Kate Hudson's Absurd Empire
The likable star has built a seldom-questioned product empire on an empty idea of "wellness."
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Kate Hudson recently launched a “revitalizing acacia + rose powder” face mask. She said in an Instagram video in which she paints the calamine-resembling paste onto her face that she created it because she “can get blemishes” and “need clarifying without needing, like, a crazy powerful mask.” If you’re just reading about the mask here you managed to avoid the press about it over recent weeks, which, like many stories about new products in the “self-care” or “wellness” category, had the effect of washing over a person like a wave on the beach after one had already knocked you down. (I have “wellness” in quotes throughout because the word is so often used as though it means something though any attempt to define it reveals it to be utterly fatuous.)
The launch strategy was typical for a celeb slapping their name on a beauty product: dangle “exclusive” interviews with select access-hungry outlets, blast a press release out to the rest, then let the articles pile up. In the case of Hudson’s face mask, both Allure and Women’s Wear Daily called their interviews “exclusive.” One of Hudson’s quotes for Allure: "Any ritual that slows down the process of your day, anything that connects you to honoring yourself, is actually good for the brain. I think it's important." And from the WWD story, which reads to me as cheeky:
In person, she lives up to her reputation as a friendly free-spirit. She is open about everything from holiday gifting (“I’m very into my crystals and for Christmas, I had everyone’s charts done and got the stones for what they need.”)
Hudson’s celebrity appeal, built up by roughly two decades of omnipresence in women’s and celebrity media, has aided her transition to Gwyneth Paltrow-esque product pusher, despite the root distastefulness of those products as they relate to her whole “wellness” ethos. This face mask, her vodka brand, and her Fabletics line of workout apparel are among her product lines that fly in the face of her image as both a “wellness” authority and arbiter of “sustainability.”
Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn and Bill Hudson and stepdaughter of Kurt Russell, has been a reliable women’s magazine cover subject for nearly twenty years, her narrative partly fueled by three serious relationships — with Black Crows lead singer Chris Robinson, whom she married then divorced; Muse lead singer Matt Bellamy, to whom she was once engaged; and actor and musician Danny Fujikawa, to whom she is currently engaged. She speaks in interviews about raising her three children. She’s also been acting for most of her life, and remains known for her Oscar-nominated supporting actress role in Almost Famous along with rom com classic How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Many of us will enjoy seeing her next film Knives Out 2. But most people probably more closely associate her, not with any one thing she has done, but with the kind of enduring fame that enables her to sell “wellness” products, putting her in the bucket of women like GOOP founder Paltrow and Honest Company founder Jessica Alba, who have also applied their fame in sexist, ageist Hollywood, to lucrative business endeavors.
Hudson, who is gorgeous and fit and cares about what she eats, has fallen into a troubling pattern many women celebrities have, where they cast their empires in an sheen of “wellness,” a word unique in its simultaneous emptiness and appeal.
Fellow Substacker and beauty journalist Jessica DeFino, who writes The Unpublishable (which you must subscribe to if you haven’t yet), reminds us of the cover story Marie Claire published in 2016, in which Kate Hudson delivered the following quote, which was stylishly printed on a glamour shot, and then became a meme:
The article promoted a Michael Kors campaign Hudson had just shot, her films Deepwater Horizon and Marshall, her Fabletics clothing line, and her book Pretty Happy: Ways to Love Your Body (in which Hudson states “being body smart is an ongoing process”). Appearing under the headline “Kate Goes Deep,” here’s that quote in context:
It's notable that she titled her book with "pretty happy": Happiness is a continuum. She doesn't pretend to know the secret to being the best mom or having a perfect marriage or an ideal uncoupling, for that matter. She just keeps moving. "I have a passion for wanting to do things," Hudson says, her eyes flashing like green flares. "I want to be a part of things that are going on. I want to get in there."
I called DeFino to discuss Hudson’s face mask, created in partnership with Juice Beauty, about which WWD reported:
It turns out, it’s been 15 years in the making, a dream project for Hudson and Juice Beauty founder and clean beauty pioneer Karen Behnke since they first met through their mutual friend, Cindy Crawford.
