Stepping in GOOP

Gwyneth Paltrow's new website about living the way-too-good life could not have launched at a worse time.

12.04.08 6:02 AM ET

In the beginning, there was GOOP. When it launched in September, Gwyneth Paltrow's oddly named venture into the World Wide Web consisted of nothing but a spare gray and white design and a vague promise of future inspiration. “My life is good because I am not passive about it,” Paltrow wrote in her inaugural address, and she had some advice to give: “Don’t be lazy. Workout and stick with it. GOOP. Make it great.”

Just recently, Paltrow began adding more content to the site, under the five categories MAKE, GO, GET, SEE, DO. She sends out a weekly newsletter with hints for cooking, baking, shopping, eating, traveling, art gallery-going—in short, how to make each day beautiful. "Cook a meal for someone you love. Pause before reacting. Clean out your space."

“The hotels are on the pricey side," Paltrow writes on the site’s GO section, "but my GOOP girls are doing some research into some more affordable places, which we will personally try before recommending."

GOOP, Paltrow enthused, will encourage us to "Invest in what's real."

And what's real, judging from the first GOOP newsletters, is a sugar-free diet and a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti gray pumps. The site is more about an aspirational (read: unattainable) lifestyle than helpful tips. In the current reality-based market, Gwyneth’s timing could not have been more awkward. In fact, she may have gone from a venerable fashion icon to a new irrelevancy almost overnight.

Paltrow amply deserves her style icon status, and the venture may have looked glamorous two years ago, but the shaky economy has swiftly and effectively rendered the ability to look smashing while disembarking from a trans-Atlantic flight somewhat…less pressing. What might have seemed a slight stretch to members of her intended audience just a few months back is now likely to induce cramps or at least giggles. As layoffs mount and airlines cut routes, suggesting a quick trip to the Prado sounds less madcap sophisticate, more just disconnected with the world. Paltrow, usually so self-possessed, seems somewhat hung out to dry here. A heart necklace from Chopard is a "fun idea"? Well, sure! Who needs electricity anyway?

So if it’s not too soon to talk about potential upsides to our financial meltdown, I'd propose that a temporary moratorium on celebrity lifestyle recommendations may be one of them. I've long been fixated, low-budget Edith Wharton-like, on what happens when different strata of society rub up against each other. Is it possible that now, brandishing one's piles of money could become a career liability? On GOOP, for example, Paltrow recommends an extended stay at London's Blakes Hotel, where a night in a standard double costs £265 ($475) exclusive of 17.5 percent VAT. Paltrow also plugs a Zooey gray T-shirt ($58) and pairs it with Alice + Olivia tights and black Bottega Veneta riding boots ($975).

To be fair, GOOP does get the balance between high- and low-end right on occasion. "It could be Zara, it could be Balenciaga,” Paltrow writes in her November newsletter, juxtaposing a down-market retailer with a legendary couture house, “but a well-cut, well-proportioned black dress has gotten me through many a fashion crisis." She just might be one of us, after all! But then it’s back to a Tod's cashmere trench.

I wonder if what feels so strange about the site isn't the unattainability of these big-ticket items but the ideas that get smuggled in with it. We're prompted not only to lust after Balenciaga coin purses but also to imagine that the woman who grins and tosses one into her shoulder bag has figured out, in her own ethereal, inimitable way, how to live. GOOP features Paltrow posing in the clothes she recommends, looking coy in $1,000 dresses. Her bent-leg stance and shy smile used to be the stuff that sold merchandise, the quirky glamour of the West Village princess.

Now she looks like she feels sheepish for donning Roger Vivier’s $800 three-inch heel boots as part of her "daytime look." She is telling us how to live, but she barely seems happy about it.

Surely Paltrow must be aware of how silly these paeans to well-funded je ne sais quoi can sound—she's been burned by her upper-crust tenor before. When it was reported in 2006 that Paltrow had complained to a Portuguese newspaper that Americans talked about work and money too much—thereby boring her at dinner parties—there was a chorus of snickers.

Having absorbed the lesson that people don't enjoy lectures about money from an Estée Lauder spokesmodel who'd never, ever had to worry about money, Paltrow now speaks with greater awareness of her privilege. "The hotels are on the pricey side," she writes on the site’s GO section, "but my GOOP girls are doing some research into some more affordable places, which we will personally try before recommending." Should one bristle or apply for a staff position?

It's all rather puzzling, when you consider what made Paltrow appealing in the first place. Young Gwyneth was a delight to watch because she wore her Upper East Side breeding and patrician good looks with Gap-ad ease. She appeared aloof in the way one expects (and wants) the prettiest, smartest, tallest girl at your private high school to be. I once heard a former waitress gush that Paltrow ranks among the most polite she'd ever waited on.

This is how I would have liked to keep thinking of her—as a woman who knew a thing or two about being genuinely pleasant and democratic. If GOOP is any indication, this understanding is hard to communicate online. Or maybe Paltrow’s just not the right person for the job of telling people how to live right now.

In a way, Paltrow has already anticipated the skepticism on the site. The BE section is devoted to that which cannot be bought, and offers thoughts on pessimism. "I have a friend who sees the world in a pessimistic light," one question begins. "This person is highly suspicious of people and situations, and sees, as well as experiences negativity at most turns. Why is this and what does it mean?" Kabbalah Centre co-director Michael Berg, one of GOOP’s guest advisers, offers this assessment: "our judgments are merely an indication of where we are at spiritually."

It’s a good point, and if GOOP starts offering more wisdom on negative attitudes—and where to score recession-ready freebies—it could become something truly provocative. As for all the footwear GOOP currently recommends, we may be better off spending time on Suze Orman's site first.

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Megan Hustad is the author of How to Be Useful. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Slate, and American Public Media's Marketplace .