It’s 9.29am and someone is filming the circle as we begin our shamanic shaking session. I know this because I am peeking through my eyelids, which are supposed to be closed, and I’m wondering just how damaging this footage might be, should I decide to run for public office one day. I am on the Goop cruise, nine days of luxury wellness on the top-of-the-line, 140,600-ton Celebrity Beyond, sailing along the South of France and the Italian Riviera. Gwyneth Paltrow is Celebrity Cruises’ well-being adviser, and the itinerary has been put together by the team that brought you jade yoni eggs and adventures in alternative (read, woo-woo) practices such as bee-sting therapy and vaginal steaming.
Goop is worth $250 million, and at the helm is Paltrow, who will be joining us on day six – a first, and the reason most of my fellow guests are here. They have pressing questions, or business cards ready to press into her hand should they get the chance. (I’m even given two: one for ketamine-assisted therapy and another for a psychedelic retreat.)
Goop isn’t a religion of the conventional kind. But many of my fellow guests are hoping for a religious experience. A sign, not from God, but from Gwyneth.
We goopies number around 40; the full passenger list for the cruise reads 2,112 when I check in. At 34, I’m one of the youngest in the room. The majority are around Paltrow’s age – 50 – and equally taut and tanned. About 90 percent are female; 80 percent are American, the rest Australian, Irish and British. There are a few mother-daughter pairs. The Goop at Sea experience is $750 a guest on top of the usual cruise prices, which cost at least that again. There are care packages of Goop products on our beds at the beginning and end of the week, plus a Goop baseball cap.
We start our first full day on board with a workout class run by Broadway dancer turned celebrity trainer and choreographer Isaac “Boots” Calpito (334,000 Instagram followers). His client Lisa Rinna, the actress and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star, will appear on the cruise midway through, wearing a black Prada bucket hat and hanging out – and, one assumes, working out – with Boots. But for now he stands in front of me in Lycra shorts and platform boots, his husband demonstrating the moves at the front while Boots walks among us, holding our legs in the air, slapping the occasional bottom. He stops in front of me to dance, my eyes inescapably at groin level while I hold an upward dog pose.
Boots’ own dog, a support poodle called David D Boots, trots among us. One goopie is envious – if he’d known it was allowed, he would have brought his own support Doberman.
The Goop at Sea experience is $750 a guest on top of the usual cruise prices.
I wonder if this is uncharted territory for Celebrity Cruises until I meet a holidaying Celebrity Cruises employee, who tells me that while the man I hear over the PA system each morning is Captain Dimitris, the Beyond is usually under the leadership of Captain Kate (388,000 Instagram followers), who can often be seen pushing her hairless Elf Sphynx cat, Bug Naked (61,400 followers), around the ship in a buggy.
The twentysomething holidaying employee tells me this in the salt room of the spa’s thermal suite; we share reviews of the crystalarium and infrared sauna. Rainfall water therapy involves being misted and pelted by turns with hot and cold water. Later, I will head along the corridor to one of the private treatment rooms, where Sunshine will massage the lactic acid buildup from my shoulders and then Paula will encase me, caterpillar-like, in the MLX i3 Dome, which bathes my body in infrared light until I am drenched in sweat, while a helmet bathes my face in a series of colored lights that boost collagen production or kill bacteria.
If any ship is equipped to handle Californian wellness and its Zen but exacting acolytes, it’s the Celebrity Beyond. Costing around $1 billion to build and only sailing since April, there is no sign here of the toll that Covid took on the cruise industry, of the $250-$290 million that Celebrity Cruises’ parent company, the Royal Caribbean Group, estimated it burned through each month after cruises were suspended, or the following months when cruise ships operated at a loss with low capacities to meet distancing protocols.
Touring the ship, we’re told that bookings happened from the top-down: the most expensive rooms sold first. Many of the goopies are staying close to the spa in the Retreat, two-story villas designed by Kelly Hoppen, with their own plunge pools and personal butlers. (As my stateroom attendant, Preetam, never seems to be more than three feet from my door – handy when I lock myself out – I wonder quite what I’d ask a butler to do that he couldn’t, but I’m sure Goop’s 1-percenters had no such problems.)
