Skip To Content
BuzzFeed News Home Reporting To You

Kate Hudson Was Destined For Hollywood Greatness. Then She Pivoted To Leggings.

When Kate Hudson’s film career plateaued, she did what more and more Hollywood women have done: cashed out her image with an incredibly successful lifestyle brand.

Posted on May 25, 2019, at 9:01 a.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Fabletics

On a recent afternoon at the Fabletics pop-up store in Soho, a small sign stood in front of a mannequin’s disembodied butt fitted with an exercise thong: “Don’t forget to use our hashtag on all your double-tap-worthy photos of our new store.” Search Instagram for that hashtag (#FableticsIRL), and you’ll find hundreds of women in their Fabletics gear, distinguishable by its commitment to vibrantly colored, matching leggings-and-sports-bra pairings. Competitor Lululemon has vibrance, competitor Outdoor Voices has matching outfits, but neither has both — and, even more importantly, neither has Kate Hudson, whose Instagram photos (#MyFabletics, #FableticsFriday) pop up amid the stream of customers, showing her dressed in the same mid-priced leggings.

The Soho pop-up is a modest space — about the size of a New York studio apartment, and far smaller than the slew of Fabletics brick-and-mortar stores that have taken up residency in swanky suburban malls across the country. A window display tells passersby that “Girls Just Wanna Have Pockets” (now available on a wide array of Fabletics leggings and sports bras). Above the register, a neon sign broadcasts a distillation of the Fabletics brand and athleisure in general: “Kick Butt / Look Cute / Repeat.” Attendants dressed in fashionable eyewear and Fabletics outfits ask every customer if they’re familiar with the VIP program: Enroll for $49.95 a month, one says, and you’ll get two pairs of leggings for just $24, plus a 30% to 50% discount on every item in the store.

“But do I really need new clothes every month?” a trim, put-together woman in her fifties asked. “Whatever your lifestyle,” the attendant responded, “you’ll find yourself wearing these clothes.”

That’s the athleisure promise: a new category of clothing, one you don’t necessarily need, but will nonetheless start colonizing your wardrobe. Athleisure’s explicit purpose is working out, but its implicit aim is looking cute — the uniform for the modern woman who might not have it all, but certainly does it all. It “blurs the lines between working out and everything else,” as Jia Tolentino put it in the New Yorker — between the clothes you wear in private and those you wear in public, between the private desire to regiment the body and the public performance of that discipline.

There are dozens of athleisure companies on the market today, with various price points and aesthetics and target demographics, making up a retail sector forecasted to reach $355 billion in sales by 2021. What distinguishes Fabletics, then, is Hudson — who’s infused the brand with a distillation of her own celebrity image: a mix of confidence and coolness and “California” (sunniness, Malibu boho-ness, green-juice-inflected wellness culture).

At the Soho Fabletics pop-up, a video cycles through photos of trim butts in leggings and Hudson, dressed in white Fabletics, jumping and smiling into the wind. One wall is adorned with a pinup-style poster of Hudson — dressed in a matching red outfit available for purchase — labeled “Kate Hudson, Co-Founder.” And that’s the extent of her presence: tasteful, yet making a persuasive argument that the Hudson style is the Fabletics style, and the Fabletics style can be yours.

The parameters of Hudson’s public persona were first defined with her star-making turn as Penny Lane in 2000’s Almost Famous, then reinforced through both her onscreen roles and her offscreen life over the next decade. But in the early 2010s, Hudson’s Hollywood viability began to wane. Studios were making fewer and fewer of the sort of mid-budget films that Hudson starred in; the rom-com was in a fallow period; the industry in general has little use for women over the age of 30. So Hudson did what, increasingly, seems to be the most viable option for stars who’ve aged out of the ingenue demographic: She started her form of a lifestyle brand.

Goop — the lifestyle brand of Gwyneth Paltrow, who considers Hudson her “beautiful, carefree, spirited little sister” — promises general tips and products for “wellness.” Jessica Alba’s Honest Company sells a bevy of products promising peace of mind for the cool, upwardly mobile mom. Drew Barrymore’s Flower Beauty offers makeup for the free spirit increasingly concerned about eye wrinkles. Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James provides a preppy J.Crew aesthetic for those inclined toward Etsy cursive and sweet tea in mason jars.

