what we find. “What is it like to have endless time and money and resources and adoration? Maybe this coconut lip balm will help me find out.”
And that’s not to mention the insidious creep of corporate culture, the way we’ve evolved from being suspicious of lowest-common-denominator, mainstream profiteering in the past to celebrating and embracing the pop-cultural brands of choice. Maybe the fact that we’re discerning and skeptical keeps us from drinking the Kool-Aid, but we’ve over-applied this false sense of confidence to the wider world. We accept “trusted” brands and “trusted” leaders even as their behaviors veer toward the realm ofbaldly unethical. We are suspicious of anyone who questions the dominant paradigm of mediocrity, while we unironically partake of half-witted, half-baked, profoundly destructive products created by massive, reckless corporations without ever asking that our culture strive to be slightly more careful or thoughtful or sophisticated or ecologically sound or nuanced.These are the plagues worth battling. Celebrities are one small piece of a larger, more complicated high-capitalist puzzle that robs the modern world of its humanity in big and small ways, day in and day out.
It’s also worth noting that we’ve entered a new era of celebrity watching and celebrity brands, the subtleties of which seem lost on the author. Fascination with and curiosity about celebrities is no longer a form of idol worship, in which an army of mutants mindlessly replicates the look and smell and sound of a star, based on a few fleeting glimpses of him or her. While there always have been (and always will be) superfans, thanks to a vast sea of celebrity coverage online, we’re more widely able to indulge in an idle, gossipy, disdainful, or envious half-awareness of celebrity lives. As a result, celebrities occupy a new position in our culture, one that’s less about worshipful mimicry and more about curiosity and novelty and connection and procrastination and gossip and longing.
Baltimore is burning, the seas are polluted, the hills of Nepal are crumbling, and Reese Witherspoon loves a luncheon. Is it really so hard to connect the dots? Draw a line from the Cold War to The Love Boat. Draw a line from smoggy air to the “Clean Cleanse.” Draw a line from uncertainty to $65 makeup pouches that say, “Put Your Face On.” We are only human. We crave frivolous things.