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Our Martha, Ourselves

It's no longer sufficient to dismiss Martha Stewart as a control-freakish middlebrow tastemaker. She's bigger, much bigger. Coming to terms with an emblematic figure of our times.

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From the May 15, 1995 issue of New York Magazine.

If you've noticed lately that the radiant presence of Martha Stewart seems to be infinite, like that of the Almighty, or of Starbucks, you're right. Martha has advanced way beyond the Kmart deals and coffee-table books to achieve the highest state of marketing grace there is. More than a franchise, more than a "lifestyle," more than an attitude, she's a living trademark. That means that the sun never sets on brand Martha. Every appearance or publication or bit of publicity works to sell the ever-growing—yet controlled and coherent—brand identity. For example, if she's seen at the bottom of an empty pool on an American Express commercial, cutting up charge cards to form another goddess, Venus, or even if she's being dissed on Letterman, the shock of watching her late at night, making fun of her poignant taskmaster self, reinforces the rest of the empire. And it is building: She just renegotiated her unique deal as chairman of Martha Stewart Living Enterprises, the only Time Warner venture based on a living personality.

Martha the living brand has conquered books, magazines, television, and is now into new media. Within Time Warner, this gives her the real clout that even sister Time Warnerite Madonna cannot have. (The otherwise submerged Time Inc. culture lives on in Martha—the blonde salesperson from Fairfield County with the supernormal range of energy.)

Martha Stewart Living magazine, which last month won a National Magazine Award for design, is up to ten issues a year and a circulation of 1.2 million; the half-hour syndicated TV show now reaches 5.3 million viewers. Starting next month, repeats will run on Lifetime as often as three times a day, followed by Martha infomercials for her new line of products. There's even talk of Barbara Walters-like network specials or perhaps a 24-hour cable station. All Martha, all the time.

As Martha herself tells it, on her car phone, heading down from her Edenic home base in Westport, the growth has "really been strong in the last two years. I first started with books, and if you can sell 500,000 copies, you're doing really well. A magazine has four or five times that number of readers. The television did the rest."

Martha and her teaching disciples at Enterprises maintain that what she relays is "hands-on information and inspiration." "Our belief [is] that America is a nation of doers interested in how to," Martha says in a recent press release. Indeed, when it comes to goers, doers, or how-toers, no one comes close to the domestic goddess herself. But her persona is more complex than that. Tall, blonde, and handsome, she is at an age, 53, when her male counterparts become chief executive officer or president. Five years or so ago, she shed the Breck-girl hair and fussy country-caterer wardrobe. And now that chairman Martha is seen in either Eddie Bauer or Armani, she's a contradictory figure, a walking Rorschach test of dissonance for contemporary women: a powerhouse workaholic insomniac divorcée (and mother of a grown daughter) getting a message out about the need for balance, the sacredness of family rituals and holidays, and the importance of "homekeeping" and "garden keeping."

Those delicate, rosebud-y words are uniquely Martha: They hint at her particular genius for taking quotidian activities that have been tedious for centuries and transforming them into opportunities for excellence. That's the Martha Stewart golden spin. Only she could name one of her books Martha Stewart's New Old House. It was only 32 years ago that Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, the book that investigated "the problem that had no name": the unhappy lives of educated, middle-class, suburban housewives who devoted themselves solely to Kinder and Küche. Two decades of social change later, Friedan endorsed what she called the Second Stage, a broader model of values that took into account the compromises of working and family life. But even this more family-friendly vision was still an entire pendulum swing away from the Martha people of the nineties: armies of glue-gun-wielding groupies ecstatic about the transformative power of a lamp shade.

No wonder Martha touches cultural hot buttons. Nothing if not an extreme figure—equally revered and reviled—she embodies a direct threat to three decades of received ideas about motherhood, wifehood, home, career, comfort, nature itself. And this time of backlash is the perfect moment for her contradictory brand of cold nurture.

There are any number of explanations for the cult of Stewart: the democratizing effect of television (people who would otherwise avoid her, can't); the long and noble American tradition of embracing any smart entrepreneur who sells the masses a tasteful way to exhibit class and wealth; and the fact that her standards are so exacting that almost anything she says is hilarious.


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