Over the past few days, I’ve developed a minor obsession with Gwyneth Paltrow. I know, I know – the only kind of “obsession” it is acceptable to have with Gwyneth Paltrow is an obsession founded on loathing. And yet, here I am.
I blame her month-long PR assault, which started with her cook book, was followed by a string of premieres for the new Iron Man flick, and culminated last week with her being named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman.” I also blame my favourite celebrity gossip blog, Lainey Gossip, which consistently depicts Paltrow as a Hollywood “queen bee,” who always sits at the best table, hobnobs with only her coolest fellow celebrities, and basically serves as an arbiter for what’s hot and what’s not, while being simultaneously beloved by all in her industry (if not by the general public).
All of which makes her sound like a high school Mean Girl, I am well aware, but work with me here. I have a point, and I’ll get to it.
Either way, the result is that I must have uttered the words “Gwyneth Paltrow” about fifty times in the past week, peaking with Mr Musings calling out to me from the living room as I lay in bed on Saturday morning, “Did I just hear you muttering the words, ‘Gwyneth, Gwyneth…’?” And indeed, he had. Although in my defence, I was muttering them because I was writing this post in my head, and I often quietly talk to myself when I write.
I am fascinated by Gwyneth not because I covet her film career, her body (actively flaunted – I think the word may be justified in this case? – in recent weeks to entice the masses to buy her book and hire her trainer), or her ascetic lifestyle (although I have long found people who lead highly regimented lives intriguing – see also Wintour, Anna, with whom I always associate the sound of a whip cracking whenever I read or hear her name). What I covet - and what I am so intrigued by - is her enormous self-confidence. That she appears to unreservedly like herself. Like best pal Beyonce, Gwyneth is a queen, and she makes no apologies for it.
It wasn’t just her looks, but also her presence that so captured me. I was frantic, anxious, and insecure; high-achieving, yes, but never satisfied. I blurted out answers in class (very unladylike) and feared that my appetite for food was insatiable and out-of-control. Gwyneth, in contrast, seemed characterized by an aura of calm entitlement, i.e., the opposite of frantic insecurity.
As Kjerstin goes on to say, that “calm entitlement” is born of a multiplicity of privileges. Of having been born into a wealthy, influential family. Of inhabiting a tall, thin, blonde body that is computed as “beautiful” automatically and without thinking. Of “being privileged in every possible way that a woman can be, and feeling as though you deserve it.”
But that “calm entitlement” is also, I would argue, a product of Paltrow’s own doing. Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and she knows it. She may have won an Oscar at 26, but she’s not exactly a leading actress of her generation, either – she’s no Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett. But she carries herself as though she is all these things - beautiful, supremely talented, sitting at the best lunch table (the “best lunch table” being, by definition, whichever lunch table Gwyneth is sitting at), and the world responds to her accordingly.
(Beyonce is remarkably similar in style, but is received differently because, let’s face it, she has established her as one of the leading performers of her generation, possibly the leading performer.)
Gwyneth, perhaps, takes this further than is socially desirable, edging over from confidence to sanctimony, but I still think there are lessons to be learned for those of us who, like Kjerstin (or me), err more towards anxiety and insecurity. Lessons which have nothing to do with working out for five hours a day, or going gluten, dairy, sugar and egg-free.
Which is the reason for my Gwyneth obsession over the past few days. Whenever those petty insecurities rear their head - as they do several times a day - I ask myself, how would the Gwyneth in my head deal with this? And every time (this being an imaginary Gwyneth and all), the answer is that she wouldn’t give a toss. She would feel secure in the quality of her work. She wouldn’t complain about looking “fat.” She wouldn’t worry that “everyone was hanging out without her,” because she would be confident that wherever she was was the best place to be.
And imaginary or not, it has made me approach the world rather more calmly.
Related: How to be fabulous in three easy(ish) steps.
Elsewhere: Why I’m Breaking Up With The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Gwyneth Was My Thinspo. (Mirror Mirror Off the Wall)
And for your present, here’s an essay I wrote back in 2005, with minor edits.
He’s got a smile and it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
When everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky
And now and then when I see his face
It takes me away to that special place
And if I stare too long I’d probably break down and cry…
What can I say about Taylor Hanson? Light of my life, fire of my 15-year-old loins. The original “wonderboy”: smart, self-effacing and with a subtle wit I liked to imagine no one other than me was able to appreciate. A boy who spoke with his hands, who liked to wear tight t-shirts and funny scarves and more necklaces than any one person should, and who would light up whenever he spoke of music, architecture or Andy Warhol. A boy who would jump up and down behind his keyboard and tap his foot so hard I could do naught but refer to him as ‘thumper’. And just look at those pretty pretty cheekbones and that sharp sharp jawline. Le sigh.
He was a face that launched a thousand (non-relation)ships.
Beat on my Fender through my Gemini 2
Praying to the posters on the wall of my room
Thought I was crazy when I’d think about you
And the bells in my ears keep ringing
Why am I bringing up the boy I loved [fifteen] years ago? Because of a thread on the soon-to-be-defunct Fametracker, and a link to that old much loved website, Bright and Beautiful, which wrote of Taylor’s son: “He is also — although no one will admit this - a truly unique kind of Hanson: His mother is one of us. Ezra is a rockstar baby, yes, with his little striped scarf. But he’s also half mortal, and if the rumors are true, he is half teenie.”
For that’s what we were. Teenies. Teenies in denial, for sure, but teenies nonetheless. We were this little subculture of teenage girls who dissected everything a group of teenage rockstars did like a beat-up copy of Wuthering Heights. Who spoke about them like they were people we knew who might occasionally drop by to ‘borrow’ a cup of sugar, or discuss the latest developments on The OC.
