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Elise Loehnen: the heart of Goop

Goop began as a simple newsletter dreamed up at Gwyneth Paltrow’s kitchen counter. The first edition back in 2008 started with a couple recipes – turkey and banana bread, specifically. When she opened the first cheque from Goop’s sponsors – a whopping $45! – she whooped with joy. Today, her health and wellness site, Goop.com, is one of the most profitable and controversial online magazines.

In addition to churning out original content in the form of articles, podcast episodes, and videos, Goop also produces its own line of clothing, accessories, beauty products, and health supplements. According to the New York Times, Goop is currently worth an estimated 250 million dollars. After partnering with Condé Nast (the publisher behind Vogue, Glamour, and GQ) and publishing two print editions (sold at $17 a pop), Goop parted ways with the mass media giant, over differences in opinion as to whether the promotion of Goop products was more suited to a catalogue rather than a magazine.

Goop has quickly become an important cultural touchstone among a generation of consumers who prize style and wellbeing in equal measure. It has also drawn its fair share of criticism. The site shop features an $80 quartz bottle, said to “infuse water with positive energy”, as well as a “Kid Calming” crystal-infused aromatherapy mist to “chill out the kids.” Not to mention the site’s controversial coverage of coffee-based colon cleansing and the infamous V-Steam, which purports to purify the uterus using plant-derived steam and infrared heat. Indeed, Goop has previously drawn the ire of health professionals, consumers’ rights groups, and even NASA.

Yet there is something to be said for Goop’s commitment to fostering an open-minded perspective on matters pertaining to health and wellbeing. Moreover, the attention generated from various controversies has served Goop well – according to Fortune Magazine, the company has tripled its revenue over the past two years and is anticipating even greater success in 2018.

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I was invited to attend a dinner announcing the first Canadian edition of the In Goop Health summit which will be held October 27 in Vancouver. Hours before Gwyneth’s appearance, I met with Elise Loehnen, Goop’s Chief Content Officer, at Hotel William Grey in Old Montreal.

I have to ask – are you often asked whether you’re the healthiest person alive, working for GOOP and drinking all that special water and having access to all those wellness products?

[Laughs.] I certainly have access to a lot of people who can help me become healthier. I’m not perfect, and I think that’s an interesting misconception about Goop, that we’re like “Everyone needs to be perfect.” That isn’t the goal. The goal is sort of like, “Make good choices when you can.” We’re sort of known for these cleanses and putting out our annual detox, and when people actually try it, they’re like “Oh, this is very easy, very nourishing, not at all about deprivation.” It’s really just about creating a clean slate.

And if you were perfect, you wouldn’t have a quest –

Exactly! [Laughs.]

And you need a quest in order to have aspirations, and to give other people aspirations!

Yea! And I think that’s why Goop exists. Modern life is exhausting, it’s stressful, it’s full of wonderful indulgences. Particularly in the United States, our food isn’t that clean, and I think we’re all coming to understand the implications of that. So we’re really an antidote to that – let’s clean up where we can; let’s use personal care products and makeup that doesn’t have a ton of phthalates and parabens; let’s try to understand where our food comes from; let’s try to eat whole foods… We’re all, I think, suffering a little bit, under the duress of modern life, and we’re trying to provide some solutions.

How did you first meet Gwyneth?

Gwyneth is also involved in this business called Tracy Anderson – she’s this incredible trainer in the US. I was working with Tracy on a book, because I used to be a magazine editor, and so I was working on books on the side. So I started working with Tracy and, Gwyneth being Gwyneth, was also really involved in that business. And that’s a major misconception about Gwyneth – this idea that she must some sort of hands-off, at-the-spa person. But no! I was writing all the copy for the LA studio, I was on the phone with her talking about all the details of the classes… I think she even named all of those classes herself. So that’s how I met her, and then when she moved from London to Los Angeles, I went over to meet her and talk to her about how she could scale Goop. It was a very informal, feeling-each-other-out job interview. We sat on the floor of her living room in LA and chatted.

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When you first joined the team, in what direction were you hoping to take Goop?

Well, at the time when I met her, Goop was only a weekly newsletter. It had a site, but it wasn’t an archive, or a normal website where you could read everything. But it had this incredible engagement and a really big group of people who were following it, and it just seemed like she could do anything with it. And she really wanted to. She was at a point where she wanted to put herself in it fully. So we decided to just do it. It was sort of this “do or die” moment, deciding “is this a real thing, or is this just a hobby?” And she really felt like this was a real thing, and she wanted to do it.

How many people were involved at the time?

