The Year Celebrity Wellness Brands Abandoned Aspiration

Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Moss...they all phoned it in hard while launching their new skin serums and sacred mists. We're catching on.

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The Year Celebrity Wellness Brands Abandoned Aspiration

There was a time when leading a wellness brand required a celebrity to put their whole, excuse me, gut biome into it. Gwyneth has all but discarded her acting ambitions to pursue bottling up her blonde litheness. A couple years after Paltrow launched Goop, Jessica Alba founded the Honest Company, which touts non-toxic household products, and mostly stepped away from acting. She, too, exists in the liminal space of celebrity-turned-business-maven. Every day Rihanna doesn’t release new music (no pressure, but…), she further cements her association with Fenty Beauty.

All three women’s personal images are closely aligned with their companies, the highest of virtues in the world of celebrity-backed brands that aren’t collabs with existing brands. Even Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle and wellness hub Poosh, while pretty calorically light in content and commerce, is in sync with how I perceive the eldest Kardashian. “Why Won’t He Cuddle With Me After Sex?” is one recent blog post you can read on Poosh before clicking over to purchase a $130 thong with a strand of pearls for a crotch.

But recently, and this year in particular, we’ve seen a slew of Sunday drivers in the wellness lane. By September, Popsugar had counted at least 19 new celebrity wellness, beauty, and/or lifestyle projects in 2022 alone. Some of the brand launches felt underwhelming yet inevitable: Scarlett Johansson’s the Outset. Others felt like the celebrity shut their eyes, threw a dart at a list of business ventures, and landed on “Wellness”: Jared Leto, Brad Pitt. Still others seemed completely antithetical to the celebrity at the helm: Travis Barker, Kate Moss. As it so happened, their brands seemed to receive the most press and accumulated social media buzz of any of the 19—Gwen Stefani, Courteney Cox, La La Anthony, Idris Elba, and Hailey Bieber all attached their names to brands this year, to less fanfare—and went the furthest in their marketing ethos to promise a more fulfilling life by use of their products.

Jared Leto introduced Twentynine Palms in New York City in October. Photo:Dimitrios Kambouris (Getty Images)

This made it all the more apparent that these newest ventures—the Outset, Twentynine Palms, Le Domaine, Barker Wellness Co.’s skincare line, and Cosmoss—were missing the special ingredient of Goop, Fenty Beauty, the Honest Company, and dare I even include Poosh, with its WordPress design akin to dorm room twinkle lights. That missing ingredient was aspiration. And as any wellness junkie knows, it’s the special ingredient, whether snail mucin, Retin A, or echinacea, that sells the product.

A general interest in wellness was once a bare-minimum prerequisite for launching a wellness brand. There used to be at least an authoritative song and dance done before one could tout skincare and candles and vibrators. But this incoming class of wellness brand celebs has stripped that pretense away like a flimsy, vitamin-rich face mask. Leto, who once was so deep in preparation for his role as the Joker he sent castmate Viola Davis a dead pig, isn’t mustering up anywhere near the same level of passion for his latest venture, desert-inspired skin and haircare line Twentynine Palms. “I’ve never been really interested in beauty products,” he told Vogue in an interview timed to its launch. Moss smoked cigarettes throughout the entirety of her Vogue interview promoting her new lifestyle brand Cosmoss. For those wondering, “Cosmoss is a celebration of every day exactly as it is, with all its imperfections,” which is lifestyle brand speak for “we sell something called ‘Sacred Mist’ for $144.”

Similarly, don’t expect Pitt, founder of genderless skincare line Le Domaine, to show much enthusiasm for the product outside of a few inaugural press pieces. After coyly refusing to demonstrate the serum, emulsion, or cream he was there to promote, and admitting he didn’t know what gua sha is, a Vogue interviewer got him to concede that he loves what ex-girlfriend Paltrow, who was the one to convince him at age 31 to start washing his face with more than Dial soap, has “done” with Goop.

So what has Paltrow “done” with Goop? Well, the company that keeps making candles that explode has also secured its founder a net worth of as much as an estimated $250 million. It’s no surprise other celebrities want in on what she’s “done.” In 2020, the wellness industry made up 5.14% of total global GDP, and personal care and beauty accounted for about $955 billion. Kirbie Johnson, host of the podcast Gloss Angeles, didn’t mince words when speaking to the Guardian. “Celebrities aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their heart, to share creativity,” she said. “They saw what Rihanna did, and they wanted a piece of the pie.” Pitt might’ve likened creating a skincare line to being able to “explore other corners [of your creativity] like the old Renaissance artists,” but I agree with Johnson. Launching a wellness and beauty brand is now firmly a notch on the ever-widening belt of celebrity-backed, money-making endeavors. But unlike a Coca Cola partnership, this endeavor requires devotion from celebrities. People don’t drink Coke to get in touch with the best version of themselves.

I prefer anyone who’s trying to make a buck off of my learned aversion to frown lines to at least know how to wash their face.

Aspiration is what nudges us to spend an extra $30 on a face cream marketed to “relax” us, even though a chemically identical one is available at our corner drugstore. The acquisition of firmer skin is a veiled promise of an easier life like what we envision a celebrity leads. Of course, anyone who’s binged a season of The White Lotus knows that a $500 emulsion scrub might buff away your gnarly dry skin, but it’s not going to magically make life frictionless. The snake oil is, in fact, just snake oil. Still, a celebrity’s promise that a dewy complexion like theirs will be one less thing to weigh us down is a strong sales pitch. Aspiration is essential to selling the $30-more-expensive face cream.

