By the time Marianne Williamson took the stage at the In Goop Health summit in November, I’d had my face depuffed twice. On the floor of Goop Hall, a sage- and eucalyptus-scented showroom with giant windows framing the San Francisco skyline, a sales associate cheerily sold me a $45 jade face roller. In a skincare masterclass later that day, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal facialist pointed at me — the only man in an audience of 60 — and said I was holding too much tension in my jaw. “I’m a Leo, I’m Greek, and I will kick your butt,” she said. My classmates burst out laughing as a Goop attendant handed me a warm face towel.
Which is all to say that, when Williamson finally sat down for her fireside chat with Paltrow, my face felt puffier than ever.
Heading into the weekend, Williamson seemed a natural fit to speak before the Goop summit. The author of 13 self-help books, Williamson is running (and yes, she is still running for the 2020 Democratic nomination) on a platform of love. Not universal healthcare. Not gun control. Not immigration reform. Her entire platform consists of a feeling: one that philosophers and pop singers have struggled to define for millennia.
After the first presidential debate this summer, many on Twitter likened Williamson’s wacky spiritualism to Goop. The two seemed locked in the same rose gold box: wellness brands built less on fact than belief, lifestyle gurus who monetize the trappings of wellness more than actual well-being.
I came to the Goop summit to see if the synergy was real.
Paltrow has leveraged her 11-year-old empire, worth $250 million, into a wellness roadshow for the rich and vaguely spiritual. Tickets began at $1,000 per person (some had paid $2,500 for exclusive perks, like a pre-summit wellness workshop with Paltrow herself). Over 200 women were gathered at a reclaimed Ford assembly plant in Richmond, on the East Bay, along with maybe three husbands and me. After knocking back macrobiotic smoothies, we were admitted to Paltrow’s wellness sanctuary: a cavernous space accommodating energy-clearing sessions, fiber-rich foods, and mystics in cashmere sweaters. One Tree Hill star Sophia Bush stood in line to make her own sage smudge stick.
Williamson was the culminating speaker after eight hours of what one attendee described to me as “the Wellness Olympics.” The entire day was curated within an inch of its life, packaged to maximize Goopies’ engagement and fulfillment. But despite Williamson being the “Goop candidate” I’d heard too much about, many attendees didn’t recognize her at all.
“Who is she?” a woman asked me over gluten- and dairy-free cheesecake. It wasn’t a question I expected to hear. In the “Think Room” later that evening, when Paltrow joked that Williamson was “a little busy right now because she’s running for president,” a few women gasped. Rows of empty seats remained unoccupied throughout the chat as attendees left to hit up cocktail hour, their voices echoing throughout the hall. Those who actually showed up to the event periodically stared down at their phones, or rummaged through their swag bags.
Williamson is a Rorschach. If you want to, you can see a grifter. A scam artist.
Williamson may have originated from the L.A. wellness scene, but to the Goop crowd, she was a relative unknown: a vestige of new-agey spirituality from decades past. Paltrow seemed delighted to assume the role of relatable wellness princess, the heir apparent to a billion-dollar kingdom of alternative remedies. Watching them speak was like watching a seasoned pro tutor a young up-and-comer.
“I just reread A Return to Love,” Gwyneth gushed, name-dropping the 1992 bestseller that catapulted Williamson to Oprah and beyond, “and it’s still so brilliant.” In a conversation about the roots of modern wellness, the two compared 1970s counterculture to today’s Instagram influencers. At one point, Williamson joked that Gwyneth was “the neo-hippie.”
“You’re the latest iteration,” Williamson continued somberly. “You’re... our daughter.” Paltrow laughed that self-deprecating Gwyneth Paltrow laugh.
Remarkably, it was the height of the presidential race, and yet they didn’t talk about politics until nearly 30 minutes into the event. Williamson joked that her first act as Madam President would be to paint the White House pink (“there’s too much straight furniture in there, we need some soft lines”). Her candidacy was almost an afterthought — these two were called to the Goop stage by a higher purpose than politics.
Marianne Williamson rose to guru status in the ’80s, as a faith healer to AIDS patients in L.A. (“Gay men in Los Angeles literally gave me my career,” she told Paltrow at Goop.) At a time when medical and religious institutions ignored AIDS victims, Williamson (controversially) encouraged prayer and self-love. She’s since become a spiritual advisor to Hollywood’s elite — the Kardashians supported her failed 2014 congressional run for California’s 33rd district.
I was always curious about Williamson. As a “spiritual but not religious” millennial, I fall into her campaign’s primary demographic. After she entered the Democratic primary in January, pundits dismissed her as a sentient piece of rose quartz. But to me, “crystal lady” doesn’t quite match her aesthetic. She’s more mid-career Katharine Hepburn, less contemporary metaphysics.
After the second debate, where she made an impassioned case for at least $200 billion in reparations for slavery — not “financial assistance,” she argued, but “a debt that is owed” based on America’s broken promise of 40 acres and a mule — I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car and tried to convince them, for hours, that Williamson was the only candidate worth voting for. I was only being semi-ironic.
Paltrow and Williamson share a preternatural ability to monetize our anxiety.
“What’s wrong with harnessing love for political purposes?” I asked in the car that night. Isn’t that better than leveraging nostalgia or middle class identity or shameless opportunism? Does love feel “wackadoo” and “witchy” to us on a national debate stage because we’re so accustomed to overly masculine political boxing matches? The fact that no one took her seriously only made me listen closer.