Surprisingly, there’s no Goop menu for the trip, bar a special detox juice (green, obviously, with extra spirulina) and a cookery demonstration which involves spirulina popcorn, miso ginger chicken and adding a little bit of carrot juice to your margarita. By night, though, we are free to hop between the many different restaurants on board (evening dress code: “smart casual” on all nights but one, which calls for “chic”), drinking biodynamic wines at Blu or eating coquilles Saint-Jacques at Normandie. The goopiest of the lot is Raw on 5, where I eat fresh sashimi, sushi rolls and a citrusy lobster salad – though I also try the pizza bar, open until 1am. Twice.
By day five, we hit choppy waters. I eat hash browns (out of sight of the Goop team) to quell the motion sickness after a long night in which I dream – in the few minutes that I sleep – that I’m falling out of the window into the sea. The weather stops us from docking for the planned seven-hour Goop at Sea shore excursion. Instead, we spend the day at sea, and “to roll with Mercury in retrograde”, as Goop Kiki puts it in the voice mail left on the phone in my room, we meet Dr Jennifer Freed – who has a new book out, A Map to Your Soul – for a 45-minute group tarot reading. A group tarot reading goes exactly how you might imagine, with everyone wanting to hear more about themselves and wishing that one man would stop hinting at how many liaisons he’d had thus far on the ship.
We each draw one card from the pack offered. Rather than reading them for us, Freed asks us to give our own interpretations, to share with the group. Perhaps it’s telling me to follow my intuition; that I need to end a toxic relationship; that I should take that leap and start my own business? “That’s exactly right!” says Freed. Some cry while the rest of the room beams at them – everyone is on the same page here. And with that, we’ve run out of time. But with six and a quarter unexpected hours still to fill, I go to the casino, order a margarita, and win $60 at the roulette table.
I am not so much a non-believer as a skeptic: of astrology, shamanic shaking and cruises in general. But if anyone can convince me, surely it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. She turns 50 – celebrating in Umbria with friends and family – while we are cruising nearby, sharing a gold-painted naked selfie that says to me, whatever she is doing, I should be doing. Last year I even signed up to an at-home exercise class subscription with Tracy Anderson because she’s Paltrow’s longtime trainer (though I quickly ran out of steam).
“I’m extra sexy today,” Paltrow says of her hoarse voice when she arrives in a lounge area called Eden clutching a 750ml glass Evian bottle filled with green juice. She’s wearing a mid-gray trouser suit in a soft tracksuit-y fabric, with gray socks, white high-top trainers, a white T-shirt and layered gold necklaces and bracelets. Her hair is half-tucked into her jacket and if not makeup-free, she’s certainly makeup-lite.
“How has this been? Has it been an amazing experience? I’m so happy. I really hope that you’ve been enjoying the time here. Obviously we’ve never done anything like this before.”
She glances at a woman in the front row. “My best friend since I was 11 is here, and she’s crying.”
“Because you all are just everything that gives her work meaning,” says her friend.
Some cry while the rest of the room beams at them – everyone is on the same page here.
“She’s known me since before I got my period,” says Paltrow, and brings the house down – there is a degree of hysteria in the room that she’s here among us. She was supposed to board in Livorno, the port we couldn’t enter due to bad weather, so I’d wondered whether she really would.
Paltrow is hosting a session with Dr Ellen Vora, who had introduced me to shamanic shaking earlier in the week. Vora also has a book out, The Anatomy of Anxiety, looking at what addressable physical elements (“false anxiety”) might be exacerbating problems with our mental health (“true anxiety”). “Are we nourished? Are we inflamed? How’s our gut doing? Are we getting good sleep? Are we overcaffeinated? Are we hungover?”
Paltrow cuts in. “Are you looking at me? It was my 50th birthday, OK? Cut me some slack.”
Vora is the interviewee, but the audience is really here for Paltrow, exploding into laughter as she jokes about taking a Xanax on the flight, pin-drop quiet and nodding when she talks about daughter Apple’s anxiety.
