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Selling a Celebrity Lifestyle

“PRESERVE is all of us, together, championing the goods, makers and legends that instill meaning inside the moments of our lives. The curios that cozy our homes, the threads that define our silhouettes, the foods that leave our bellies happy, the projects that mean everything to us.”

With that earnest manifesto, intended to describe her newly-launched project, actress Blake Lively unknowingly summed up the zeitgeist of the celebrity lifestyle brand genre. Preserve and sites like it attempt to capitalize on the glamour of the stars that back them, while broadcasting an intimate, inviting vibe. They try to make a fulfilling, aesthetically-pleasing, and “meaningful” life seem easy and accessible—so long as the reader is ready to trust the proprietors’ expert opinions on the products the sites so casually endorse.

Celebrity brand endorsements are nothing new. In the 18th century, potter Josiah Wedgwood learned that Queen Charlotte used his wares and repositioned himself as “Potter to Her Majesty” so he could jack up prices; more recently, Queen Beyoncé guzzled down Pepsi for a contract to the tune of $50 million. But celebrities selling a comprehensive way of being—a lifestyle brand—has become even more popular in the post-recession years, because they combine aspirational but understated wealth with gestures toward charity and self-improvement.

Goop, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s website and accompanying weekly newsletter, launched in September 2008, and was one of the first iterations of an actress moving beyond selling a specific product to pushing an entire lifestyle. That goop launched during Q3 of 2008 was fortuitous. Nationwide, spending began to decline overall—in approximately three years, it would fall by over $7,300 per consumer. Even the incredibly wealthy began to feel what consulting group Bain & Co. referred to as “luxury shame.” Directly marketing individual products to wealthy consumers would not do, nor would encouraging ostentatious displays of wealth.

Celebrities playing the part of the poorgeoisie was bound to be more palatable to Americans during these weak economic times. Goop reflected this emerging need for a more restrained brand of luxury. The website is divided into six sections: “Make, Go, Get, Do, Be, See.” Paltrow’s prescribed lifestyle is partially a reasonable undertaking (for example, she regularly encourages “mindfulness,” cooking at home, and attempting DIY projects), and partially escapist fantasy (she also promotes unique, off-the-beaten path trips that cost money and vacation time that most Americans don’t have). The products she sells are beautiful and quite pricey, but they are also aesthetically quiet.

Blake Lively went on to introduce her lifestyle brand Preserve this past summer, just over five years after goop’s inception. The Internet was brimming with snarky takedowns about Lively’s efforts; with heavy-handed use of the “Antique” filter in iPhoto and constant references to “heritage,” Preserve reads like it was written by a pair of Levi’s jeans that became sentient. Along with an online shop, editorial content, and recipes, the site features a section called “Greater Good” with this frank acknowledgement:

We celebrate and indulge in the treasures both high and low that we feature on Preserve. We are aware that a lot of what we are selling is outlandish in a world where people are starving and have nowhere to sleep.

Celebrity lifestyle brands often take care to include a philanthropic component along with the expensive goods they’re hawking. Goop came under heavy criticism for including a $90 white T-shirt in a list of wardrobe essentials, but Paltrow lists on the site four non-profit organizations she’s “dedicated to raising awareness” about. Preserve sells $18 pickles and a $400 light-up wooden heart marquee, but Lively gives 5 percent of all purchases towards Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides services to homeless youth. This high-low formula is a marketing scheme that is essential to lifestyle brands: celebrate self-indulgence but offset it with something selfless. Pushing altruism strips the consumer of guilt; if at least some of the money is going to a good cause, the conspicuous consumption is absolved.

Of course, the charity component is inflated—when examining actual numbers, giving and taking are hardly proportional. According to corporate documents obtained by Radar Online in April, Goop made $1,893,065 in 2012, with $2,000-$3,000 allocated to each of Paltrow’s selected charities. But the company ultimately found itself in $1.2 million debt to creditors, perhaps due in part to hefty salary increases for Paltrow and ex-CEO Sebastian Bishop—the pair together earned $587,653.25, up from $172,585 the previous year.

When Lively described Preserve to British Vogue in September 2013, she said, “The main element of it is that it’s about storytelling and it’s about living a very one-of-a-kind, curated life, and how to achieve that.” Here Lively gets at the heart of what makes an effective lifestyle brand: it offers consumers a tightly crafted “story” about how they can structure their lives—luxe, but not overly so, with a hint of DIY-fervor and a touch of social consciousness that will makes them seem unique to their peers. Celebrity lifestyle sites tell this story to their readers in a feeble attempt to make them forget what each site really is: a brand poised and primed to sell, just like any other.