“They’re spinning it as this mask is 15 years in the making,” DeFino said. “It has ten very basic ingredients and honestly someone could whip his up in their kitchen and get better results from fewer ingredients.”
The main ingredient is rose petal, which anyone can buy at their local health food store and, as DeFino does, grind it up with a mortar and pestle, mix it with water, and apply to the face. She said, “There’s no need for 15 years of work to go into this.”
Juice Beauty is among the more ethical beauty companies out there. Ingredients are organic and come from the brand’s own farm, making its supply chain less murky and concerning than that of many other brands. And Hudson can now use that to barnacle herself onto the notion of “clean beauty,” attempting to position her face mask as a toxin-free necessity, telling WWD of Behnke:
“She’s the first one who introduced me to clean beauty,” Hudson said during a joint interview at her Santa Monica offices, where a rose quartz crystal the size of a small dog stands sentinel at the door.
“She was telling me about carcinogens and parabens and it was the first time I’d ever heard about it,” Hudson remembered of that first meeting. “We went up to my very obnoxious bathroom with five cabinets — I’m lucky to have people send me product but after a while you can’t even give it away — and she started showing me what was in everything.…By the end of the hour, I had four products left.”
But we haven’t added the buzz word du jour into this mix yet — “sustainability” — so let’s do that now. Over to Behnke:
“Kate really embodies Juice Beauty’s values of wellness, authenticity, happiness and sustainability. So that’s where it starts with me, that our values and missions are aligned. Secondly, it’s how will we resonate with her followers. Since her followers love all those aspects of her, we think we’ll resonate well. In today’s world we want to do as much as we can with social media and PR, and she brings a platform and a voice beyond what we can always do.”
So Hudson is there to not plant rose bushes, but to push product — and adding any consumer product to the world, “clean” or not, is of course inherently unsustainable.
Yet, similar to how the masses tend not to question claims of sustainability, Hudson’s notions of “wellness” are rarely examined. From that 2016 Marie Claire story:
She hints at what's in the pipeline: "Everything has been fitness, and I'm now starting to get into things about other aspects of my life -- fashion and beauty and skincare. And home, because that's where energy starts."
Health was a natural area to start for the outdoorsy girl who studied dance while growing up in L.A. and Snowmass, Colorado. In between spoonfuls of miso soup, she whips out her phone to show me the diet-and-exercise-tracking app MyFitnessPal. "This was my day yesterday -- my goal was to eat 1,200 calories," she says. "I didn't work out much, just 20 minutes on the Spin bike, so that's how much I burned. This morning I had strip steak, about four ounces. Now I'll add miso soup: 84 calories."
As recently as December, Hudson appeared in WSJ. magazine talking about her Monday routine, raising the idea that not eating is necessary for the body to “rest,” despite the research indicating that the benefits of this diet in human beings are unclear. She said, “I usually don’t eat until about 11, sometimes even noon.”
Is that intermittent fasting?
Yeah. I love it. It’s my favorite thing. I also find that my body feels more energy when I’m doing intermittent fasting. I’m not a big fan of diets and what word kind of evokes in people. So for me, the intermittent fasting is a great way to give my body the rest that it needs. You don’t realize until you start doing that how much your body needs to be able to digest what we’ve eaten. Anywhere from 14 to 16 hours is usually the break I give my body. I usually eat around 11 or 12, and before then I’ll just have water and I’ll have my black coffee and then I’ll drink a celery juice.