Goop’s earliest iteration was a weekly cooking and wellness newsletter, and it remained as such for about four years before venturing into the big bad world of e-commerce in 2012. By then, Gwyneth had established herself as your reliable friend with good taste. As Real Simple editor Kristin van Ogtrop said while introducing Paltrow at Fortune’s 2014 Most Powerful Women Summit, “Does she walk the walk or what?” It’s no great betrayal that celebrities like Paltrow, like Rihanna, and even like Pitt are trying to make money off of us. But the former two’s time spent “walking the walk” feels like insurance on the ultimately bad contract we’re forced to sign as wellness-obsessed Americans with money to spend. Paltrow is almost comically out of touch with the everyday consumer, but her intimate proximity to what she’s backing helps create the illusion of expertise. Unlike her grizzled ex, Paltrow will absolutely show you how to use her products. I can only assume you would have to outright beg her to stop. Nor is there anything half-assed about Rihanna’s “Beauty For All” ethos behind Fenty, which Vogue gushed “completely changed the beauty industry.”

Jessica Alba, co-founder and chief creative officer of Honest Co., and Nick Vlahos, chief executive officer of Honest Co., ring the opening bell during the company’s initial public offering (IPO) at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, U.S., on May 5, 2021. Photo:Michael Nagle/Bloomberg (Getty Images)

As much as we’re hyper-aware of nepo babies and the utterly random luck that allows most celebrities to live seemingly seamless lives, somehow, someway, we convince ourselves that they earned their glamorous lives. I do think within many of us, the myth of a rewarded Protestant work ethic runs deep: We’re conditioned to admire their hard work, and aspire to emulate it. Then, if a celebrity enthusiastically promises that their new product will give us the glowing appearance of hard-earned celebrity, we can’t pass up paying the premium to look as if we labored without laboring at all. So when Pitt or Barker barely manage to feign a passion for a product they want us to buy, let alone speak to any sort of hard work put into it, it exposes the fallacy of the entire industry. They’re not playing along with the myth. In which case, what’s stopping me from going to CVS and buying a bottle of Jergens?

Unlike a scented oil, aspiration can’t be dropped into the concoction at the last minute. It needs to simmer, to really bake in. Rihanna, a Black woman, saw the gap in the market for multi-shades of foundation. Alba, a new mother, seemingly understood the plight of wanting a house filled with products safe for your children. They found their angles, and they’re doing an Oscar-worthy job of delivering their lines. Johansson admitting in the Outset’s inaugural Vogue interview that she “felt like [she] was sort of playing a character” as the face of beauty brands in the past was a good first step. But nothing she’s done afterwards, aside from her makeup artist claiming that in an alternate timeline Johansson “would be a dermatologist,” suggests she’s dropped the schtick. Similarly, when Ashley Tisdale shuttered her beauty brand in February 2020, she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post, “I will just say that with the overwhelming market in makeup I just lost my passion for Illuminate.” Aside from the fact that few people seemed to know Tisdale even had a beauty brand, it’s no wonder that without passion Illuminate drowned in such a saturated industry. Consumers can smell someone about to drop the schtick.

Brad Pitt gets his skin wiped off as he poses for a photo on the red carpet for a preview of the film “Bullet Train” in Berlin on July 19, 2022. Photo:John MACDOUGALL / AFP (Getty Images)

Passion for their brands doesn’t absolve Paltrow or Rihanna’s capitalistic sins, nor should we overlook Paltrow’s proclivity for dipping her toe into pseudoscience or lawsuits the Honest Company settled claiming it falsely marketed its promised-pure products (which it denied). I know they’re ultimately upselling me on vibrators that will make me see God. But these celebrities’ own investments, of time and attention, to their brands makes me feel a little less stupid about forking over that up charge. I can’t say I’m as motivated to buy CBD face serum from Barker Wellness, when the Blink-182 drummer talks about it like he’s doing a PSA for whole fat milk in 1996: “I couldn’t do what I do without taking care of myself and giving what my body needs to keep going.” It’s worth noting that Barker did not get a Vogue-hosted debutante ball for his brand’s 2021 debut or 2022 extension. He didn’t even get a shoutout in his wife’s Vogue piece debuting her matcha gummy supplement line, though admittedly neither did Poosh, which sells the line. I’d joke it’s a tense subject in their household, but I legitimately don’t think he cares.

Yes, ultimately, I’d love a world where there wasn’t any pressure to buy night creams that promise to Benjamin Button me. But, in the meantime, I prefer anyone who’s trying to make a buck off of my learned aversion to frown lines to at least know how to wash their face. Hell, I’d love it if they could engage on their product beyond saying, “It’s good” (another Barker classic). It’s going to take more than a wellness site pasted with ethereal photos to forget that Moss once dated Pete Doherty, was nicknamed “Cocaine Kate,” and spawned a generation of Tumblr-fueled eating disorders with her quote about just how good skinny tastes. This is the woman who’s going to teach me how to have a more centered morning routine? Besides, I do feel like wellness is one place where earnestness reigns supreme. The Guardian described Moss’ venture as “wellness with a big wink.” I don’t want a wink, I want someone who’s memorized the song’s melody and choreographed its dance—someone who is going to wow me.

The real wink is that Moss has good genes and a fast metabolism. And yes, so do Rihanna, Gwyneth, and Jessica, but they at least take me and my money more seriously. They will show me how to put some cream under my eyes.

Without the key ingredient, can these new celebrity wellness companies make any sort of lasting impression? Perhaps they will meet the same fate as Blake Lively’s lifestyle hub Preserve (“Our goal has always been to touch millennials through storytelling, and the idea is to create a shoppable lifestyle”), which launched with Lively on the cover of Vogue only to shutter after a year, the eulogy for which was another Vogue article. Are the days of the wellness empire going the way of ancient-mineral-rich bath salts? Without aspiration, we’re running on rose-scented fumes.

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