The front door stood wide open and Rachel Bertsche could be seen from the street, zooming through the foyer of her Lincoln Park townhouse, a peach Lululemon blur in black tights. I stepped tentatively inside the doorway and reconsidered immediately: Bertsche did not look as calm or as centered as I anticipated. She did not exude the serenity of Julia Roberts, the poise of Jennifer Aniston or confidence of Tina Fey. Clearly, she had not achieved perfection. She was frantic, and tugged in a million directions. She didn’t even seem to notice I was there. I stepped outside to give her a moment. On the sidewalk was Charlie the Roofer, waiting to get paid. Bertsche said she would write him a check and, before I could say hello, she was gone again.
It was 8 a.m. on a Wednesday.
The street was quiet, devoid of movement. Except outside Bertsche's place: In addition to Charlie, the nanny had just arrived to take Bertsche's daughter to Bertsche's brother's house and needed a child seat installed. The doorbell rang again: The cleaning woman was here.
At the top of the stairs, Bertsche stopped her husband, Matt, a labor lawyer. He was on his way to Joliet. "Our house is like a zoo," she told him. "Our house is nothing like Gwyneth's house." Then she returned to the sidewalk and paid Charlie. I said hello. She said, breathless: "Oh God, this isn't being reported, is it?"
A couple of years ago, Bertsche decided she would live like famous women. For one year, she would do as much as her finances and sanity allowed. She would follow Aniston's workouts and prepare meals as Gwyneth Paltrow prepares meals in her cookbooks and on her Goop lifestyle website. She would study the fashion sense of Sarah Jessica Parker and develop her wardrobe, and she would work as tirelessly and efficiently as Fey seems to. She would meditate and go on a social-media fast, because Roberts meditates and claims to not care about Facebook or Twitter. She would look to the marriage of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck for tips on how to improve her own union (though she told me her marriage is great). And, because her experiment dovetailed with her and Matt's often frustrating attempts to have a baby, once she was pregnant, Bertsche considered the advice that Jessica Alba offers expectant mothers.
Where writers such as Julie Powell ("Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously") and Robyn Okrant ("Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk") sought Julia Child and Oprah Winfrey as their spirit animals, Bertsche wanted more of a "composite of perfection." Her account of that year is the new book "Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time." In the parlance of self-help, it's a journey: She starts out conflicted ("celebrity obsession is making me feel worse and better all at once"), then discovers hard truths ("what I crave is control"). By the Fey chapter, she's "a better version" of herself ("which is something"), and by the Beyonce section, she realizes she is no longer chasing a reality but a perception: "Nobody actually feels perfect, not even Jennifer or Gwyneth."
Which is how I found Bertsche — wiser, realistic.
But also relatable and funny, not unlike the frenetic heroine of a rom-com: Indeed, perhaps because she is so charming, her previous memoir, "MWF Seeking BFF," is the improbable account of how she spent a year trying to make friends. Bertsche is 32, a freelance journalist (The New York Times, Chicago magazine, Seventeen) and native of Westchester County, N.Y., just outside New York City. She attended Northwestern University, worked as an editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, in Manhattan and then moved to Chicago to be an online producer for Harpo Studios. "Oprah would say at the end of every show to visit the website for 'more information,'" Bertsche recalled, "and I would be one of those people providing that 'more information.'" She also wrote play-by-play accounts of each episode, but when the show ended in May 2011, so did the job.
She told me: "I was definitely thinking hard about what was next. And maybe because I like reading year-in-the-life books or because I don't see those books exactly as self-help but more as a way of saying, 'This is what happened to me, and take from that what you will,' I knew year-in-the life books was what I should do. So one day, I'm standing in the shower, and I'm thinking: 'You know, I wish I had Jennifer Aniston's arms.'
"I thought: 'What if I just do what she does? Could I look as fabulous?' My agent said: What, and at the end you're just skinnier? Not the most satisfying book. But I liked the idea of a memoir that also explores how celebrity culture can cause people to compare themselves. Women, in particular, are hard on themselves for not living up to supposed ideals, but what if, with every new chapter, I attempted to live up to a new ideal?"
We sat in her kitchen, the roar of a vacuum cleaner the only sound now.