My friends laughed at me. So I bought one of her books. I enjoyed it, and I can honestly say it helped me feel more loving. But of course, it turned out to be the book where she talks about depression as a spiritual disease. “Seen through a spiritual lens, depression is the inevitable result of seeing ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe,” Williamson declares in Tears to Triumph, her 2016 treatise on personal spirituality. I tried not to let it bother me, though my mom is clinically depressed and has been on antidepressants my entire life.
It irked me even more to see the ways that Williamson’s politics and personal brand often collide in potentially dangerous (and tone-deaf) ways. Recently, Williamson suggested on Facebook that vaccines are under-regulated and contain “neurons-toxins” (she meant “neurotoxins”), neither of which are true. No matter how often she retracts her statements, Williamson seems unable to acknowledge the fact that vaccines are highly regulated, safe, and effective.
Voters weren’t shocked by Williamson aligning herself with the anti-vaxx movement (she’s done it before) as much as they were surprised to learn she’s still technically running. Though she’s polling at less than 1%, Williamson raised a total of $6.1 million for her campaign as of the latest filing period in September, more than Steve Bullock and Michael Bennett, two long-time politicians. And though Williamson probably won’t qualify for future debates, she’s pledged to stay in the race until donations dry up.
What may link the inter-generational pair of wellness empires the most is that Paltrow and Williamson share a preternatural ability to monetize our anxiety. During a particularly revealing moment at their fireside chat, the two discussed the rise of wellness over the last decade. Why, Paltrow wondered aloud, were tarot and energy clearing “gaining traction” for the first time since the ’60s? Williamson interrupted her: “Well, it’s gained traction in that you guys have figured out how to commercialize it.” They laughed and glanced nervously at the audience, their loyal followers smiling up at them.
But Williamson wasn’t just preaching to Goopies about her vision for the Oval Office. She was there to hawk a new product. “Marianne just launched the Williamson Institute,” Paltrow told the crowd, “which is an online community that gives members access to [her] articles, podcasts, blogs, weekly lectures, and meditations as well.” She’d obviously been told to say this, but Gwyneth Paltrow has made a career of delivering lines.
Williamson’s Institute features a “total life makeover” ($300) which includes a course called “You Are Bigger Than Your Body” (sounds like a John Mayer single). I suspect the online offerings will also include an assortment of overpriced trinkets — though the Shopify link for Williamson’s gear is down as I’m writing this.
Hmmm... would a true miracle worker really need to sell merch?
On the other hand, merch was the lifeblood running through the Goop summit. The venue was like walking straight into Gwyneth’s Instagram feed. There were few bare walls — most of the partitions dividing the various event spaces were draped in flowy white fabric. Bay Area gentry glided across the floor in neutral-toned knits.
One of San Francisco’s most popular psychics told us she’d diagnosed a friend’s brain tumor on sight, weeks before doctors did.
Activities were a Gooptopian mix of science and spirituality, unabashed woo with a dash of Insta-celebrity: trampoline cardio to target our pelvic floors (presented by United Airlines, for some reason); skincare tutorials featuring Goop products; “dreamwork,” during which we laid on fluffy mattresses (the session was sponsored by a mattress company) and listened to a woman retell a dream about vacationing in Marseilles.
Call me naive, but I guess I wasn’t expecting so much sponcon at an event for attendees who’ve already dropped at least a grand.
Indigenous healers handed me thick business cards after they traced the circumference of my body with eagle feathers. A feminine energy worker advertised her “online offering” (starting at $200) at the end of a Q&A about cultivating the spirit of Aphrodite. One of San Francisco’s most popular psychics told us she’d diagnosed a friend’s brain tumor on sight, weeks before doctors did. We sat on pillows and smiled back at her, our mouths open wide.
Goop’s critics accuse it of peddling pseudoscience, but it didn’t seem Goop was intending to be scientific. Yes, Gwyneth hired in-house fact-checkers after Goop was booted from Condé Nast last year, but every session I attended focused on alternative therapies. Goop leans into the psycho-spiritual sensations behind health and wellness. It’s the same approach Marianne Williamson has taken to treat everything from AIDS to body dysmorphia. Both of them speak the language of pop metaphysics, a language anyone who’s said the word “vibe” at work this year will understand.
After seeing her in person, I’ve come to the conclusion that Williamson is a Rorschach. If you want to, you can see a grifter. A scam artist. One of those smarmy self-help writers who pens vapid, vaguely inspirational prose, and then asks for your credit card number.
Or, you can choose to see her as a renowned self-help author, one who’s helped millions of people (including yours truly) live more fulfilled lives. And she’s only able to do that because, in Williamson’s own words, she was able to commodify the spiritual energy inside her.
At the end of the summit, after the sun had set over the Salesforce Tower and Goop attendants were dismantling the flowy white partitions, I asked Williamson to sign my book. No one else was in line to see her. She sat alone at a small table, flanked by a single bodywoman.
“Are you planning to stay in the race?” I asked her.
She hesitated a moment before chirping, “Sure am!”
She was giving me Sales Face, which was fine — it was the end of the day and we were both tired (eight hours of Wellness Olympics will do that to you). A few minutes later, Williamson sped out of the venue as HAIM’s “Just a Little of Your Love” echoed through Goop Hall. I was handed a 40-pound swag bag overflowing with products, each of which were supposed to make me well in some way or another, and left.