It’s 8.30am and I’m lost. Above me, there is a signpost. To the left it points to the "Leaky Gut Support Group", to the right is the "Facial Cupping Collective". Which way would you go?
Thankfully, I’m not in Black Mirror’s newest choose-your-own-adventure film. I am instead at Goop's first UK-based wellness summit.
I am always astonished at the number of people I meet who don’t know what Goop is. So, for the uninitiated: it’s a lifestyle brand with a focus on women's wellness which was launched by Gwyneth Paltrow back in 2008. Along the way it’s faced criticism for promoting ideas and products which, while some file under 'natural health', others file under 'pseudoscience'. Goop is most famous in popular culture for the Great Vagina Steaming Furore of 2015 in which the website posted about the Tikkun Spa in Santa Monica where one can receive a "mugwort V-steam". "You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al." Gynaecologists, for the record, say that steaming your vagina is a very bad idea.
Since 2018, there has been a shift in how Goop talks about holistic approaches to wellness. This is likely down to the advertising watchdog that filed a formal complaint against over 50 examples of "inappropriate" health claims on the site, and the $145,000 that Goop paid to settle allegations that it made "unscientific claims" about three of its products – including a $66 jade egg that goes in, you guessed it, your vagina. Since then, Goop has committed to building a "world-class science and research team" which it says will vet every product (and partner product by mid-2019) for "accurate and truthful claims". Some stories on site are also now labelled by scientific merit: "For Your Enjoyment" means there is no solid scientific backing, "Speculative But Promising" means that there isn’t as yet conclusive research on the matter, and "Rigorously Tested" means that doctors including MDs, DOs, NDs and PhDs are in agreement about the idea.
British people have generally been more sceptical of the wellness movement than Americans. As with anything that’s earnest in nature, it’s in our nature to mock. Perhaps this is why the company’s recently opened store in Notting Hill looks and feels just like any other upmarket lifestyle store; there’s homeware, clothes and facial serums. (Side note: They also stock sex toys and lube and I must say, Goop’s open approach to sex and female pleasure is admirable.) Perhaps this apathy is also why this first In Goop Health event in the UK hasn’t sold out. On the morning of 29th June, there were still tickets to be had and to be fair, at £1,000 a pop for the full-day summit on Saturday (£4,500 or £2,000 for a weekend pass with or without hotel), it’s understandable. The Sunday programme offered a more affordable in and was made up of individual classes which could be purchased from £30. Many of the attendees I met on Saturday were Americans who now live in Europe. "It feels like something that’s just for me," says an American expat who, usually exhausted by kids and other family commitments, had flown in for the weekend from Switzerland.
On Saturday morning though, my main worry is that In Goop Health will be so healthy, there will be no coffee. I had consumed too many rosés at a barbecue the night before (because: summer) and was feeling less than #peakhealth. But I shouldn’t have worried. The attendees are overwhelmingly women in their 40s, aka women too busy for sleep. There are mothers of many children, high-powered lawyers, financial bigwigs. Coffee is their lifeblood. I mentally salute them for their hard work, head straight to the Farm Girl stand and order the first of several Americanos.
Coffee imbibed, my surroundings begin to sink in. We’re at Re:Centre in Hammersmith. Everything is white (majority of the audience included), there are buckwheat pancakes topped with coconut shavings and candied pistachios, fridges stocked with cold-pressed juices, Flow Alkaline Spring Water and cans of a tasty matcha drink. I wonder how many I would have to drink to make up the price of entry.
There's an impressive amount of 'free' stuff; in the Body Studio I receive a set of Goop leggings and workout top. On my seat at the opening ceremony, there’s a healing crystal (what ailment does a clear crystal heal pls?). There are flowers everywhere – from the floral branding board to the wallpaper behind the stage and on the slide (really) that leads down from upstairs. Even the air smells clean. I breathe in as much as I can to try and cancel out cigarettes and London pollution. That's how it works...right?
The opening ceremony starts with a session from a handsome Scottish man called Stuart Sandeman, who is a practitioner of breathwork. As we breathe, Stuart advises us to make intentions while thinking about what would help Mother Earth. I think about the plastic bottle I just drank one of those free juices out of.
And then: Gwyneth, GP, the Gwynster. She really does look smashing. She wears a red, ruffled culotte co-ord, and her hair and her skin look like they’ve been kissed gently and favourably by the sun. Which of course they haven’t because: damaging UVA/B rays.
She’s very good at being on stage. She’s got the self-deprecation and humour of a Brit with the self-assured confidence of an American. In a later session, GP asks Twiggy if she made out with Paul McCartney back in the day and calls a critic who pooh-poohed Twiggy’s acting skills "a c**t". In this setting, it's shocking, and f***ing funny.