She said her own writing ideal is somewhere between Nora Ephron and stunt-memoirist A.J. Jacobs ("My Life as an Experiment"). "I hope I am writing what women like me are thinking but are too embarrassed to say," she said. "I may see my books as memoirs but bookstores file them under self-help, women's studies, even humor. So maybe I don't know what they are. But I am not a life coach."
Neither is Oprah, I said, but the perception …
Yes, she said, and aside from Paltrow and Alba (who owns the baby-centric Honest Company), none of the women she emulated position themselves as lifestyle gurus. "On the other hand, though, I don't know these women or how they feel about themselves; perception is reality," Bertsche said. She was interested in celebrities who, intentionally or not, have come to represent a certain type of branding and approachability. Oprah, her former boss, may have seemed like a fit for, say, emulating business savvy, "but Oprah is unobtainable," Bertsche said. "I included Beyonce, and that was pushing it. No part of me feels that if I did a few things I'd be more like Oprah."
Still, by virtue of profits and employees, all of the women in this book are midsize corporations, I said.
"I know," she said. "And I know a lot of people are behind the scenes, constructing their images. I know that. Yet looking at Us Weekly, it's hard to remind yourself of that. Angelina Jolie is shuttling six kids through the airport, and everyone looks amazing in the pictures. I was in the airport yesterday; my baby had yogurt in her eyebrows. A picture of Kristen Bell walking her dog — see, she's a human being. I'm a human being … I was looking at a picture of Gisele Bundchen's after-baby body and said to Matt, 'She just had a baby, I just had a baby.' He said, 'And she's a model.' Of course I know that. It's still hard not to wonder about yourself."
After we spoke, we did yoga.
We did the yoga that Aniston supposedly does and Bertsche did for her celebrity lifestyle year. It's called "Yogalosophy." Aniston appears in the video for 26 seconds, espousing the virtues of instructor Mandy Ingber, who stands in front of sunny beachfront property and leads viewers though balance and "warrior" poses. Just as Bertsche describes, the routine was brisk, easy and surprisingly energizing even in low doses. "Though I do wonder if you can basically sell anything if you just put Jennifer Aniston's stamp on it," Bertsche said, her feet planted, her left arm swooping upward and back into a statuesque "reverse warrior."
Not everything she tried for the book went so cleanly: "I was trying to work as hard as Tina Fey, but somewhere during that time I realized I don't have to. I don't have as much to do, and I could just go to sleep at 10 p.m. instead. So I did." And for Julia Roberts Month: "I made a gratitude list because Julia says she's grateful. And I meditated. But, look — I wish I never saw a Facebook page, too, but I don't really believe Julia Roberts has never seen one."
Bertsche writes in the book that she worries her Sarah Jessica Parker Month has made her more vain, but she says now: "I think I came out of it knowing you don't get the same conquer-the-world attitude when you work from home and wear workout clothes or pajamas all day. I don't dress up, but I do make an effort now."
To illustrate, she left the room and returned with a purple tutu.
She pulled it on over her tights and we walked to Whole Foods, where she explained that, by far, the most expensive month was Gwyneth Paltrow Month. Learning to eat and cook like Paltrow was a hit-and-miss 30 days. She called up a picture of a smoothie on her phone: "That cost me $43.28," she said. It looked black.
She brought along Paltrow's "My Father's Daughter" cookbook and flipped its sauce-stained pages. "I made a lot of this," Bertsche said, "but some of Gwyneth's must-have pantry items?" She pointed to a word on the list: "Vegenaise." Then she pointed to the sentence beside it, explaining "most grocery stores" carry Vegenaise.
Bertsche rolled her eyes.
But Paltrow's "perfect roasted Chinese duck"? Wonderful, she said, walking me into an aisle and pointing out the ingredients. "I felt very fabulous making this. I became someone who cooked with bonito flakes." On the other hand, the meal, made for a dinner party, also required three days and more than $200. "I think the thing that people hate about Gwyneth, and especially Goop, is how she will provide very nice, very elegant advice, then turn and mention, 'And you must absolutely book a room in this hotel when visiting Marrakech.'"
We left Whole Foods and passed a woman who gave a not-too-subtle, judgmental once-over to Bertsche's tutu. Bertsche whispered: "She was totally staring at the tutu! I think that's what being a celebrity feels like."