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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Edward Helmore in New York

‘We knew she was #gwynnocent’: how the Paltrow trial captivated the world

Gwyneth Paltrow and her attorney Steve Owens react as the verdict is read on Thursday.
Gwyneth Paltrow and her attorney Steve Owens react as the verdict is read on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images

America and the wider world are not exactly wanting for dramatic headlines. Barricades were erected in New York after Donald Trump’s indictment on criminal charges, in Ukraine a bloody and brutal war grinds on, and in France riots have rocked the government.

Yet, for much of the last two weeks, an astonishing degree of media attention was focused on a small mountain town in Utah for a ski-vacation legal drama that played out against a civil court setting.

Of course, the fight did involve one of the biggest A-list celebrities in the world: the actor and wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow.

The courtroom showdown pitted Terry Sanderson, a retired eye doctor and military veteran, against Paltrow. Both hotly argued who was responsible for a ski crash on Utah’s powdery slopes – long the haunt of the rich and famous from America and around the world.

Sometimes, such trials seem to provide a meta-narrative and say something about the wider world. That narrative is then used to justify the huge investment of time and resources by media companies who furiously covered every moment of the trial – and of the daily fashion statements made by its star: Paltrow.

But, like a zombie movie, this trial could have served any narrative required of it, and ultimately – perhaps blissfully – none at all. What attracted the world’s media – and the millions of eyeballs glued to televisions, phones and laptops – was simply celebrity curiosity, fixated on a slightly toxic mix of class envy and perhaps misogyny at the elite travails of one of the world’s most famous female stars.

In the end, Paltrow prevailed. Her attorneys branded Sanderson’s claims that she had skied into him, sending him flying, causing four rib fractures and a concussion that, he claimed, produced lasting brain impairment, “utter BS”.

Paltrow spared no expense in recruiting expert neurologist witnesses, experts in the physics of skiing and crafting animated reconstructions, and all to establish she was not liable. In a statement after Thursday’s verdict, Paltrow said she felt “acquiescing to a false claim [would have] compromised my integrity”.

In defeat, Sanderson, appeared – at last – to question whether the lawsuit was worth it. “You get some assumed credibility from being a famous person,” Sanderson said afterwards. “Really, who wants to take on a celebrity?”

Left out of the trial was the question of what a skilled skier, an eye doctor blind in the right eye and with cataracts in the left, was doing making wide, fast turns on a bunny slope where Paltrow and hired instructors were teaching her children, Apple and Moses, to ski.

But Paltrow won in other ways, too. Web searches for Goop, Paltrow’s huge lifestyle and wellness brand, soared 195% in the hours after she won, according to Japan-101. Whether that translates into sales is unknown, but there are few reasons to think it would not.

Ten days ago, Paltrow was acquiring negative headlines for sharing her diet of bone broth, coffee and intermittent fasting, plus an intrusive new ozone therapy treatment, on the The Art of Being Well podcast. But as the online magazine the Cut pointed out, “all it took was a few suffragette-chic courtroom outfits and meme-able moments for naysayers to change their tune”.

Paltrow speaks briefly to Sanderson as she leaves court on Thursday.
Paltrow speaks briefly to Sanderson as she leaves court on Thursday. Photograph: Reuters

The magazine reasoned that perhaps Paltrow was able to get away with it “because we’re never quite sure how much of her persona is real, and how much is a performance.”

And then, after the comments “I lost a half-day skiing” and delivering the memorable courtroom line “I wish you well” to her accuser, she was gone, along with the “stealth wealth” outfit changes. As every entertainer knows,you have to leave the audience wanting more.

“I think people really liked her high-Wasp attitude to the whole thing,” said the “vibe shift” trend guru Sean Monahan. “It seemed like this guy was trying to con her and she wasn’t having it.”

Monahan added: “Gwyneth is an east coast girl, she went to the all-girls school Spence, so there are some class dynamics to this. As she said in an interview in the late 90s: I am who I am. I can’t pretend to be someone who makes $25,000 a year.”

To Monahan, Paltrow’s lifetime of refusing to yield to convention, including her comedic statements – “I’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can” – is endearing. “This demand for people to cosplay being relatable is condescending. Gwyneth’s perspective on this is a lot more honest.”

Others agreed.

“All her friends cheering her on knew she was #gwynnocent and could not have been more thrilled justice was served – on the same day as the Trump indictment! A great day for the justice system in America,” said Jill Kargman, a friend of Paltrow’s and the creator of the hit sitcom Odd Mom Out. “What you see is what you get. Even her accuser said her wishing him well was nice.”

In the event it was Sanderson, not Paltrow, who came across as the more lost in narcissism and self-righteousness. The court learned he had sat outside the courtroom while his daughters testified because he made them nervous. After the verdict, he said he was surprised that his character had been taken apart in court.

“I listened to how I was characterized … a narrative about the life I’ve lived … and they said things that were absolutely not true,” Sanderson said.

But none of that may quite explain why the Sanderson-Paltrow trial has proved so compelling and caused US news networks and even the BBC to alert to dedicated liveblogs when she took the stand.

“People wanted something that didn’t matter because there were so many things happening that did matter,” Monahan said. “No one wants to watch scary news items and grim realistic portrayals of them.”

But to say the trial was unimportant because Paltrow is a celebrity is not right either, according to Bob Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University. “Harvey Weinstein and OJ Simpson were important on all kinds of levels, but this was comic burlesque. You had an optometrist crashing into people. It was Mr Magoo. It was dada.”

No one wants to be wrongfully accused, and the court found Paltrow clearly was. The whole incident was disturbing to her on a number of levels, Thompson said.

“From a journalistic standpoint, and for all the stories happening at the moment, this was not one we need to know to exercise our franchises, or be better informed about wrongfully accused people,” he said.

Thompson added: “In early seasons she was the glamorous celebrity of a bunch of movies. In subsequent seasons she became a kooky lifestyle with her candles and self-help stuff. She’s always been on the borderline of self-parody. Now the news media has got in on the act, and all this reportage ends up being the centerpiece of this season in an ongoing series known as Gwyneth Paltrow.”

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