At this opening speech, Gwyneth and Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen talk good-naturedly about the criticism they’ve received over the years. "We never frame anything at Goop as a 'failure'," says GP, adding that one of Goop's tenets is to "speak straight" but more importantly "to listen generously". It’s clear from the smiling faces and nodding heads around me that the crowd are devoted to her. A woman next to me tells me she's been reading Goop for over 10 years.
Then come a series of talks and workshops – some fun, others decidedly eccentric. I am taught to massage my face by a facialist called Anastasia Achilleos who usually charges £350 for a session. She says the massage will help with things like tiredness and dark circles and she's aware her methods sound off the wall: "Thank God we’re at Goop," she laughs. "Anywhere else they’d burn us down."
Elsewhere I get an LED facial treatment from MZ Skin which involves wearing a dystopian-chic mask (£385) which lights up: yellow for 'circulation boosting', white if you’ve just had a chemical peel or derma pen treatment. I choose red for 'collagen production' and, while I don’t notice a whole bunch of difference afterwards, I did enjoy sitting down with my eyes closed for a while. I sip a 'GoopGenes Marine Collagen Superpowder' drink while a woman tells me she has them as her treats instead of eating sweets. I look up to find a security guard chuckling at my grimacing reaction. Let’s just say that I’m going to stick to the sweets.
There are some talks which I find really interesting. A panel on the shape of the future features environmental journalist Beth Gardiner, who’s written a book about pollution; and Avra van der Zee, who looks after Uber’s move into the shared bike market. The Uber stuff feels a bit like a sales pitch but I do learn some fascinating insights into the physiological damage that pollution is causing and how best to activate the public’s emotional connection to climate change.
Then there’s Johann Hari, talking about his 2018 book Lost Connections, which I’d previously decided not to read as I’d seen it criticised for downplaying medication and psychiatry as treatments for depression and anxiety. On stage though, he’s incredibly careful to say that he's not dismissing medicine, it's just that there are different causes of anxiety and depression and to treat only the chemical imbalance part won't solve things for everyone. While this doesn’t seem particularly new info in itself, he does tell fascinating stories from his travels around the world looking at how other cultures deal with mental health. I’ve since downloaded the book from Audible (there are physical copies on sale in the Goop Store at the event but there are no prices on anything and I’m feeling far too insecure about my financial status by this point to ask) but I won't be giving up my antidepressants any time soon.
I’m more wary of the "Healing The Whole Person" panel. It features a lot of talk about 'leaky guts' and 'adrenal fatigue' (the NHS says there is not enough evidence currently to show that a leaky gut can lead to wider problems like fatigue, allergies and eczema, and adrenal fatigue is not currently recognised by any endocrinology society around the world). There is also much about cutting dairy, gluten and sugar out of your diet so I am pleased when panellist Dr Wendy Denning brings up the problematic nature of restrictive diets. There is also a long, emotional interview with special surprise guest Penélope Cruz (she is quite literally the most unbelievable human I've ever seen in real life) about her experience of going through perimenopause and dealing with Hashimoto's disease (hypothyroidism).
What I am most impressed with though, are the women in attendance at In Goop Health. Clearly very wealthy, there are some impressive CEO, Lean In types about. These are women with money to spend; I watch one woman in awe as she interrogates the vendor of a heated gem mat (£1,028 since you ask) with all the directness of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge. I speak to another woman, a high-powered corporate lawyer from Washington DC (the thought of doing her job sends me into a cold sweat on the hottest day of the year) who flew over just for the summit weekend.
Yes, the expense of it all might be eye-watering and yes, this is not a life that most women could hope to live, but it does get me thinking about how many judgements we make about women and money. Women have long been guilted into thinking that luxuries are a 'splurge', that buying things for themselves is frivolous. And yet we give no thought to the man who chooses to spend his bonus on a £3,000 TV. The truth is that there are a lot of women who’ve worked hard and earned some serious money (there’s a lot of women who work very hard and unfairly don’t earn a lot of money too) but, in a world where countless men just dropped upwards of a grand to fly last-minute to Madrid to watch the Champions League final on the streets, why judge a successful woman spending the same to attend a luxury wellness event? And for that matter, GP and Elise Loehnen are businesswomen too. If they charge £1,000 for an event where people talk about leaky guts and people show up, they've found themselves a market.
So if you’ve got an outrageous salary and you’re a huge GP fan, by all means, go ahead and set that Google alert for 'In Goop Health 2020 tickets', it’s certainly an experience to write home about. Just make sure you go with a view to explore holistic ideas to complement what you already know about science and medicine. As for the rest of us, here’s some health advice for free: eat whole foods, exercise regularly and spend time with the people you love. Fingers crossed, you’ll be fine.
Jess was a guest of Flow Alkaline Spring Water which has now launched in the UK and is available at Aqua Amore, Planet Organic and Whole Foods at £16.99 for a box of 12 x 500ml