To paraphrase the great American novelist and beloved proto-lifestyle blogger F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very rich are different from you and me.
When Fitzgerald wrote those words in 1925, he was trying to describe the psychological character of the wealthy—but he could have just as easily been talking about their stuff. Where do rich people get all their nice rich-people stuff? And why do I want to also own that stuff so badly?
When we wonder about rich people stuff, we’re pondering more than just how it feels to wake up every morning knowing that you are free to spend $300 on a very chic wine opener if that’s where your day takes you (though there’s that, too); we’re thinking about the psychological meaning of a life filled with pricey luxury items. Would my existence feel marginally more tolerable if, for example, I could scrape together the cash for a single $300 wine opener? Would I feel more secure in my life or free of existential dread? Would I stop worrying about the rising sea levels or the economy or the fact that my child’s nickname at school is “Cap’n Boogers”?
Until about a decade ago, the general public had no one to turn to for answers to these questions. Luckily, celebrity lifestyle brands have stepped up to fill this information gap, peppering the web with sites that are somehow both self-consciously folksy and full of snapshots of a recent impromptu trip to Dubai. These sites—like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, or Blake Lively’s now-defunct Preserve—tend to opine on the true meaning of life (family!) while also reflecting on the true price of keeping said family happy and healthy ($90 for a 2-ounce bottle of nontoxic sunscreen!), offering a halfway answer to our eternal questions about happiness and money: Life is still full of problems when you’re rich and famous—but maybe they don’t feel quite as bad when you’re wearing $600 yoga pants.
But while celebrity lifestyle brands seem to be springing up like black truffle mushrooms after a rainstorm, they’re not the brand-new sign of modern cultural confusion that they may appear to be. In fact, they may be the accidental creation of the guy who did the voiceover for “Thriller.” Confused? Let me explain.
Celebrity endorsements have existed since the British crown began giving out “royal warrants” to excellent products during the 12th century. And baby boomer stars like Jane Fonda and Suzanne Somers have used their celebrity to sell and endorse goods on multiple platforms for decades. (I can’t be the only ’90s teen who begged for items from Cher’s “Sanctuary” home design catalog for Christmas, right? Right?)
But while Martha Stewart famously (and accurately!) said in 2013 that “I think I started this whole category of lifestyle,” the concept that Stewart began selling with her first book, 1982’s Entertaining, is a little different from what celeb lifestyle brands are peddling. Stewart—who worked as a model and in the financial industry before becoming Our Lady of the Hospital Corner—became famous due to her lifestyle of perfect taste, immaculate table settings, and painfully severe pie crust prep. In contrast, celebrity lifestyle brands—like Paltrow’s Goop, which launched in 2008 and is widely considered the OG celeb lifestyle site—hinge on the more loaded idea that celebrities have great taste because they’re rich, and if you master that taste and pick up a few celeb-approved luxury items, you might get closer to the lifestyle of an Academy Award winner (without having to do all that pesky acting training).
Despite attracting the attention of many petty haters like myself, Goop is, of course, a resounding success—according to Fast Company, in 2015 the site had one million subscribers and got more than 3.75 million page views each month. But while everyone from Real Housewives to Gossip Girls have followed in Paltrow’s (presumably Louboutin-clad) footsteps in recent years, the roots of the celebrity lifestyle brand don’t lie solely with Stewart—rather, they began in the mid-20th century, with a cookbook.
The first celebrity cookbook was penned by horror film legend and acclaimed mustache expert Vincent Price (or, at the very least, its publisher, Dover, proclaimed it as such in a 2015 press release). Called A Treasury of Great Recipes, the book—which Price wrote with his wife, Mary—drew from their world travels, collecting recipes from high-end restaurants like New York City’s Four Seasons as well as ones that the Prices whipped up while entertaining at home. And the book didn’t just feature cooking instructions; it also included shots of the Prices at play, sipping soup proffered by a waiter in black-tie dress, or simply relaxing in their gorgeously appointed, copper pot-filled kitchen.
Up until this point, cookbooks generally promised either functional advice for the average home cook, or aspirational advice from an accomplished professional chef. Price’s book was the first to mash those two elements up along with a dash of the inherent Hollywood glamour of people who had hung around Dennis Hopper. This had the net effect of promising more than just delicious food or the sense of status that could be achieved by cooking up luxe cuisine—Price’s cookbook suggested (whether accidentally or by design) that by cooking like the famous, you could be a little more like them.
Price went on to publish several more cookbooks, release a number of instructional cooking LPs, and host his own cooking show in the U.K. in 1971, but he wasn’t trying to start a lifestyle brand—he was genuinely an accomplished gourmet cook. (He also wrote a book about his dog! Quite the renaissance man.)
When celebrity cookbooks began springing up in the late ’90s and early ’00s—published by everyone from Naomi Judd (1997) to Ted Nugent (2002) to Maya Angelou (2004) to Coolio (2009) to Gwyneth herself, whose first book, Spain... A Culinary Road Trip, co-written with Mario Batali, was released in 2008—we had Price to thank as much as we did Stewart. Stewart had proven that there was a massive audience who wanted to be instructed on how to perform mundane tasks in a stylish way by a rich and attractive person. But Price proved that people believe the rich and famous to be experts (even when they’re not actual experts, as he was).
So yes, the very rich are different from you and me… but maybe if we cook like them, and shop like them, and treat our medical ailments and relationship problems like them, the difference won’t smart quite as much.