There was a small team in London, and when she moved, those people were unable or unwilling to relocate to LA. So we started over, there were just a few of us. We were working in the barn outside her house, so it was a really family business. [Laughs.] And I think there were 4 of us when we opened the first pop-up in the Brentwood Country Mart in Los Angeles. We did it for just a week, and I worked the cash, and we all worked the store.

How did your life evolve since Goop? You’re now also a public figure, you know, because – [Laughs.] – No, but you are! You’re doing this interview, you’re touring with Gwyneth, you’re making the majority of the Goop podcast episodes and conducting those interviews –

Mhm.

So, how has that changed your life?

That’s so funny… It’s interesting, I was just thinking about this because I recently got trolled for the very first time on Instagram. I’m a pretty private person, so I feel like I only “came out of the closet” over the last 4 months, primarily because of the podcast. I like operating behind the scenes, that’s how I’ve always been. And now she’s sort of shoving me out there –

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Or you know, she’s like “If I’m going to stand out here, you’re going to stand with me too.” And I think that I, and a lot of the people involved, are coming out to stand with her.

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Yes, but we’re focusing on you… [Laughs.]

Oh [laughs] See, I’m avoiding the question! Um, you know, Los Angeles is where Goop is based, and sometimes people recognize me there, particularly when I’m in the store. And it’s strange! I mean, you know what it’s like, it’s strange! That’s why on Instagram I try to keep it as real and honest as possible, because I don’t want to disappoint people when they see me in real life. I mean, I keep it pretty casual, I’m a normal person, I don’t want people to wonder, when they see me, “Why is she wearing Birkenstocks?”

You’re a private person, but you also say things on the podcast that can be pretty surprising –

[Bursts into laughter.]

I mean I won’t repeat anything verbatim, but you’ve spoken about your husband’s farts – [Laughs]

[Laughs.] I know!

And you mentioned something else on the podcast that intrigued me so much. You said that when you were a kid, you were so scared of making mistakes –

Yea.

And that you still are. That must be problematic when you work in such high-profile media, like Goop. What’s been your biggest mistake, and your most amazing coup?

That is an amazing question, and something that I’ve been working on. So you’re talking about the Peter Crone podcast, where we talked about having an inner child of judgment and being terrified of doing things wrong. I think that if we have one sole purpose and we end up where we’re supposed to be in life, then I needed to be in this job. We get a lot of attention, some of it negative, and there’s an expectation that we’re perfect and not allowed to mess up… Grappling with that has been a really important lesson for me – how to not hold the criticisms people sometimes throw at us, and understanding that it’s sometimes their projections, and learning how to energetically let it go.

How do you do that?

I literally try to nurture the little girl inside of me who is freaking out. I try to be really good and clear: “What is my part in this? What do I own, and what is someone else’s pain that I can’t do anything about?” When we started, I felt like, “We can defend ourselves, I’m going to try to fix this.” And now I’m like, “No, this has nothing to do with us, in a weird way.” So just understanding my own power, and what I can’t change, has been one of the biggest learning opportunities for me. It’s been essential, otherwise we would all crack. It’s been so hard. But I hope we’re a really good model for other women who feel criticized in their daily lives. How do you continue to show up, stay in the ring, or “stay in the arena,” to quote Brené Brown. How do you continue to be fearless, and know what’s yours and what’s not.

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I guess your greatest coup was to begin selling vitamins on Goop. I read that on the first day you sold vitamins on Goop, you sold for 100,000. Is that right?

Yep!

I guess you knew that health and wellness would be the “next big thing” but did you realize to what extent?

I think we understood from looking at the data that people were looking to us for those sorts of answers. One of the really popular stories that we had done was about trying to navigate the vitamin aisle, because it’s confusing, people don’t understand what they should be taking, or they’re worried that what they’re taking isn’t what it’s supposed to be. For example, concern over these heavy metals being found in fish oils. So we decided to do that work for them, and ensure that we’re giving them pure ingredients, exactly what the packaging says it is, and all packaged together, for convenience.

That’s a big responsibility.

Yes, it’s a huge responsibility, one that we’re taking really seriously. We’ve actually assembled a team of scientists and researchers who are looking at all the ingestible products we sell – exactly what’s in them, where does the ingredient come from, how we test them.

How do you draw the line, and how do you choose those products you’re going to promote or produce yourselves on Goop?

We’re really doubling down on that, particularly because we get so much attention and people are looking at us, and there’s an expectation for excellence and impeccability when it comes to Goop. The vitamin industry, particularly in the United States, is regulated but unenforced. So we’re trying to create our own structure for regulating whatever it is that we choose to sell.

And there’s Health Canada here, so I guess you won’t be able to sell exactly the same products on the online boutique here, since the rules are pretty different.

