The New Spiritual Consumerism – The New York Times

How did you spend your summer vacation? I spent mine in a dissociative fugue of materialist excess, lying prone on my couch and watching all four seasons of “Queer Eye,” the Netflix makeover show reboot. Once an hour, I briefly regained consciousness to feverishly click the “next episode” button so that I wouldn’t have to wait five seconds for it to play automatically. Even when I closed my laptop, the theme song played on endless loop as Jonathan Van Ness vogued through my subconscious. The show is a triumph of consumer spectacle, and now it has consumed me, too.

Every episode is the same. Five queer experts in various aesthetic practices conspire to make over some helpless individual. Tan France (fashion) teaches him to tuck the front of his shirt into his pants; Bobby Berk (design) paints his walls black and plants a fiddle-leaf fig; Antoni Porowski (food) shows him how to cut an avocado; Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) shouts personal affirmations while shaping his beard; and Karamo Brown (“culture”) stages some kind of trust-building exercise that doubles as an amateur therapy session. Then, they retreat to a chic loft, pass around celebratory cocktails and watch a video of their subject attempting to maintain his new and superior lifestyle. The makeover squad cries, and if you are human, you cry too.

Because “Queer Eye” is not just a makeover. As its gurus lead the men (and occasionally, women) in dabbing on eye cream, selecting West Elm furniture, preparing squid-ink risotto and acquiring gym memberships, they are building the metaphorical framework for an internal transformation. Their salves penetrate the skin barrier to soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, absentee parenting and hoarding tendencies. The makeover is styled as an almost spiritual conversion. It’s the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.

Just a few years ago, American culture was embracing its surface delights with a nihilistic zeal. Its reality queens were the Kardashians, a family that became rich and famous through branding its own wealth and fame. “Generation Wealth,” Lauren Greenfield’s 2018 documentary on American excess, captured portraits of people who crave luxury, beauty and cash as ends in and of themselves. Donald Trump, the king of 1980s extravagance, was elected president.

But lately American materialism is debuting a new look. Shopping, decorating, grooming and sculpting are now jumping with meaning. And a purchase need not have any explicit social byproduct — the materials eco-friendly, or the proceeds donated to charity — to be weighted with significance. Pampering itself has taken on a spiritual urgency.

Practitioners of this new style often locate its intellectual underpinnings in the work of Audre Lorde. But when Lorde wrote, in her 1988 essay “A Burst of Light,” that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” she was speaking in the context of managing her liver cancer — and doing it as a black lesbian whose health and well-being were not prioritized in America.

Now the ethos of “self-care” has infiltrated every consumer category. The logic of GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury brand that sells skin serums infused with the branding of intuition, karma and healing, is being reproduced on an enormous scale.

Women’s shoes, bras, razors, tampons and exclusive private clubs are stamped with the language of empowerment. SoulCycle and Equinox conceive of exercise as not just a lifestyle but a closely held identity, which backfired when some members were aggrieved by the news that the chairman of the brands’ parent company is a financial supporter of President Trump. Therapy memes imagine mental health professionals prescribing consumerist fixes, which are then repurposed by beauty brands. Even Kim Kardashian West is pivoting to the soul: Her latest project is launching a celebrity church with her husband, Kanye West.

And through the cleaning guru Marie Kondo, who also became a Netflix personality this year, even tidying objects can be considered a spiritual calling. Her work suggests that objects don’t just make us feel good — objects feel things, too. She writes of old books that must be woken up with a brush of the fingertips and socks that sigh with relief at being properly folded.

“Queer Eye” has further elevated material comforts into an almost political stance. When the reboot of the original — which ran on Bravo from 2003 to 2007, as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — debuted last year, Netflix announced that it intended to “make America fabulous again” by sending its crew deep into the red states to “turn them pink.” By preaching self-care to the men of Middle America — it has so far plucked its makeover subjects from Georgia, Missouri and Kansas — the show would heal the nation itself through the power of stuff.

Is “Queer Eye” a political show? In a sense, yes. Van Ness, the show’s profoundly magnetic grooming expert, rocks a signature look of a Jesus beard, mermaid hair, painted nails and high-heeled booties. His fashion and grooming choices have an obvious political valence; he recently came out as non-binary. When he makes over some straight dude, it is as if he is imbuing the process with his own transgressive identity, even if he’s grooming the guy into a standard-issue cool dad.

Anyway, it’s wonderful to watch. In contrast, the original “Queer Eye” no longer goes down so easy. The show’s exclusive focus on providing men with physical upgrades now plays as cynical. The Fab Five ridicule their marks as much as they help them. More than a decade before same-sex marriage would be legalized across the United States, these five out gay men were quite obviously punching up.