In addition to the face mask, Hudson is a founder of King St. Vodka, which comes attractively and femininely packaged with a floral label. Its website, like Hudson’s Instagram feed, features gorgeous photos of her holding vodka-based cocktails, and says the vodka is made through a “proprietary process using GMO-free corn and alkaline water [that] yields a gluten free, ultra-premium spirit.” The research on how alcohol actually makes people, women especially, unwell is pretty unimpeachable. Check out this CDC page or this July 2021 New York Times article, which reported on today’s normalization of women drinking heavily:
[Emily Lynn] Paulson, who last year founded Sober Mom Squad, an online support network for mothers who have stopped or want to curb their drinking, pins this normalization on the alcohol industry which, for years, has targeted women with its advertising, and made people far less likely to question their intake. Less than half of the population is even aware that alcohol is a carcinogen. It can also lead to other health problems such as liver disease and heart disease — especially for women.
Seeming to play into this very culture, here’s an Instagram video Hudson recently posted captioned #KingStTruthorDrink:
But in this world of blurred lines perhaps you would care for a supplement powder rim on that martini? Or maybe you just want to mix it all together in an “Immunitini” (I am not making that up). Because Hudson can sell you that too. Her line of dietary supplement powders is called In Bloom, the website for which features Hudson looking beautiful in a yellow bathing suit riding a bicycle, and proclaims, “We offer a holistic approach to nutrition, centered on physical health, mental clarity, and beauty from the inside,” adding, “Powders are more bioavailable.” A medical dermatologist took a look at this website and told me that the benefits of supplements — which are unregulated — for skin are “dubious at best” and that people are better off eating a healthy diet.
Finally, rounding out the “wellness” theme is Hudson’s Fabletics line of workout clothes, which has been around since 2013 under parent company company JustFab (also known for buying Kim Kardashian’s Shoe Dazzle in 2013). Reporting for BuzzFeed in 2015, Sapna Maheshwari wrote that Fabletics was the subject of thousands of complaints by women who had been deceived into signing up for a monthly membership:
…The company and its affiliates, for all their happy customers, have often been accused of deceiving shoppers who think they’re making a single purchase into signing up for a subscription that automatically charges them each month unless they opt out within a five-day window. The sites use terms like “VIP Membership” instead of “subscription,” and JustFab and Fabletics in particular downplay the options for avoiding charges each month; cancellations require lengthy phone calls.
However, these problems at JustFab didn’t originate with Fabletics. By the time Hudson went into business with them, JustFab had been shadily pushing suspicious products to women since 2004, which resulted in costly legal entanglements.
One of JustFab’s most disturbing ventures was Sensa, a powder to sprinkle on meals to lose what it claimed to be an average of 30 pounds in six months, with no other changes to diet or exercise. In 2012, the year before Fabletics launched, Maheshwari reported, a group of California DAs “reached an $800,000 settlement with Sensa and its parent company, Intelligent Beauty, after finding fault with the company’s advertising claims, its use of the word ‘free,’ and, of course, its automatic subscription enrollment and shipment of products to customers.” In 2014, as part of what the FTC called its “ongoing effort to stop misleading claims for products promoting easy weight loss and slimmer bodies,” Sensa agreed to pay a $26.5 million settlement, and sent nearly half a million refund checks to consumers totaling a little more than $26 million.
None of this got in the way of JustFab’s Fabletics, expanded in partnership with Hudson. The brand still operates under a subscription model, under which it seems like “VIP” members pay about $50 a month to get the steepest discounts on Fabletics products and occasional “free” items. Other shoppers can just pay a higher price for one-off things without becoming a member. The company also now has dozens of retail stores in the U.S.
Yet, deceiving women into subscriptions hasn’t been Fabletics’s only scandal. In May of last year, Time published an excellent investigation in partnership with The Fuller Project into worker abuse at Hippo Knitting, a Taiwanese company with a factory in the small African country of Lesotho whose predominant business was making Fabletics products:
Thirteen women interviewed say their underwear and vulvas were often exposed during routine daily searches by super-visors. Another woman says a male supervisor tried to pressure her into a sexual relationship, while three women allege male supervisors sexually assaulted them. Several of those workers added that they were often humiliated and verbally abused by management. Workers say they were forced to crawl on the floor by one supervisor as a punishment. In one instance, a woman says she urinated on herself because the same supervisor prevented her from accessing the bathroom.
