I started reading Crime and Punishment last month because Gwyneth Paltrow said to. According to the Oscar-winning actress, “the best way to relax before bed is to curl up by the fire with an amazing, transportive [sic] novel.” (Apart from watching a few minutes of a “forensic pathology documentary” on TV.) “I think there was something about the complexity of the protagonist’s psychology that made me feel like I wasn’t the most misunderstood person in the world,” Paltrow says of the Dostoevsky classic, which she first read in high school but has returned to many times since. “It was okay to be figuring out one’s own sense of right and wrong. In fact, it was one of life’s great endeavors.”
I recently embarked on another of life’s great endeavors. For the last three weeks, I’ve strived to follow every single recommendation from GOOP, Gwyneth’s weekly e-mail newsletter, in an effort to understand this complex star.
I found myself intrigued by her recommendation to “take your drinking water to the next level” with a $900 alkaline filtration system. What vegan shoe designer does Cameron Diaz recommend? I suddenly wanted to know.
In the GOOP-iverse, there are six points on the Star of Gwyneth: Make, Go, Get, Do, Be, See—the organizing principles behind her guide to better living, her gift to us. The advice ranges from wonderfully inspiring to hilariously impractical, internally inconsistent and outright absurd. In the name of GOOP, I have now given up white foods (bread, pasta), preserved foods (chips, cookies), toxic foods (candy, ice cream), and foods containing heavy metals (I never quite figured this one out). I have dutifully tried to rid myself of negativity and the inner gunk of past excess by drinking two tablespoons of olive oil every night before bed. I have done butt-lifting exercises in my living room, cultivated my “sticktoitiveness,” cooked enormous feasts one day and subsisted on kale and lemon water the next. I have given myself a five-minute makeover involving a tight drugstore headband and slathered home-made Turbinado sugar and coarsely ground coffee paste on my cheeks, to open up my pores. I have paired slouchy trousers with a shirt that has “some edge.” I have added adaptogenic herbal formulas to my morning routine and tried to eat in accordance with my body’s natural rhythms. I have experimented with four different recipes for chocolate chip cookies. I have practiced the African philosophy of ubuntu. I have purchased leggings.
And I have nourished my inner aspect.
Gwyneth has taken a lot of heat for her GOOP newsletter, with critics accusing her of being dense, illiterate, and out of touch. Then again, how hard is it to mock a Hollywood royal who describes cooking and food as “my main ancillary passions in life” and who turned to an “organic plastic surgeon” in 2007 when she got tired of her “saddlebags and post-pregnancy Shar-Pei-like stomach”? She drops names faster than she does pounds during a liquid cleanse (Wes Anderson, Jon Favreau, Sofia Coppola, Christy Turlington, “my friend Mark Bittman of The New York Times”), and her devotion to alternative medicine is just kind of creepy. She is so preoccupied with bowel movements that if she ever does expand the empire (as she has hinted), there could easily be a spinoff newsletter devoted solely to remedies for gastrointestinal “sluggishness.” No telling the potential web audience for POOP.
There’s a lot to scoff at here, but the three weeks I spent following GOOP were pure joy. Expensive, inconvenient and totally unsustainable—yes, but also full of unexpected pleasures. Instead of taking a vacation this summer, I lived like a world-famous actress obsessed with maple syrup, pseudo-science and Mario Batali. And just as Gwyneth did with Raskolnikov, I too found a special comfort in the complexity of my protagonist’s psychology. She may be tone-deaf and full of wacky ideas about food and religion, but she really just wants everyone to feel as good as she does. On a few occasions, I think I got close. My GOOP plan began with cynicism and failure, and by the end, I was cooking a giant pan-holiday dinner party with recipes from Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Valentine’s Day for my boyfriend, three girlfriends, and Rue McClanahan of The Golden Girls. It was a long, strange journey.
Gwyneth’s first newsletter went out in September 2008 with a simple introduction tracing her evolution from strict macrobiotic to worldly gourmand. On my first day as a GOOP devotee, I planned to follow her first two recipes: for sugar-free banana nut muffins and turkey ragu. Gwyneth makes the ragu, which calls for fennels seeds crushed with a special “spice basher,” on Saturday afternoons while her children are playing in the garden and leaves it simmering on the stove all day. The banana muffins, sweetened with maple and brown rice syrups, require three different kinds of flour (whole spelt, white spelt and barley). I left work at 8 p.m. on Day One, went to three different grocery stores looking for the ingredients, gave up, went home, ate a cold tub of brown rice from the refrigerator and fell asleep.
“Goop?” Rue McClanahan asked, when I tried to explain what we were doing. “Can I find that with Google?”
Day Two was an improvement. The banana nut muffins came out swell, even if they weren’t quite the proof Gwyneth promised that “health food can still taste decadent.” At night, I skipped the ragu and went to Otto, which Gwyneth calls a “busy, happy pizzeria” and recommends alongside every other Batali restaurant. (The two are pals who became travel companions in Spain…On the Road Again, their strangely addicting public TV series sponsored by the government of Spain, Pompeiian olive oil and The New York Times). Over dinner, my companions and I discussed “frenemies.” Gwyneth had a frenemy once and was troubled at the joy she felt when this person suffered a terrible public humiliation. She asked her favorite Kabbalist, Shaikh, Episcopal priest, psychologist and Zen master for their thoughts, and the consensus was that we should all avoid negativity as much as possible. I forgot my credit card at the bar but didn’t let it get me down.