With Fabletics, Hudson has found a way to sell her own California confidence as a uniform. “With her beach blonde hair, tawny toned limbs, and easygoing vibe,” a recent piece in Vogue explained, “she’s undoubtedly the definition of SoCal style.” And who better to become the face of a brand predicated on the idea that working out is fun, while also clothing your already well-exercised body in a way that prepares you to exercise literally any time?

Fabletics launched in 2013 as an arm of JustFab (now rebranded as TechStyle Fashion Group) with the intention of filling what Hudson called “a big hole in the market.” “We wanted to come in and provide athleticwear that has the technology that you could perform in,” she told the Daily Front Row, “but that was cute, fashionable, and affordable.” There was, indeed, a market for clothes at the Fabletics price point: more expensive than Gap or Target, but far more affordable than Lululemon or Outdoor Voices.

Fabletics’s business model relies on subscriptions, wherein customers pay a monthly fee in exchange for access to “member prices” (usually a fourth of the “list” price). The best way to compel a customer to click on — let alone give a credit card number to — a brand they’ve never heard of? Attach a celebrity face to it, especially one known for being, as Cosmo once put it, “fun, flirty & fit AF!” That’s been the JustFab strategy from the start: The company’s early visibility was due to creative director Kimora Lee Simmons; ShoeDazzle, which JustFab acquired in 2013, relied on cofounder Kim Kardashian West to popularize the “Netflix for Shoes” model; the latest sibling brand, Savage x Fenty, was launched by Rihanna.

Instead of paying a celebrity to appear in ads over a period of time, the JustFab brands simply intermingle the celebrity’s DNA with each brand from the start. It’s a small difference, but a crucial one: the difference between “leggings Kate Hudson wears in an ad” and “Kate Hudson’s leggings.” For a celebrity like Kardashian West, whose popularity is predicated on self-commodification, it’s a straightforward process; for Rihanna, it’s an extension of her newly expanded image as a savvy businesswoman — one who actually saw a hole in the marketplace (specifically, marketing fashion and beauty products to women of color) and has clearly reveled (and massively profited) in filling it.

But for Hudson, the pivot to merchandising required flattening the core components of her star-making charisma into a simple, readily legible brand of cheery wellness. Like Paltrow and Witherspoon and Alba, Hudson has simply made the dynamics of desire, of emulation, of monetization that have always underpinned contemporary celebrity explicit. If you like me, and my life, and what I seem to represent, these celebrities ask, then why not buy what I’m selling? Buy my leggings, buy my jade egg roller, buy my fit and flare dress, buy my fun skull-print diapers — and when and if scandal envelops the brand, think of me, and the goodwill that’s accumulated around my image, instead.

Instead of allowing another company to exploit their image, these celebrities are doing it themselves. They’ve essentially taken out the middleman (and it was almost always a man) of the celebrity endorsement business and paved a profitable path forward as options in Hollywood became sparse. What’s so different about using your brand to prop up a forgettable rom-com that most people will watch on VOD, and using your brand to sell “wellness” and leggings? In truth, Hudson was always selling a vision of her life — the only change is that people are now paying her for its accoutrements. It’s a triumph, in a way. But it’s also an illustration of how few options are open to stars “of a certain age” in Hollywood — and what’s lost when you transform a celebrity brand into a retail one.

Dreamworks / Courtesy Everett Collection

Kate Hudson in Almost Famous (2000).

When Hudson’s star first began to blip on Hollywood’s radar in the late ’90s, she was positioned as an A-list Hollywood scion — one of five kids in Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s blended family — but a deeply chill one. Or, as she told Jane magazine in 2000, “People hated me in high school because I had my own thing going.” She deferred admission at NYU. She showed up, briefly, in the cool kids indie film 200 Cigarettes, alongside Janeane Garofalo and Courtney Love. And then there was her breakout role as Penny Lane — an effervescent groupie in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, a fictionalization of his own time on the road while writing for Rolling Stone as a teen.

In the early years, Hudson fought accusations that she’d only been cast because of her famous parents. And while her Hollywood connections may have gotten her in the door, what earned her the part of Penny was a different sort of byproduct of growing up rich and beautiful: She was incredibly confident. In Vanity Fair, Hudson recalled auditioning for the part, at age 19, and going in with the attitude “I’m gonna own this,” then leaving thinking “I nailed this.” Crowe wanted her for the role of the teen journalist’s sister — eventually played by Zooey Deschanel — but his casting director intervened. “Cast her,” she told him. “You keep writing Shirley MacLaine, and she’s the only one out there who can give you Shirley MacLaine the way you want it.”

