I have watched reality television consistently for my entire life. Recently, however, I realized I had inadvertently been indulging less; Love Island UK is too difficult to stream in Chicago. While I no longer spend hours catching up on The Bachelor, however, I can and do spend the same amount of time watching daily vlogs, “What I Ate in a Day” videos, and the like on YouTube. I attribute this to being part of a generation who lost cable subscriptions and gained a decade of Internet literacy. I’ve been passively following certain YouTubers and “influencers” for years; I know their pets names and how their brands and businesses have transformed with the media culture around them. These viewing habits aren’t different for how I used to watch Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, but rather these mundane videos satisfy the same sensibilities for distinctly contemporary, vapid content about people’s lives.
That isn’t to say young people ever abandoned television for YouTube and Instagram. On the contrary, I’d argue Netflix is the most culturally ubiquitous and trendy media conglomerate; anecdotally speaking, I think of “Netflix and Chill” as one of the first memes that was intrinsically intertwined with a brand. I’ve always found it difficult, however, to examine influencer-crafted content and streaming in conversation with one another; they are most often generically, textually, and industrially exclusive.
I think this is changing. Much like it is trying to capitalize on the Internet’s nostalgic adoration for Friends, Netflix seems to be aware of these cultural divides amongst audiences, and is attempting to capitalize on a new media language. These formal and narrative tendencies are noticeable as early as the platform’s continuation of Black Mirror (2016–), which indulges in the bleak intricacies of digitality itself. More recently, I’d argue Netflix has shifted these sensibilities to be more focused on reality television; The Circle (2020–), for example, is a competition series to see which contestant can become the “Fan Favorite” influencer. However, I am most interested in how these influencer-literate reality programs explicitly correlate to both my own influencer interests and to a history of reality shows intended for feminine audiences, namely in the cases of The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow and Next in Fashion.
At first glance, Next in Fashion seems to be Netflix’s retort to Amazon Prime Video’s soon-to-be-streaming Making the Cut, hosted and executive produced by ex-Project Runway personalities Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. It is exactly that, but upon watching Next in Fashion, it is also entirely more eccentric than Project Runway, or its Bravo reboot, ever was. Its hosts are Netflix darling, Queer Eye crossover Tan France, and designer/model Alexa Chung. France makes perfect sense in this role; an expert who’s knowable and accessible by mainstream audiences, and is already on the Netflix payroll. Chung is a bit less obvious. All I really know about her is that she’s 1) beautiful, 2) friends with Harry Styles, and 3) has a YouTube channel.
That’s not to say she isn’t perfect for the job. She’s the goofy one of the duo, complimenting Tan France’s only slightly more serious demeanor: the same Alexa Chung that appears on her eponymous YouTube page, in videos like “Alexa Learns How To Host Her Dream Dinner Party,” “Alexa Chung’s New Year’s ASMR,” and “Alexa Chung Learns How To Date The French Way,” wherein she banters with Josephine de la Baume in a faux French accident. The channel hosts more fashion-centric content, as well, like “Alexa Chung Behind The Scenes at Dior Haute Couture,” when she explains the difference between ready-to-wear and haute couture fashion while rubbing shoulders with miscellaneous celebrities, and “Alexa Chung’s Fashion Trend Forecast 2020,” where she playfully ‘predicts’ the biggest moments for the upcoming year, one of which being “Instagram likes.”
In her review of Next in Fashion for GQ, Rachel Tashjian inadvertently explains Chung’s digital presence on Next In Fashion: “The show is filled with these unintentional revelations: basically, the investment in narratives over design talent, and the pop culturification of the fashion industry… The judges are obsessed with suggesting that celebrities would wear something—“I could see a Zoey Duetsch moment!” or whatever—as a testament to a look’s worthiness.”
As Tashjian alludes to, there is more influencer style to Next in Fashion than in Alexa Chung’s celebrity; the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, Eva Chen, is a recurring judge on the show, who, alongside others like celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart, often remarks that it’s difficult for designers to be successful without some sort of online popularity. These markers are not dissimilar to Kylie Jenner or Karlie Kloss’s YouTube presences, in their indications that A-list celebrities, too, need some level of Internet literacy to maintain their statuses as such.
No one understands this more than Gwenyth Paltrow. The Goop Lab, Netflix’s new series following Paltrow’s brand Goop, starts off promisingly. In a primer episode titled “The Healing Trip,” Paltrow and her employees vaguely define the company as a “modern lifestyle brand,” before exploring the potential for psychedelic psychotherapy. It’s enlightening and harmless, but the program devolves, until in “The Energy Experience,” celebrity dancer Julianne Hough monologues about a corporate version of Reiki healing.
To promote The Goop Lab, which is already, what Doreen St. Felix aptly called a “celebrity vanity project,” Paltrow was on the February 2020 cover of Harper’s BAZAAR: proud, smiling, dewy, and clad in a Tom Ford pink plastic bralette. Atop her glistening breasts and trachea piercing lies a tessellation of cover lines: “EDIT YOUR CLOSET: RECYCLE RESTYLE & RESELL,” “ARE YOU WEARING THE WRONG BRA?” “DIET TRENDS YOU SHOULD IGNORE” “GYM FREE WORKOUT” “GWYNETH’S NEW LOVES & OLD FLAMES.”
In the story that accompanies this cover, writer Josh Duboff describes Paltrow’s brand Goop as “a 250-person lifestyle empire that churns out a robust stream of content.” Such content includes everything from podcasts to amethyst crystal-infused water bottles. The Goop website hosts recipes, hair tutorials, workout videos, city guides, and op-eds about entrepreneurship, skincare, and sex, alongside an outlet retailing “natural” beauty and wellness products.
In a video accompanying the cover and story, uploaded to YouTube, Paltrow chronicles “everything” she eats in a day. For breakfast, two Goop Glow Morning Skin Superpowder Dietary Supplement powders in water, and a smoothie. For lunch, “stuff that you would see on the goop website, like a salad with some protein” or “something really fun for detox.” Maybe a snack. For dinner, a Goop-developed one-pot dinner. For anyone who’s ever spent more than 5 minutes on Instagram stories or YouTube, this all might feel a bit familiar. ‘What I Eat in A Day’ videos are some of the most prolific and popular amongst popular influencers and vloggers, as are recipe videos, beauty tutorials, and workout routines.
Between Paltrow’s BAZAAR cover, which both mobilizes her starpower and the Marie-Kondo-esque trend of faux-minimalism, and Goop, a lifestyle-content factory, The Goop Lab seems to close the gap even tighter between influencer culture and Netflix original programming. The synergy between Gwyneth Paltrow the celebrity, her brand, and her Netflix show, is different than that between Alexa Chung’s highly produced YouTube channel, her personal Instagram, and hosting gig on Next in Fashion, but they produce similar effects.
There is more work to be done: does Gen-Z buy into the way Tan France talks about Instagram? Do the kids really like Netflix more than other content providers? Are these digital aesthetics an explicit part of Netflix’s strategy? Or is the culture in which Netflix exists just steeped in a post-vlogger world? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling there’s a reason The Goop Lab isn’t on Amazon Prime Video or Quibi.
by Clare Ostroski
Clare Ostroski (she/her) is a freelance writer and MA/PhD candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University. Her favorite movies are Moonstruck and Beetlejuice. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd @clarefranceso.