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At the end of last year, Gwyneth Paltrow received a plaintive e-mail. It was from a reader of Goop.com, the lifestyle portal the Hollywood actress created in 2008 to dispense advice under the tagline "nourish the inner aspect." How, asked the reader, can one find "a good balance between having a career and being a mom?" It was a topic close to the hearts of many of Goop's 150,000 (largely female) subscribers, as well as to Paltrow.
In response, she recorded a "manic" day in her own life as a "working mom" of children, Apple, now aged 7, and Moses, 5: "Got home and had a fitting with super stylist Elizabeth Saltzman for the upcoming Nashville trip (what to wear, what to wear?) from 1-2," she wrote. "This is my fourth out of five fittings for this trip. We tried on a myriad of dresses and outfits, and I had b.o. [sic] by the end of it from wrestling with all of those dresses."
Goop's advice is presented under simple headings: Make, Go, Get, Do, Be, and See. There are recipes for vegetable sushi for the children's packed lunches; a mini-detox comprising chestnut bisque and a seed-crusted pesto ball. Going on holiday to California? "Make sure you get a room at Shutters in LA with an ocean view," she intimates.
It is not just work-life balance and travel that Paltrow riffs on. In early 2009 she warned that shampoo might cause cancer among children, with the explanation that "fetuses, infants and toddlers are basically unable to metabolize toxins the way that adults are." Scientists later responded in media reports that the only danger to a baby was if he or she guzzled great quantities of the stuff.
On homosexuality, Paltrow wrote last month: "When my daughter came home from school one day saying that a classmate had two mommies, my response was, 'Two mommies? How lucky is she?!' What does it actually say in the Bible that will cause some people to be upset by my line of thinking?" She then invited a number of religious commentators to outline their interpretations of the bible on her website.
To say Goop has its detractors would be an understatement. "Why is it called 'Goop'?" asked Canada's Globe and Mail. "Perhaps 'Any Old Load of Rubbish' and 'Learn From Me, Ungrateful Peasant' were both taken?" (It's a nickname based on her initials.) The charge typically leveled at Paltrow—who is married to Chris Martin, the frontman of British rock band, Coldplay—is that she is out of touch with the lives of her Goop followers.
When Martha Stewart tweeted "Is Gwyneth the next Martha Stewart?" she was referring to her potential earning power.
But there are plenty of supporters, too. Mark Borkowski, PR agent and author of The Fame Formula (2008), says: "It's easy for poncey cynics to be sniffy about Paltrow, but she is popular. She gives people insight into a luxury lifestyle which they might not otherwise see. It is aspirational."
To sneer at Paltrow's online offering is to miss the point. Beneath the wholesome, slightly insipid exterior and the platitudes, lies a savvy businesswoman. In the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Paltrow and Martin was estimated at £48 million ($78 million). That could increase dramatically if her role as a lifestyle guru for the Twitter and Facebook age takes off commercially. In April she strengthened her position as a credible commentator on domestic matters via the old-media step of publishing a cookbook. The longer game plan, observers suggest, is to make money from her online brand—and transform followers into customers, through product lines, advertising, and e-commerce.
Paltrow isn't the only famous face to connect directly with her fans. Arnie Gullov-Singh, founder of Ad.ly, a company that pays celebrities to endorse products from shampoos to shoes via Twitter, believes "celebrities are the driving force of social media." Many celebrities use Facebook and Twitter (Lady Gaga, the master of direct contact with her fans, has more than 30 million "friends" on Facebook and nearly 12 million Twitter followers.)