Specifically, MacLaine in the groundbreaking 1960 film The Apartment, in which she managed to mix a sort of devastatingly confident sex appeal with equally devastating vulnerability hovering just below the surface. As Penny Lane, Hudson pulled off that same contradiction: She was hot, effortlessly cool, practiced, and confident, but with a certain cherubic sweetness. As Walter Parkes, then cohead of the film division at DreamWorks, put it after seeing the film: “My God, that’s the most confident performance by a nobody I’ve ever seen.”

The industry agreed. This wasn’t just Goldie Hawn’s daughter; this was a new star. Hudson was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She won the Globe and lost the Oscar, but at that point — aided by a flashy Oscar dress and a new relationship with Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson — she’d secured a foothold in the gossip press, which, through a combination of interviews and paparazzi, worked to refine her early image. She wasn’t just California cool, like her mom; she was also “boho” chic — an aesthetic defined at the time by long, flowy skirts paired with tank tops, cigarettes, flat stomachs, small breasts, big sunglasses, and cascading golden hair.

The boho aesthetic reconciled the cheery California part of Hudson’s image with the “rocker” predilection — a point driven home in a sprawling 2000 Vanity Fair profile, set against the backdrop of Robinson’s New York loft. When the reporter shows up at noon, Hudson has just woken up, and is wearing an oversize Black Crowes T-shirt she grabbed from the floor, armholes cut down to the waist, exposing her breasts. “I have no breasts anyways,” she said, lighting “the first of a constant stream of Camel Lights.” She’s been following the band, staying up and waking up late.

“She talks a lot about how tired she is,” profile author Leslie Bennett narrates, “and how she needs to go back to Los Angeles to ‘get healthy.’ At home in LA she gets up in the morning, goes hiking, takes Pilates and dance classes. But, for now, she can’t seem to tear herself away from Robinson.” The LA Hudson, Bennett remarks, is much easier to fathom: “One could more easily imagine this California girl with some clean-cut buff young Hollywood hunk than with Robinson, a sallow, skinny, divorced 33-year-old who looks as though he hasn’t seen daylight in decades (and who once collapsed from malnutrition during a European tour).”

But the attraction to Robinson was what made Hudson interesting — something more than the sum of her natural California parts. So was the news, three years later, that Hudson, then 22, was pregnant with Robinson’s child. The pregnancy, which coincided with the increased availability of digital cameras and the “bump watch” they facilitated, set the standard for celebrity pregnancies to follow: Hudson had a “cute” pregnancy (described by former Us Weekly editor-in-chief Janice Min as a pregnancy that looks like you’ve swallowed a basketball — with all weight gain isolated in one cute, round area) and ignored all cultural compunctions about what she should and should not wear during it. Most memorably, she wore a slinky silver two-piece dress to the Venice Film Festival, her pregnant belly fully exposed. This wasn’t just a cute pregnancy, it was a cool one — an attitude and aesthetic that only further reinforced her existing image.

Paramount / Everett Collection

Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003).

After Hudson’s son, Ryder, was born in 2004, Hudson made motherhood hip as well: She brought him everywhere; she refused to cut his hair. Instead of ruining her brand, she incorporated motherhood into her brand, strengthening it in the process. And Hudson needed it, because her movies weren’t doing much for her. The Four Feathers, the prestige follow-up to Almost Famous costarring Heath Ledger, flopped in 2002, grossing just $18 million domestically. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days showed that her boho charm could be translated to a rom-com, grossing over $100 million, but Alex & Emma (2003), her rom-com pairing with Luke Wilson, brought in just $15 million worldwide on a budget of $30 million; the same year, Le Divorce, with Naomi Watts, made just $12 million.

Some films from this era — like Raising Helen ($49 million worldwide), The Skeleton Key ($91 million), and Fool’s Gold ($111 million) — were modest successes. But as Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Raising Helen, Hudson “seems to be following in the footsteps of her mother, Goldie Hawn; both have genuine talent, but choose too often to bury themselves in commercial formulas.” Increasingly, Almost Famous felt like a fluke: a role in which Hudson played some version of herself, and never found another one where she could pull off quite the same trick.