Yes, we have a whole compliance team, and we’ve been reformulating and repackaging for Canada specifically. So yea, it’s amazing that we’re here, because just 4 years ago we were wondering if we should get our site off Drupal, and now we’re here discussing the specifics of products for the Canadian market. It’s exciting!

And it is the first country that you’ll be selling to outside of the US!

Exactly.

How has criticism changed your way of working and your practices at Goop. Has it changed anything?

It hasn’t changed that much. We are just getting extremely clear about the intention behind every story that we do. We’ve started labeling content – at the top of each page you’ll see “Rigorously proven by scientists” or “Speculative, but interesting” or “Ancient modality” and so on.

How do you see that on the site?

It’s at the very top of our all our wellness stories now. We’ve gone through all of the catalogued labels. What’s interesting is that our readers understand us. We’ve rarely, if ever, received an email from a reader asking “What is this weird thing that you guys are doing?! This is potentially harmful.” I don’t think we’ve ever received such an e-mail. It’s primarily the perception –

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You’ve read other people’s articles on it, but your own clients haven’t written about it.

Yea, because they get it! I think that one of things that drives me a little crazy about some of the criticism is that it feels misogynistic. It has this air of like, “Oh, we’re protecting women” which is, to me, very paternalistic. I think our content is very clear, I think women are very smart, I don’t think they’re lemmings, I think they’re able to read something and decide it resonates with them or decide that it’s a question they want to ask their doctor. We’re not being overly prescriptive, we’re primarily talking about things that are more subtle – pertaining to the autoimmune system, or health issues that are chronic… Things that are often overlooked by doctors.

It’s just that some things are so interesting and have been here forever – like say, Chinese medicine –

Mhm!

But you can’t prove everything from Chinese medicine, because the texts and methods are so ancient.

Yea!

So you can get stuck, because sometimes you want to promote something, but you don’t have the means to properly back it up.

Right, and particularly in the United States – I think that Canada is a little bit ahead of us – if it’s not Big Pharma, if it’s not super Western, if there’s not a lot of money attached to it or it hasn’t been studied in a massive clinical trial… A lot of these things are totally valid, but exist on the edges of what people like to talk about.

Right. So how should we read Goop? Should we take everything lightly, or…?

I don’t think it should be taken lightly. We obviously do fashion and things that are lighter and more fun. But what we try to do with the wellness content – I personally read it for ideas, particularly when I’m talking to my physician. We try to do straight Q&A’s with doctors where we ask them the questions that we ourselves would ask them if we were patients in their practice. And in part, it’s so that people can go to their own practitioner and say “I read about this, and it feels like me.” It’s really to give women autonomy, and to give them the confidence to go in and advocate for themselves.

Having worked in the fashion industry myself, I’ve really noticed a shift from an emphasis on beauty to health. It’s the new “Mount Everest.”

Yep.

We now know – and thank God that we know – that beauty is all about self-appropriation. Everything is so open now – beauty is for all sizes, colors, genders. But “wellness” has sort of become the new unattainable summit that some people strive for. How should they handle that? Have you noticed that change?

For sure. I think people are starting to realize that consuming vast amounts of physical products isn’t necessarily sustainable, and I think people are feeling like they want fewer but nicer things. I think people want to invest in themselves, and in experiences, and they want to feel good. It’s not that fun to have an amazing closet when you don’t feel good, and I think we’ve hit that crisis point. I think that’s where people are now focusing their intentions. They’re realizing “I can just change a little bit about how I eat, or drink more water, and I can feel demonstrably better.” People realize they don’t need another dress, but they want to have a great weekend where they don’t feel exhausted. I think that’s where people are focusing.

How has it changed your life?

I feel like I acutely need Goop myself, because I have two little boys and a more-than-fulltime job. And like everyone, I am in it too. I have incredible access to doctors and the ability to get my labs done and understand my microbiome, which has been amazing. But I think I’m also right in the thick of it with a lot of women. I get it – it sometimes feels insurmountable, the fatigue, the anxiety. I think a lot of where I’ve changed has been on a psychic, spiritual, psychological level – just understanding what my purpose is, understanding my behaviours, and working through understanding what is a behavioural pattern and what is truly “me”. So I think I’ve changed hugely – or “bigly”, to quote our President! – in those areas.

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You’ve done some incredible work in collaboration with influential women such as Ellen DeGeneres, Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso, Lea Michelle, Emily Schuman, and Lauren Conrad. How do you put yourself in other people’s shoes so easily? What’s your trick?

[Laughs.] This is the goofiest answer ever – I think I can channel. I don’t think I’m psychic, by any means, but I feel like I can empty my mind – and not become other people, but understand them. I think we all have that ability as women. We’re empathic, we can understand ourselves and others. We can do that!

