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Goop’s Conference Got Even Weirder, But Somehow More Professional

Psychic talks with the dead, pseudoscientists, and kooky spa treatments: Gwyneth Paltrow knows what her fans want. Is she meditating all the way to the bank?

Goop’s Conference Got Even Weirder, But Somehow More Professional
[Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Goop]

The second-ever Goop conference did not kick off, as the first one did, with a singing bowl gong or a hyped entrance by its leader Gwyneth Paltrow or even by the “God-like” sound of her mother Blythe Danner’s voice over the loudspeakers. Instead, it began with a group sound meditation of “binaural beats” and “sacred acoustics.”

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Perched on a stage in New York City’s South Street Seaport, a serene white-haired healer by the name of Karen Newell instructed 600 attendees to close their eyes and “follow their heart’s center.” The crowd was led through three vocal oms, at which point a wave of ominous orchestral music–the kind you might hear right before Dracula descends on his prey–overwhelmed the room.

“As you breathe in, silently say ‘let,'” Newell commanded. “As you breathe out, silently say ‘go. Let go.'”

The mood shifted as the melody transformed into a more beat-centric tune that sounded like the score to an undersea nature documentary–simultaneously soothing and mysterious. Dubbed “brainwave entrainment,” the repetitive rhythm allegedly shifts brainwave frequency to lull one into a healing, spiritual state.

[Photo: Rina Raphael]
This continued for roughly 10 minutes. I watched some Outdoor Voices-clad attendees surreptitiously check their phones or sneak in a sip from their turmeric matcha latte.

“How many of us actually live our lives very consciously, with love at the center?” asked Newell. “Our hearts are truly connected.”

If this type of exercise ain’t your jam, you likely would not have survived the remaining eight hours of the In Goop Health summit. At this one-day conference, affluent wellness aficionados gather to try out the latest in trendy workouts and Instagram-worthy organic food, and learn new theories on both mental and physical health.

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A guest listemd to headphones at the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. [Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Goop]
The lifestyle brand reconstructed an airy Seaport industrial loft space into something resembling a hygge Apple Store. Shaggy sheepskin rugs, clear quartz crystals, and musky candles peppered a landscape of Swedish minimalist birch wood chairs, pillow-strewn couches, and various health-tech activations like headphones that only play meditation music.

During check-in, attendants encouraged attendees to swap their footwear for suede house slippers, courtesy of Minnetonka. From there, the cozy army flocked to a dozen food stations featuring exotically healthy bites: tumeric chia pudding, banana walnut bread topped with ghee, and herbal steel-cut oatmeal. Sweet tooths got their fix in the form of a new SoulCycle x Momofuku Milk Bar cookie.

Shockingly, one of the least-visited counters belonged to the one hawking, of all things, avocado toast.

Treats in hand, Goop’s followers descended upon high-end wellness activities like magnetic acupuncture and workouts by cult fave New York Pilates. A strong portion of the crowd could be found utterly sprawled out as they received a number of spa services. Chief among them were LED light mask treatments, aromatherapy oil massages, and facials by Heydey. The longest lines were reserved for IV drips. “I’ll get this instead of coffee,” I overheard a 50-year-old laugh as a needle pierced her hip.

For much of the day, the large loft closely resembled a posh field hospital.

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Of course, this congregation of mostly well-off women (and a splattering of men) don’t need the Goop summit to help them feel relaxed or get their nails done. They come here for the combination of access–to wellness leaders and celebrities–and the chance to do what they love with a community of like-minded yoga enthusiasts. (Not to mention, a goody bag worth well over $1,000 in products and coupons.)

While general tickets ran $650, top-tier tickets cost $2,000 for the chance to mingle with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Laura Linney, and Bryce Dallas Howard at an intimate lunch and evening cocktail hour. And this was not simply a photo app; fans easily chatted with Paltrow as she held court at various tables to exchange tips and hugs. Some attendees took the opportunity to discuss their businesses with her, or offer their take on a recent goop.com article.

Who are these people willing to shell out cash for a day of interactive pampering? These are mostly white, college-educated, liberal women with a slight penchant for hippie practices. The New York summit saw an older clientele than that of the first conference in Los Angeles, which seemed to attract a more millennial base. Like their Hollywood leader, most of Goop’s fans seem to take the brand’s wackiness with a grain of salt.

Left to right: Drew Barrymore, Elaine Welteroth, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler, Gilian Flynn and Laura Linney attend the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. [Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Goop]
This is best exemplified by Paltrow during the first panel, which featured medium Laura Lynn Jackson conducting a live reading. The psychic stood alongside the Goop CEO, listing off her claims of the afterlife (good news: Paltrow’s deceased dog will supposedly be waiting for her at the pearly gates).

“I feel all this beautiful energy rushing forward [in this room],” gushed Jackson. “The way it works is I will get pulled to someone . . . and the other side really chooses who gets the reading.”

“Awesome,” deadpanned Paltrow. Her nervous laughter and shifty eyes suggested that even the conference’s New Age queen might have found this particular session a bit too over the top.

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The medium proceeded to present herself as a conduit from the great beyond with a mix of success and failure inspiring as many tears as moments of nerve-inducing cringe. “Is there a John, a Julian, or a name with a J in your family?” Jackson asked one middle-aged mom. No, the woman replied.

But for all the attendees who questioned the authenticity of psychics–and a few who even felt the session was a bit predatory–there were just as many who hungrily ate it up. When Jackson asked who in the audience had experienced connections with the dead, a majority of the room sheepishly raised their freshly manicured hands.