Maybe part of the problem was that Penny was a supporting character, not a protagonist. Transfer that sort of convention-resistant character into a leading role, and you have an entirely different set of narrative and character development expectations set upon her — the exact sort of expectations that made so many of Hudson’s subsequent films such a drag. One place where Hudson didn’t have to hew to narrative expectations, though, was her personal life — which quickly eclipsed her onscreen performances as the primary engine for her continued celebrity.

Apart from celebrity motherhood, Hudson also modeled what an amicable divorce could look like — and what postdivorce dating life could look like. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Owen Wilson became prime tabloid fodder. In 2011, she got engaged to Muse lead singer Matt Bellamy; later that year, she gave birth to their son, Bingham. In the years to come, she dated Alex Rodriguez — fans attributed her presence in the stands to getting him to actually hit during the 2009 World Series — and was also linked with Nick Jonas and Lance Armstrong and Diplo.

The remarkable thing about Hudson, though, is that she was never framed as a man-eater, or a slut, or a sex bomb — no matter how many men she dated, or how she dressed. Instead, she was framed as a “girl’s girl.” “She loves women, and knows the difference between friendships and alliances,” Lynda Obst, who produced How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, told W magazine in 2008. “It’s the girls’ girls who are the true stars. Because female audiences can identify actresses who aren’t, and they don’t flock to their movies.”

BuzzFeed News / Ben Kothe

Only they weren’t flocking to Hudson’s movies. But her lack of bankability as a star had remarkably little effect on her general appeal as a celebrity — a quotient measurable, at least in part, by magazine appearances. Since the early 2000s, she’s appeared four times on the cover of Vogue and five times on Harper’s Bazaar, plus the usual crop of Glamour, Allure, Marie Claire, W, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Elle, People, and Us Weekly. “I call Kate cover gold,” Laura Brown, then–executive editor of Harper’s Bazaar, told the New York Times in 2015. “She is perceived as warm, engaged and not overly intimidating ... She’s the girl you want to hang out with.”

It mattered little that she rarely said anything of interest in interviews. Motherhood didn’t seem to age Hudson or tire her or her body, which was, as the opening of one Vogue story declared, “sick.” After the birth of her second child, she appeared on the April 2013 cover of Glamour almost entirely naked alongside the headline “Damn, Kate, You Look Good! A Peek Into Her Hot, Happy Life,” with a promise to share “how she got that ridiculous body.”

It was right about this time — in the wake of another career disappointment, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which grossed just $2.1 million — that Hudson partnered with JustFab. She’d already sold an “eco hair-care line” with her longtime hairstylist and developed a capsule collection for Ann Taylor. But Fabletics would be different: While the precise financial breakdown is unknown, Hudson was labeled a “cofounder” from the start. In practical terms, that meant “working closely” with the design team, “from collection concept and inspiration to actual wear-testing and product feedback.” But more importantly, it entailed becoming the face of the brand — and pinning its image to her own.

It was a prime moment to launch an athleisure brand — a style of clothing popularized in the late 2000s by Lululemon, starting with exercise clothing that was expensive, durable, and desirable enough to match the boom in hot yoga, Pilates, barre, and SoulCycle-esque cycling classes of the era. Exercise class became a way to show your social capital (you have to have both the money to pay for expensive classes and the leisure time to attend), but also a fashion show, with the instructor — often a Lululemon “ambassador” themselves — modeling clothes on the most fit, most “ideal” of bodies. Demand was amplified by Lululemon limiting the runs of various items, colors, and styles, which effectively turned them into coveted collectible items.

It made sense that a certain type of woman would start wearing Lululemon outside of the gym or yoga studio: leggings to lounge around on the weekend, a fitted running jacket to pick up the kids at school, a drapey, back-revealing tank top with a built-in bra for date night. As it became clear that women were wearing their Lulu clothes for more than just working out, Lulu began designing clothes that further blurred whatever lines remained.

And so the athleisure boom was born. In one wave, there were upstart companies modeled on Lululemon’s success — Outdoor Voices, Oiselle, Onzie, Girlfriend Collective, Alo — marketing high-end clothing almost entirely to women. In another, there were long-standing athletic brands like Title Nine, Nike, and Champion, which revamped to include more athleisure (and more “cute” outfit options), while big clothing retailers like Gap, J.Crew, H&M, and Walmart also began selling athleisure at varying price points.