And you start writing differently, when you’re writing for someone else.

Yea! It freaks my husband out, but if I’m working on a book on the weekend, and I’m on my one particular corner on the couch, I can literally write and talk to him at the same time. I almost write unconsciously. I don’t know what that is –

That’s wild!

It’s weird! You should ask him, he thinks it’s really weird!

Wow!

Yea! [Laughs.]

So do you have any advice for bloggers or influencers who want to connect with people like you do?

Tell your truth. You know, I see it all the time with influencers and bloggers in Los Angeles – they’re not projecting something or trying to be something that they’re not. They’re on their own quest and they’re sharing. I think that is incredibly human, incredibly resonant. I think we’re starting to see a lot more of that – looking beyond the edges of Instagram, to what’s happening behind the scenes. I think we all want to connect, on a human level.

Like Oprah said to Gwyneth, “Don’t compare yourself.”

Exactly! Don’t compare yourself. People are starting to really see or sense that.

Do you think there is a future out there for websites without e-commerce, if they only sell advertisement in the regular, old-fashioned way? Or do you have to sell products from your brand, like T-shirts and facial creams and so on…

That’s a really interesting and hard question. I think that, you know, we’re sort of at a weird inflection point where we have some people who have built a huge following with substantial engagement, and then other people (“micro-influencers”) who have much less followers but are incredibly influential in their small friend group because their opinion is trusted. I think the middle will fall out – people with maybe a lot of followers but not much engagement or connection with their following. People with a lot of scale and influence, like you, and then those smaller micro-influencers – I think that’s where the media will exist. Those people in the middle, who aren’t really making a dent in their readers’ lives or for the brands that support them – I think that will be harder to sustain.

Can you tell me a little bit about your partnership with Conde Nast?

Yes! It was a great partnership, an amazing way to launch, particularly because their team is so good. A lot of the things that we’ve done together have been great lessons in how to operate in this new economy and new media world. You learn not to be intimidated, and that you can do these things yourself. If you want to, you can make your own magazine, or your own podcast, for example. Obviously, it feels intimidating, but I think women are too quick to be like “I don’t know how to do this, therefore I can’t.” But what we’ve learned repeatedly through the magazine is to not be shy, to be a learner, to ask questions, and you will figure it out yourself.

One last question. It’s noteworthy that Goop has never shied away from talking about sex. Back in the day, Martha Stewart or Oprah would not have gone there, but Goop is so open about it. When did it become clear that this generation wanted to have an open conversation about sexuality?

I think that a lot of that comes from Gwyneth. We obviously were talking about sex before the #MeToo movement, and it came from this questioning of why we’re so embarrassed and skittish and prude-ish about these conversations. By putting things in the newsletter about orgasms or intimacy, some softer or harder topics – I mean we sell a lot of sex toys –

What kinds of sex toys?

Like vibrators, beads, things that I might look at and wonder “What is that and how does it work?” [Laughs.] But people are getting comfortable – we’re giving women permission, in a nice and not sleazy way, to own their sexuality and remove shame from the topic.

Have you tried them all?

I’ve tried every single one, girl. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

Someone recently got my home address and sent me a bunch of sex toys, to consider for Goop. My children’s nanny, Vicky, opened it and didn’t know what it was. And my son, who was 5 years old at the time, co-opted the biggest sex toy in the box. He calls it his “massager” and takes it everywhere with him, it’s probably in the back seat of my car. [Laughs.}

[Laughs.]

He loves this massive… I mean, ya know, I just gotta let him do his thing. [Laughs.]

Absolutely! Well thank you, we hope you enjoy your time in Montreal. Oh, by the way – of all the places in Canada, what drove you to pick Montreal?

Gwyneth loves Montreal, and I don’t blame her. Culturally, you guys have so many interesting things happening. And obviously, she’s really drawn to the food. She really, really, really wanted to come to Montreal. Later we’re going to Vancouver to do a smaller, more affordable Goop Health Summit, and we’ll go to Toronto as well. But we wanted to start in Montreal.

That’s wonderful! Well, we’re very proud. I’ll see you later tonight!

It’s easy to have many different and conflicting opinions on the nature of Goop’s mission and enterprise. As with most sources of inspiration, it’s probably best to adopt a “Take what you like, leave what you don’t” mentality when perusing the online magazine. One thing is certain – Elise’s refreshing sincerity and forthrightness reflect well on the brand that she has nurtured so well. Gwyneth Paltrow may be the founding powerhouse, but Elise is arguably the “vitamin boost” that’s driving Goop to the summit of the new health and wellness economy.
Photo credits: Karine Paradis

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Elise Loehnen: the heart of Goop