It’s not easy being an actress of a certain age. And that age may not be the one you think of when you hear that phrase.
It’s not easy being an actress in Hollywood, period. In 2016, the entertainment industry reached a high-water mark in female lead characters appearing on movie screens: 29 percent. The trade press celebrated this as progress. But while women represent half the world’s population, as far as Hollywood is concerned, they are less than one out of three.
Say what you will of actors, they are observant. Even the most optimistic ingénue knows that men in the entertainment industry have it easier than women. If you want to be on camera, not being male is going to cost you. Quite literally. A 2014 “Study of Hollywood Movie Stars” published by the Journal of Management Inquiry and reported by Variety showed that actresses’ salaries rise steadily until age 34, then rapidly plummet.
Keep that age in mind.
The lowest rate a Screen Actors Guild actor can be paid for a week’s work is $3,239, and while that sounds like good money, it could be one of three weeks’ work she gets this year. And if the project is non-union, the actor can be paid as little as $50 a day, or be paid for a single day’s work on a national commercial and never see another dime. There’s more work than ever, but there’s less money to go around. The exception, of course, is for the very top stars, most of whom are men. There are female stars who also command top dollar, but the women have a shorter window of opportunity to leap onto that top rung — a decade or more shorter.
So if you’re an actress and you’re desperately trying to gather your career rosebuds while you may (See: ages 17-33), or if you’re an A-lister who has already figured out she’s not getting one of the three movies she’s exactly right for this year, what do you do?
You become a brand.
The theory of the celebrity brand is simple. People like looking at other people who are recognizably successful and famous. It’s not just humans who fall for this. Julie Klam, in her recent book on celebrity, “The Stars In Our Eyes,” noted a Duke University study in which monkeys were given a salty snack, then offered the option of either drinking their favorite juice or looking at images of what can best be described as celebrity monkeys. The test subjects disproportionately chose their version of simian People magazine over slaking their thirst. (Disclosure: I was interviewed by Klam for her book. I do not believe anyone gave up essential liquids to read what I had to say.)
When it comes to fame, the only thing monkeys haven’t figured out yet is how to leverage that willingness to give up the juice. In 2017, the celebrity brand is where the money comes from. The brand is not only the face, figure and talent of an actor, it’s the projects the actor chooses, it’s whatever charities they align themselves with, it’s who they date, who they marry, when they divorce. In short, it’s how that actor makes the observer feel.
The brand is ineffable. The brand is powerful. The brand is what you bring to the meeting for whatever new product, new business or new website the suits may be cooking up. You see a cute pair of shoes in the store, flip them over. The label may say “Shoes By Jessica Simpson” or “Shoes By Gary Busey” –– it shouldn’t matter. That it does is the power of the brand, and when it comes to measuring the strength of any brand, whether it’s a company or a person, there are only two questions: “Who are you and why should I give you my money?”
If your acting career is measured in decades, you can build a reputation on your work. If your career is measured in seasons, you’ll be smart to develop personal attributes that produce a general feeling of excitement and goodwill in your fans — attributes that can be repurposed as needed.
That’s your brand. And when acting jobs dry up, it can be your new meal ticket.
To be a celebrity and have a product line or its predictable offshoot — the lifestyle website — you only need a convincing awareness of something trendy you want to sell, or at least talk about. Luckily, you’ll find a wide range of options. It could be travel, cooking, baking, makeup, clothing or whatever science-free belief you can cram under the umbrella of “wellness” or “clean living.”
Whatever interest you have, it will be anodyne, it will be typically feminine and the wardrobe will be flattering and doll-sized. If you are a yoga enthusiast, you will be photographed in tiny clothing looking enlightened. If you are a travel buff, you will be photographed in a tiny bathing suit in Croatia. And if you bake? Well, put an apron over that tiny clothing and lean wholesomely yet seductively over your gluten-free flan. So many very slender women loudly enthuse about eating — and the Food Network always seems to be hiring. If there is an actress with a lifestyle website celebrating her passion for installing drywall or inseminating cattle, I have yet to find her.