On Day Three, I began Gwyneth’s Seven-Day Detox, a quick way to shed a few pounds and eliminate bodily toxins. Paltrow is never specific about exactly what these toxins are or how not eating soy helps expel them, but I quickly found it’s better not to look for specifics in these newsletters. “Roast the vegetables”—At what temperature? For how long? Gwyneth avoids any hard and fast rules; the point is we should all enjoy some roasted vegetables. A necessary part of the GOOP plan is blind faith that our guru and her advisors, in this case Dr. Alejandro Junger, will provide all the information necessary to make, go, get, do, be and see. On the third day of the detox, about when the hallucinations started, I began imagining Gwyneth in the Julie Andrews role from The Sound of Music, delivering her guidance in song: “Make! A pie! A pumpkin pie! Go! To Paris, London, Spain! Get! A trench! A Burberry trench!....” The end is the end in itself. Why worry too much about the details along the way?
In that spirit, I’ll leave out the details of my detox, which ended shortly after those hallucinations began. Suffice to say, it is difficult to subsist on two liquid meals and one small helping of salmon and kale a day, especially when you have a job. There were some glorious highs, some terrible headaches, and plenty of opportunities to apply GOOP’s relationship advice as I fought off wild-eyed delirium and tried to “cherish small moments of intimacy and laughter” with my very patient, better-fed boyfriend.
And then, like magic, at some point in the middle of week two, I stopped noticing what an unbelievable hassle it was to follow this ridiculous plan. My ear adjusted to Gwyneth’s affect, and rather than guffawing at some of her more outlandish suggestions, I found myself intrigued by the $249 Voltaic Solar Backpack and her recommendation to “take your drinking water to the next level” with a $900 alkaline filtration system. What vegan shoe designer does Cameron Diaz recommend? I suddenly wanted to know. GOOP has been on hiatus for much of the summer while Gwyneth is traveling and spending time with her family, and without being fully conscious of it, I tried to “police my thoughts” for negativity as I impatiently awaited her return.
In the meantime, I filled my evenings with adventures: new yoga poses, goofy home beauty exercises, YouTube videos about how to make a chicken or tone my lower body with simple chair exercises. I also began to plan my GOOP grand finale, an enormous Labor Day banquet with recipes from every major holiday. The menu: Gwyneth’s Christmas mixed greens salad with cranberries, goat cheese and a homemade maple-dijon vinaigrette; her “fun and festive” Hanukkah latkes (which she loves to serve with a whole roasted fish and salsa verde); Thanksgiving turkey burgers with stuffing, ketchup and cranberry chutney; roasted winter vegetables; and a pumpkin ice cream pie.
Exactly how Rue McClanahan got mixed up in all of this remains a mystery. I’d entertained fantasies of asking Gwyneth to come to dinner, but never seriously planned on having a major stage and screen actress at our table. But Rue happens to live next door to the apartment of a friend who agreed to host the party. The 67-year-old Golden Girls star was passing a solitary Sunday night with her sixth husband, Morrow. He stayed in for the night but she agreed to an invitation to join us. “Goop?” she asked, when I tried to explain what we were doing. “Can I find that with Google?”
We spent the night talking about health spas, Haitian voodoo, small-town Oklahoma and what it was like to be a Golden Girl. I completely forgot about the cooking, and my boyfriend had to step in to rescue the latkes from burning oil and grill up the turkey burgers on the stove. Meanwhile, we sat rapt, listening to Rue’s stories about late nights at Sardi’s and her current project, a stage version of her memoir My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away. I told her about Gwyneth’s detox, and she said it sounded like a lot of food compared to the raw vegetable diets she’d done in the past. She asked me for the menu and recipes, posed for pictures and left shortly after midnight, taking the other half of her turkey burger home in a Tupperware for lunch the next day. She said it was the first impromptu dinner party she’d ever attended.
GOOP is as much about the unintended consequences of a well-lived life as the intended ones (the elimination of toxins, the clarifying of skin and soul, the virtual necessity of a Chopard necklace and Tod’s boots). Gwyneth doesn’t say anything about the restorative power of gay icons from the 1990s in her newsletter, but if it weren’t for GOOP, we never would have met Rue, never would have sipped coffee with vanilla ice cream while she told stories about Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Betty White.
“What is holiday spirit?” Gwyneth asks in one “Get” newsletter. “For me, it means helping to create that atmosphere where loved ones feel full of cheer, like some happy secret is about to be revealed.” So what if she goes on to suggest creating that atmosphere with a $1,395 Mulberry weekend bag in chocolate natural leather. If you look at the big picture and not the little details, it’s not so hard to understand where Gwyneth’s coming from. “Do whatever you can, on whatever scale you can,” she says. “It’s all about the intention.”
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.