A Fabletics spokesperson told Time that the company promised to do “everything in [their] power to further remedy the situation,” had suspended operations at the factory, and had sent a “senior leader” to Lesotho.
In June of last year, the month after the Time story broke with the issues seemingly unresolved, Hudson was featured as a “Hollywood entrepreneur” on CNBC. The outlet asked her about Hippo Knitting and reported, “Hudson says the allegations are ‘unacceptable and horrendous’ and are currently being investigated,” before going on to avail us of the glittering generalizations that are typical of a Hudson profile piece. Such as:
…[W]hen I get involved with someone in business, I’m really clear. I’m like, “Just so you know, I’m a lot. Nobody else is going to be calling you but me. And I ask a lot of questions.” I hold people accountable to their work and their process, as accountable as I want someone to be towards me.
No part of me believes I’d be here if I didn’t do everything that I did to get here. I’m a worker bee. Almost to a fault. Sometimes I have to sit back and realize that I need to take care of myself. I thrive and love to be busy and in it.
A little more than two months after the Time story broke, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fabletics had hired banks to begin an IPO process that would value the brand at more than $5 billion. The piece made no mention of the Hippo Knitting situation.
A union representative for the factory workers told me in an email that the issues described in the Time article “have been dealt with and resolved such that HR Manager (perpetrator) has been fired” and that “harassment and abuse cases are pending in court.” The company will continue a training program from last year to “teach and combat [gender-based violence and harassment].”
However, concerns remain over the impact of the pandemic at the factory, where orders have been reduced and orders and materials that used to take 30 days to reach the company now take up to 60 to 75 days. Fabletics is also transitioning material to other factories for manufacturing. A decreased workload has led to lost overtime hours and the income it provided workers. Food prices have increased with each lockdown, but wages increase once a year. The union representative has learned the company is “considering retrenchment of workers,” adding that “Fabletics has promised to fix all the issues and bring things back to normal and as a result the retrenchment might not take place. Our position as a union is that Fabletics fix their issues [in a timely fashion] because otherwise it will negatively affect workers and cause them to lose their jobs, which is what we would hate to see.” (No workers have been laid off at the time of this writing.)
I reached out to Fabletics earlier this month through the press inquiry form on their website about a week ago, and am awaiting a response. Another union representative said in an email that Hudson offered workers three-year contracts, adding, “She did not take away her operations from the factory but stood with them during the tough times and continues to support them by giving them more orders.” Hudson’s involvement in resolving the Hippo Knitting problems received scant media attention. As many entrepreneurs do when launching product lines, she could have visited her suppliers before Fabletics signed contracts with them to ensure humane and ethical working conditions. (And as I’ve previously written, you can’t be all that concerned about “sustainability” if you don’t put human beings first.)
Meanwhile, Q Scores, a company that measures celebrity appeal and recognizability for marketers, provided me with the following figures for Hudson. They are based on research collected after the Time story broke, between July and August of 2021.
Based on these figures, a Q Score representative told me, “[H]er acting career has given her a very high level of recognition and above average likability versus the relevant categories. Any negative perceptions of her are well below average indicating little concern for consumer polarization.”
What are we to make of Kate Hudson’s seldom-questioned empire, which promotes both “wellness” and vodka, “sustainability” and monthly clothing subscriptions? Which holds Hudson up as an empowered woman entrepreneur while garment workers on the other side of the world who make her products struggle to support themselves and their families during a historic pandemic?
You might assume that someone who “want[s] to be a part of things that are going on” and “get in there,” who prides herself on calling her business partners personally, would take enough interest in her supply chain to ensure the safety of all workers manufacturing her products. Or perhaps engage in more scrupulous due diligence on potential partners before launching product lines with them. But maybe, as with so many stars, with her enduring fame and its ongoing rewards, there’s simply not a great impetus to do so unless she is publicly called out. And so persists the celebrity-fueled consumption cycle, built on things like “wellness” and having a “voice” that, when considered critically, start to appear as phony as they really are.
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