And we didn’t just dissect, we invented and recreated. We turned them into something that had very little do with what they actually are, using them for our own purposes to learn to understand ourselves and the world around us. Very little of our Hanson discussions actually had anything to do with Hanson. They were all about us. Us finding ways to be witty, us playing around with words and meaning, us talking about pro-life, pro-choice, gun control, capitalism and neo-fascism. Us talking about Ayn Rand, writing and reading quasi-erotic fiction, and ending up in the pages of Smash Hits as creators rather than as fans.
I miss the sweet boys in the summer of their youth
It was because of this beautiful boy, with his sharp cheekbones and delicately defined jawline, that I was introduced to people, words and ideas that would change the course of my life.
Happy birthday, Taylor Hanson.
I always love reading Rachel Rabbit White’s love letters to her friends. It’s for the same reason I gobble up Natalie Joos’s Tales of Endearment, which I read not for the fashion, but for the intimate portraits she paints through her photography and writing.
It’s something I’d love to do myself. I’m always telling one of my most fascinating friends that she had better hurry up and get famous so that I can write her biography. And I sometimes daydream about starting a site like Joos’s; again, not focused on fashion, but about capturing the people I meet in all their beauty and complexity.
Rachel’s most recent love letter centred around a night at a vampire ball with Gala Darling. It also talked a lot about persona: both in the context of teenage (and post-teenage?) gothdom, and on the internet. She writes:
The internet channels Persona. “Who are you?” ask social networking sites. You are defined in 140 characters. You are what you share. At 22 I wanted to write but I was not yet writing. But I was filling out ‘about me’ sections. I was a character in some imaginary film. I was the protagonist of my own life. A muse, I thought, to my future self. Sure that I would remember it all. Sure I would write about it someday.
Around the same time Gala was just starting to write, to blog. And she was taking off. In her ‘about me’ section she wrote that she was an international playgirl and thus; instantly became one. She was figuring ways to fuse Persona with her work. She garnered success and fandom from the girls and queer boys who understand creating a self. Who know that it is worthy; a way to be creative.
“I want a persona,” I thought to myself.
I’m often conscious of the image I project online; not to the extent that I bother doing anything to change it, but at least to the point that I’m aware that it’s not the most positive image I could be projecting.
I know that if I wanted to, I could present my life as utterly aspirational: tri-continental career, book deal, international travel, etc etc. And sometimes I do write about the good things that happen in my life. But on the screen, it never seems as rich or enticing as the complicated, ambiguous bits. What can I tell you about my whirlwind trip to Berlin? We saw some things; they were pretty. I both love and find it ridiculous that I live in a country that allows me to travel to another country for a day. Also, a German public transport officer was mean to us.
By comparison, the emotional and intellectual sides of my life, ever imperfect, feel rich for the plumbing.
I didn’t always feel this way. I remember chatting with a friend over MSN shortly before my twentieth birthday, telling him of my plans to reinvent myself. I would turn myself into the ultimate creative project, I told him, “improving” my appearance and personality until (and I don’t think I ever said this bit out loud, but it was certainly my intent) I was “so good that no one would ever know I was bad.”
The models for my reinvention were the bubbly blonde heroines of 1990s and 2000s popular culture. Cher from Clueless. Buffy, when I was feeling dark (which I often way). Tracy Flick – not because any sane-minded person would actually want to be her, but because she typified the steely resolve that was required to reach this point of “perfection.” Britney’s “Lucky” came up a lot.
She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cry cry cries in her lonely heart.
(This may sound like a miserable persona to take on, but I believe the point was that it was permissible to be miserable on the inside if you appeared flawless on the outside.)
Even then, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had the hair, the heels, the penchant for pink – one time, in the early days of Google, I stumbled across someone who described me as one of the “pretty, pink prom queens of the world,” and took it as a compliment - but the insecurities would always find their way through.
A few years later and less insecure, I recall sitting across from a friend at lunch, telling him I didn’t think he was half as a nerdy and awkward as he pretended he was. “That’s just your schtick,” I announced.
“What’s schtick?” he asked.
“Schtick is like the automatic persona you put on to the world to avoid having to engage with it in a real and vulnerable way,” I said. “It’s part of you, but it’s not the whole you.”
“What’s your schtick?”
“My schtick is the Nicest, Most Funnest Girl Ever,” I said. And he agreed.
In other words, my “schtick” was a Magic Pixie Dream Girl.
These days, I’m not sure I have any persona left at all.
I put this down to the fact that I spend the majority of my time with someone who knows me so well that there would be no point in putting one on. But I don’t think I do it for other people either. There are still hints of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, of the warrior Buffy, and of the crumbling Lucky, but they are no longer roles I play. Only parts of a bigger whole.
Sometimes I curse myself for this; usually after I’ve had people over for dinner and a few glasses of wine. “Damnit, Rachel,” I think. “You were authentic again.” Which in the everyday rather than online sense (although is offline really the “everyday” now?) normally means being too loud, too silly, possibly too much, depending of the behaviour preferences of the company I am in.
I don’t say any of this to sound superior. Like I said, this post was prompted by the wish that I did have a persona: a larger, more magical me that I could project into the world. It sounds like it would be fun. Persona, after all, isn’t just artifice. It’s a creative act; part of the process by which we figure out who we are and eventually grow into that person.
Then again, the friend I mentioned back at the beginning of this post, the one whose biography I want to write some day? I’m pretty sure she is entirely “schtick-less.” And funnily enough, it is that almost complete lack of persona that makes her so utterly fascinating to me; that makes her not only a pleasure to be around, but that makes her such a rich “character.”
She cannot help but be anything but herself.