It’s the morning of POPSUGAR Play/Ground and I have nothing to wear.
What’s the dress code for an event that features workout classes alongside pop-up shops alongside panel discussions alongside beauty product demos — alongside everything in between? Do I show up looking ready to sweat? Like I’m spending a regular summer day at a convention center in New York City? Like a suburban mom during the 10 minutes between her spin class and her weekly Whole Foods run? I sigh, stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows of my unfairly lucky Brooklyn sublet. I settle on bike shorts, ribbed tank top and Velcro sneakers, a pewter Juicy Couture hoodie rolled up in one of my 800 souvenir tote bags. This life, it’s hard.
From June 22 through 23, fans of media outlet POPSUGAR gathered at New York City’s Pier 94 for the brand’s second annual POPSUGAR Play/Ground, an innovative festival that I can only define as two days of wellness, beauty and peak capitalism. Activations, or spaces within the festival devoted to specific activities, included the Main Stage, where big names like Issa Rae and Mandy Moore serenaded guests with tales of their career come-ups; the Playground, an adult version of the best parts of Chuck E. Cheese; the Sugar Studio, where attendees got their sweat on with a variety of trendy fitness classes; the Samsung Galaxy Soul Space, an ironically crowded spot for some much-needed emotional recharge; the Beauty Carnival, where attendees tried their luck at winning products through classic games; the Mall of the Future, a digi-fied shopping space comparable to Cher Horowitz’s computerized closet; the Pop Shop, where fashion-centric panels took place alongside major retail therapy and the feed, the food hall that extended from inside the building out to a line of food trucks in Pier 94’s parking lot.
If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry. It was. Play/Ground was a sensory overload, tailor made for the interests of young women like me.
I arrived on Saturday at 11:15 a.m., greeted at the front of the building by a massive rainbow structure with cloud-shaped swings hanging underneath. Personnel promptly handed me a wristband that I had to activate online in order to participate in most of the weekend’s activities. It featured a QR code that I later learned was scanned upon entry to each activation so POPSUGAR could have a prayer at keeping numbers of who did what. I moseyed around Pier 94 for all but five minutes before accidentally entering a line for a DIY facial tutorial with Swedish skincare innovator FOREO.
I watched guests in front of me enter the activation empty-handed and exit with armfuls of freebie products (I’d soon realize that would be a common theme of the weekend). The girl behind me in line said it best: “I feel like this is our heaven, getting a bunch of free shit.” While awaiting my turn to test a light-activated face mask contraption, I spotted a complimentary coffee stand, which almost tempted me enough to leave my place in line. But I ended up glad I stayed; 15 minutes later, I trotted off glowing and ready to embrace mechanized beauty, carrying a souvenir bag with a miniature version of FOREO’s Luna cleansing and massaging face brush.
Minutes later, as I listened to Mandy Moore profess her love for mountain climbing (She’s climbed Kilimanjaro!), I quickly got word that the Play/Ground’s workout activations were filling up fast, and that I should count on getting to each at least 10 minutes early. By now it was past noon, and though I’d planned to attend a 12:45 fitness class, I could feel my stomach grumbling.
I opted to spend the early afternoon scrounging up free food and mapping out a game plan for the rest of my day, knowing I couldn’t make it to every talk and activation, as some overlapped. One oat milk latte and vegan hemp seed granola bar later, I shamelessly took a chair at a four-person table and determined that I’d use the latter part of the day to explore the Beauty Carnival, attend a 2 o’clock talk by fitness instructors Monica Jones, Katrina Scott and Karena Dawn, rush to hear actress Camila Mendes on the Main Stage at 3 and make it back to the Sugar Studio by 3:50 for a kickboxing workshop with Jones.
The Beauty Carnival functioned exactly the way I’d imagined. At a booth by Lanieige, attendees threw darts at balloons in hopes of scoring full-sized products as prizes (I lost). Skincare company Mamond served up a pool full of fake magnetic roses that attendees had to fish out using hot pink magnetic rods (I won, but so did everyone else). Other vendors in the space included Benefit Cosmetics and dry shampoo brand Amika, but I didn’t get to visit them all; I had a game plan, and a girl only has so much time.
Later on at the Soul Space, Jones, Scott and Dawn dove into the subjectivity of the term “fitness.” Perched on a wicker floor seat next to two Tone It Up fanatics who flew in from Florida, I became privy to each panelist’s interpretation. For Jones, fitness is a connection between mind, body and lifestyle; it’s about harmony. Scott emphasized the power of exercise classes in bringing women together, while Dawn summed things up simply: “Fitness is a feeling,” she mused, the words practically oozing out of her matching sports bra and leggings set. I would return to those themes in about an hour, when, after listening to Camila Mendes powerfully address her history of disordered eating at the Main Stage, I attended a kickboxing workshop led by Jones.