But in the new version, the power dynamic has flipped. The difference between the Fab Five and their charges is no longer chiefly one of sexual orientation or gender identity. (This “Queer Eye” also provides makeovers to gay men and to women.) The clear but unspoken distinction is a class one.

Material comforts are comforting: cooking a nice and interesting meal; living in a tidy and beautiful space; soothing tired eyes with a cool mask. And money helps you get money: The subjects of “Queer Eye” are typically made over in a standard professional style, as if they are being retrofitted for the work force. Surreptitiously, “Queer Eye” provides vacation time, too: Its subjects somehow receive a week off from work to focus on themselves.

The trouble is that when “Queer Eye” offers these comforts, the show implies that its subjects have previously lacked them because of some personal failure. They have been insufficiently confident, skilled, self-aware, dedicated or emotionally vulnerable. The spiritual conversion of the show occurs when the subject pledges a personal commitment to maintaining a new lifestyle going forward. But what these people need is not a new perspective. They need money, and they need time, which is money.

“Queer Eye” offers a kind of simulation of wealth redistribution. But every time the Fab Five retreats from the scene, I imagine the freshly-painted homes slowly falling into disrepair, the beards growing shaggy again, the refrigerators emptying.

In the fourth season, which dropped last month, the team makes over a single dad from Kansas City who is known as “the cat suit guy” because he wears feline print onesies to local sporting events. By the end, he gets a new corporate casual wardrobe, and a pop-up support network for his depression — he struggled to discuss it with anyone until the cast of “Queer Eye” broke through his shell.

As they prepare to leave, he tells them that he really needs them to stay in touch. “You’ve got to check on me,” he says. Absolutely, one of them says: “On Instagram.”

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Madison Keys Wins Western & Southern, but Keeps Eyes on U.S. Open

MASON, Ohio — Madison Keys won the biggest title of her career, claiming the Western & Southern Open final on Sunday, 7-5, 7-6 (5) over Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Keys, 24, will rejoin the Top 10 on the strength of this victory, which is her second of the year, after Charleston.

In both sets on Sunday, Kuznetsova broke early and led by 5-3 before Keys regathered herself, leveled, and pulled ahead. Keys hit 13 aces in the match to finish with a total of 59 for the week, which tied a career high. She was the more assertive player throughout rallies, hitting 45 winners to Kuznetsova’s 15, yet kept her explosive power relatively harnessed. Keys had also won all three previous matches against Kuznetsova, 34, without ever losing a set.

The men’s final also featured a career best, as Daniil Medvedev, 23, won his first Masters title and surged into the Top 5 with a 7-6(3), 6-4 victory over David Goffin.

Keys, who has been considered one of the biggest talents in American tennis for much of the decade, showcased during the week a calm, consistent clarity that she has often lacked.

“I think I have known what I need to do in order to play good tennis,” Keys said. “It’s more how to put that all together and how to keep my emotions in check the entire time. I thought I did a good job of that this week.”

Keys’s coach, Juan Todero, said he never lost sight of her potential.

“When we talk, we always know what she’s capable of doing,” Todero said. “So the idea is always there: she’s always right there, and at any moment it can come. Little by little, she’s believing more and playing with more confidence. If she can keep this up, a lot of great things are going to happen for her.”

In her post-victory news conference, Keys spoke with more measured enthusiasm than might be expected from a player who an hour earlier had won the biggest title of her career. The United States Open, which begins next week, was already in her sights.

She has been one of the most consistent players at the Open in recent years, reaching the final two years ago and the semifinals last year.

“I’m obviously really happy and really proud of myself, but it’s definitely more of a building block,” Keys said of her triumph. “I want to do well in New York, and I want to have a good end of the season. So I’m taking a lot of positives from this week, but just trying to reel it in a little bit.”

There are many positives from which Keys can choose. Kuznetsova was the fourth multiple major champion whom Keys defeated this week. She topped the two-time Grand Slam winner Garbiñe Muguruza in the first round, the recent Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the third round, and the seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.

“The biggest thing was her confidence and how she kept her composure,” Todero said. “A lot of things didn’t go her way, and she was able to battle, to fight, and to play through situations that were very tough. It was a super tough draw, and she was able to keep it together through the matches in order to come out on top.”

Medvedev was subdued in victory, too, though out of fatigue primarily. After reaching the finals in both Washington and Montreal, the final on Sunday was Medvedev’s 16th singles match in 20 days; he also played two matches here in doubles.

Medvedev had celebrated his win over No. 1 Novak Djokovic emphatically on Saturday evening, but gave only a restrained fist pump after beating Goffin, saying he had “zero force inside” to do anything more.

For Kuznetsova, being able to play in the United States at all represented a victory, as she weathered a visa snag that threatened her trip and potentially her career; when she lost the points she had earned in Washington a year earlier, her ranking plunged 90 spots to 198th.