The patron saint of self-commoditizing, of course, is Gwyneth Paltrow and her paean to privilege, GOOP, the ur-celebrand website for the upwardly facile. If you just thought, “What the hell is GOOP?” I commend you. This means you spend your spare time virtuously, maybe translating Flaubert into Tagalog or cobbling your own shoes. Those of us shin deep in the drainage ditch of pop culture know that GOOP is Gwyneth Paltrow’s side project — a lifestyle brand comprising an agitated mélange of beauty suggestions for cover models, $400 kaftans, health tips with the medical soundness of wished-upon birthday candles, and an infamous, allegedly magical jade egg that fits into one’s vagina and promises, um, restorative powers.
Paltrow began GOOP in 2008 with just an Oscar and a dream, as her fancy yet serene website explains:
WHY DID YOU START GOOP?
I started GOOP to answer my own questions about health, wellness, fashion, food and travel. I was looking for a trusted source to point me in the right direction and I couldn’t find one, so I created it.
Did you catch that? Gwyneth longed for direction from a trusted source and then realized: Duh! It’s me! I had the ruby slippers the whole time, and they’re a jade egg to jam in your vagina!
But as dopey and teeth-gnashingly Marie-Antoinette-pretending-to-be-a-shepherdess-behind-Versailles as GOOP aimed to be, by the time Paltrow briefly stepped down from active involvement in 2013, GOOP had raised $23 million from Silicon Valley, a place not unfamiliar with throwing tons of money at something no one can quite figure out the point of. Paltrow recently rejoined the company as CEO, but she never really left: If you click on the website’s descriptions of GOOP’s line of skincare or vitamins or makeup, there is Paltrow, glowing like a moonfish and reminding you that you probably could use a colonic.
More to the point, if you Google “GOOP Gwyneth Paltrow,” be prepared to spend the rest of the week clicking and scrolling. It has been more than a decade since Paltrow had a leading role in a hit movie — sure, “Iron Man” and its spawn pulled in a few billion bucks, but Pepper Potts is not exactly a leading role — but during this time GOOP has functioned as a sort of a splint, holding her star power in a semi-erect state until, fingers crossed, it gets strong enough to prance again unassisted.
Remember that magic age range when female stars start losing their industry appeal? When she started GOOP in 2008, Paltrow was 36.
Not long after Paltrow became her own mascot, actor Jessica Alba started The Honest Company, an enterprise dedicated to healthy, non-toxic products for babies and children. By 2015, it was valued at $1.7 billion. That’s not just rapid growth, that’s internet-bubble growth. That’s also attention, paychecks and credibility, any one of which actresses of every age can go years without experiencing.
Alba launched her company in 2012, a few months shy of her 31st birthday.
Another example: Kate Hudson is the co-founder of Fabletics, a line of athletic wear that has become the main source of her public persona lately, if not entirely by choice. At a panel recently, Hudson admitted the kind of movies she would be starring in — the mid-range, $30 million to $60 million productions — are being scrapped in favor of giga-budget, tentpole pictures in which the lead roles go to one or several men. These movies are essentially theme-park attractions that rent seats at 15 bucks a spin — and the female component is usually at best decorative or, at worst, forgettable. That’s a problem if you’re an actress of a certain age who might otherwise be thought of as young in other fields.
When the forest is shrinking and the hunter is competing for scarce resources, it behooves her to get creative. Hudson is a skilled and savvy hunter. In an earlier era, she’d have enjoyed an extended career like her mother, Goldie Hawn, but today Hudson is accepting the new reality and selling product. People visiting the Fabletics website can decide for themselves whether that product is brightly colored, skin-tight leggings or the well-toned actress modeling them.
Fabletics launched in 2013. Kate Hudson was 34. Starting to see a pattern yet?
