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So you’ve attained movie stardom. You’re a hot commodity, still young with sex appeal to spare, and the serious critics praise your acting chops. You’re at the very pinnacle of your career, having attained heights most actors only ever dream of. Where do you go from here?

You could just keep going, making movie after fabulously successful movie, attending Oscar nights in eye-popping gowns, granting interviews in which you offer vague, inspirational advice to your countless, anonymous, adoring fans, and maybe open up a sideline in a boyfriend or husband and adorable children, suitable for magazine profiles. Or you could smash up your picture-perfect life in spectacular fashion, with drugs and abusive famous men, and then, if you survive, make a roaring comeback, grinning gamely on magazine covers that say you’ve returned, look out world! Plenty of drama in that. Alternatively, you could develop a vague sense that something is missing in your fabulous life and seek out spiritual enlightenment from one of the myriad of gurus, of varying degrees of greed and malice, who are on speed-dial in so many Hollywood homes. Or you could use your power in the entertainment field to tell only the kinds of stories you believe in, producing, directing and acting in movies that qualify as high art and/or social commentary. Or you could become a professional philanthropist, on the model of someone like Audrey Hepburn or Angelina Jolie, and travel the world trying to right wrongs and feed the hungry, while running the risk of putting your foot in it and becoming a laughingstock.

But none of that appeals. You’re a modern woman of the world, with grit and determination and smarts, and so you decide to become an entrepreneur… of quack cures, a hawker of spurious health and beauty and “wellness” products to your female fans who aspire to be like you and are willing to spend all their disposable income, and some that isn’t really disposable, to do so. In other words, you decide to become a guru of sorts yourself. In other words, you choose to be a con artist. The question is why.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s story will surely go down as one of the most unusual biographies of any con artist of our time. If you examine the life stories of most swindlers, you find that they start young, child prodigies of boasting, embellishing, and making up tall tales about their own abilities out of whole cloth. They may be extremely clever, apparently able to “be anything they wanted to be,” but in most cases they seemingly have no interest in any kind of work but that of ripping people off. Paltrow is different, having enjoyed a hugely successful career as an actor first. That first career can’t be a coincidence, but what, exactly, is the connection? We could say that all successful actors are in the broadest sense liars, but most actors pretend to be other people purely for our entertainment and not to swindle and do personal and social harm. Even John Travolta doesn’t do as much damage shilling for the malevolent fraud of Scientology as Paltrow does peddling her own bogus cures; he is merely a foot soldier of L. Ron Hubbard’s long con, not the mastermind. We could also say that Paltrow’s “Goop” career could never have taken off if she wasn’t a famous celebrity first, which identifies something of about how she did it, but not why. We don’t understand why she would betray her own talent and her legions of admirers in such a monstrous way.

In any case, she is aware enough of the profile she cuts in the world to have appeared in a Saturday Night Live sketch as one of her own employees; but tellingly, the satiric target was her supposed hard-driving entrepreneurial spirit, and not the immense fraud underlying her “products.”

Here’s what I think. The reason so many celebrity actors and musicians “flame out” is that their personalities were fatally flawed to begin with, which may have been why they sought out fame and adulation and riches to begin with. But attaining these things does not fix whatever is broken inside them; instead, the pressure of being in the spotlight all the time worms into the broken places and mercilessly rips them further open, until the whole person is broken. The con artist is after money, obviously, but just as with the famous financiers and “billionaires,” after you have more than enough to live on comfortably without ever working again, why keep going? The answer must be the same: the social power that money represents is supposed to fix the broken places, to fill some gap in the soul that can never be filled.

Paltrow’s marks are another matter. One thinks of paraphrasing the classic exasperated mother’s question to her dopey offspring, “Would you jump off a bridge if all your friends told you to?” as, “Would you stick a jade egg where the sun don’t shine just because a movie star told you to?” The answer, of course, is yes, yes they would, just as mesmerized MAGAs would empty the veterinary supply stores of horse medicine because Trump was said to endorse it against COVID, or even drink bleach because he “jokingly” suggested it. They have gaps in their souls, too, and will reach imploring hands out to any mountebank who claims to be able to fill them, even if the filling is nothing but goop.


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