Reese Witherspoon has a pretty nice life. She’s got a fulfilling job, with an Oscar in 2006 and a nomination this year. Paparazzi photos of her Sunday church trips capture her idyllic family life. She appears to be universally liked, and largely forgiven for that pesky disorderly-conduct arrest back in 2013. And now she wants to sell you an $85 set of linen cocktail napkins embroidered with fanciful, slightly boozy Southernisms such as Pleased as punch and Don’t mind if I do.
Draper James, an e-commerce site named for Witherspoon’s grandparents, is selling a notion of Southern charm and gentility that’s long been the Nashville-bred actor’s trademark. “I was looking for stuff about the South and the traditions we had, and I couldn’t find anything,” Witherspoon says. “I’d been asked by other brands to endorse Northeastern lines. It didn’t feel organic.” On Draper James, her fans can snag the ladylike $185 Hermitage Cardigan or hostess gifts including a $98 paperweight (listed as a “magnolia objet”) that would class up any vanity. As Witherspoon has figured out, the groomed, likable persona that generates fame in Hollywood can also be converted into cash. Now she’s among a growing set of stars–ranging from their late 20s to early 40s and including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Blake Lively–peddling the ephemera of their domestic bliss.
The lifestyle brand is a hoary concept, but these crossover entrepreneurs offer a twist of intensely personal curation, presenting the brands as a distillation of their true selves. From Paltrow’s sometimes self-deprecating, know-it-all yogini at Goop to Alba’s dutiful mom at the Honest Co. to Witherspoon’s daffy, prim belle–who cares if it’s real or a put-on? Each site’s meticulously crafted image promises visitors a frisson of intimacy with the stars, free with every purchase.
Even as they open up this new terrain, they emulate the grande dame of lifestyle branding, Martha Stewart, whose coastal Connecticut catering business grew into an empire. But Hollywood stars are proving that it’s far easier to become a famous lifestyle guru if you are, well, already famous.
The Honest Co., which sells diapers and other baby products marketed as particularly safe thanks to an absence of toxins, was born just a few years after Alba’s first child. The company, recently valued at $1 billion, owes its stratospheric success in part to Alba’s image as a celebrity mother who set out to make products she could trust enough to use on her two daughters. She’s just like any other mom–except she has her own manufacturing and distribution system.
There’s a lot at stake here for the business world, which eagerly awaits the IPO of the Honest Co. Goop, meanwhile, is closing a round of venture-capital funding. But there’s even more at stake for the stars. Women in Hollywood have fewer productive years than men. Take Lauren Conrad, the star of MTV’s onetime reality stalwart The Hills, who now heads the boho-chic fashion-and-housewares site Little Market and girly-cute fashion line Paper Crown; MTV canceled her follow-up series before it began. Paltrow made the decision to step away from Hollywood after becoming a mother and has had a mixed track record since re-entering. Witherspoon’s recent success at shepherding projects like Wild and Gone Girl through the production process came after several fallow years. “As a woman, I don’t think we’re as busy as our male counterparts,” Witherspoon says. “It’s about being challenged.”
Lively, the Gossip Girl actor whose site, Preserve, markets a California-chic idea of rustic craftsmanship and indulgent foodieism (Try the “summer smoke salt”!), makes greater waves in the press for homemaking than for moviemaking, though she intends to continue doing both. “Acting is for-hire,” she says. “It’s transactional. This, whether it’s good or bad, is something I shaped.”
The Sharing Economy
Unlike Stewart, who has gracious living down to an unattainable science, the stars putting together houseware and living brands present themselves as ambitious, innately generous dilettantes. And Stewart, true to form, has been somewhat critical of those for whom homemaking seems to be a side project. “If she were confident in her acting, she wouldn’t be trying to be Martha Stewart,” she said of Paltrow last year.
But it’s the chatty, discursive nature of these actors’ sites and offerings that makes their clients so faithful. Consumers browse with the sense that they too could swaddle their children the way Alba does or furnish their wet bar with that Witherspoon touch. Conrad, for instance, says her brand is aspirational but not snooty. “I’m sharing things I’ve learned as I would with a girlfriend,” Conrad says, “as opposed to teaching things.”
Lively describes her site’s purpose as akin to gift giving: “With Preserve, I’m meeting chefs, meeting artisans, designers, craftsmen. I’m moved by their stories, and I’m sharing them with my friends. Instead of keeping that insulated as a personal pleasure, I’m sharing that in a greater way.” She’s also sharing her interests and aesthetic with a readership that avidly consumes celebrity photos and news. You can get her look, and her life, if you’re willing to pay up.
Goop’s newsletter has grown into a forum for Paltrow to disseminate her fashion faves ($515 Stella McCartney sneakers) and thoughts on personal growth and juice cleanses. As she puts it, “If it’s somebody who is on Goop for the celebrity aspect of it, they’re going to find things for better or worse that align with me and my values and my tastes.”
Win or lose, the fact that these stars are competing in the marketplace as Hollywood gives them less to do onscreen shows their resourcefulness. After all, what people want from stars is a sense of genuine connection; it’s why fans in previous generations asked for autographs and why today they seek selfies. If Hollywood provides women limited opportunities to sustain a career on film, Witherspoon and Co. can demonstrate their enduring appeal by showing the world all their favorite things. No longer subject to casting agents’ ageism or executives’ sexism, they’re free to do the same as any kid on Instagram–develop their personae online. The difference: they want your dollars, not your likes.
Many of the items sold on Goop, Preserve and Draper James are costly enough that they represent a special treat rather than a complete live-like-the-stars set. A bundle of those chemical-free Honest Co. diapers will run you about $80 a month, enough to send parents on a tight budget back to Pampers.
Yet if the stars really were just like us, toward what would we aspire? The fun, accessible tone of their branding belies the fact that living like Paltrow or Witherspoon is accessible only with access to their bank accounts. But anyone looking to while away hours learning what stars think is interesting–about the world and themselves–could do worse than logging on to these sites. In presenting us boutique repositories of their quirks, this group of actors wanted to redefine the lifestyle expert. Instead, they accidentally reinvented the celebrity profile.
This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.