The Hot Messes of the Wellness World

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

When it’s time for her nightly skin-care routine, the comedian and author Jacqueline Novak sinks into the knockoff Eames lounge in the living room of her Los Angeles home. She sits beside a wall lined entirely with shelves of beauty products — pump bottles, sprays, creams, an LED light machine that casts a demonic red glow. From her chair, Novak begins her regimen, which, at its most elaborate, might include a nanocurrent facial followed by ten layers of products in order of ascending thickness. Novak feels no shame in having converted her living room into a boudoir. Why should she have to suffer the indignity of applying her patches and creams while hunched over a bathroom sink when she could do so in repose while watching Sopranos reruns?

Novak amassed many of her products after November 2020, the month that she, along with the comedian and actor Kate Berlant, launched their wellness podcast POOG. Though her skin-care routine may seem precious, she insists otherwise. “I’m a slob,” she says bluntly. “I don’t want people to think, She sits up straight and mimes daintily applying creams. It’s more like ‘hunh, hunh, hunh,’” she grunts, leaning back in her chair with a snarl while shoving her hands toward her forehead.

Berlant and Novak met roughly a decade ago in New York’s stand-up scene, where both developed reputations for painfully self-aware comedy that mixes highbrow cultural analysis with goofball humor. Novak is best known for her critically acclaimed Off Broadway show Get On Your Knees, a personal and raunchy meditation on oral sex that is returning to New York this month; Berlant is an actor whose parodies of self-obsession range from an avant-grade artist in Netflix’s The Characters to an overbearing stage mom in her Vimeo series 555, a collaboration with the actor John Early. One afternoon in 2019, the two friends were at a Korean spa, sitting naked in the sauna with their “tits swinging in the wind,” according to Novak. They were in the midst of living out what would soon become another POOGian theme, in which they devote themselves to a wellness practice, even if the obsession ends up short-lived. (Novak once brought her laptop to the spa, convinced she could work from a yoga mat.) While trying to discover the origins of the infrared sauna’s red light, it hit them: Their insatiable appetite for wellness experiments could fill up a podcast. The name they landed on, POOG, is GOOP spelled backwards, but the comedians weren’t interested in a mean-spirited mockery of Gwyneth Paltrow’s empire, a premise so on the nose it made their skin crawl. (“It’s like, ‘Oh, the vagina egg! What crazy stuff are they thinking of now?’” says Berlant. “The joke is over immediately.”) They pitched the idea to Will Ferrell in March 2020; shortly after, POOG joined his slate of comedy podcasts, including Las Culturistas with Bowen Yang, that run on iHeartMedia.

From the beginning, POOG set itself apart from the deluge of podcasts that capitalize or comment on the $600 billion wellness industrial complex. Those with cringingly earnest names like Wellness Mama or Nutrition Diva dole out advice on topics like weight loss and meditation, while their cynical counterparts (Maintenance Phase, The Body Stuff) debunk the junk science behind trends like celery juice or crystals. With POOG, Novak and Berlant carved out a middle space that gives their listeners permission to both love a $300 seaweed-infused cream and loathe the cultural forces that make such a purchase feel necessary in the first place. (When it comes to wellness, “the attraction and repulsion is so simultaneous,” says Novak.) Though she and Berlant covet (and openly beg) for products, they are more interested in the tangle of feelings “wellness” evokes — the desire, the shame, the struggles with their own self-worth. POOG’s approach can be attributed, in part, to how the duo first became interested in the world of serums and salt caves. Novak’s foray was born of necessity: She was dealing with depression in college and struggling to find an effective medication; out of desperation, she started to explore things like energy healing, fish oil, and blue-light therapy. Berlant grew up in Los Angeles, where getting facials and worrying about water purity is baked into the culture; like Novak, she has ADD, and is always looking for non-Adderall driven solutions to stay focused.

Unlike their other projects, which can require developing laborious TV show pilots or staging live theater, POOG poured out of their brains effortlessly. “It’s like monetizing the friendship,” says Berlant. Each episode has a loose theme, like menstruation, face yoga, or gut health, from which Novak and Berlant digress into the products they’re using (the Theragun massager is a favorite) or practices they’ve tried, like lucid dreaming or colonics (Novak went to a woman’s house to get one and inserted her own tube — a fact that horrifies Berlant). “The hags,” as they call themselves, build on each other’s thoughts and jokes with the breathless energy of high schoolers who could talk on the phone all night. (Had I not interrupted with questions, I think they would have forgotten my presence entirely.)

Listening to POOG feels like stepping into an aural funhouse, in which any thought can lead to a destabilizing and delightful detour. In one episode, Berlant interrupts Novak’s story about sleeping for 27 hours straight (in Jewish culture, Novak says, “interruption is support”) to say she senses an earthquake coming, which provokes a discussion about which celebrities were featured in Vitamin Water campaigns during the aughts. (Moby? No. 50 Cent? Yes.) They make Seinfeldian observations about the world (belted winter coats, Novak quips, are an absurd attempt at “giving you a little waist,” while hotel continental breakfasts are “one of the biggest devastations in American society”) and use face oil and snail mucin as vessels through which to examine their own struggles with depression and mortality. “There’s always something existential about buying products,” Berlant says. “There are big desires and big fears here.” In an episode loosely about sunscreen, she asks if Novak has ever let the sun shine “right into the dead center of your vagina?”; they then discuss Berlant’s fantasy of covering up her décolletage until she’s 65, at which point she, as a senior citizen, could debut a perfectly wrinkleless cleavage. “We live in a horrible society that is categorically against women,” she deadpans. “Unfortunately, we have to protect our necks at all costs.”

On POOG, the hags own up to their contradictory feelings toward cauliflower crusts and gua sha. “There’s something humiliating about having a wellness podcast,” Berlant admits. “But you’re allowed to create work and build a meaningful life and also have an attachment to certain serums. I don’t think it renders you small-minded or not serious.” The show’s audience has tripled since it launched, and Novak and Berlant were recently gifted free products from the popular skin-care line Drunk Elephant, cementing their place in the upper echelons of wellness gurus (GOOP has also sent them free product, and they heard through the grapevine that Gwyneth herself approves of the show.) When the boxes arrived, they screamed over FaceTime; Berlant hasn’t opened hers yet because “it’s so shocking to me that I can hardly face the cream.”

Though POOG was never intended as a get-rich-quick scheme — Novak describes the revenue as “side project” income — it could potentially yield a full-time salary if the hags went all in. But they’d rather not. The show’s enthusiastic reception has made them worry that POOG could one day eclipse their stand-up and acting careers, which contain decades of sweat and blood. “My greatest fear is somebody being like, “Oh, look, it’s Kate Berlant from POOG,” says Berlant. They weren’t the only comedians to find refuge in podcasting when clubs shut down; now, as theaters and film sets open and they’re able to resume other projects, “there’s a big question mark of how it evolves,” said Novak.

The podcast’s greatest value is giving the hags, and by extension their listeners, the license to approach wellness in a more forgiving way. The Poogian philosophy boils down to trusting one’s hedonistic instincts, like on a recent day when Berlant stayed in bed watching Sex and the City reruns until 3:30 in the afternoon while eating a tin of smoked trout along with a piece of cake. For the hags, wellness shouldn’t be a chore. “If it wasn’t a fun diversion, we wouldn’t be doing the podcast,” Novak says. “We’d be spending that time, I guess, jogging or something.”

The Hot Messes of the Wellness World