“Oh, I’m not the only one,” exclaimed the woman beside me. “That’s cool.”

Laura Lynne Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow attend the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. [Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Goop]

Going Emo

The second Goop conference took on a more emotional slant than its predecessor. A majority of speakers focused on topics surrounding spirituality, inner peace, and the mind-body connection. Goop chief content editor Elise Loehnen tells Fast Company that the shift stemmed from popular demand; last year’s attendees applauded a session on The Toolsessentially a guide to mental and spiritual-enhancing techniques–by psychotherapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.

“I think it’s easier to metabolize [that] information than really heavy science, particularly in a panel format,” Loehnen explains.

Saturday’s lineup and diversity of activities differed entirely from the first summit–a necessity, since 12% of the attendees were return visitors. Celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Chelsea Handler passionately shared their views and experiences on sexual harassment. Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander and journalist Leslie Keen discussed the mystery of consciousness. During a chat on nutrition, dietitians and physicians talked about chakras and how food may serve as a “power source” for spirituality.

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Left to right: Laura Linney, Gillian Flynn, Elaine Welteroth, Drew Barrymore, Chelsea Handler and Gwyneth Paltrow speak on stage at the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. [Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Goop]
There were, at some points, talks about actual science: One panelist shed light on Higgs Boson, a particle in physics referred to as “the God particle.”

There was, however, a mixed response to the content. Some people told me that all the talk about the soul was too vague and intangible to grasp, while others emotionally attested to its resonance. One New Yorker tells me, “I’ve been crying all day. I’m emotionally exhausted . . . in a good way.”

Another describes feeling a connection during a tutorial in which audience members exchanged items with each other, then meditated on them. Upon holding an 18-year-old’s necklace, the woman tells me she could almost nearly describe the girl’s gray Louisiana house. “It was powerful,” she recalls.

The conference format experienced other nips and tucks from the last time around that helped make it feel more a lot more like a real, professional conference. For example, Goop introduced a pre-conference registration system for attendees to schedule their day, thereby cutting down on lines for activities. A concierge-like help desk accommodated last-minute requests and serviced inquiring minds. “Excuse me, which way to hypnosis?” I overheard a Goop summitter ask as I passed by.

“With the first one we thought that [activations] would be sort of fun, secondary moments, but people really liked them and wanted to do them more,” says Loehnen. “So we’ve we’ve amplified that part of the experience and made it a lot easier.”

Terry Real signs books at the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. [Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Goop]
Per usual, as with many Goop-centered things, the conference was not without controversy. Critics within the medical community took aim at the inclusion of the anti-medication holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, who reportedly denies the scientifically proven connection between HIV and AIDS. In the last year, the brand has staunchly defended its choice of medical experts, going so far as launching a preemptive attack on its dissenters.

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Prior to the event, Loehnen explained that the conference would not address criticism of Brogan since she would not be sharing her perspectives on her disputed opinions. Brogan would instead speak more generally about her work with mental health.

“The panel itself will be very balanced–it’ll still be Goop-y, but we have other psychiatrists who absolutely still prescribe [medications],” says Loehnen. “All we want to do is foster conversation. There’s no specific agenda attached to her.”

Paltrow slightly touched upon her exploratory approach to her own wellness during a talk with the audience. The CEO lauded her brand for being “open-minded” and a “thought leader” within the booming health and wellness industry–with a mild acknowledgement of Goop’s woo-woo roots.

“I think we’re brave, and we’re unafraid to ask questions,” Paltrow declared. “We like to shine light on things and we do that with our insatiable sense of curiosity.”

“We love science and data and we make a lot of our decisions based [on that],” she continued, a nod to rampant criticism of her site’s many unscientifically verified clams, “but we also like the unexplained and unexplored. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. There’s not always a double-blind study.”

Gwyneth Paltrow at the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City.[Photo: lya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Goop]

The IRL Market

When Goop launched its first conference in 2017, it described the L.A. event as a “test,” with no promise of a second act. But the event proved to be a wild success that apparently earned its keep. Top-tier tickets ($2,000) for the New York conference sold out within a day, and the entire N.Y.C. summit sold out in less than a month. Nearly 20 sponsors partook in the New York event, including high-end brands such as Tumi. People came from both coasts, from cities like Oklahoma City, and even Ontario, Canada.

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Goop organizers spoke of the possibility of expanding to further markets, such as Miami or Chicago, but as it’s mostly put together by the editorial team, scaling the event business is already proving to be a challenge.

“It really becomes a bandwidth issue,” says Loehnen. “And we do not do anything in sort of a low-key way. It’s just not who we are as a brand.”

If anything, Loehnen imagines the Goop summit dipping into more micro-targeted experiences or B2B events. Such experiences would clearly be welcome to consumers, but the primary purpose might serve wellness industry professionals who want to learn the Goop approach to a number of subjects, like detoxes or auto-immune diseases.

It seems nearly every quarter Goop announces a new product launch–a permanent store, supplements, athleisurewear–and while Loehnen won’t specifically name the next Goop venture, she did give a hint. When I asked, for example, whether the foray into events makes the idea of retreats and travel trips more appealing, she conceded it’s been “a dream” of the brand.

At the same time, she says, launches are hard to predict because lifestyle is such a huge category with so many players to compete with.

“It’s hard for us to say there’s nothing we’d never do. At this point there’s nothing entirely new, but that’s not to say that we won’t be coming out with something–we just haven’t conceived of it yet,” Loehnen says, adding with a twinge of excitement, “everything’s on the table . . . so stay tuned.”

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