Even lesser-known actresses abide by the same rules, unconsciously or not. Meghan Markle who, until she started dating Prince Harry, was known mostly for being a character on a basic-cable series — which is to say she really wasn’t known at all. Two years ago, Markle launched a lifestyle and travel blog, but earlier this year she shuttered it. This could indicate Markle suspects she won’t have to worry about name recognition or income security for very much longer if she becomes part of a royal We. Still, you can’t be too safe: When Markle launched her website, she was 33.
There are many other examples of actresses making the transitions to brands: Sarah Jessica Parker sells shoes. Sarah Michelle Geller has a line of baking and cooking accessories. Soleil Moon Frye peddles craft projects. Elizabeth Banks — among many others — has a lifestyle blog, dispensing advice. In just about every case, these women have discovered their Hollywood earning power had a sell-by date — so now they’re trying to capitalize on their name recognition before their videos slide all the way to the bottom of Walmart’s DVD bargain bins.
“What about the men?” you might reasonably ask. “What about those mid-level aspiring actors and fading A-listers with a single X-chromosome flogging themselves online?” What about them, indeed. Whatever the male version of an ingénue is, he might be firm, he might be beautiful, but he’s probably not going to be posing somewhere in tiny clothing, flogging his line of branded shaving soap. The closest comparison I could find was George Clooney, whose tequila brand, Casamigos, just sold for somewhere near $1 billion. Clearly, Clooney’s face was associated with the brand, but that face was framed with unapologetically graying hair, and his middle-aged body was encased in casually expensive, but not tiny, clothing. For men in Hollywood, aging can be a good career move.
When you think about actresses and their extra-career valuations, the other number to remember is 2010.
That was the year Instagram was founded. Before then, there was only so much personal information a star, a would-be star, or a celebrity-adjacent cluster of Armenian sisters could upload in any given day. There were only so many pages in the celebrity glossies and print tabloids and only so many minutes in the gossip television shows, so the editors/gatekeepers ruled those precious resources with an iron claw. It was a media governed by scarcity.
Instagram changed everything. No one is following an actress or fitness model on Instagram for her musings. It’s all about the pictures. If you’re posting on Instagram and you want followers, you give them what they want; more specifically, what they want to see. Where are you? What are you wearing? What do you look like after your wisdom teeth are removed? What’s that mask on your face? What did your kid dress up as for Halloween? On social media, strip-mining your personal life is not just fair game, it’s mandatory. This is brand building at its most fundamental. Why are most actresses with their own websites not selling one particular product? Because what they’re selling is themselves.
“Who are you and why should I give you money?”
“Because you know me so well.”
That intimacy is built inch-by-inch, filter-by-filter, image by image. Are you being considered to play The Girl in a Michael Bay movie? Then you’re in a bathing suit sprawled across the accessory of the year: the swan pool raft. If you’re up for an edgy indie movie, it’s a brooding shot of you walking your rescue dog along the boardwalk at dusk. If an actress on Instagram doesn’t regularly serve up her private life with a carefully modulated pout, she may not get the numbers. Why should that matter? It shouldn’t. But it does.
More than one person working at an executive level in television has told me that if it comes down to two actresses equally qualified for the same role, the one with the most social media followers — the largest personal megaphone — gets the job. Some celebrities with a massive follower count get paid to shill specific products on Instagram, but most working actors are just doing it to so they won’t fall behind the other actors in the casting director’s waiting room.
And so it is a remarkably short leap from “I’m carefully picking the right filter for my green drink” to “I should start a line of green drinks because I know so much about them.” The Internet has made everyone convinced of their own expertise, and since everyone is pretty certain they know it all, the only thing that sets one person apart from another is the degree to which the rest of the monkeys are willing to give up their juice to listen to them, no matter how dangerous or just hugely stupid what they are saying might be.
That’s the difference between garden-variety Internet snake oil and celebrity-branded Internet snake oil. The average reader doesn’t understand that the product is not the jade pessary. The product is the woman seducing you to buy it.