“I said – I’d just heard this on a podcast – do you feel like you’ve had trauma in your life? And she’s like, yes, I have, being the kid of famous people, and people being mean to me at school and leaving me out. And it was the first time we had ever had a conversation around trauma, because I felt like, ‘Well, her life is so trauma-free.’ Stupidly, right?”
There is only time for a few questions – the first one asked by Freed. And then Gwyneth is gone, dashing back up the stairs behind the specially built stage with a wave, 51 minutes after she arrived.
The next afternoon, after six days of listening to everyone else’s Big Pressing Questions, I have come up with a few of my own: am I really as well adjusted as I think I am, or am I a sociopath? Am I emotionally repressed, or am I just British? Everyone in the group seems to have a long list of issues that need addressing, and the Q&A after Vora’s group session feels a little like eavesdropping in the doctor’s waiting room, with people seeking solutions for their insomnia and tinnitus (“I have that too!” one woman shouts at another, as if we’re playing medical bingo).
There is a degree of hysteria in the room that she’s here among us.
One question turns into a discussion of the side effects of the Covid vaccine, during which I am unable to make eye contact with anyone. Vora highly recommends that we all try a Squatty Potty, a stool that lets you adopt a squat on the toilet – as the brand calls it, your “natural pooping posture”. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Goop sells them in solid gold, as they once did vibrators.
In a one-on-one with Freed, she looks at my birth chart. I can blame my unrealistic expectations in relationships on Venus in Pisces and thank Jupiter in Aries for my self-confidence. That conversation, of all of the workshops I’ve had here, is the most exciting. Yes, she’s talking about astrology, but she’s also a particularly good psychologist, and I’d say she’s reading me as much as she is my stars. We talk about trying to reframe how I see romantic relationships. Apparently, my “receiving threshold has been diminished”, and so I leave with homework to fix that which, surprisingly for me, I have every intention of actually doing.
On our penultimate night, we meet for a “closing ceremony” in the open-air Sunset Bar on the top deck. A few dissenters and I peel off to the bar and return with something strong, though there are lemonades and appletinis (perhaps chosen as a nod to Gwyneth’s daughter, Apple, or perhaps for their Instagramability) on offer. After Goop Kiki has said a few words – most of them “really special”, “so special” and “so, so special” – Vora gives us a pep talk.
“Things did not go exactly according to plan this trip. An act of God came along, Mary Poppins-style. The winds changed and it swept us off our course. But I suspect that it’s in those moments, when we get swept off our path, that’s when the real journey begins.”
Whether or not these words also proved true when she and a group of seven goopies – who spend the last afternoon sailing around Capri – were an hour late returning to the ship, I was unable to ask her. They never made it back to the Celebrity Beyond to pack or eat their last pillow chocolates. Their luggage was organized for them to collect once they caught up with us at the next port, since it was checkout day by then.
But back in the Sunset Bar, Vora asks us to form one last circle, to pick a stranger in the group, and then “radiate loving kindness in the direction of that person”. “I sent you my loving kindness!” one woman bounds across the circle to tell another. No one seems to have sent me theirs – probably for the best, knowing what I now do about my receiving threshold. I seek alternative means to fill my metaphorical cup, and head to my favorite and most visited spot in the ship: the martini bar.
Plush and twinkly at the bottom of a three-story atrium, the bartenders perform a hypnotic juggling act on the half-hour. There is a silent disco going on, and for 20 minutes I watch from the mezzanine as cruisers in khakis, Hawaiian shirts, cocktail dresses and even a pair of Loewe’s $1,600 broken-egg high heels dance and sing along to the different songs coming through their headphones, all happily out of step and out of tune.
It’s a little like shamanic shaking, really, but with free drinks and better music. Either way, they look more liberated than I have managed after a week’s worth of the Goop life.
Charlie Gowans-Eglinton is a U.K.-based freelance journalist and a former fashion editor at The Times of London. She is also the co-founder of the Wingwoman podcast and newsletter