And then there was Fabletics. Unlike its traditional retail competitors, which relied on a combination of brick-and-mortar and online sales, Fabletics’s business model relied heavily on subscriptions, which would charge a VIP member’s credit card every month unless they opted out within the first five days. Think Columbia House or BMG music club — only for leggings and matching sports bras.

Most companies strive for ways to get customers to come back month after month, but Fabletics, like the rest of the JustFab suite of companies, had a way to guarantee that they would. Yet many customers didn’t realize that they were signing up for an ongoing billing membership; others couldn’t figure out the labyrinthian process to cancel. What mattered, though, was that they signed up in the first place — and many of those who did were lured by ubiquitous Facebook ads featuring Kate Hudson, serene in Lotus Pose, with her trademark smile and flat abs, dressed in matching Fabletics gear.

It was a simple but brilliant strategy. According to Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores, between 2012 and 2015, 67% of Americans (and 80% of women over 35) were familiar with Hudson, while other women actors averaged just 37%. It didn’t matter that you’d never heard of the brand if you’d heard of — and had positive feelings toward — the celebrity behind it, especially if the product itself seemed like a “natural” extension of their existing brand.

Hudson already had the “living a California lifestyle where a casual workout is around every corner” thing going for her. She had the confidence, the cheeriness, the effortlessness. But she needed to connect a few dots between the rhetoric of her “sick body,” which had accompanied her first decade in Hollywood, and her new business venture. Her Instagram account began to fill with photos and videos of her workouts. In interviews, she emphasized that for her, the culture of wellness, and its athleisure uniform, was nothing new.

Michael Buckner / Getty Images

Kate Hudson with JustFab Inc. Chief Stylist Ginger Ressler and CEO Don Ressler at a launch event for Fabletics in 2013.

“I’ve lived in activewear my entire life,” Hudson told Entrepreneur magazine. “And I just didn’t believe that a pair of high-quality yoga pants had to cost that much.” Hudson also emphasized she didn’t get into wellness just because other celebrities had. “It was always part of our life,” she told Marie Claire. “My mom’s passion is finding joy. Even in difficult moments, she has this joy in life. And I feel the same way.”

With Hudson as its public face, Fabletics quickly became a cash cow — in 2015, its success was crucial to earning parent company JustFab a billion-dollar valuation in Silicon Valley. But then a wave of bad press threatened both the company and Hudson’s image: A 2015 BuzzFeed News investigation by Sapna Maheshwari revealed that JustFab had been dogged by complaints (over 1,400 to the Better Business Bureau between 2012 and 2015) and lawsuits over its deceptive business practices. Hudson’s partners at JustFab — Adam Goldenberg and Don Ressler — had been dealing in the “murky fringes” of internet commerce for over a decade, Maheshwari wrote, “conning consumers into subscriptions for anti-aging shampoo and wrinkle cream under the guise of ‘brand-building’ and ‘innovation.’” Fabletics wasn’t as much of a scam as, say, Sensa, the “miracle” weight-loss powder that had earned Goldenberg a $26 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t deceptive and exploitative.

The revelations about “Kate Hudson’s Fabletics,” as it was often called in reporting, eventually forced the company to change its ways. It’s now much easier to cancel a subscription, and communication about when and how members must “opt out” of each month’s options is much clearer. When asked about member complaints in 2017, Hudson acknowledged, “You can always do better. When you’re a startup and growing fast, it’s hard to get everything right. So we took a long look at everything Fabletics does, from top to bottom, and made the necessary improvements.”

When the news first broke, though, Hudson remained quiet. Like anyone with significant experience with celebrity PR, she knew that the best way to stop a controversy was actually quite simple: You change the subject. In this case, back toward the brand — and its exponential growth. In 2016, Fabletics began expanding into brick-and-mortar spaces in upmarket suburban malls across the United States, touting technology that enabled “members to seamlessly shop and transact across both online and in-store experiences.”