“It was lots of things on the line, but it was out of my control,” Kuznetsova said.

By reaching the final here, a journey which included a win over the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals, Kuznetsova will climb to 62nd. Kuznetsova will be unseeded at the U.S. Open, 15 years after winning her first Grand Slam title there.

“I can draw any player in the first round,” Kuznetsova said, “so wish me luck in the draw.”

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‘Miracle house’ in Ohio draws pilgrims amid sainthood push

Late in the summer of 1939, crowds of strangers started showing up at Rhoda Wise’s house next to a city dump in Ohio after she let it be known that miracles were occurring in her room.

Eight decades later, people still make pilgrimages to the wood frame bungalow at the edge of Canton, Ohio, seeking their own miracles. Wise died in 1948, but her legend as a Christian mystic has blossomed with time. And last fall, after years of discussions, the local Roman Catholic diocese petitioned the Vatican to make Wise a saint, renewing interest in her former home.

The story starts with the sickly Wise, who lived with her alcoholic husband and young daughter, claiming she was healed of a terminal illness and was visited by Jesus Christ as she suffered in her bed.

When word got out, people began arriving at all hours, seeking spiritual guidance and asking to see the wooden chair where Jesus sat. They stood in lines around the block to file past her bed when she appeared to suffer stigmata — bloody wounds on her head, hands and feet like those Jesus suffered on the cross — until she implored the church to take her off display.

Newspapers and national magazines sent reporters to write about Ohio’s “miracle house.”

The parade of pilgrims slowed down after Wise’s death but never stopped. Her house — now with beige vinyl siding and a good-sized parking lot — has remained an under-the-radar destination for the faithful and curious.

Her former home is one of dozens of Catholic shrines and pilgrimage sites in the United States, ranging from modest to grand.

Among them are one of the largest crucifixes in the world in the woods of Michigan, an altar inside a 50-foot-high cave carved into a cliff in Oregon, and a small chapel in Minnesota built as a tribute to the Virgin Mary, to whom the locals prayed when a plague of grasshoppers devastated crops in the 1870s.

In 1996, a popular shrine developed in the parking lot of an office building in Clearwater, Florida, where thousands believed a 60-foot image of Mary had appeared on the mirrored glass. That lasted until 2004, when a high school boy with a slingshot shattered some of the panes.

The Wise house stands out because it doesn’t stand out, blending in with a row of Habitat for Humanity homes, built across the street in recent years, and the rest of the frayed residential neighborhood. These days, there’s a golf course where the dump used to be.

Regardless of the validity of the Rhoda Wise narrative — scoffers note that she was known to have mental health problems — people still arrive by the busload. They come to view her 9-foot-square bedroom, pray and sit in the Jesus chair, which has been repaired numerous times through the years and now is painted gold. There is no admission fee. Donations pay the bills.

Canton native Karen Sigler, 66, visited with a group in the early 1980s and was recruited by Wise’s daughter Anna Mae to become the live-in caretaker, a position she has held now for 36 years.

“We live in a world that’s really hard to have faith in today. Really hard,” Sigler said, trying to explain the attraction. “A lot of people want to hold on to it. And Rhoda’s strength to endure everything she did with such a great love of God is inspiration for them.”

Precise numbers aren’t kept, but a guest book shows visitors from more than a dozen states and Canada since late spring. Most are already believers, like 49-year-old Denise Kleinhenz. She came with her family recently from their home on the other side of the state.

“She saw Jesus,” said Kleinhenz, wonder in her voice. “And he came more than just once. It just makes me think about, that he exists.”

The room where Wise was bedridden for years now is an altar room crowded with statues and relics. Bandages claimed to be those that absorbed Wise’s blood during stigmata are mounted in frames on the wall. Photos of Wise bleeding from the head and hands also are displayed.

The “Acts of the Case” advocating for her sainthood have been sent to Rome, but the next steps of the arduous process could take years.

Whether scientific explanations might exist for things that happened to Wise makes little difference by now, said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor who has written on Catholic beliefs.

Nobody can prove or disprove that miracles occurred at house or as a result of people visiting and praying there, Dillon said. And the continued involvement of the church has given the story a stamp of legitimacy.

“People do believe in prayer and miracles,” Dillon said. “And there’s also a social piece to that — if so many others are going, they must be on to something. If the story is compelling, it will attract a following.”

One of Wise’s granddaughters, 71-year-old Darlene Zastawny, was raised in the house and still stops around to talk to visitors. Her earliest memories, she said, involve strangers showing up at the door.

“I always wondered who all these people were that my mother would let in,” she said. “I’d be getting ready for school when I was little and there would be a stranger sitting with us because she wouldn’t tell them no. I knew it was special, but sometimes I wished it was more of a home. There was somebody coming all the time, but you get used to it.”

———

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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