Goop. It's not just stuff that takes a lot of sticky forms, it's Gwyneth Paltrow's brand and big business when it comes to wellness. Elise Loehnen, Goop's chief content officer, sat down with me on "Salon Talks" to discuss the brand's new Netflix show, "The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow," and the conversations the company sparks from its critics around science, elitism and of course, vaginas.
Loehnen is one of the main faces of the company (now worth $250 million) and also the main participant, along with Paltrow, in the Netflix docuseries. Loehnen samples everything from psychedelic mushrooms, to a restrictive diet that aims to make her younger, to an energy exorcism she tells me blew her mind.
Before Goop, the Yale-educated Loehnen spent years in the magazine world. An impactful mentor was Kim France, the founder of Lucky magazine, who created the shopping magazine around trends that were personally interesting to her and her friends. That same idea of creating content through a personal lens is what attracted Loehnen to Paltrow and Goop. "She doesn't want to do what everyone else is doing, or what's already out there. She's really good at identifying the need and her own experience, and then filling it," Loehnen says.
To learn more about Goop's adventures in wellness, watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Elise Loehnen here, or read the transcript below, edited lightly for length and clarity, of our conversation.
In the Netflix series, which you are the face of, although Gwyneth and other staffers do participate too, you go through these wellness experiences that are little woo-woo. It's apparent though, that you have your own level of skepticism. Tell us a little bit about "The Goop Lab."
It's a six-part docuseries around wellness. Each one is very different. They all have the same format essentially, which is we interview experts, and then we go out in the field and try these things for ourselves. Some have testimonials from other people as well, like with the episode on psychedelics and with [Dutch athlete] Wim Hof. The idea is to sort of do the range. There's an episode on longevity with Morgan Levine at Yale, and Valter Longo at USC, sort of talking about what's known in the science. Some of it isn't surprising. It's sort of these are the tenets of wellness, and things that we all in some level know. And then, it goes to psychic mediums, and what does that suggest about consciousness, and the context of our lives, and what do we know and what do we not know?
One of the things that we're really interested in is, yes, here are all the things that we've come to learn as science has evolved and our understanding of the universe has expanded. And then, here are all the things that we don't know. We still don't really understand how the brain works, right? There are all these massive questions that are always worth contemplating. And just because we lack the language at this point to contextualize it doesn't mean that the experience isn't real. And so, a big part of it, too, is bridging that gap between here's what's known, and then here are all of these things that are happening to people. Just because it's not understood doesn't mean it's not real. And I think women in particular relate to that.
ON ENERGY HEALING
Some of us are curious, open and looking for answers, which I think is really a vital part of the thesis here. How did you and your staff choose the topics? Some things, as you say, are sort of common information in a way, and then the rest is energy work where you're on a table, and the viewer doesn't know what's happening, and it looks a little wacky, you know?
It looks crazy. That one was interesting because we didn't know if we could even do something like energy work because it's so subtle. You might be having an internal experience of emotion or movement, but it doesn't necessarily show up on a TV screen. [Energy worker] John Amaral's method, which I still just do not understand, it blows my mind. It's so visual as he's standing over you, puppet mastering you. There's one where you're face down, you don't know where he is, he could be all the way on the other side of the room. In fact, [in the episode] I'm the most responsive when he's the farthest away from me. But other times, he's standing over people and they're moving along with it on the table. It's so wild. We wanted to do an episode like that — a real what the f**k?
Reiki and energy healing, those are ancient modalities, but they're also mainstream. With a lot of these things, people act like we're inventing these concepts that have been part of cultures for millennia. My son was hospitalized for an asthma attack the other week. He's fine now. And they offered him reiki at UCLA.
I'm a kindred spirit. I had an activist, feminist mother and had an unusual New York City, East Village upbringing during the 1980s. I was raised on chiropractic from the time I was 12, so I was interested to see what John Amaral has done with his chiropractic degree, and then started to bring in all of this, you could say, indigenous healing. My family's Native American as well, and so a lot of this hands-on healing is very kindred to me.
I think that was my favorite episode. What was your favorite episode?
I think the psychedelics one because, mushrooms. The FDA just approved MDMA for MAPS to move ahead to the next phase. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is so promising, primarily focused on vets for PTSD. There's just so much collective trauma in our culture, and I think we just take all those wounds, and then we just push out all of our hurt on the world. And obviously, you see that all over the place. I think that the promise that that has for all sorts of trauma, for women, sexual trauma, for people of color, systemic trauma. And so, that to me I think is closest to my heart. It's so visually fascinating to me. Each episode is just different, right? Longevity isn't the most exciting, but it's certainly the most applicable.
ON EXTREME DIETING
The episode you're referring to is about changing your biological age by eating differently and doing different holistic practices. On the show, Gwyneth lost the most age. You lost how many years?
A year and a half.
I'll take a year and a half! You did a pescatarian diet, right?
Pescatarian, and I pretty much took out dairy. I think I cheated a little bit, but vegan pescatarian, which I know doesn't make any sense, but vegan with protein, for three weeks.
Gwyneth had to the drink these . . .
No offense to the doctor who made them, but these are s***ty soups. And she gave him crap for that. She already seems like a bit of a thing, and she was subsisting, on these 800-calorie-a-day things. I can't make it without carbs. I've tried many times.
You and me.
ON FEMALE ORGASMS
You also have an episode on female pleasure, which was groundbreaking, I think, because you're bringing the topic into the mainstream. You're using the female lens to tell the story, which – as we know for looking at pornography, and other sources of entertainment for men – it's not usually done that way. So, why did you want to focus on this, and is female pleasure a tone for Goop?