In real-person language: If you’re a member, they scan all the things you try on in the store, and you can buy there or at home. As a result, they can now forecast “inventory demand,” aka what will and will not sell, at 95% accuracy — which, in turn, means less waste, and more profits. But to keep that accuracy, Fabletics needs to maintain loyalty and “urgency” — the need to frequently check back for new “limited” collections and buy them before they disappear. To do so, Fabletics ramped up “VIP-focused messaging” (aka email blasts), enlisted Demi Lovato to create even more limited collections and appeal to a younger demographic, and released a bevy of ads made to resemble Hudson’s own social media posts.

“Kate had the idea of showcasing her actual life in a commercial in a way that would feel like you were scrolling through her Instagram feed,” Fabletic’s chief marketing officer told Adweek. “She wanted a commercial that really genuinely showcased how Fabletics supports her lifestyle and what her lifestyle is about.” Hudson’s Instagram had always been advertising for herself. Now she was simply expanding that to advertising for her products.

By October 2017, Hudson was onstage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, announcing that Fabletics would have 24 stores open by the end of the year — and would bring in $250 million in annual sales. The Fabletics “scandal” hadn’t enveloped Hudson’s brand; instead, Hudson had further enveloped Fabletics in her own brand. For the company, Hudson’s continued association was a dose of antibiotics and an immunization shot all in one: If Hudson’s behind it, if Hudson wears it, if Hudson loves it, how could it be wrong?

Even though Hudson’s film career was effectively on pause, her brand — and her value — kept expanding. After all, she didn’t need a new movie to get in a magazine, just a new Fabletics feature to talk about. In a 2016 piece in Marie Claire, she raved about Fabletics’s new line of “athleisure dresses” (“We’re taking the active girl, taking her out on the town, and keeping her casual!”). In Fast Company, she spun the membership model as a way to “really understand our customer and create brand loyalty.” In People, she promoted the brand’s “Girl Almighty” collection, of which a portion of the profits goes to benefit the United Nations program that funds bicycles for girls going to school. In Vogue, she talked up the brand’s expansion into plus sizes, describing it as a “natural progression of what the brand really is” (“inclusive”). “My whole thing is bodies are so different,” she said. “We all set these standards of what we think is the perfect body, but we should be changing the dialogue to what makes you feel good.”

With each of these interviews, Hudson continued to change the conversation about Fabletics’s purpose: It’s not a subscription leggings company; it’s a community, which, as she told the Daily Front Row, is what she values most about the company. She explained the foundation of the brand as “inclusivity, living your best life, living your healthiest life ... being supportive, and connecting with people in communities” — best achieved, of course, through joining The Core, the Fabletics blog with special, VIP-only content “perks” like “exclusive content from Hudson.” She continually framed Fabletics as a brand committed to wellness — which just happens to make a lot of money selling fast-fashion leggings.

By 2018, Fabletics had attracted 1.4 million VIP members, and surpassed $300 million in annual revenue; today, the number of retail stores has grown to 100, including the Soho pop-up. In October 2018, Hudson gave birth to her third child, Rani Rose, whose father is boyfriend Danny Fujikawa. She documented the pregnancy, the aftermath, and (most important to the Fabletics brand) her attempts to shed her pregnancy weight in a safe, gradual, yet goal-oriented manner, as part of her new role as a brand ambassador with WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers.

This April, Hudson launched her own nonathletic clothing line, HappyxNature, to market the “boho” side of the California image, which had remained untapped by Fabletics. (Sample clothing items: a skirt and crop top set, which Hudson said is “perfect for Coachella.”) She hasn’t appeared in a film since 2017’s Marshall — and yet her overarching brand value only continues to grow.

Fabletics

Back in the early 2000s, when Hudson was on track for a very different sort of career, Robert Altman — who’d just directed her in Dr. T & the Women, said, “There’s something that makes movie stars, and I think Kate Hudson has that magic. I can’t even say what it is, but you know when someone has it. She just lights up the scene — and the screen.” In classic Hollywood — and, in truth, until very recently — that quality was enough to pull a star through dozens of films and a decadeslong career. Some would be stinkers, some would be transcendent, but it didn’t matter: The accumulated effect was the audience’s sense of really understanding who the star “was” (or, at least, what their image was) and why we loved them. The star didn’t have to be the most skilled at acting, at least not necessarily. What mattered was that thing.

