Major Leaguer

No one knows better than Gwyneth Paltrow what it takes to hit it big.

Calling all young Hollywood hopefuls: You know you’ve truly made it in Tinseltown when you land a million-dollar endorsement contract with a billion-dollar beauty brand.

Case in point: Gwyneth Paltrow.

This fall, the Oscar-winning actress will make her debut as a face of Estée Lauder. First up will be television and print ads for the Pleasures fragrance breaking next month, followed by a color cosmetics campaign, then more fragrance ads. Paltrow is reportedly being paid $3 million for her efforts.

The blond beauty will be in good company at the fragrance bar. Fellow A-listers with endorsement deals include Nicole Kidman and Beyoncé, while J.Lo and Britney have their own scents. Kimora Lee Simmon’s freshman effort, Baby Phat Goddess, is hitting counters now, following Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely, launched last month. Even Donald Trump has his own cologne.

While Paltrow says working with a beauty company appealed to her, a vanity project did not. “No!” she responds when asked if she’s even been tempted to put her name on a fragrance bottle. “When you look at an Estée Lauder campaign, there’s a timelessness and sense of history and American beauty. I’ve never seen that happen in those kind of one-off celebrity fragrances. They look strange to me.”

It was Paltrow’s all-American good looks that attracted Lauder execs, says Aerin Lauder, senior vice president of global creative directions for the Lauder brand. “We’ve been watching Gwyneth for a very long time.” Paltrow and Lauder are ensconced in the well-preserved office of Estée Lauder herself to unveil the actress’ first Pleasures print ad. Photographed by Mario Testino, Paltrow looks radiant in a simple pink shirt. The television ad, to be shot this month, will be directed by Lance Accord, a darling of young Hollywood thanks to his cinematography for Sofia Coppola, among others.

“Gwyneth really represents everything that we’re about—elegance, style, quality,” Lauder continues, “and it makes her the perfect fit for fragrance.”

Truth be told, though, Paltrow has only recently become a convert to frequent fragrance usage. Her favorite scent is one that reminds her of childhood: box hedges. “We used to go to Nantucket at the end of every summer, and the smell of the ocean air mixed with the scent of the hedge has stayed with me,” she says. “Whenever I smell it, I’m instantly transported back there.”

Paltrow’s journey to Hollywood superstardom seems equally enchanted. The 32-year-old made her acting debut in the 1991 Hook, directed by family friend and mentor Steven Spielberg; five years later, she won a Golden Globe Award, Screen Actor’s Guild Award and the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Shakespeare in Love.

At the time, Paltrow seemed to be everywhere—on screen in over 25 films, on stage in the London debut of Proof (a role she’s reprising in the movie version due out this month), guest editing an issue of Marie Claire magazine and appearing on the covers of countless others, hosting two episodes of Saturday Night Live in as many years and, of course, on the arm of Hollywood’s hottest actors, Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck among them.

Paltrow’s life changed irrevocably, though, in 2002 when her father died suddenly. Shortly thereafter, she met rock star Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay. The following year, Paltrow announced her pregnancy, and in December 2003 the couple eloped. In May 2004, Apple Blythe Alison Martin was born.

Since then, Paltrow has sharply curtailed her work schedule, spending 10 days working on the upcoming film Running With Scissors, opting for cameo roles and trying her hand at directing. “I haven’t really got back into the work groove,” she says. “I still work, but not as much. Running With Scissors was difficult for me because I had never not been the person to put Apple to bed at night. I had never not been with her all day. That was hard. It’s probably why I haven’t gone back to work yet. I’m sure I will, though.”

Still, Paltrow doesn’t mince words when dispensing advice for the countless hopefuls who aspire to follow in her stiletto footsteps. “Stay true to yourself,” she counsels, “because that’s the way you find real success and find your niche and figure out who you are. Trust your instincts, and never be talked into anything that doesn’t feel right.”

One area in particular in which Paltrow has rarely made a misstep over the course of her career is in her personal style. Today, she’s wearing a brown silk Bottega Veneta halter dress and strappy Balenciaga sandals; her hair and makeup are natural-looking yet impeccable.

From the sheer beaded Giorgio Armani dress she wore to the premiere of Shakespeare in Love to the cotton-candy pink Ralph Lauren taffeta ballgown she picked out for the Academy Awards a few months later, Paltrow’s choices, with few exceptions, have made plenty of news. Her innate sense of elegance has made her a favorite of the fashion set. She’s a regular guest of Valentino at his Château de Wideville outside Versailles, and frequently turns up at the boutique openings and front rows of pals like Stella McCartney.

Paltrow is well aware of the role personal image plays in success—and considers herself partly to blame. “In the past eight to 10 years, it seems like the whole styling thing has become so important in Hollywood,” she says. “It wasn’t like that so much when I first started. It’s probably partly my fault, because I got into this alliance with Calvin Klein, and I remember a lot of focus being on what I was wearing all the time. Now it’s gone bananas.”

Though Paltrow’s appetite for clothes shopping has waned since the birth of her daughter, she’s not opting out of the fashion game altogether. She plans on picking up a few pieces in New York before heading back to London. “Stella McCartney made some really fantastic coats and jackets, and her long sweater and high boots—I’m very into Stella for fall,” she says, quickly warming up to the subject. “Balenciaga made some beautiful things. And I want to get the peacoat that Michael Kors designed.”

But at the end of the day, Paltrow says, it’s the simple things in life that give her the most, well, pleasure: “It’s about being with my family and being in nature,” she says. “It’s not about fantasy. It’s about real life and connecting; not worrying about the future, just being in the here and now.”