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Is Gwyneth Paltrow a sage or witch-doctor?

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow became a lifestyle guru when she started her website GOOP, which doles out advice on clothes and diets.


Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash
Timothy Caulfield
381 pages

It's January, a time of year when at least one person in your life will corner you and insist on talking about their amazing new juice cleanse, or supplement strategy, or 10-step, gold-flecked skin-care routine, or some other trendy path-to-a-superior-me plan, prescribed by a qualified medical expert. Ha! That was a joke, though if you found yourself nodding along then the joke might be on you. The extreme dietary and beauty practices I just mentioned aren't the sort of recommendations one would get from an actual learned professional. Instead they are the prescribed wisdom of our society's modern-day witch doctors – that is, celebrities.

We are obsessed – not only with worshipping stars (the way a parent might have idolized Grace Kelly) but with actually wanting to be them. It's a symbiotic relationship since many modern celebs are all too happy to tell us what it takes, so much so that "actress-slash-lifestyle-guru" has become a recognized career path – one recently trod by Blake Lively, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba and, of course, the grand poobah of celebrity guru-dom, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hard to believe it's been more than six years since Oscar-winner and Brad Pitt-ex Gwyneth Paltrow became GOOP, self-styled authority on everything from backyard herb gardens to $300 sweatpants. For years we had coveted her perfect skin, her effortless style, her butt, which (to quote the 42-year-old Gwyneth) resembles that of "a 22-year-old stripper." And then along came a website that would help us get there – to join almighty Gwyneth on her elevated plane. Roll your eyes, but when GOOP endorses, people buy. A couple of years back her kale obsession was at least partly responsible for a 40-per-cent spike in the industry. Her devotion to strict diet routines and unorthodox health remedies have made an undeniable impact on the way people think and talk about health in the 21st century, which might not be such a big deal except for one teeny, tiny problem: Like a supermodel before her biweekly colonics appointment, Gwyneth is full of crap.

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This is the unambiguous conclusion of a new book by Canadian academic Timothy Caulfield, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? I'm not spoiling anything, since debunking Paltrow's many health and beauty-related recommendations is something the author gets to right away – her juicing, her gluten-phobia, her signature Clean Cleanse. GOOP isn't the only false prophet on trial: The book examines all sorts of celebrity-embraced products and methods (Katy Perry's nutritional supplements, Katie Holmes's snail-sludge facials, even Jennifer Aniston's claim that her great skin comes from drinking lots of water), none of which fare so well against that pesky proof-measure known as science. More broadly, Caulfield unpacks the inherent madness in trying to achieve an ideal that is, itself, an illusion, along with the billion-dollar industry that's predicated on this paradox.

The author isn't afraid to go gonzo. "I was Jane Goodall in the Hollywood jungle," he says of the fish-out-of-water experiments that have him suffering through Gwyneth's Clean Cleanse, attempting to reverse the aging process with expensive skin products, and even trying out for American Idol – part of a section on how the "rags-to-reality-star" has become the new American Dream. It's funny stuff made funnier by the wry observations and witty self-deprecation that pepper the best parts of the book. ("Consider, for example, arsenic, black-widow venom, tar sand, earthquakes, gravity pulling you toward the ground at terminal velocity," says Caulfield, countering GOOP's infamous assertion that nothing that is natural can be bad.)

Along with quick wit, Caulfield has an academic's reflexive tendency to show his sources. This can make some chapters feel a little too much like homework – maybe I'm off here, but when a book has "Gwyneth Paltrow" in the title, more than 50 pages of references and notes feels excessive. Most pages reference PhDs and studies and studies that back up those studies. It's the kind of book where – rather than read the whole thing – it might be nice to just upload the text to your brain, and then search for the relevant information the next time you get cornered by that high-and-mighty friend who is five days into a detoxifying juice cleanse. (A few fun facts: There is no such thing as detoxing; most cleanses are more likely to cause long-term weight gain than loss; and – woot! – absolutely zero science supports the fact that giving up coffee is good for you.)

Caulfield argues that most of us are already aware of the truth. We know that letting a snail do its business on your face won't result in a Dawson's Creek-worthy glow and that Gwyneth Paltrow has the scientific authority of a sponge mop. And still the billion-dollar industry persists, based on a mix of escapism, desperation and the fact that the Internet has turned us into a society of crazy people who would rather worship a celebrity than deal with our own deficiencies. Because Gwyneth Paltrow might be wrong about everything, but this means we are wrong about her, which is arguably more embarrassing.

Courtney Shea is a Toronto-based journalist.

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