Most of the stars who built careers on that quality — Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Will Smith — are now in their forties, fifties, and sixties, acting sparingly, turning their talents to directing, producing, philanthropy, and diplomacy. In the generation that followed, there’s Jennifer Lawrence, and then there are actors filling the slots in superhero movies. That’s not because millennial actors don’t have that thing. It’s because that thing requires certain conditions to flourish — the most important of which are movies in which the star’s charisma, not a piece of recycled intellectual property, is the unifying gravity of the film.

When someone has that thing, you can’t take your eyes off them. That’s what it felt like the first time I watched Almost Famous, and that’s what it felt like when I watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days for the 10th time. That’s what made me watch Hudson in Fool’s Gold, and Raising Helen, and even Bride Wars. It didn’t matter how bad the films were. She was still the main event, the gleaming diamond amid a largely incomprehensible narrative.

But it’s a heavy load to carry a film on your back — and then, when it fails, carry the blame for that failure as well. In contemporary Hollywood, the most common recourse is to become more and more selective — a strategy that has served Tom Cruise particularly well. Most of the remaining crop of stars also demand production credits on their own work, which permits them a much larger creative or financial stake in their films than they’d have received as just the hired charisma. Sometimes, that stake allows them to flex and expand what audiences understood about them and their abilities, but it also allows them to make money off films that do neither.

For women in Hollywood, especially those aging out of prime ingenue territory, roles that don’t lean in to the laziest photocopy of an already clichéd character are still rare — or on television. It’s no coincidence that both Hudson and Paltrow, having spent years watching their parents negotiating what it’s like for a star to grow old, have turned away from the entertainment industry. If anything, it’s surprising that there aren’t even more women stars with some manner of lifestyle brand. Jennifer Aniston could be selling her own brand of premium water and white tank tops, rather than just making ads for Vitaminwater.

Hudson managed to circumvent a system that didn’t know how to value her. And she’s probably making much more money than she ever did starring in mid-level rom-coms. Paltrow’s done something similar with high-end serums and tonics. Witherspoon’s done it with preppy clothes and books. Alba’s done it for baby products. Hudson’s simply taken the template and applied it to athleisure. But that’s such a narrow, straight, and highly feminized path forward, with such clear limits on the type of woman capable of capturing and selling their essence in newsletter or legging form.

I’ve often thought that the rom-coms of the 2000s made the best argument for the genre’s decline: From 27 Dresses to Bride Wars, these films argued that women were uptight, commodity-obsessed shrews who hate themselves and everyone around them. Audiences still responded to the promise of the genre, but it’s hard to find pleasure in narratives with such a bleak overarching vision of who women are and what they “really” want. The rom-com has recently revived itself — almost entirely in the hands of women, with a much different (and far more generous) understanding of why women interact with contemporary society the way that we do. If we’re frazzled, or cold, or bitter, or anxious, it likely has something to do with the fact that we’re called to be all things at all times, with 80% (or less!) of the pay and far less of the credit.

But so much of athleisure and wellness culture feels like a reversion to that earlier iteration of femininity. Athleisure clothes the woman called to do it all, providing a uniform that doesn’t just allow, but encourages, constant mindfulness and scrutiny of the body. This is clothing for the hot mom, the sexy partner, the fit lady boss: descriptors that sound fun and ideal in theory. In practice, they require endless performance, rigorous self-maintenance, and constant vigilance to the ever-changing ideals of femininity. There’s a fine line between fit and too fit, hot mom and too hot of a mom, the striver and the shrew.

Through personal trainers, hired help, a carefully cultivated social media presence, and genetics, Hudson’s managed to occupy that rarified space — and implicitly suggest that others can as well. That’s what celebrities do: Willingly or not, purposefully or not, they set the parameters for others’ aspiration. And no matter how much she talks about how every body is different, or Fabletics’ commitment to “inclusivity,” her personal brand still doubles down on the impossible vision of womanhood that had come to define her, onscreen and off, in Instagram stories and in Fabletics ads. It’s a vision of a woman as something akin to a superhero, only her superpower is managing everything, and being everything to everyone, while being “Happy by Nature.”

It’s not just athleisure Kate Hudson is selling, after all. It’s an entire, exhausting, way of life. “She can sing and dance up a storm and knows how to have fun with social media,” designer Michael Kors told the New York Times back in 2015, explaining Hudson’s continued popularity. “What could be more relevant than being a stylish multitasker in today’s world?” ●

ADVERTISEMENT