How celebrity supplements became the new celebrity fragrance

 

By Jill Bernstein

I have smeared on enough hydrogel cream, applied enough lash-lengthening mascara, and scrubbed my face with enough gentle face wash from skincare, makeup, and baby care brand The Honest Company to know that its products will not make me look anything like its founder, Jessica Alba. But that didn’t stop me from adding to my Amazon cart, in a depressed and susceptible state late one night, The Honest Company’s new dietary supplements—which promise immune support and a good night’s sleep for the price of $25.99 per bottle. Could the Stay Chill Daily Mood Balance Supplement make me the sort of woman who, like Alba, posts an Instagram slide reading: “Healing is not fixing, healing is understanding and transcending,” and really believe it?

 

I came to my senses in the morning, realizing just how much I’d been lured in by the company’s effortlessly put-together founder. To be honest, it could have been any of a number of famous people who got me. In the past few years, celebrities including Halle Berry, Ellen Pompeo, Cindy Crawford, Elle McPherson, Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Lo Bosworth, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Hyland, Kristen Bell, and (of course) Gwyneth Paltrow have all launched supplement collections promising consumers everything from “vaginal support” (Naomi Watts’s Stripes) to help becoming more beautiful while they sleep (Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty). And to be clear, this isn’t just a female phenomenon: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lebron James teamed up last year to offer energy packets and whey protein through their supplement brand, Ladder, and figures like Inforwars’s Alex Jones and the Liver King have made fortunes hawking dietary “aids.”

Thanks to social media, we have deep insight into celebrities’ lives: their well-designed homes, beauty routines, and, increasingly, their wellness journeys. But social media is not a two-way mirror. You may know that Kate Hudson feels better after a workout and a smoothie and Elle MacPherson gives her children, who are picky eaters, a WelleCo supplement as a snack, but these people don’t know anything about you or your life, let alone what nutrients you may be lacking. And none of them are doctors.

And even if they were, it might be tricky for them to recommend a supplement, because not only are supplements not well studied, but the FDA lacks the authority to regulate them. Supplement manufacturers don’t have to prove a product’s efficacy or even safety before putting it on the market.

 

“There are a lot of celebrities with these parasocial relationships on social media. Many of their followers think they are trustworthy arbiters. They can say, ‘I use this thing every day and this makes me an expert on it,’” says Jane Marie, who hosts The Dream, a podcast exploring the business of wellness. Marie also points out that many supplement purveyors can get around regulations by making what’s known as “structure/function” claims: “loosey-goosey language,” she says— such as “supports brain function”—which “doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

Pharmacologist Amy Beckley, cofounder and CEO of Proov, which sells fertility tests and herbal supplements, admits that supplement companies—including hers—can’t claim that their products cure diseases, but they can use language to come close. “You can’t say you have made a supplement for people with diabetes, but you could say ‘this is a supplement that helps you have a healthy glucose metabolism so you can live well.’”

So, supplements exist in a nebulous, in-between realm where their true potency is hard to define. Sounds kind of like, well, a fragrance.

 

There was a time, especially in ’90s and early 2000s, when you couldn’t walk through a department store without getting a whiff of Beyoncé, Paris Hilton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Aliyah, 50 Cent, David Beckham, Michael Jordan, or Faith Hill. (Or, before that, the godmother of celebrity fragrances, Elizabeth Taylor.) Supplements go one step further, selling consumers on the possibility of transubstantiation, the idea that you could literally ingest some part of your favorite singer, actor, or athlete, and be saved from your bad skin, bad mood, or lack of chill.

There’s definitely an element of faith involved when it comes to what either a fragrance or supplement can do . . . and big financial gains to be made. The U.S. supplements industry has an average profit margin of 38%, while the perfume industry generates similarly high margins for manufacturers (estimates range from 15 to 90% depending on the cost of ingredients). And because supplements are taken every day, they are—even more than perfume—a replenishment business, with a steady stream of income possible through subscription programs.

And there’s never been a better time to launch a supplement line. During the COVID-19 pandemic, scores of customers began purchasing supplements claiming to boost immunity, especially as mistrust in traditional medicine swelled (see the so-called anti-vax movement). The vitamin and supplement industry is a $40 billion market that’s only growing, expanding at a rate of 1.0% per year on average between 2018 and 2023. Peddling cure-alls to susceptible people on social media has never been easier, and the cost of selling direct-to-consumer is low compared to running a brick and mortar business.

 

Plus, supplements are a lot easier to sell online than perfumes, which people typically want to smell before purchasing. Today, the size of the supplement industry dwarfs the U.S. perfume market, which is at roughly $3.5 billion in 2023.

Having a supplement line can often make celebrities’ other endorsements or business ventures seem a little incongruous. Kate Hudson has said that she seeks to “democratize wellness” through her nutritional powders (InBloom), sportswear (Fabletics), and . . . vodka (Kin St. Vodka). But does anyone notice? When I added Alba’s pills to my cart, I just wanted to feel good. Then again, being tired when the alarm clock rings, feeling sad when you’re up alone at midnight, or getting stressed about a mortgage payment, are all, a lot of the time, just part of the human condition. No pill can change that.

Today, consumers may be wising up. The Dream podcast host Jane Marie points to the recent trend of de-influencing, where users on TikTok or Instagram post about heavily-promoted products that they actually dislike as a sign that people are getting savvier and may not fall for heavy social-media marketing down the line. These “de-influencing” posts tend to be about skincare and makeup rather than supplements, perhaps because it’s harder to demonstrate that a supplement doesn’t work; it can take a while to yield results, and users may see results from the placebo effect. “There’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect,” Marie says. “It’s wonderful. And if you take a bunch of Goop pills and they make you feel better because of the placebo effect”—and don’t cause any adverse effects —“that’s great. I just feel bad that a celebrity like Gwyneth Paltrow might be making a lot of money from selling you trash.”

Fast Company

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