In the old days, announcements of celebrity divorces and their fallout were handled through familiar channels. "Newlyweds" costars Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, for instance, issued a press release over Thanksgiving weekend so as to bury the news; Jennifer Lopez appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair suspiciously soon after announcing her split from singer Marc Anthony (considering how long-lead a cover shoot is, the whole thing seemed like a P.R. blitz); Nicole Kidman went on a summer-long publicity tour after her divorce from Tom Cruise, promoting both her film projects and an idea of herself as a liberated, feisty woman.
Leaving entirely aside the goofy, wholesome content of Gwyneth Paltrow's announcement on her website, Goop, that she and husband Chris Martin are to undergo a "conscious uncoupling," the announcement itself is notable as part of a new paradigm of celebrity narrative control. It's not just that Paltrow, untrammeled by magazine editors or talk-show hosts, was able to say exactly what she wanted about her divorce on her own site, it's that she turned her divorce into an opportunity to promote her newsletter.
When you navigate to Goop now, some two days after Paltrow's announcement, the front page features a carousel offering the chance to gaze at or purchase various Paltrow-branded products, including the workout method of Tracy Anderson, Paltrow's trainer; an "exclusive cobalt top" only available via Goop; and signed copies of Paltrow's two (yes) cookbooks. The visitor who wants to read Paltrow's announcement has to hunt for the "journal" section. The hottest content on the site is hidden behind various opportunities for Paltrow to monetize; it's expected, but still uproarious, that the "Conscious Uncoupling" piece ends with a link to subscribe to the Goop newsletter.
If she'd just issued a press release, Paltrow wouldn't have been able to include paragraph after paragraph about relationships in the animal kingdom, but she also couldn't have buttressed her divorce announcement with ad content. You can improve your life by reading Paltrow's thoughts on divorce, or by buying a shirt from her website -- it's all the same to her!
As I wrote yesterday, Paltrow's complete devotion to her persona makes her one of the last great old-school movie stars. She's hardly the most accomplished actress working these days, but which of her contemporaries -- among them Julia Roberts, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet -- could spark such obsession with syntax and parsing of old photos in 2014 by filing for divorce? Paltrow's public-relations strategy -- revealing next to nothing about her marriage for years while saying absolutely everything about the particulars of her gluttonously luxurious material world, has made her, in spite of a relatively paltry post-2002 résumé, into an icon on the level of Angelina Jolie or Sandra Bullock.
It's been a great bait-and-switch: Paltrow has told us, for years, about what it's really like to be a star -- the first-class accommodations, luxury fashions, time to prepare gourmet meals -- without giving us much about who she is. (The only memorable personal tidbit was a weird edition of the Goop newsletter that seemed to be about how much she hated Winona Ryder, wrapped up in platitudes about forgiveness.) Paltrow's haters read into her remarks about organic cooking and travel insights about her marriage and family life that were unprovable; the actress couldn't have minded either way, as the haters kept on reading. When it finally came time for Paltrow to open up, she did so in a manner designed to bring eyeballs to her site (which crashed) and bring her new subscribers and purchasers.
That the announcement came shortly before Paltrow's Tuesday-night guest appearance on "Glee" was all the better.
Paltrow is doing no media right now, as she's on vacation with Martin and her children -- both an opportunity, apparently, to spend time as a family (good for her!) and yet another advertisement for her particular genius. What good would it do Paltrow to submit to an interview she can't control, and that won't explicitly net her new readers and subscribers? As a fan of celebrity "breaking-their-silence" interviews, I'm frustrated by Paltrow's reticence to do anything outside Goop; as an admirer of savviness, I'm blown away.
People are mocking her letter, sure. But they're going to Goop to read it, and maybe signing up for more. For an actress whose career seemed in the doldrums post-"Royal Tenenbaums," Paltrow's figured out a way to become an Internet-age Elizabeth Taylor -- fascinating in her peculiarities and, whether it's love or hate, sustained by the public's attention.