What Gwyneth Paltrow’s Courtroom Water Says about Her, and The Brand

Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial this month over a skiing accident at a Utah ski resort was low on theatrical courtroom drama. But the costuming and art direction that the actress and wellness entrepreneur brought to the proceedings that unfolded in the courtroom? Why, that was some high art.

Much has been made about her wardrobe and accessories – carefully chosen, as is everything about a Capital-A-list celebrity who has spent much of her life in front of the cameras – which conveyed a sort of stealthy-wealthy insouciance. But let’s not forget another way in which we consumers (and celebrities in particular) communicate with one another: our bottled water.

During at least two days of the trial, which ended Thursday with a judgment in Paltrow’s favor, the actress toted a half-liter green glass bottle from which she took fortifying swigs. At first squint, you might have thought it was Perrier, the OG of status-symbol bottled water. Or Pellegrino, perhaps – an Italian brand that also would look at home on the white-linen tablecloths of power-lunchers doing multi-zero deals.

But it was, as some sharp-eyed viewers determined, a brand called the Mountain Valley, which has low-key claimed a spot among the aforementioned classics of the genre, as well as trendier brands, as a bottled water of choice for the rich and famous.

Mountain Valley also made a cameo in the hands of another one-percenter pop-culture figure this week: In the premiere of the HBO drama “Succession,” Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, one of the three scheming scions of a vast media fortune, is also shown drinking a bottle as she plots her next move.

The brand, an Arkansas-based company that’s been around since 1871, is accessible and rarefied – a balance that both Paltrow and the fictional Shiv Roy have had to navigate. As my colleague Ashley Fetters Maloy wrote in her excellent dissection of Paltrow’s sartorial choices, “She has simultaneously telegraphed two messages that very well could have been at odds: ‘Look, I’m just a mom who tried to take her teenagers on a nice ski vacation,’ and ‘Yes I am wealthy and famous, and I shan’t be wasting my time on this.'”

Mountain Valley is relatively affordable (you can pick up a liter for $3.19 at Safeway) but still telegraphs status. “I spent all my life intimidated by any H2O product that is packaged in a green glass bottle,” said a TikTok user named makeupartistatlaw who, inspired by Paltrow’s beverage, reviewed the brand. “I always assumed it was out of my league.”

Paltrow conspicuously did not tote her own Flow water – a brand she has partnered with that boasts “high alkaline” levels that adherents to the Goop-y lifestyle Paltrow espouses claim to have health benefits. Such a move might have smacked of self-promotion, not that the Oscar-winning actress hadn’t already taken some flack from wearing clothing from her own Goop line during the high-profile trial.

Bottled water as status symbol has ebbed and flowed like the possibly apocryphal sources from which it flows. You can pin the dawn of the Celebrity Water Era to the ’90s, when Evian appeared in the well-manicured clutches of the elite. Jack Nicholson toted a bottle on the red carpet at the 1990 Academy Awards. Celebrities such as Kim Basinger and Demi Moore were rumored to wash their hair with it.

Michael Bellas, the chairman of the Beverage Marketing Corp., notes that Perrier and Evian – and the A-listers who loved them – kicked off a decades-long financial and cultural juggernaut because they tapped into a collective thirst for health and prestige. “They said something about the consumer – there was that beautiful packaging, and it was like a badge,” he says. “It said, ‘I’m healthy, I’m upscale.’ And everyone wanted that.”

After those, a thousand brands bloomed. And while it might be difficult for anyone born later than the Reagan years to imagine, there was a time when people didn’t walk around with a water bottle in hand or stashed in their bag, at the ready. But by the mid-1990s water was – as the Ancient Mariner said – everywhere. “It wasn’t like alcohol, where you consume it in a restaurant or at home, and it isn’t like a soda,” Bellas said. “It was something you could drink all the time, always in terms of health and wellness and sophistication – we had never seen anything like that before in beverages.”

Mountain Valley’s celebrity pedigree actually predates the craze: The company says it was the favored water of legendary racehorse Secretariat and Elvis Presley.

In the late aughts, with a recession on and concerns mounting about the environmental impact of all those plastic bottles, designer water fell out of fashion for a minute. In a 2008 column about New York’s Fashion Week, Sarah Sands of the Daily Mail noted that all the fashionistas were without their usual accessory. “Imagine my bewilderment in New York last week when I noticed that the fashion tribe trooping round the shows had their hands free,” she wrote. “More extraordinary, they were ostentatiously calling for tap water in the restaurants. Free water! From taps! How primitive can you get? Nobody knows exactly who was first to shout that the bottled water emperors had no clothes, but fashionistas will always jump on a bandwagon and this one is now careering through American and European cities.”

Reusable water bottles eventually challenged their disposable brethren with an ever-expanding roster of branded options. Nalgenes were for the outdoorsy set. S’well bottles made their way into swag bags across the land. Prada introduced an aluminum version in 2019. Stanley tumblers were chic for a moment but have become so ubiquitous that they’re now the subject of memes where self-deprecating “basic moms” show off their uniforms: athleisure, topknots and their “emotional support” insulated mugs that might contain something other than water.

But disposable bottles of status water have never really gone away. Jennifer Aniston was for more than a decade the glowing face of Smartwater. Reality stars stock their perfectly curated refrigerators with Voss and Flow. And they accompany stars like Paltrow wherever they go, whether that’s tabloid-documented errands, red carpets – or a courthouse.