It's one of the most essential parts of the brand insomuch as clearly it's very, sadly, very polarizing. The things that we typically get attention for are things around the vulva and vagina, and that says a lot about where we are as a culture. For so many women, we've been taught to not only not name our desires, but to not even acknowledge that we have them. When we don't do that, it sort of subverts, it metastasizes, you know? And I think it comes out in strange ways for us culturally as just anger, and frustration, and all of these – I don't want to say not productive, but it's like we just need culturally to get to a place where we can say, "Oh, I have sexual desires. I ask for what I want. I ask for what I need." And yet so many of us feel so much shame around that. So, that's really the central idea.
We also, as you said, wanted to do it through a female lens because there are no examples – which is also shocking – there are no examples of women's orgasms in the popular culture, or even this idea of what's normal. We've all been conditioned to have a lot of concern about grooming. There's a statistic in the show about how many women are getting plastic surgery on their vulvas, the actually labiaplasty.
That's one of the things that we really wanted to just blast through is this idea of there is no normal — in sexual appetite, in sexual desire, in sexual anatomy.
ON GOOP THE BRAND
At Goop, you have helped shape the creative vision of the company. What was it like to come into Gwyneth's vision and start to evolve it?
When I worked at Lucky Magazine I learned a ton. The reason that that magazine was successful I think is because [founding editor] Kim France made that magazine for herself and her friends, and then by her friends of friends. And so, to go to Goop, and for it to be the same impetus of "this is interesting to me," or "my friend is having this experience, so other women must be having this experience," and for that to be sort of the lifeblood of the brand was not only felt disruptive in the context of digital. It also felt disruptive in the way that women's content is made, and that women are hyper-intelligent. We can be interested in jewelry and we can be interested in science. We're multi-varied, layered, faceted creatures who are tired of being talked down to by a lot of traditional women's magazines. We are perfectly capable of parsing what's relevant and what's not relevant. And I think that's one of the things that makes the brand powerful today.
Before we started, we were chatting a bit about how the idea of being "Goopy." What does that mean to you?
It's this idea that we all want autonomy in our own lives. We all want authority over our own health, and our choices, and our bodies. We want the information. We want it from all sides. We want to be able to read it ourselves and decide. We don't want to be told what to think. And I think that that's sort of at the essence of it, and what we try to do. And Goopy, it's sort of saying like, "I'm open. I'm curious." If I have a reaction or a triggered emotional reaction to something, I want to lift the hood and understand what that is, rather than this sort of like, "Don't do that," or "How could you think that?" We try to not do that.
We embrace the idea that here are all of these modalities — some very Western and very typical. They have a lot of power and utility. And here are other things that seem to work for people, and let's examine all of them. You might be surprised at what ends up sort of holding sway over you or influencing your life.
Goop has been charged with making brands. When a vendor is featured on Goop, it will basically make your business. When you bring in somebody whose value system [that] you and Gwyneth and your staff find kindred, is that part of the journey?
From the beginning, it's not like Gwyneth put a flag out and was like, "This is a Gwyneth Paltrow brand. Buy only my products." It's always been about creating a platform for other people, and obviously within our content, other experts to speak directly. We do Q & A format so people can just express themselves without any editorialized or filtered layer. From a product perspective, within clean beauty for example, which is completely unregulated in this country, we see it as a service.
We have an incredibly rigorous screen that we put brands through. And then, all these independent, primarily female-owned cosmetic and skincare lines we sell alongside our own products, and we really vouch for them. We think that what they do has a tremendous amount of integrity. It speaks to this larger idea of the pie is big enough for all of us. Particularly for women, I think we're taught this sort of scarcity myth of there's only going to be one woman on the executive team, or one woman on the board, or one business that makes it. We're trying to de-program that in part by saying there is room for all of us. How do we celebrate, champion, find the very best experts, doctors, scientists, product makers, and help grow their brands as we're growing our own?
ON GOOP'S CRITICS
I want to talk about the criticism that Goop has received for seeming like an aspirational but unattainable brand. Gwyneth has been quoted as saying like, I don't want to make cheaper stuff, and some things are just good. What do you say to those critics? And also, who is the audience for Goop now, and has it evolved since you came in?
It's definitely expanded. Our content and all the information is obviously completely free. All the recipes. A lot of the stuff that we talk about is completely free: meditation, taking a walk, how we eat.
For the aspirational part of the products, it's what you said. I think that as a country, as a culture, as a world, we're coming off of this idea that cheap is always possible, and that it's okay for the planet. When we think about the products that we make, we use the highest-grade ingredients possible. In one of our bath salts, one of the raw ingredients was $2,000 a pound. We're trying to source from the most reputable places, we're testing everything along the way, and it's expensive. And we're not huge. We don't produce at the scale of a typical CPG company. The idea is that we're going to make products that have a lot of integrity. Our clothing line, it's made in Italy in the same factories as a lot of the big name brands at a much more affordable price point, but it's really good. We want it to last for five years, 10 years. And then, moving people off this sort of idea of fast fashion, and that you should be able to buy 15 things a year.
What happen as we make a lot of noise about things like clean beauty and how these products are made that we're putting on our skin that are being absorbed, other players are paying attention, and shifting their R&D dollars, and then you see it in the drugstore. A lot of companies are cleaning up their formulations because consumers are asking questions, and they want transparency, and they want to know what's in these products.
You should know what's in your product.
We don't even have time to talk about all the Goop vagina stuff, but I have to mention the candle you're selling called "This Candle Smells Like My Vagina." I found it on eBay for $299 because it's sold out.
That's amazing. I heard that a penis candle just came out, and that they're charging 25 percent more just to illustrate the wage gap. Which I think is kind of a brilliant marketing move. But yeah, vaginas smell good.