I quickly realized the wellness component of Play/Ground was by far its most valuable trait. Jones’s class provided a sense of female camaraderie (among women of all shapes and sizes!) that I hadn’t felt in a minute. Her thoughtful exercises created a truly empowering environment. One exercise saw participants split into two groups, wherein one performed an aerobic workout as the other cheered them on and held a static, strength-building posture. It was awesome and beautiful and exactly what a workout should be. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my first day at Play/Ground.
I arrived for day two at 10:35 a.m., prepared to stake out my place in body-positive yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley’s 11 o’clock vinyasa class. A yoga instructor myself, I’m hugely inspired by her, so I couldn’t wait to see the way she taught. I wasn’t disappointed. Stanley offered awesome pose variations for bigger bodies that I’d never even heard of before (keeping the knees apart in when drawing knees to chest, thighs wide in forward fold to make space for the belly). She emphasized that yoga is a personal practice and that all of her cues were nothing more than suggestions to be taken or left, a note that I will always, always appreciate as both a teacher and a student.
By 11:55, I stood in the winding line for free coffee, praying I wouldn’t miss writer, actress and producer Issa Rae on the Main Stage at noon. I was able to hear Rae confess to Amy Aniobi, a fellow writer for “Insecure,” that in spite of wearing so many hats, she has no desire to take on every single role possible when she isn’t in love with every aspect of the TV and film business, and emphasized that there’s no reason for someone like her to take a job she doesn’t love from somebody who does love it. Her top piece of advice for young women, regardless of their career path? “You don’t know everything.” Their conversation was a joy to sit in on, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there should have been more Black women present.
After a brief hiatus for lunch and a return to the Beauty Carnival, I hopped back on the panel bandwagon at the Pop Shop for a recording of podcast “Loosely Connected” with Meredith Mohr and Janet Francis, featuring fashion designer Jenna Lyons. Lyons revealed that she started sewing as a self-proclaimed misfit in middle school, where her clothes became the envy of the popular girls and made her realize the power of style. “I didn’t feel talented,” she said. “It was survival.” Lyons discussed the 27 years she spent working at J. Crew and briefly touched on a new TV show and commerce platform project she’s been working on. Above all, I was left wondering how Lyons’s skin is so perfect.
I was fully aware that Chrissy Teigen would be hitting the Main Stage with hairstylist Jen Atkin at 1:40, but I knew there would be no hope of me hearing a thing (the Teigen fandom is not to be messed with), so I moved on to Soul Space to watch “Glow” actress Allison Brie make a cameo on a panel about CBD. Everything about seeing the voice behind some of “Bojack Horseman”’s best characters — discussing marijuana-related topics, no less — made me reel with excitement.
Allison mentioned that her first experience with CBD was in a muscle recovery cream recommended by the crew of “Glow” to the cast, who perform their own stunts for the show. The panel, also comprised of “cannivist” Solonje Burnett and CBD skincare entrepreneur Anna Pfleghaar, got into the nitty gritty of CBD, what distinguishes it from THC or hemp and the use of CBD isolate versus use of the whole marijuana plant. Brie revealed that she just ordered a CBD lube, closing the conversation with a quote for the ages: “Am I excited? Yes. Has it arrived yet? No.”
And so the day was winding down. The only thing left for me to do was to attend a special edition of The Class, an uber-trendy New York City workout class with a cultish following of beautiful people, being offered at the Main Stage. In line, I watched crew members unroll dozens of expensive yoga mats while the girl behind me told her friend she feels like she earned her money back for her $200 Play/Ground ticket in free stuff. One hour later, I could formally announce that The Class is what would happen if yoga and Zumba had a baby that spoke as aggressively as SoulCycle. I could see why it’s the trendiest fitness class on the market right now, though it felt odd that the instructors referenced spiritual elements of yoga like the third eye without any explanation or justification.
As I left Pier 94 that afternoon, complimentary yoga mat under my arm, I spotted my favorite celebrity baby, Luna Legend, trotting hand-in-hand with who could have only been her mother’s assistant. I watched grown adults clamour for photos of her before I walked out the door. Ah, the downsides of clout culture.
After attending POPSUGAR Play/Ground, I have a few nuggets of wisdom to share. First, don’t take pictures of babies, not even famous babies, without consent from a parent. Second, no matter how many freebies it may provide, a festival like this won’t succeed without socially conscious elements. In addition to the celebrity and beauty mania, Play/Ground featured a voter registration booth manned by nonprofit I Am A Voter. Sexual health brand Intima gave out free menstrual cups and information on using them. As I mentioned earlier, the fitness and wellness aspect of Play/Ground was its most compelling aspect. Every class was packed, but that’s understandable. I couldn’t be too mad at it.
Like every festival event I’ve ever attended, I would have loved to see more diversity at Play/Ground. I understand why tickets cost what they did, but we’d be lying if we said that charging $200 for a two-day event isn’t cost-prohibitive. Some of the attendees I spoke to said they would also like to see more sex positivity at next year’s iteration, suggesting a sex toy booth or something of the like. One final note: I loved my weekend at POPSUGAR Play/Ground, but how and why was there no free public Wi-Fi?
Maybe unlimited data plans are just another wellness trend I’m unaware of.